Narmin was born May 11 1964 in Halabja. She is now retired after a career as an employee of the ministry of agriculture. She is one of the founding members of the Survivors of Halabja Organization, and has worked with this organization for 22 years. Today she lives in Sulaymaniyah.
Narmin remembers that the bombings in Halabja began on March 13 and continued for 3 straight days. On the morning of March 16 they dropped bombs to block the major roads leading into and out of the village, and then began dropping the chemical bombs. The bombs had a sweet smell – like fruit; it was like apples but also other kinds of fruit. The bombing started at 10 AM and continued until after 8 PM. One bomb landed directly on the home of her father – who lived there with his two wives and Narmin’s two brothers and 10 sisters. This bomb contained the most dangerous type of the chemical / poisonous gas. Everyone in that house, her parents, brothers and sisters, were all killed from this bomb. Narmin, her husband and two children (a boy and a girl) were with about 20 other people and they found a hiding place underground. They made masks for themselves from rags and towels and stayed there for about an hour when they realized it was a chemical attack and dangerous to stay where they were. They got into a car and tried to flee but the military followed after them and kept attacking. The military attacked them from airplanes and helicopters. They eventually got out of the car and ran up to the mountains and stayed the night there: the next day they went towards the Iran border and then crossed over the border.
In Iran they found a mosque in which they could find shelter and stayed for 17 days. She was pregnant at the time. The left the mosque and went to a refugee camp that had been set up and stayed there another 21 days. After that they sold some jewelry and rented a house in Iran for 3 months. During this time she learned that the rest of her family had been killed during the attack. After their money ran out from the jewelry they went back to the camp and stayed there for another 3 months, and then returned to Iraq in September.
She gave birth in the camp to a baby girl. Her husband and all three children survived the attack, but she lost 14 immediate relatives – her mother and father and all of her siblings – 2 brothers and 10 sisters – plus many others who were uncles, aunts and cousins (and 1 grandparent). And there were also many members of her husband’s family who were killed.
At the end of 1988 the Iraqi government told them that they could return to their country and be safe, so they returned to Iraq (but not to Halabja) with other refugees who had been living in Iran. But it was not true – some of her friends and other relatives who had survived the chemical attacks in Halabja in March 1988 came back and then were killed in other attacks of the Anfal Campaign, adding more pain and sorrow.
She still has trouble with her right ear, and has allergies and in spring respiratory problems all of the time. Her husband has tremors in his head – in Iran he had some treatments but when he is under stress the tremors return even today. Every spring the hair on her husband’s legs falls off.
She and her family are also still suffering emotionally from the attacks. For example, one night while they were staying in the mosque she went to sleep next to a man who was very sick: when they woke in the morning the man had died. She still thinks of this man often. Many people who were staying in the mosque had lost their eyesight and others were vomiting night and day and other physical issues.
She feels depressed and sad – all of the time. Even at happy times she doesn’t experience the joy and fun so much. She was from a very large family and they were very close and she lost all of her brothers and sisters, grandmother, her uncles and aunts and others. Her son says even to this day he sees her crying, thinking about them.
Zmnako Mohammad Saleh is the birth name given to a baby born in Halabja just three months before the deadly attack of March 16 1988. Two days after the attack he was evacuated by plane to the city of Mashhad, Iran. He was placed in an orphanage and taken care of by a nurse who herself was a victim of the Iran – Iraq War. Her name was Kubra Hamidpoor and her husband had been killed in the Iran – Iraq War. She was raising two young children and eventually she adopted the little child in the orphanage and named him Ali. But he always thought of himself as a “Dandelion,” a flower blown across the border to grow in another nation.
Because his adopted mother was unmarried she was unable to obtain Iranian citizenship for herself or her son. She raised him as best as she could but he never had a father or father figure in his life, and was always sad. His adopted mother told him where he came from and kept no secrets – and while he loved her with all of his heart (and she loved him like her own son) he always wondered what happened to his birth parents and members of his extended family in Halabja.
On January 7 2007, when Ali (Zmnako) was 19 years old, his (adopted) mother died. This was the saddest day of his life. He was all alone, with no family. Although he was accepted into a university he had no money. He was living alone and could not get a good job because he was not an Iranian Citizen. He spent many days crying and every day trying to survive.
In 2011 one of his friends in Tehran called with good news: a Kurdish minister from Iraq was visiting and was willing to meet with him. Ali was very pleased. When he met the minister she told him that many families lost their babies during the brutal attack. She invited him to travel back to Iraqi Kurdistan. He had a hope that he might meet his birth mother and father who might still be alive.
Two months later Ali returned to Iraq. The mayor, members of the press and a large crowd greeted him in Halabja. He was very happy because for the first time he was seeing his town and “his people.” During the chemical attack against Halabja in 1988 forty-two families lost their children, among them five families who lost sons his age. A DNA test was taken to determine exactly who he was. The results took a month – a very difficult month for Ali and for the five families awaiting the outcome. Finally, the day arrived when the results were returned and read before a large crowd. The name of his birth mother, Fatima Mohammad Saleh, was read out. As she came forward members of the other four families returned home – saddened that this young man was not their son: but Ali was reunited with his birth mother for the first time in 22 years. He kissed her hands and then asked about his father. His father, sister and four brothers all had been killed in the attack.
