HALABJA, Iraq (AFP) — An X-ray of Kamil Abdel Qader’s lungs show a lower third that is entirely scarred — lasting damage from the poisonous gas that rained down on his Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988.
Doctors say he needs to get a fist-size chunk of tissue removed from his damaged lungs if he is going to survive, but he still considers himself the lucky one.
The rest of his family of eight died as they fled the gas, some dropping before his very eyes as they tried to flee into the hills.
Abdel Qader wants payback — for his dead family, his shattered lungs and most of all for battered survivors of an attack that claimed 5,000 lives and destroyed a town.
The Halabja Chemical Victims’ Society, Abdel Qader’s small non-profit organization, wants the companies and governments which helped Saddam Hussein amass his stockpiles to pay compensation.
The funds would go to the few hundred survivors of the attack that came in the waning days of the Iraq-Iran war that raged between 1980 and 1988.
Though Abdel Qader blames the attack on Saddam and the mastermind of a sweeping anti-Kurd campaign, Ali Hassan al-Majid, dubbed “Chemical Ali” for this attack and others, he said commercial enterprises from around the world shared responsibility for helping arm the regime.
“We are trying to find the companies that helped the Iraqi government get chemical weapons for Saddam. We are trying to tell the world what happened here,” said an emaciated Abdel Qader as he sat cross-legged on a carpet in his home.
The names of specific firms which sold Iraq the equipment and expertise needed to assemble its chemical arsenal have never been released.
A UN special disarmament commission UNSCOM set up after the 1991 Persian Gulf War over Kuwait to investigate Saddam’s weapons arsenals protected its sources in order to encourage disclosure.
It is believed that just as the U.S. government provided Saddam with intelligence and dual-use technology, such as helicopters, to combat Iran, a long list of Western firms made fortunes exporting chemicals and armaments to Washington’s one-time ally.
Abdel Qader has suffered severe health problems for the past 18 years, including chronic bronchitis, severe pulmonary fibrosis and opacity of the left cornea — conditions that doctors said affect a high number of Halabja residents.
Saddam is currently on trial on charges of ordering the killing of 148 Shiite villagers in the mid-1980s, after which he will face charges of genocide for the “Anfal” campaign against the Kurds in which an estimated 100,000 died.
Prosecutors are expected to press charges linked to Halabja in a separate case, but Abdel Qader and other Kurdish activists said the courts should also prosecute those who gave Saddam the tools of his trade.
“Those who are suffering need a lot of money to get treatment in Western hospitals. We want to see those who helped Saddam punished and our rights restored,” said Abdel Qader, who needs costly medical treatment abroad.
Abdullah Mahmud, a Kurdish author who has spent most of the past two decades cataloguing the debris from Saddam’s numerous campaigns against the Kurds, said the U.S., Britain, France, ex-West Germany, the former Soviet Union and a handful of other countries helped arm the former dictator. “At that time Saddam had a good economy because of Iraq’s oil wealth and he could afford pretty much any weapons he wanted,” Mahmud said. “The people deserve to be compensated, and these companies should be uncovered.”
But Iraqi authorities have not made clear whether they plan to probe into issues that could potentially ruin the reputations of major international companies. Asked if he expected such information to come out of the Saddam trial, chief investigating judge Raed al-Juhi said: “I cannot answer this question at the time to protect the investigation … Everybody involved in the crime will be brought to trial.”
Doctors said they believed cases of lung disease, therapeutic abortions and cancers were off the charts in Halabja, though the studies have not been done to prove it.
And while infertility rates are high, those women who do manage to conceive are likely to be faced with an early termination of their pregnancy because of abnormalities in the spinal cords or oversized heads in fetuses.
“There are still chemicals in the ground and in the food. Nobody has done anything to try to clean up,” said Dr Shnow Hussien, a gynecologist in Halabja Hospital.
Even those with no obvious problems linked to the chemical attack have been angered by the Kurdish regional government’s lack of attention to local concerns.
On March 16, the anniversary of the chemical attack, a group of thousands of rampaging youths burned down the city’s towering memorial to the victims, protesting, among other things, the authorities’ use of the tragedy as a propaganda tool.
Visiting officials have used the occasion to make generous promises but have never followed through, said Habat Nawzad, a local journalist.
“Every year March 16 is like a supermarket that opens for one day but closes before you have time to carry anything out,” Nawzad said.