After 33 years, Iraq's Halabja chemical attack survivors seek justice

Survivors recall the day events of March 16, 1988, when Iraq's air force rained down a deadly cocktail of chemical weapons

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Hawker Saber is one of the survivors of the chemical attack Saddam Hussein ordered on the Kurdish town of Halabja 33 years ago but he needs a respirator to stay alive.

Mr Saber, who is hooked to the machine for more than 20 hours a day, was just three at the time but he still has terrible memories of March 16, 1988.

On that day, for five hours, Iraq's air force rained down a deadly cocktail of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, on Halabja in the mountains of north-eastern Iraq, according to experts.

In retribution for Kurdish Peshmerga fighters backing Iran in its eight-year war with Iraq, around 5,000 Iraqi Kurds, the majority women and children, were killed in the largest ever chemical weapons attack on civilians.

The attack still haunts Halabja as its residents, now estimated at around 200,000, still fight for justice, care for the ill and hunt for missing relatives.

"There are still 486 people who are seriously ill from the chemical attack in Halabja," Loqman Abdelqader, president of an association for victims of the attack, told AFP.

"They have respiratory difficulties and eyesight problems," said Mr Abdelqader, who himself lost six family members in the massacre.

"Neither the federal authorities nor the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have set up a care programme to help them," he added.

'None have kept their word' 

Up until the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it was Iran that each year took on the care of several patients, but always on a piecemeal basis.

Halabja families are also still trying to find children that went missing amid the chaos of the attack, with many having been sheltered and treated in Iran, just 10 kilometres away.

"142 children are still missing", said Ayad Arass, who heads the local child protection commission.

Halabja resident Swiba Mohammed, 60, believed for a time that justice would be served.

She even went in 2006 to Baghdad to testify against Saddam's cousin and henchman, Ali Hassan Al Majid – an infamous general better known as "Chemical Ali".

Majid was hanged four years later for ordering the attack, which he said was carried out to protect Iraq against its powerful neighbour Iran.

But his death brought little respite to Ms Mohammed, who lost five of her children in the massacre, as well as her sight.

"For years, officials have been promising to send me abroad to have surgery so I can finally again see the faces of my surviving children," she told AFP.

"But not one of them kept their word," she said between sobs.

 European accomplices? 

Saddam, overthrown in 2003 after a US-led invasion, was hanged in 2006, sentenced to death for the massacre of 148 Shiite Muslims.

His death put an end to proceedings against him for "genocide" over the deaths of 180,000 Kurds – including those killed in Halabja – during the ruthless 1987-1988 "Anfal" campaign.

Unable to convict Saddam, the residents of Halabja are now trying to force his accomplices out of the woodwork.

On March 13, 2018, a total of 5,500 relatives of victims sued 25 European companies and individuals, including Iraqis, who they say aided Saddam's regime in developing its chemical weapons stockpile, one of their lawyers, Ayad Ismail, said.

"There have already been eight hearings and the next one is set for June," Ismail said, "Summons will be sent to companies cited that have asked to see the evidence," he said.

But for Mr Abdelqader, time is running out.

Since the fall of Saddam, he said "116 survivors of the attack have died", and their living testimony of the massacre with them.