Families who lost children in the Iraqi army's poison gas attack on Halabja refused to believe they could be dead. In many cases they were but some were saved by Iranian soldiers. The return of these children from Iran, now grown up, is giving the city fresh hope for the future.
‘Do you know what it’s like to lose a child? I can’t forget’
The death toll in Goptapa from chemical weapons was only exceeded by that of Halabja, which had been gassed seven weeks earlier. A witness to the Goptapa attack was MIRIAM YASEEN MOHAMMED who watched neighbours and relatives run for their lives and drop dead in village alleyways.
‘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.
The gassing of Goptapa village on the banks of the Lesser Zab river was the most deadly chemical attack after Halabja. AISHA ISMAEL ALI remains deeply disturbed by the loss of five of her six children in the attack.
‘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.
‘“You betrayed your nation,” I told Saddam Hussein at his trial’
During Saddam's trial in Baghdad, Kurdish Anfal survivors confronted the former Iraqi leader. One of them was MAHMOUD RASUL MUSTAFA, who last saw his wife, three sons and two daughters in a prison camp near Kirkuk.
“Welcome to Hell” read the sign over the entrance to Nugra Salman, the Iraqi desert prison close to the border with Saudi Arabia. MIRIAM RASHID MAHMOUD remembers how starving children were beaten unconscious by the guards there.
‘Who could have imagined the Iraqi government would shoot women and children dead?’
To protect their families, some Kurdish villagers joined militia known as “jash" and fought with the Iraqi army. It was often a difficult choice: RAUF AHMAD QADIR from Kulajo village joined a “jash" unit in Kalar and later learned many of his relatives had been arrested and executed in Iraqi captivity.
‘When they exhumed my mother’s body, she was holding the remains of my baby sister’
The cloud of gas that drifted across Goptapa left behind a scene of horror and devastation. MUSTAFA KHADER ISMAIL describes how dead bodies littered village alleyways, and how nine of his family perished that day.
‘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.