His mother told him his real name: Zmnako. They went to the Halabja Cemetery where he read his name on one of the gravestones. He removed his name from the gravestone and also went to the Halabja Monument where he was also listed among the dead. A green line – indicating that he is alive and well, now frames his name at the monument.
Zmnako now lives with his family in Sulaymaniyah. He is an undergraduate student at the American University of Iraq – Sulaymaniyah. He wishes that all of the world’s people would learn to live in peace with each other. And he still feels sad – for the father he never knew, for the mother who raised him but died, for the families whose lost children have not returned, and for the 5000 victims of the chemical attack against Halabja – a crime against humanity and action of genocide still not recognized or known by much of the world’s population.
Zmnako’s story is also the story of his mother, Fatima Mohammad Saleh. Since they have been reunited she has told him her memories of that terrible day in which she was separated from him and lost all of the other members of her family.
On the day of the attack (March 16 1988) Zmalko was 3 months old, but part of a larger family that included his mother, his father and five other children (1 sister and 4 bothers). The family realized that it was dangerous to stay in Halabja, so they set off together for the mountains. Fatima was carrying Zmnako and his father was carrying one or two of his older siblings. His oldest brother was hurt and called for his mother to help him. Fatima put Zmnako on the ground and turned to help his brother. As she went towards him, however, she fainted. She awoke the next morning in a hospital in Iran. She had no news of the rest of her family and did not know what happened to them.
She could not see for a week but after that her eyesight returned. She was moved to a camp in Iran and stayed there for the next 3 months. Eventually she was able to return to Kurdistan, but she knew and heard nothing of her husband or children. After a year she returned to Halabja with her brother and went to their home. There were two graves in the front garden. They opened the graves and Fatima recognized, from the clothing, her daughter and one son. There was no information, however, of her husband or the other five sons. She believed for many years that they had all been killed in the attack but had a small hope that they survived. Now she has been reunited with Zmnako but Fatima and Zmnako both realize the chance that anyone else survived is very small.
Fatima remarried in 1994 and has three children from her second marriage. They live together now, the dandelion, the flower blown across the border that has returned home after a twenty-year sojourn in a neighboring nation.
Roshna lives in the Sarchnar District of Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan. She was born on November 1 1961 in Halabja. She is an elementary teacher at the Qazimuhammad School in Sulaymaniyah.
Roshna was a young woman of 26 who was born and raised in Halabja. She was living with her parents at the time of the attack and engaged to a man who was living in Erbil. Her parents had an underground shelter, their basement – but during the bombing she and her family went to the neighbor’s basement. Their basement was about 40 square meters and 150 persons were crowded into this small space. They went into the shelter around 10 AM and remained there until about 4 PM when they realized they were under a chemical attack and they should get out of the basement. They became very sick – everyone was coughing and many were vomiting. “We began making masks for ourselves out of our clothing – and about half of us went upstairs at this time. I went upstairs and saw that my sister was almost dead.” (At this time in the interview Roshna begins to cry and cannot continue for several minutes) Her sister had been closer to the door than Roshna – her sister was one year younger. After being upstairs for a few minutes she then returned to the underground shelter and she began vomiting – she got very sick and dizzy and fainted. When she fainted it was early evening – getting dark. When she woke up again it was morning the next day. She was still in the basement and after she became conscience again she went upstairs. There were many corpses all around where she was. She lost 7 members of her immediate family – her mother, father, 3 sisters and two brothers. She was the only survivor from that house that day – she also has a brother who was in Mosul and a sister in Sulaymaniyah who are still alive today. She stayed in the same home for 4 days – she was all by herself. All of the bodies were in her house and no one came to help her. She heard that the people were leaving Halabja and on March 20th she went with the Peshmerga to a village called Trifa – about 4 kilometers from Halabja. She was in Trifa for about 2 weeks and then went back to Halabja with the soldiers. The soldiers had taken the bodies of her family out of the house and buried them in mass graves. She is still sad today that she cannot visit the graves of her family members.
At that time she went to Iran. She went with the Peshmerga into Iran. They took her to Kameran (a city in Iran) – a refugee camp set up for the survivors of Halabja. She stayed there for about one month. Then she went to the house of the uncle of her father – in the district of Dana. Dana is about a 12-hour drive from Kameran – and she stayed there for 6 months. After that period she came back to Halabja and then to Sulaymaniyah.
She still has difficulty breathing and her skin is very allergic to the sun.
Fakhradin was born on June 3 1949 in Talwl, a village near the Iranian border about 30 kilometers from Halabja. He was a teacher and taught in the Shaho School, an elementary school very close to his home in Halabja, where he moved when he was a young man. Today he is retired and lives in Sulaymaniyah.
On the morning of the attack he knew that something was going to happen. He knew because there had been fighting in Halabja for a few days already and he strongly believed that there would be more attacks that day.
Fakhradin remembers two previous attacks against Halabja. The first was in 1963 – and this was an attack by the Iraqi Government in which much of the town had been burned and 7 persons were killed. He also remembers an attack on April 24 1974. At this time a group of Peshmerga were in Halabja and the government was fighting against them. There was a building in which the Peshmerga worked and it was next to another building where students from Sulaymaniyah came to work for Kurdish Independence. 55 persons were killed when the Iraqi Government bombed Halabja at this time.
