MARGARET BESHEER, VOICE OF AMERICA
Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is facing several trials on separate charges of crimes against humanity. One of those trials will focus on the 1988 gassing deaths of some 5,000 Kurds in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja.
Halabja’s streets are very quiet on a hot afternoon, lending an eerie feeling to this city which was destroyed in a single day.
The attack on Halabja came in the last months of the eight year long war between Iraq and Iran. The town was a political stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, which had an alliance with Tehran. Many Kurds believe Halabja was a target because of that alliance.
Halabja resident, Abdullah, says the day before the chemical attack people in the town were saying Iranian troops had arrived to protect the Kurds from Saddam’s army.
Abdullah says the next day, March 16, around 9 a.m. they heard reconnaissance planes above the city. About two hours later, he says, the first sortie of Iraqi aircraft bombed the city. He says the planes kept coming in 10 minute intervals for about nine hours.
Sixty-five year old Mustafa says the Iraqi planes first dropped leaflets to see which way the wind was blowing. Then they began to bomb using napalm and rockets and finally the chemical weapons.
A guard at the cemetery where many of the Halabja victims are buried says he was 16 years old at the time of the attack and living in Iran.
He says he remembers an Iraqi air force plane was shot down over the Iranian city of Esfahan, and the pilot was paraded on Iranian television. He says the pilot said his mission was to bomb the city, with the intention of blowing out all the windows and doors of buildings, so when the chemical weapons were dropped, the gas would filter everywhere and no one would be spared.
Halabja is near the Iranian border, and many residents tried to escape the bombing by going into the hills and crossing the mountains into Iran.
Mustafa says the bombs continued to fall as people fled toward the border. Inside Iran’s border is the Sirvan river. He says those who reached the river survived, but many others were killed as they tried to reach it. Mustafa says he lost some 40 members of his extended family in the attack.
Abdullah, who also fled to Iran with his family, says “while we were escaping, they bombed us, and there were bodies of Iranian soldiers and Kurdish villagers scattered everywhere.”
Abdullah says the Iranians helped many of the wounded, evacuating them to hospitals and a large sports stadium on the Iranian side of the border.
Today, the town still bears the scars of the attack 18 years ago. Many survivors suffered terrible injuries and remain disabled. Others suffer psychological problems, and many children of survivors have been born with birth defects. Survivors say they hope Saddam will soon finally face justice for his crimes.