I’m currently working on a documentary with John Simpson for the BBC on the 25th anniversary of the chemical attack of Halabja in 1988. John was the first Western journalist to report on the attack, ignored by many in other Western media outlet, he flew on his own in an Iranian chopper from Tehran to Halabja.
Yesterday, we met Nasrin, one of the survivors the attack. She was 16 years old when it happened, she lost 17 relatives, including her Mother, Father, two Brothers and two Sisters. She told us a tragic story of how she managed to escape the city, carrying with her three little children, two of them on her back, carrying the third one on her arms, by the time she managed to get to safety outside the town, the children and herself went blind from the effect of the mustard gas that was used.
She told us that she did not know that Sarin gas was also used, which made many of the victim lose their mind and consciousness, becoming delirious before they died, “I thought the children were sleeping on my shoulder and dreaming, for the kept calling their mothers, one of them was repeating, ‘I haven’t done my homework, I have to finish my homework’, before they died, they keep saying that they can’t see anything, that everything was dark, and I thought they were talking in their sleep, I keep telling them to go back to sleep, “You will see when you wake up from the sleep, it won’t be dark anymore”
We interviewed her by the same cellar that many of the victims had died. She told us that the effect of the gas could still be felt, John and the cameraman, Duncan, went into the cellar, they stayed for a few minute, when they came out, with eyes red, running nose, they told us that there was a cat hanging on the wall, seem to have died recently from the effect of the gas. I myself felt the effect later, as I was standing by the entrance to the cellar, doing the interview. After 25 years of the attack, you could still feel it. Nasrin told us that once they put chickens into the cellar, in less than a week, all of them were dead. They no longer used the cellar, for it was too dangerous. Later, when we asked an export about our running nose, red eyes and that tickle in our throat, he told us that were were exposed to a very light dose of mustard gas, and it was of no danger. He examined another cellar at a short distance from Nasrin’s house, and indeed found small dosage of mustard gas, he had a detecting devise with him. The effect lasted for about two hours, we were advised to wash our face, we went into a mosque and washed our faces, still, the headache lasted for another six hours.
This is Nasrin’s story, the way she told us, in her language ….
I was 16 years old when Halabja was attacked. All that day, on March 16, 1988, the town was under heavy artillery bombardment from the Iraqi army. Many people had taken shelters in basement and cellars. Like the days before, a war between Iraq and Iran was raging. Daily bombardment was taking place between the two countries. Halabja was a border town, close to the Iranian border. To shelter ourselves from the bombs, daily, we would take refuge in cellars and basements. On that day, we thought it would be a usual day of bombing, we had no knowledge that a catastrophe would take place. We came down to this cellar, which belong to my family. My own house was at a distance from here. I was not the only one to take refuge here, I could say that there were more than 300 people who where gathered in the cellar; relative, neighbors and strangers. We took shelter here waiting to see what would happen. The place was crowded, my mother told us to get some food prepared for those who were staying.
Earlier that day, in the morning, Iraqi choppers were flying over Halabja. I saw the choppers flying overhead. I was here in the garden. One of the chopper was flying very low overhead. I knew it was Iraqi chopper, because one of the door had an Iraqi flag on it. One of the crew by the door was taking pictures of us. This cellar was crowded, and the children didn’t realize the danger, I remember, the children waved at the choppers, waved to the pilot. The chopper kept going around, taking pictures, the flash of the camera was hitting us. Some of the people told us that we should take shelter, it was not normal that something like that was happening, we should be scared. We should all go down to the cellar, but the house was crowded and we could not fit everyone into the cellar.
Some had to stay up here to prepare the food and what was needed. I, myself, with two of my sisters were preparing the food for the people. It was around 11 AM, toward afternoon,we were ready to serve the food, ready to eat. My uncle’s family came to our house and told us that it was very dangerous, we heard unfamiliar sound of bombs falling. They told us that in the northern part of the city, around Sarai Halabja, heavy bombs were falling, we could hear the sound, and the grounds was shaking under our feet.