On March 14 there was a bomb that exploded right in front of his house. Five children were killed. He went out to see if any of the children were his students but he did not recognize them. He had been a soldier and could see up in the mountains over Halabja Iranian troops. After this bomb was dropped he brought his family into the basement of his house to be safe. There were 10 persons in his family at this time – he, his wife, his mother and 7 children. His niece was also staying with them. His brother lived in Sulaymaniyah. On March 7 Fakhradin had been in Sulaymaniyah. There were rumors in Halabja that the Iranians were going to attack the town but his brother did not believe these rumors. He said, take my sister back with you – and if there is any danger I will come for you and my daughter. This made Fakhradin feel like his town was safe, and he knew that his brother would come and rescue them in his car if there was any danger.
On March 15 they went and stayed in their neighbor’s basement because it was stronger and more secure. But it was a relatively calm day so they went back to their home. He remembers that it was a very cold night and there had only been five explosions that day.
On March 16 he and the family got up and came out of the basement (they had all been sleeping in the basement for the past 4 nights). It was very quiet but he had a sense that something bad was going to happen. Because he had been in the army he understood a little about chemical weapons. He took 20 handkerchiefs with him to make masks. He made a special one for his baby son who was only 6 months old because that son would not be able to wear a mask like the others.
He told me that Halabja was overcrowded on March 16 because the Iraqi Government had told the people in the days before that they were going to bomb the villages around Halabja. He said that many people from the villages around Halabja came into the town so they would be safe. This, however, was a trick – a trap in which even more persons would become victims, because the Iraqi forces were not going to bomb the villages surrounding Halabja but the city itself. [Of course, there was much confusion and speculation among the civilian population of Halabja at the time – some residents fled the city fearing an attack while other from neighboring villages came in to the downtown area, concerned that their neighborhoods would be targeted.]
He remembers one airplane flying over the city in the morning but nothing else. His family began eating and then the bombings began. He and his family returned to the basement of his neighbor. He told his family that they should stay there – he went up and outside to see which army (Iraqi or Iranian) was bombing the city. He looked into the mountains and the Iranian troops had left – this is when he realized it was the Iraqi Army bombing the city.
At first they were bombing the roads leading in and out of Halabja. He saw them dropping the bombs. Then he saw them begin dropping bombs in the center of the city. He also saw them drop pieces of paper from the planes. He did not know why they did that but later he was told this was done so that they could determine which way the wind was blowing. He believes they started dropping the chemical weapons at 3 PM.
At this point he saw many people running out of Halabja towards the mountains or other villages. He saw his neighbor who told him that everyone had left his basement including his family. He told the neighbor to leave Halabja and go outside the city where there was fresh air.
He came by the school and saw that there were about 50 – 60 dead persons there. Then he went back to his home. All of his children were alive but his wife had been badly injured – she could not see. His mother was on the ground – he thought she had died and his wife was screaming. He saw other persons who were dead all around.
He wanted to make a decision as to what to do. He wanted to take his family and run away but he had his niece. His brother promised to come to Halabja if there was an attack and so he wanted to stay and wait for his brother, who would come with a large car so they could all go to Sulaymaniyah. Also, his niece was a guest in his house so he had to protect and care for her, even more than his own children.
He saw another dead man and leaned over to see who it was. When he leaned over he almost fell. This is when he realized that he had been breathing the chemicals himself. He knew he was sick and decided that if he were to die it he wanted it to be at his house, so he returned to his home. He returned and one of his daughters and son seemed OK. He told them to run away and get away from the gas. He told them to go towards Kani Ashqan – about 5 minutes from his home. He never saw these two children again.
He picked up a younger daughter and son and tried to carry them to Kani Ashqan himself, but he was confused and got turned around. He could not find the right way. He was becoming paralyzed so he lay down. His daughter told him that she was praying that she would die but he would live – she said that because she was young she would surely go to paradise.
One of the things that haunts him today is that this son and daughter were still able to walk and he did not tell them to keep going. They stayed with him – they asked him to tell them stories about the Prophets because he used to tell them stories at night. The daughter was 8 years old and the boy was 6 years old. There was also a 12 year-old daughter who was also able to walk – she is also a survivor. But the younger children both died that night.
When they asked for stories about the Prophets he said maybe this is not a good time for a story. Then his son asked him to sing a song – he realized the chemical gas was affecting his son because this was not the time for a song. He knew that death was coming quick. So he tried to make the children comfortable – he told them that we will all die – like their grandmother had died that day (he believed his mother had died but in fact she was still alive, just unconscious at the time). So they said the al fattiha – a prayer from the Qur’an, for people who have died. There is also a Surah from the Qur’an that people read when someone else is going to die. It is said that if you read this Surah over the person who is dying that person will die with less pain and less worries. He wanted to recite the Surah for himself and his children but could only remember the first sentence. He had memorized this Surah when he was a young boy and had said it many times – he knew that something was wrong because he could not remember it now. He lay down with his son on one shoulder and his daughter on the other shoulder. He also remembers that his son was very hungry – and this still hurts him – he had two pieces of bread in his pocket but he could not remember it. He found the two pieces of bread in the morning when he awoke but the children had died during the night. He was trying to remember the words of the Surah and then all three of them became unconscious.
