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Revisiting Halabjah: Survivors Talk About Horror Of Attack, Continuing Ordeal

The marker at a burial site for 1,500 of Halabjah's victims (RFE/RL) Radio Free Iraq correspondent Ahmad al-Zubaidi traveled to Halabjah recently to talk to survivors of the March 1988 attacks about the physical and psychological effects of the tragedy.

RFE/RL: There are no official statistics on the number of casualties from the 1988 chemical attack against Halabjah. But estimates by the media and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Halabjah Martyrs Organization, suggest that about 5,000 civilians were killed -- mostly women, children, and elderly who were unable to flee the town quickly enough. Kherwan, a native of Halabjah, still remembers the sound and smell of bombs and artillery shells that were packed with lethal chemical agents.

Kherwan: It was a beautiful spring day. As the clock approached 11:00 in the morning, I felt a strange sensation; my heart convulsed as if it were telling me that we were on the verge of a major calamity. Within minutes, artillery rounds began to explode in Halabjah and planes began dropping bombs on the town. The bombing was concentrated on the northern neighborhoods, so we ran and hid in our basement. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, as the intensity of the bombing wound down, I carefully sneaked out of the basement to the kitchen and carried food to my family. When the bombing stopped, we began to hear noises that sounded like metal pieces falling on the ground. But I didn’t find an explanation.

I saw things that I won't forget for as long as I live. It started with a loud strange noise that sounded like bombs exploding, and a man came running into our house, shouting, "Gas! Gas!" We hurried into our car and closed its windows. I think the car was rolling over the bodies of innocent people. I saw people lying on the ground, vomiting a green-colored liquid, while others became hysterical and began laughing loudly before falling motionless onto the ground. Later, I smelled an aroma that reminded me of apples and I lost consciousness. When I awoke, there were hundreds of bodies scattered around me. After that I took shelter again in a nearby basement and the area was engulfed by an ugly smell. It was similar to rotting garbage, but then it changed to a sweet smell similar to that of apples. Then I smelled something that was like eggs. Some time later, I discovered that the Iraqi air force had bombed Halabjah with chemical weapons.

"Birds began falling from their nests, then other animals, then humans. It was total annihilation."

When you hear people shouting the words "gas" or "chemicals" -- and you hear those shouts spreading among the people -- that is when terror begins to take hold, especially among the children and the women. Your loved ones, your friends, you see them walking and then falling like leaves to the ground. It is a situation that cannot be described -- birds began falling from their nests; then other animals, then humans. It was total annihilation. Whoever was able to walk out of the town, left on foot. Whoever had a car, left by car. But whoever had too many children to carry on their shoulders, they stayed in the town and succumbed to the gas.

Hope Of Recovery?

RFE/RL: Walking through one of the neighborhoods of Halabjah that had been targeted, the destruction left by the attack 20 years ago can still be seen everywhere today. Many survivors who returned years later have never been able to obtain the money needed to repair what is left of their homes. On one -- an Iraqi Kurdish housewife who lost seven family members in the chemical attacks -- has used pieces of fabric and jagged wood to cover holes left in the building by shrapnel.

Iraqi Kurdish housewife: I lost seven family members who were martyred as a result of the chemical attacks. We were here three or four days before the massive bombardment. That was when the former regime [of Saddam Hussein] ordered intermittent shelling of the area. We thought that it was just [conventional artillery] shelling and that it would soon be over. But then, after that, they used chemical weapons. That resulted in the martyrdom of my father, my brother, my mother, and four other siblings.

RFE/RL: The woman, who asked not to be identified, also complained that political affiliations are playing a role in the way Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq disburse aid payments to widows and survivors -- with victims from one of the major political parties being allocated more money than those who were political independents.

Iraqi Kurdish housewife: We do have a complaint regarding the fact that a family with one martyr receives the same salary as another family with seven martyrs. We think that it should not be this way. There has to be equity, for those families with seven martyrs are not the same as those with one martyr.

Government Pledge

RFE/RL: Continuing to walk through other parts of Halabjah, the correspondent met more witnesses of the chemical attacks. Several spoke about the arrival of a delegation from Baghdad headed by Rashid Majid Salih -- a representative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Indeed, Salih was in Halabjah to meet the families of victims of the chemical attacks -- particularly those who are still suffering the physical and psychological effects of exposure to chemical agents. Catching up with Salih, the prime minister's representative told RFE/RL that his mission was to conduct a field study with the aim of bringing medical treatment to those injured by the chemical attacks and to clear up the remaining debris 20 years after the shelling and aerial bombardment of Halabjah.

Salih: All of those who were wounded and who are still suffering from their injuries as a result of the chemical compounds -- they lack both the medication and the specialized doctors that they need. So they go to other countries for help -- increasing the economic burden on Iraqi citizens [due to medical reimbursements]. Furthermore, there are a large number of patients suffering from various forms of cancer and respiratory diseases. In addition to that, we have found 70 people who are suffering from sterility. These are all matters that we need to focus on. We need to resolve this with great care and precision so that we may remove the social and psychological effects. (A member of Salih's delegation told RFE/RL that Prime Minister al-Maliki intended to visit the town soon to see the situation there for himself. The Iraqi government delegate said al-Maliki was expected to announce the allocation of $5 million for the reconstruction of Halabjah.)

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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