Still Suffering From '88 Gas Attack, a Village Distrusts Iraq's Arms
New York Times
By C. J. CHIVERS
December 11, 2002
HALABJA, Iraq, Dec. 10 - Hamida Hassan shivered on a hospital mattress, knees
drawn up near her ribs. She suppressed another cough, stretched herself to full
length and gestured to doctors to undo her clothes.
"I am just a woman," she said. "No one will believe my words. But if you see my
body you will know whether Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons or not."
Slowly doctors pulled away her robe. Ruined skin appeared: a white crosshatch of
grafts over her collarbone and shoulders, giving way to disfigured breasts and
scars across her navel and waist. Doctors say her lungs are also scarred.
Ms. Hassan, now a chronic hospital patient at age 32, was struck with what was
believed to be mustard gas when the Iraqi Air Force attacked this village in
She has not seen the Iraqi government's declaration to the United Nations about
its weapons of mass destruction, but she is certain of what it contains. "Saddam
Hussein is lying," she said in her cold hospital room. "He is telling the world
As the United Nations reviews the 12,000-page Iraqi disclosure of its prohibited
weapons and missile programs, the declaration in which Baghdad claims to have no
such weapons anymore, the people of Halabja have already reached a conclusion.
They talk about it as if it were a book of nonsense.
Their verdict comes from experience. Halabja has the ignoble fame of being
synonymous with chemical attack. Its name also recalls a bald official lie.
On March 16, 1988, waves of Iraqi warplanes dropped gas canisters in this
Kurdish village of roughly 50,000 people, bathing neighborhoods in what is
believed to have been a misty cocktail of nerve and blister agents - sarin,
tabun, mustard, VX - and perhaps the biological agent aflatoxin as well.
Before nightfall the dead littered basements and the streets, and a grotesque
human exodus was stumbling away.
The survivors remember the response of President Hussein's spokesmen when news
of the attack reached the outside world. They blamed Iran.
Mr. Hussein's government finally admitted the truth last week, but 14 years
later, in a land isolated by sanctions and geography, there has still been no
precise survey of the aftermath. Estimates of the dead range from 3,200 to
7,000. An additional 15,000 to 20,000 people were injured, Kurdish doctors say.
Survivors suffer from a range of afflictions that a study by Kurdish doctors
says occur in higher rates in Halabja than in neighboring cities: tremors,
atrophy, respiratory ailments, reproductive failure, skin diseases, mental
illness and blindness. They are alike in a simple way.
"One thing all of us know, and that is never believe Saddam Hussein," said
Hussein Star, 45, whose face and crown were spotted with pink burns after
mustard agent settled on his head. When Mr. Star removes his turban to expose
where his hair was seared away, he looks as if he has been scalped.
Halabja is in Iraq's northern autonomous zone and is controlled by Kurds, not by
Mr. Hussein. In 1988 it had the misfortune of being along the front line
separating Iran and Iraq, who were in the eighth and final year of a war. Kurds
believe that they were attacked because they were suspected of assisting Iran.
But no one outside Iraq's central government is certain of the rationale even
now. Dr. Fouad Baban, an Iraqi Kurd who has studied the victims, identified 250
villages and 31 suspected bases of Kurdish guerrillas that Iraq gassed in 1987
and 1988. Some were far from Iran.
Still, none had a toll as high as Halabja's, where signs of the suffering remain
in every direction: here a darkened eye, there a scorched limb, in the other
room hacking coughs from a man with involuntary shakes. Bitterness is common
"We live in a bad psychological state," said Abdulrahman Ali Muhammad, 62, whose
hands and forearms are burned and whose limbs tremble. "We are angry. We are
filled with hate. We have too many wants."
Aras Abid Akram, who lost 22 family members, offered a widespread feeling. "We,
the people of Halabja, wish death upon Saddam Hussein," he said.
Each household has a tale of loss. Aqlima Muhammad embraced her 5-month-old son,
Sarkher, as the attack began. She woke up 15 days later in Tehran, her left eye
blinded, her skin aflame.
Sarkher was gone. He has never been found. The only trace of her husband is a
photograph taken by the Red Crescent Society in an Iranian morgue. "Of course
Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons," she said. "If he didn't want to have
chemical weapons, what happened to me?"
These are connoisseurs of Iraqi lies. They remember not only how Mr. Hussein's
government blamed Iran for gassing Halabja, but also how Iraqi generals offered
amnesty to villagers who came home after other attacks and then arrested the
first waves of returnees, who have never been seen again.
They listened with knowing disgust when the Kurdish news media reported on
Monday that Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, one of Mr. Hussein's longest
serving confidants, admitted for the first time that Iraq had used chemical
weapons against Iran, and in Halabja.
The judgment here was that it was an insincere gesture to try to convince the
United Nations that Iraq had changed its ways. The villagers did not need Mr.
Aziz to tell them what happened. "We saw by our own eyes," said Muhammad Amin
Khadir, 51. "We were in our basement, underground, and when we looked outside we
saw the colored clouds, yellow and bluish-gray."
As Mr. Khadir spoke, one of his adult sons, Abdullah, sat cross-legged beside
him, wearing a Tweety Bird sweatshirt, picking his toes.
Mr. Khadir gently kneaded his son's shoulder. "He cannot speak even a word," he
said. "Now he is a mute, and mentally ill. He was very good as a boy, very
smart. But after the chemical bombs he became this way. Today he is 25, and he
is less than a child."
Abdullah didn't seem to hear a thing. "Look at my son," Mr. Khadir said. "Nobody
should believe Saddam Hussein. Nobody, not in all the world."