Residents of Kurdish Town Worry Conviction Will
Preclude Chance to Avenge '88 Chemical Attack That
HALABJA, Kurdistan region 'Iraq',— The winds
whipped through this unpaved town of modest cement
houses near the Iranian border one morning, kicking
up sand and small flecks of rock. The whirling dirt
rolled down the hill, quickly consuming the main
In the small stall where he sells snack chips and
candy bars, Goran Qadir, 22, closed his eyes. Qadir
had been talking to a visitor about what happened on
March 16, 1988, when this sandstorm suddenly brewed.
It was an eerie reminder of the day the Iraqi
government bombed this Kurdish town in Kurdistan
(northern Iraq) with chemical weapons. The attack
killed 5,000 people, most of them women and
"I was only a child, but I have flashes of memory,"
Qadir said, telling how he fled with his family,
trying to outrun the mixture of mustard gas, poison
and nerve agents that blew with the winds down the
very street where he now stood. "We were crawling
over barbed wire, and the dead and dying were
tangled in it. Some of them were so weak they
couldn't free themselves. We were crawling over
Former dictator Saddam Hussein
Photo : AFP
With the trial of former Iraqi president Saddam
Hussein and seven others over killings in the town
of Dujail once again stalled, survivors of the
Halabja chemical bombings -- one of the darkest
examples of persecution of Iraqi's ethnic Kurds
under Hussein -- are grasping for their own sense of
In Hussein's trial, the first since he was captured
by U.S. forces two years ago, he and seven others
face charges stemming from the execution of 148 men
from Dujail following an attempt on the Iraqi
leader's life there in 1982. Legal analysts and
advisers to Iraq's Special Tribunal say the narrow
scope of the Dujail case made it a natural choice
for the first of what could be several trials
involving Hussein. But if the deposed president is
convicted and sentenced to death, he could be
executed before ever answering in court for the
attacks in Halabja.
"If he will be tried and executed just for Dujail, I
am sure it is not a just court," said Nariman Ali,
26, who works as a tour guide at the Halabja
Memorial Museum, a monument to the victims of the
Ali's viewpoint, echoed in more than a dozen
interviews in the town, points to the complexities
in seeking justice after a decades-long dictatorship
in which suffering was so widespread and memories
still evoke such deep emotion.
"Saddam sacrificed the rights and the life and the
land of the people for his own benefit," Qadir said
from his stall.
At the Halabja museum, Ali led a trio of visitors
through a room filled with giant photographic images
of the chemically mutilated bodies of the victims of
the gassings. Hussein allegedly ordered the chemical
attacks in retaliation for the Halabja Kurds'
sympathy for Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Ali, who graduated from college last year with a
degree in political science, contemplated the
concept of justice for the former dictator.
"If the court decides to punish him by death, the
play will end," said Ali, whose brother and father
died of cancer he said was associated with the
attacks. "But I hope we could bring him here to the
Anwar Hassam, 48, a government employee at the
Department of Electricity, said that in the days
leading to the chemical attacks, people in Halabja
could see Iraqi troops congregating on the
surrounding hillsides. Residents heard rumors that
the soldiers were preparing a major attack on Iran.
Then the chemical weapons hit near the center of the
city, sounding more like thumps than large
explosions. Survivors recalled smelling rotten
apples, and people began dropping in the street,
blood seeping from their eyes, noses and mouths.
"People were screaming and shouting," Hassam
recounted. "We were in the basement of our house. A
lot of families were in their basements because of
the rumors of the attacks on Iran. We gradually felt
our lungs getting tighter. We couldn't breathe
Hassam said his family stayed until dark, then fled
Halabja on borrowed mules and donkeys. "The road, it
was filled with corpses, hundreds and hundreds of
corpses and animals."
"How can Saddam Hussein not be put on trial for
this?" Hassam said. "Is there any crime in this
world sicker than this? Bring the trial here. They
killed children here that were still in the womb."
In a nearby market, balancing a stack of hot bread
on her head, Taleea Salih, 55, refused to talk about
the day of the attack. As she scurried off to a
waiting truck full of family members calling for
her, Salih offered only this, "I want Saddam to be
The Halabja Human Rights Ministry keeps a file on
families who lost relatives in the chemical bombings
17 years ago. Nearly 900 still receive some
assistance from the government -- pensions, medical
treatment or housing.
"If we calculate the disaster as a genocide, as
killing mass numbers of people at the same time, if
we try to describe that disaster, it was pure hell,"
said Sasan Anwar, director of the ministry.
"Visualize it in your mind, stepping on hundreds of
your friends and neighbors without having the
ability to help them. If we allow ourselves to
remember, we can't stop ourselves from crying."
Anwar, 33, who was a teenager then, said the best
punishment for Hussein would be a fair trial. "This
would be very different from his own trials," Anwar
said. "He was trying people without any rights. If
Saddam Hussein is not psychologically ill, then each
day passing between the trials is death for him."
At the Halabja hospital, not far from a sprawling,
symbolic graveyard with a stone memorial for each
family that lost someone to the attacks, doctors
still treat patients with medical conditions brought
on by the gassings.
Rebeen Haidar, 25, a physician, has been compiling
cases for a study that would gauge the extent of the
health damage, including thousands of cases of
respiratory problems and infertility. "There's not a
research center in Halabja that does this, and as
time passes by, these people are going to die and
take their cases with them," he said. "For the
future, we need this data."
Haidar, who decided to become a doctor after
watching a neighbor treat his father's bleeding
throat on the day of the bombing, said the people of
Halabja could not look to a courtroom for justice.
"In my opinion, as a doctor, Saddam Hussein is gone,
but he left a bad legacy in Halabja, a legacy of
destruction, pollution, killing and societal
problems," he said. "He left those legacies on the
shoulders of the people. If we could eliminate those
legacies in Halabja, then we will have executed
Saddam in Halabja."
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