The Barzani tribe had long been a thorn in the flesh of the Iraqi central government. Hostilities reached boiling point during the Iraq-Iran War when Saddam Hussein accused them of collaborating with the Iranians. Soon afterwards between 5,000 and 8,000 Barzani tribesmen were abducted and never seen again.
When jihadists from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded the Sinjar region of northern Iraq in 2014 they committed genocide against the Yazidi population. One Yazidi family, the Chattos, survived their onslaught.
The Iraqi attack on the Balisan valley was the first time a sovereign state had used chemical weapons on its own populace. Shocked villagers who survived the attack likened the experience to witnessing "doomsday".
In 1988 the Iraqi army launched a ferocious attack on Kurdish communities south of the Turkish border. Fleeing towards Turkey, the villagers of Kureme found their route blocked by Iraqi soldiers and were captured. The male villagers were put in front of a firing squad – yet six survived to tell their story.
In the 1980s Kulajo gave unstinting support to the Kurdish resistance and for this its people were punished by Saddam Hussein. Villagers were transported to prison camps and many were later executed. Yet some lived to tell extraordinary stories of survival.
‘Caught in those blizzards, parents had no choice but to abandon their children’
Thinking they had reached safety in Iran, Kurdish villagers were again attacked with chemical weapons. JAWAHIR HASSAN AHMAD lost one of her five children when an Iranian refugee camp she was living in was gassed by Iraqi jets.
‘I come to the cemetery every day – it feels like I’m with them’
Chemical warfare deeply traumatised the rural communities of Kurdistan and the distress it caused still affects survivors. TAHA MOHAMMED AMIN describes how a bomb exploded outside his house in Sewsenan village and people began to die, a nightmare vision he relives every night in his dreams.
‘I lay on my back and it felt like there was a hole in my chest’
Iraqi planes attacked some 70 Kurdish villages with poison gas in the Bahdinan region of Kurdistan, just south of the Turkish border. MOHAMMED ALI AHMED was semi-conscious for days after inhaling the toxic fumes.
In the Garmiyan region of Iraq more women and children died in Saddam's Third Anfal than in any other Anfal campaign. FARS AZIZ AHMED survived the attack and describes how he saved his family from certain death.
‘I couldn’t go to the mountains because I was pregnant and had already lost a baby running away’
From 1985 to 1987 the Iraqi army destroyed around 1,600 villages. One of the worst hit was Askar: it survived regular bombardments according to SAEDA OMAR RASUL, but the presence of peshmerga and Iranian soldiers in the village made a chemical attack inevitable.
‘I was deeply affected by the sight of that frozen baby’
Saddam's Anfal campaign was launched in February 1988 with a massive poison gas assault against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headquarters. In the nearby village of Haladin, OMAR ABDULLAH SAID was forced to flee the gas clouds with his family towards Iran.
‘If a bird flies its nest, doesn’t it always want to return?’
For decades Kurds living near Kirkuk strongly resisted attempts by the Iraqi regime to drive them off their lands. MOHAMMED AMIN RAHMAN ALI returned to Chalistan repeatedly, only to be forced to leave his home again and again.
‘Iraqi soldiers struck the young men in front of their parents with a metal hose’
After Iraqi jets gassed Kurdish peshmerga strongholds in the Gara mountains, 99 men from Guze village were rounded up and executed. AISHA HAJI SALAM describes how her two sons were taken from her and never seen again.
‘Most of the villages in Kurdistan were affected by chemical weapons’
Poison gas undermined the morale of the peshmerga and terrified the Kurdish community. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader MALA BAXTIYAR believes the fear unleashed by this new and deadly weapon made it difficult for the Kurds to adapt to it.
‘The Arabs are still occupying our lands 45 years later’
Hundreds of Kurdish families were driven off their lands near Kirkuk in the 1960s by Arab militia known as 'The National Guard'. FAKHRADIN KAKASHEEN MOHAMMED tells how, as a five-year-old, he was forced to flee with his family.