Later that night he awoke again and he saw a green colored haze around everything – like looking through night binoculars. Then he became unconscious again. It was cold – the earth was wet because it had rained. When he woke again it was early morning. When he opened his eyes he did not know where he was. He saw trees, rocks and dead bodies but did not know where he was. He looked at his boy on his left arm and his boy looked like he had died. Then he looked at the daughter on his right arm and he knew she was dead. So he looked back at his son and he seemed to be breathing a little bit – he was unsure if he was alive or dead.
The 12 year-old daughter was nearby on a pile of debris from a destroyed house – she was still alive and she was screaming. To determine if his son was alive or not he listened to his heart and felt for his pulse but there was none – for the first time he fully realized that the Iraqi Government had used deadly chemical weapons against them. Then he heard someone screaming and realized it was his wife. She was coming towards him and he said not to come closer because he was in a spot where chemical weapons had been used. He tried to go to her – and saw another daughter (4 years old) who had died the day before. In trying to get to his wife he saw this daughter who had died the day before – but then realized it was only her clothing.
When they ran out of the house they had brought many clothes out of the house. Then he realized that his daughter had not died the night before – she had woken up during the night and climbed into the pile of clothes to stay warm. She was not too far from his wife – maybe 1 meter, but because his wife could not see anything she did not know she was this close.
There was another daughter – 10 years old – who had been with her mother the night before. Then he saw his mother shouting – his mother was shouting at him for not coming back and was angry that his niece had died. He was very concerned that his guest had died – this is against the rules of hospitality. He tried to determine why she had died. The mother had said she laid down laughing but he said this was not funny (of course one of the effects of the chemicals was psychological and sometimes it caused people to laugh).
At this time he began to question himself – he had stayed, even though they had bags packed to run into the mountains, because he was sure his brother would come to rescue them. But of course his brother did not come and now many members of his family had died.
When he realized his niece had died he told his surviving daughter not to tell their mother that the other children had died. He knew the mother would be very sad, especially about their son. When they were married they had prayed for a son. They had 4 girls before the son was born – and now the boy had died that night.
So he went back to his house and he was with his 12-year old daughter and his wife was in front of the house. The 12-year old daughter was affected by the gas attack and did not recognize that the woman on the front step was her mother – she thought it was the neighbor. So the 12-year old daughter told the neighbor not to tell her mother that her other children had died. The mother screamed – and this is the first time he really cried. So he decided he would bury his 2 children right in front of his house to know where they were buried. He finally found a hole and buried 2 of his children there. He realized he could not cover them with soil – because he saw their sweet faces. He could not put dirt on them because he was hoping they would come back to life. (At this point Fakhradin could not continue for a few minutes) So then he found some plastic and put that over their faces so that if he buried them their faces would be ok.
He kept asking himself: “How can I bury my own children?” But then he realized if he did not bury them then the dogs would come, etc. So he continued with the burial and put dirt over the plastic over his children.
Then he went back to his house and then he saw his dead niece. She was 18 years old. He wrapped her up in a blanket and he was looking for a car that could take his niece to the graveyard. He thought his niece should be buried in the graveyard and that way he could show his brother where her body was located. But he could not find a car. Then he saw some Iranian troops – he could not speak Persian but saw that they were speaking Arabic. He realized that they were part of the opposition to Saddam. He spoke to them in Arabic and asked them to help bury his niece so his brother would know where she is buried.
The troops said, “Are you crazy? There are thousands of dead bodies in the streets – if we bury one we will have to bury all of them.” So he had a piece of gold in his pocket and offered it to him if he would help him bury his niece in the graveyard. The man looked at the gold and said he would consider it.
He kept arguing with the Iranian soldiers and said he told them that they were the reason why they were attacked and now they would not help him bury his niece. He was very angry. They eventually left. He did not know what to do so he made a fire in front of his house to keep everyone warm.
There is a remedy people believed would make you feel better: if you drink salt mixed in water it will make you vomit and you will be better. So he mixed some and gave it to everyone to drink so they would vomit so they could be better.
The next day Ahmed arrived, a friend of his brother. At this point Fakhradin had survived, along with his wife, his mother and three daughters. He asked if Ahmed would help bury his niece – so his brother would know where his daughter was buried. So he drove us to the cemetery and we buried the niece. Ahmed was driving people out of the town and driving all of the survivors out of the town – so he kept coming and going out of the city. He dropped us about 15 minutes outside of the city of Halabja – there was a wall. We were put there for awhile and told we could stay there. He told Ahmed to come back and get us. Ahmed said he would try but he was still driving other people so could not promise he would be able to return. But Ahmed said he would return the next morning and he made a promise to them: if they died during the night he would bury their bodies the next day but if you are alive I will drive you somewhere else. That night they were very thirsty. They could hear running water all around but no one had the energy to get up and get some.
His 10-year-old daughter died at this time so now there were 5 survivors. Ahmed arrived the next morning and drove us to another location where there were Iranian soldiers. We were given a shower – and then taken inside the Iranian border and given medication – shots, to help reduce the effects of the chemicals.
