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.
‘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 thought the strange smell was from people cooking’
Balisan and Sheikh Wasan were the first villages in Kurdistan to be attacked with poison gas. SALAAM HUSSEIN AZIZ describes how curious villagers went up to bomb craters and breathed in the toxic fumes. Soon they were screaming in pain and collapsing.
Kurdish families living near peshmerga bases would often seek refuge in mountain caves to avoid bombardment by Iraqi planes. By doing exactly this, NAJEEBA OMAR MOHAMMED escaped a poison gas attack on her home village of Haladin. Two villagers and several Iranian revolutionary guards were killed.
‘My childhood was on fire, flames destroying my memories’
The first major Iraqi poison gas attack on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) badly damaged Kurdish morale. ABDULKARIM HALADINI watched as chemical bombs and shells rained down on the PUK headquarters.
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.
‘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.
‘“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.
‘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.
‘The Iraqis even killed horses – I’ve never seen such a sadistic military force’
When the Iraqi army blitzed Kurdish peshmerga bases with poison gas in February 1988, AZAD SAGERMA, a senior field commander with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was unaware his forces would face a military catastrophe that could only end in defeat.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘The Iraqis used to say, “Even your donkeys are peshmerga”’
Those living in the rural areas of Kurdistan risked imprisonment for being suspected “saboteurs.” A farmer, HAMAD AMIN MOHAMMED was jailed for four years by Saddam's regime because he lived in the peshmerga stronghold of Haladin.
‘“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.