‘The Iraqi army showed no mercy to women, children nor the elderly’
The Iraqi army systematically attacked Kurdish villages in the Lesser Zab valley as part of Saddam's Anfal campaigns. ABDULRAHMAN ABDULLAH SALIH describes how he lost his entire family as a consequence and how this hardened his heart.
‘“We must abandon our baby,” I told my wife, but she couldn’t let him die’
Peshmerga in the far north of Kurdistan fled with their families towards Iran to escape poison gas attacks. When his leader Masoud Barzani told him it was impossible to send support units, commander AMIN HUSSEIN AHMED realised there was no escape.
‘They told us 13 villagers had been killed and we panicked’
The Iraqi military launched poison gas attacks south of the Turkish border to crush the peshmerga army of Masoud Barzani. AHMED KHALID AHMED witnessed the first chemical attack in Bahdinan. He describes the panic that swept through the village.
‘We didn’t want to leave bodies behind for the dogs to eat’
The attack on Sewsenan with chemical weapons happened just six days after Halabja was gassed. AHMED QADIR MAJID, the first person to arrive at the village after the gassing, witnessed nightmarish scenes of death and destruction.
‘They had a nice, calm life but then Anfal was upon us’
Many men from Kulajo village joined the peshmerga and their families were punished for this by the Iraqi government. Relatives of OSMAN ALI AZIZ were transported to prison camps and others, including small children, were shot dead in execution pits.
The Iraqi army's treatment of Kurdish families in prison camps was cruel. Still traumatised by the memory of losing her husband, SEMEN KARIM RAZA recalls the moment they were parted and how she came to lose her son.
‘You have to be really desperate to consider smothering your own baby’
Some Kurdish families abandoned their children in their desperation to escape the Iraqi military during Anfal. The brother of WIRYA ASKARI was prepared to suffocate his own baby daughter to prevent Iraqi soldiers discovering his family's hiding place in a mountain cave.
‘The Arab militia were firing at us from our village graveyard’
Arab militia groups supporting the ruling Ba’ath Party drove Kurdish villagers from their homes near Kirkuk and replaced them with Arab settlers from the south. ARRAS ABDULLAH MOHAMMED remembers how his neighbours resisted for two days before they were forced to flee.
‘The loss of my son is a never-ending pain because I wasn’t able to bury him’
The poison gas attack on the Balisan valley was a first for Saddam Hussein. Never before had chemical weapons been used by a state against its own people. NAJIBA KHADIR AHMED has vivid and painful memories of what happened.
‘Army roadblocks stopped food reaching us for weeks, forcing some to surrender’
Kurdish villages were a rich source of peshmerga recruits but their commitment to a free Kurdistan proved costly. BAYIZ RAZA PIROT explains how his home village of Haladin was targeted with chemical weapons for supporting the Kurdish resistance.
‘Some people even left their parents behind in the snow’
A massive Iraqi gas attack on the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) killed many peshmerga. SHORSH HAJI MUSTAFA RASOOL, an intelligence officer, was extraordinarily lucky to survive after his house was hit by gas shell which failed to explode.
Turkman farmer YOUNES AHMED OMAR says he still holds the title deeds to his family's farm near Kirkuk, which was seized by Arab militia in 1963. However, the Arabs who have occupied it since then refuse to accept recent court rulings in his favour.
‘The Iraqis tried to break the Kurdish spirit with chemical weapons’
After their attack on Halabja, the Iraqis extended their poison gas attacks to villages closer to Sulaimaniya. With casualties rising after exposure to mustard and nerve gas, DOCTOR FAIQ MOHAMMED GULPI established a secret mountain hospital to treat the wounded.
‘“I don’t care what happens to me,” my father said. “But no harm must befall these civilians”’
Peshmerga risked their lives to save fellow Kurds, and none were braver than than Hakim Rebwar. His son, HAWRAZ RAFIQ KARIM, explains how his father made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the women and children of his village.