At the military hospitals, after we were given shots, we were given food. We had no food on March 16, 17, 18, or 19. March 20 was the first day we ate. From the military hospitals we were moved to Kirmanj Shah. This was a town in Iran near the border that had been abandoned because of the war between Iran and Iraq. They used a basketball court as a hospital for us. We were there for only 2 hours. I remember seeing a girl who was the only survivor of a large family – but she died in the hospital too.
We left the hospital after 2 hours. We were taken to another place. There were always soldiers in the bus with them but the soldiers in the bus were very harsh to them – would not help them. They were treating us like fugitives / captives, like we had escaped. We were then taken to a shelter where there were Red Cross workers. At this time Ayatollah Khomeini made a special statement that the survivors of Halabja are to be treated as the guests of Iran. After this they were treated better. They put everyone in camps near the border. He now began looking for the son and daughter who he had told to walk towards the mountains. He went to every refugee camp in Iran where they had taken the survivors but he never found them. He is still looking for them in his heart and does not know their fate.
They stayed in Iran until September 5 – at this time Saddam Hussein issued a pardon for the people of Halabja, allowing people to come back. He realized that his friends and others were returning to Halabja so he decided he would return as well. There were two reasons why they came home: 1) for the education of the children who had survived, because there was no education for them in Iran, and 2) to stand against the regime of Saddam Hussein – to testify against Saddam and what had happened. We were not afraid any more – and wanted to stand strong against this killer.
After they returned they came to Arbat. His family was split again because Halabja was destroyed. Because Iraq had mandatory military service he was drafted into the army and separated from his family again. He went back and then took a leave of absence and tried to teach, for one week, but then was called up again and had to serve for 13 months in Mosul until the uprising and he was released again.
Aras was born on July 1 1966 in Tawela, a village that is part of the greater Halabja region. It is located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Iran and about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Halabja. Today he is the deputy director of the Halabja Victims Association, and he is the head of the Kurdistan Save the Children branch (KSC).
Aras was a student until 1986, first attending elementary and primary school in Tawela but then his family moved to Halabja when the war with Iran began. He finished high school in Halabja in 1988 and then was drafted by the Iraqi Army (as were all of the young men at the time because of the Iran – Iraq War). He chose not to serve and became a fugitive. He was on the run as a fugitive – during the night he was mostly at home but during the day he and his other friends were out on the edge of the city. Two times the Iraqi Troops came looking for him at night but he knew they were coming so he was already away. He was serving at this time underground with the PUK.
On May 13 1987 there was a demonstration in Halabja against the regime of Saddam Hussein – the demonstration was that there would be no more destruction of villages. The government bombed a neighborhood in Halabja named Kani Ashqan. 52 persons were killed during this attack. From this time on the regime was trying to punish the people of Halabja more.
There was intense fighting in and around Halabja beginning on March 13. During the nights many families would leave their homes and head into the mountains towards Iran so they would be safer. These were mostly families of Peshmerga and they had places to stay between the land of Iran and Iraq. The government was constantly capturing people and bringing them to prison, torturing them, killing them, breaking them.
In March 1988 it was said that the Peshmerga were trying to capture and control the city of Halabja. There were many people in Halabja who had enough money to purchase homes in Sulaymaniyah – they would buy homes there to escape from Halabja. Beginning during the night of March 12 Peshmerga forces attacked the Iraqi troops that were surrounding Halabja. They continued the attacks on March 13. On March 15 the Peshemerga forces controlled almost all of Halabja. The Iraqi troops and soldiers were inside Halabja until March 15 – at noontime they left. Half of the Iraqi troops surrendered to the Peshmerga and the other half left – they left across the bridge leading out of the city.
During the early morning of March 16 the Peshmerga forces blew up the bridge. Some of the Iraqi forces who had not turned themselves into the Peshmerga now surrendered. It was 9 AM.
Four helicopters came from over the mountains – they came from Anat. There were no Iranian troops – the helicopters came to seal off the border from Iran: the helicopters landed but the Peshmerga captured the soldiers from the helicopters. After this the regime knew for sure that the Peshmerga controlled the city.
Aras was at his home at this time. His home was located kitty-corner to a hospital. The hospital had many wounded persons – mostly soldiers who had been injured and killed from the fighting during the past few days between the Peshmerga and Iraqi troops. He walked over to the hospital and began to help. He offered both first aid and helped take the soldiers who had died out of the hospital. He told me that they treated the Iraqi troops who had died even better than we treated the Peshmerga because they were far away from their families who would not know they had been killed. He and his friends also believe that many of these soldiers did not want to be fighting for Saddam. “We buried troops until 10:30 AM.”
We saw airplanes in the sky and they were bombing the borders of Halabja. From time to time we would go up to a high place to see where the bombs were landing. We told our parents that when we went onto the roof we could touch the airplanes because they were flying so low.
From March 13 on all of the schools, business and offices were closed.
There were two types of planes – one flew high, one flew low. The higher ones were called pilatos – a Russian made plane for transportation. The other planes flew lower and were dropping papers to see in which direction the wind was blowing. They were called micsikho. Of course, we did not know why they were dropping the paper.
We looked up and saw the flag of Iraq without the words Allah Akbar.
We were all discussing what to do should something bad happen. He was from a family of 13: 7 daughter, 4 sons and 2 parents. He was the oldest and a fugitive – if he were to be captured he would be killed immediately.
When we were helping the troops in the hospital my father came over and kept trying to bring me home because it was dangerous for me. At 10:30 AM it was very quiet – nothing was happening. My father was very worried that something bad was going to happen and asked me to come back because he thought something was wrong. He said the Iraqi Regime attacks us when we do nothing – imagine what they will do since the Peshmerga have captured the city. He said they would burn our city. He was very worried and wanted me to be with the rest of the family.
There were many rifles left on the streets and we picked them up. We did not know if we should take the guns or leave them because it would be so dangerous if we were found with rifles. We decided we would leave the rifles on the streets.
At 11:30 AM the planes came back – they came in formation, 2 X 2.
The Peshmerga often stayed in the mountains for 3 months at a time, or more. But because the city was controlled by the Peshmerga the soldiers were in the city visiting their families. The Iraqi planes began dropping bombs – regular bombs – and they dropped them in the areas where there was the highest population. Aras was injured during this attack. “There were pieces of the bombs that came and injured me [shrapnel].” He was wounded in the back and head. The sounds of the bombs were so loud that it hurt our ears. People thought that this was total destruction – that no one would survive this bombing.
He was taken to an underground shelter – they had been at war for 8 years so many people who had basements worked to make them more secure and more like shelters. The basement he was taken to had many people taken there – he was not alone. It did not matter if you knew the neighbor or not, if you needed to go to a basement the people let you in. The basement he was taken to had about 80 people. People were crying, praying, upset. The airplanes were continually bombing the city. “It felt like it was a black day – like the bombs were coming directly for me and for all of us. We all thought that the bombs were personally targeting us individually and as a group, and that we would all be killed by these bombs. No one thought they were going to survive – especially me because I was already injured and could not run away.”
The owner of the home gave him some basic medical help so he was stabilized. There was another 15 minutes of silence – and then after these 15 minutes there was a great amount of explosions. The earth was shaking, the walls were cracking – we all thought that nothing could survive or remain standing. There was no electricity in the basement – the electricity had been cut since March 13. There was no telegraph either. There was no information. One of the family members was a teacher – he went out to see what was happening and he came back and said they were using napalm to destroy the homes and the entire city.
The napalm bombs were made in Egypt and 195 kilos and length was 210 centimeters. The bombs were assembled in Egypt but the pieces were from Russia.
For an hour, with no break, there was constant bombing.
We smelled something strange. We thought it was home gas – like the gas bottles in the kitchen used for cooking. We assumed a bomb had hit the gas tank and broken it and that the gas had been released. Later he learned that the smell from the chemical attack was different in different parts of the city. The smell they had smelled like garlic and gas from the kitchen. It made our heart rate go up and we felt the area under our necks was burning as well as the area under our eyes.
One of the sons of the family went out – he was told in the basement to go up and remove the bottle of gas from the kitchen so the smell would go away. The son returned and told us that the smell is not just in our house but also all over. He saw people in the street are also dying – he was about 30 years old and named Saiid. He believed it was a chemical attack. This was the worst feeling we ever had because then we were sure we would all die. We were crying, praying, reading the Qur’an. We all knew we were going to die but some wanted to get out of the basement to die with their families.
His mother was told he had been killed. She came to see his body with his sister. When she saw that he was alive she cried and was very happy. She saw the injury on his back and screamed and was worried that he would die. He told his mother not to cry because he said we would all die today so it is OK. He told his mother to run away and he would die in this location. His mother said that I must come with them. His sister hugged him and said to come with us. His mother did the same. He said, “Don’t worry about me, I cannot come with you. If you run away and we live we will see each other again.”
So they left. He kissed his mother’s hand and his sister Razan and said goodbye like he would never see them again. All this time the bombings continued. His mother and sister told him they would be in another basement near the bazaar. He said hopefully you would make it there and be safe. They left but moment-by-moment he was breathing harder and header because of the chemicals. After they left, two of the others stood up. They said they had been in the military and had some basic information about gas attacks. They said we should get a wet blanket and cover our faces with it. So they took a blanket, got it wet, and then cut it so everyone could use a piece.
His brother (one year younger) came and told him he would carry him on his back and bring him out. He declined and said you cannot carry me. He cried and told his brother to take care of his sisters. Another blanket was brought to cover the doorway. They said, let us all just die here. The two who had served in the military had real gas masks from the hospital and they came and went from the shelter, telling people what they saw.
So at 8 PM they left the basement / shelter. His friend took him out. They came to the front of the house and could not see well. They realized there were many dead bodies. He tried to run away with his friend but he was barely able to walk. They walked all night and at 6 AM got to the Iranian border. They heard bombs all night long. Then an Iranian helicopter came and picked him up and took him to an Iranian hospital. They gave him a shot and washed him with cold water. He was unconscious for 2 -3 days. He was not thinking straight at all but was very confused and not thinking of his family.
On March 20 he began to think straight again and began to worry about his family. He walked back to Halabja – even though he was wounded – he walked back and saw no one from his family. When he did see anyone he asked this person if they saw his father or uncle – both of whom were very well known in the town. People said, why don’t you go to the shelter / basement where they said they were going near the bazaar? He saw a person outside the bazaar with a front loader tractor burying people. They would not let anyone in. He said he thought his family was in this region and he wanted to find them. They said yes. He thought they would be alive but when he went there he saw his mother and father on the shovel of the tractor. They were dead: the tractor was taking them to be buried. He also saw his brother and reached for his hand but his hand came off. He realized that they had been dead for 3 days. He fainted. When he woke again he was in a hospital in Iran, at Pawa.
The first thing he wanted to do after he awoke was to go back to Halabja. He walked back again to see if what he saw was real because it seemed like a dream. When he came back he saw many dead bodies again. He fainted again – this time he did not wake up for a week. When he awoke this time he was in Tehran, in a shelter. There were other survivors and he began looking for his family members. The people at this shelter thought he was crazy – because he had seen his dead family but he was still looking for them. He was poor and lost but people were giving him food to keep him alive.
He went back to Halabja again – now it is April 1. He came via a car – a 10-hour drive. He went to his house and he saw food on the table, it was food for lunch on March 16. But of course no one was there. He went to the basement where he had been taken and saw no one. He saw the clothing of his family and it was all mixed with blood. Then he saw Bakir Hama – now a member of the Iraqi Parliament – he and a small group of people were looking in all of the houses for survivors or bodies. He went to the pile of the dead bodies – and he saw his family members again and this time believed they were dead.
He returned to Iran and stayed until September. He wanted to come back to Halabja but was not allowed to go there and instead went to Arbat. He was forced to serve in the army and stationed in Mosul, then went to Fallujah where he was made to guard the chemicals weapons – the same kind of weapons that were used against the people of Halabja.
Resolutions 736 and 737 were made that forgave him and the other survivors of Halabja. He is the only survivor of his family – grandmother, nieces: all told he lost 24 members of his extended family on this day.
Today he is married and has a young daughter. The Kurdish people are very family oriented – often traveling to relative’s homes for meals, dessert, holidays, etc. His daughter asks why they never go anywhere – why don’t we go to other family members’ homes? He cannot tell her that he has no relatives – they were all killed on that terrible day.
Hoshyar was born on July 17 1977 in Halabja. He served as a witness at the trial of Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, in Baghdad in 2006. He is an officer of the electricity in Sairwan (a town just outside of Halabja). He is married (just) with no children. This is only the second time he has told his story of survival – the first was at the trial. He has yet to tell his wife and does not think he ever will.
When the bombing took place he was in the 5th stage of primary school. He lived at home with his mother and father and 5 brothers and 1 sister.
Hoshyar remembers his life as a usual life. Two of his older brothers were studying in Sulaymaniyah – they were in the educational institute to become teacher. His father was in the agricultural department of Halabja.
He was a child at the time. He was in school, playing, not worrying about anything. He said, when visitors come to a house the children usually bring them water or tea – he was not even doing this yet for his family (this is an important insight for later in the interview).
From March 13 the city was closed off. From that day all of his family – aunts and uncles and his immediate family gathered in his uncle’s home because they had a basement. They went there because of all of the bombings. There was a total of 52 persons in this basement. They were discussing whether they should stay or leave. They had 3 cars, a Dodge truck and 2 Datsun cars. The plate number for the Dodge was 5814. They decided not to leave because they had 3 vehicles and could leave at any time. (The Dodge truck is now one of the exhibits at the monument in Halabja.)
There was a factory in Halabja – it was a cigar factory. They decided it would be a good idea to stay in the basement there because it was larger and more secure. But when they arrived at the cigar factory it was already overcrowded. The regime, however, also knew of the cigar factory and they were targeting it for bombing because they knew many people would use it for protection. Many people were killed in or around the cigar factory.
After they realized the factory would not work they returned to his uncle’s basement. There were bombs all around.
The tradition was for women to make lunch. On March 16 the women went up to make lunch. This was just before 11 AM. There was a period of silence when the bombs stopped. We started to eat when the bombs started again, so we ran down to the basement again.
One of the saddest things he ever saw was the death of a boy next door. The mother had needed surgery. Her husband brought her to Sulaymaniyah for surgery, leaving the children with their grandparents. One of the first bombs to drop landed right behind their home. One of these children, Omed – about 17 years old – breathed a lot of the gas and died in front of them. He was shaking like a bird dying. This was the first child Hoshyar had seen killed in his life and he was deeply saddened and shocked.
At this time they realized they were under a chemical attack and they decided they must get in their vehicles and drive away from the city. They wanted to take the children next door too who were still alive but the younger children wanted to stay with their brother (who had just died). Then he watched the other children die too.
In his uncle’s house there was a water tap. His uncle went in to get a blanket wet and covered the other children to protect them.
There was a rule / condition in school at the time. They were required to have a handkerchief in school in case they sneezed or got sick. He got his handkerchief wet to protect himself. They wanted to drive towards the Iranian border.
The first Datsun car left but could not get too far because the roads were blocked.
They wanted to get in the pickup truck and drive to Iran. The driver would drive for awhile. He was driving through the streets and other people were trying to get on the truck. The truck was completely filled with people standing in the back – maybe 30 people. But the chemicals were affecting us – persons standing in the truck would faint and fall out of the truck onto the street. Others in truck would then tell the driver to stop so we could get the person who fell and carry them back into the truck. After awhile the driver became upset – he stopped the truck, got out and told the people in the back that he would not stop anymore because they had to get out of the city. But the driver too had breathed too much gas – after he spoke to the others in the truck he passed out and died right there on the street.
While the adults were discussing what to do next the other Datsun came up – but it was being driven in an erratic manner. We watched it approach but then it drove straight into a wall. The driver had fainted.
By now it was about 4 PM. He and his uncle were the only ones still conscious in the truck from about 30 people. His uncle told him they should run away. But he had never been away from his family for even one night so he did not want to leave. He wanted to stay and see if his family was safe. Hoshyar saw that his family was all laying down on the ground. He tried to see who was alive – his mother and father were dead, but his older brother was alive and still in the truck. He tried to run away and go to his aunt’s home (maybe 200 meters away) but then he came back because he became afraid. He thought the others might leave him. He was at this time the only one still conscious – he tried to stay there and hide because he knew there were people walking around and taking the people who were living away and he did not want to leave his family.
At 9 PM someone came to search among the bodies and Hoshyar spoke to him. The person was hungry. They had the food from lunch in the truck. He gave the man the food and the man took it and left.
His youngest brother was still alive – he came back out of unconsciousness – he was 8 years old. He told Hoshyar that if his parents had died he wanted to die too. His brother’s name was Nizar – Nizar prayed that he would die, and then he did. Hoshyar thinks of this moment every day – he wishes that he had also been killed at this time so he would not have to suffer. This is his second memory of great sadness from the attack.
That night he heard that the regime was going to bomb the paths leading out of the city. He was worried that the bombers would come back to the city the next day. “That night was like a year for me – the longest night of my life.” He did not lose consciousness (as far as he can remember) at all. Early in the morning his older brother, Backtayar, started screaming because his leg was wounded. This made Hoshyar happy because he knew his brother was still alive.
Then he saw Akram who was also in the truck and still alive, and his aunt was still alive too. So there were 4 alive and Hoshyar was the healthiest. He tried to help the others. He helped his older brother Backtayar get down from the truck – this was on the morning of March 17. This is just when the photographer came and took his picture, and the truck and his brother.
He remembers asking his aunt for some food. His aunt said, wait a minute, maybe there will be a car that comes by today to sell sandwiches [On routine days there were lunch trucks that moved about the city selling sandwiches and drinks]. He realized that his aunt was suffering from the chemicals as well – and this too made him extremely sad.
He has never forgotten these three sad events: 1) seeing the neighboring boy die, 2) hearing his younger brother pray that he would die and 3) realizing that his aunt’s mind had been affected by the chemicals.
“Bachktyar and I decided to go to our other relative’s home – my father’s sister. We would go there and see if anyone there was alive. We walked there and no one came out.” He assumed they were dead but they had fled earlier and were still alive. He went back and told his aunt that they had all died too. They were having trouble seeing too – everything had a shadow around it.
Later that day Iranian medical teams came and took them. They went to Tehran for treatment – then they were taken to a mosque in Krmanj Shah – where many of the survivors of Halabja were taken. They were given food and water in this mosque.
The number of people kept increasing so Iran opened more camps for the people. In Tehran we were separated from my aunt. So it was just myself, my brother Bachtyar and Akram. The three were taken to another location, another camp, and stayed there.
Again we were taken to a new shelter. It was cold and windy in the shelter. Hoshyar was 11 years old. The oldest was 13 years old. They were given a tent – it was a heavy, large canvas tent. They were not able to put it up: in fact, the tent fell in on them and so they just slept that night under the materials of the tent hem.
They began learning how to cook, how to wash, how to take care of themselves. This is when he began to realize what it was like to live without parents. Remember when he said he was unable to even bring water to visitors? He regrets that he too did not pray to die with his parents at that time with his brother.
After the pardon he came back to Iraq. He went to Chamchamal to live with another aunt whose husband had been killed in the war. He was being raised in Chamchamal but the regime had said that no one from Halabja could attend school because the regime did not want anyone talking about Halabja to other children. Hoshyar’s aunt took him to the school and met with the principal – the principal said he would allow Hoshyar to attend the school but only if he promised to never speak about Halabja. If he ever spoke about his experiences he would be sent to the concentration camp at Nugra Salman in southern Iraq.
Hoshyar does not have many physical issues as the result of the attack, but his eyes are still sensitive, especially when it is hot.
Psychologically, however, there are deep scars. He is always sad, especially in the springtime when other people in Kurdistan are most happy. He thinks that a large piece of him died on March 16 1988 and that it will never come back to life.
He believes he was spared so that he could participate in the trial of Ali Hassan al-Majid, which he did. He also wants to tell the people of the world this story to remember what happened and to make sure that this does not happen again, anywhere.
Prepared by: Huner Anwer and Wayne Lavender for the 25th anniversary of Halabja. 2012-2013