Then, I heard a sound that was unfamiliar to me, I never had heard such a sound before, sound of a bomb falling to the ground near our house. Suddenly, the cellar became dusty, heavy smoke filled the place. I ran out of the cellar. Because there was no water and no electricity, we had brought up the water from the well to use it. When I came up, I saw the water, it was black, what look liked black powder covered the water. The food plates that were prepared for lunch was covered with what looked like black ashes. We had birds, partridges in our garden, they were jumping up and down. I picked one of them from under the trees. They were dying, trying to take their last flight, taking their last breath. I didn’t know what was happening, I told my brother about it, he told me, “Nasrin, leave them, come down to the cellar”. I went down to the cellar, everyone in the cellar had red eyes, they were vomiting.
Before the bombs had fallen, some of the people from the cellar went outside to a field across from the house. When they had seen the smoke and the bomb falling, some of them came back to help us, one of them was my husband. When he came to the cellar, he shouted , “For God sake, come outside, we have been attacked by chemical weapons”. At that time, he was a doctor at the military hospital. He was trained on chemical warfare and the use of gas masks. He was aware of what precaution to take. He told us that Halabja is under Chemical attack, that the smoke was that of a chemical weapon. When we came up from the cellar, we notice that our place had a different smell from the one across the street. The wind was coming upward, bringing the smell here, you could notice by the smell that the air was poisonous.
As I mentioned, because of the daily artillery attacks, we never predicted a chemical attack. When we came out, we tried to escape, to get way from Halabja. The gas smelled like that of a rotten eggs, apples, from times to times, the smell would change. Apple, other time a rotten smell. We looked for a car, we didn’t have one ourselves, we tried to find one and take the people away. We couldn’t find any car. One of the man who was in the cellar had a tractor. He told us that he would bring his tractor and take away the children, old people and those who were severely wounded.
We put the old people and the children into the tractor. Some of us went with them to help, myself, my brother, Luqman, the wife of the driver of the tractor and a few others, we went along, the tractor was crowded. It was getting late, toward evening when we started to leave. We had plan to go outside Halabja, to Sarkani Tawera, to stay there and see what would happen to Halabja. We never expected to leave Halabja, we had plan to go to the edge of the town, hoping to return once the attack was over. When we went up toward the northern part of the town, a bomb hit the road, the driver had to make a turn. I saw that many people were laying on the roads, I couldn’t believe that they were all dead. I thought they were asleep, or had walked in their sleep to that place. It was not just one or two person, there were so many, they all looked asleep, no wounds or blood on them. At first when we saw few of the bodies, you could imagine they were dead, but when you saw so many of them, on the road, laying down there, you couldn’t believe they were all dead, it was hard to believe.
When we escaped, just outside of the town, the driver of the tractor, because of the effect of the gas could not drive anymore, he could not concentrate, as if losing his mind, he told us that he could not drive anymore, the engine of the tractor turned off, he tried hard to start it again, but he could not. We had no choice but to get off. By now it was dark, it was nighttime. At that place where the tractor broke down, we had an Old Man with us by the name of Hama Khan, to this day, we don’t know what happened to him, he was lost. We had a plan to meet my Mom, my Dad, my brothers, sisters and my cousins in Sarkani Tawera, because of that, everyone in the tractor wanted to go to that place to meet our relative again. We were not familiar as to where we were at, because it was dark and we were in a desperate situation. We had planned to save the children in the tractor, each person would carry two children, one on the back, and holding the other in our arms. Then, we took on the road, to escape, but we we could not find the place, we couldn’t. Someone came and asked us as to where we were heading? We told him that we were heading to Sarakani Tawera. He told us that we would not make it to Sarkani Tawera. He told us to go toward the lights that we could see in the dark, a place called Ababaili.
We took the road toward the light, a village called Ababaili. Once we got there, we saw that the place was deserted, it was also attacked. Because we were in a desperate situation, and on the road the children kept vomiting, and they were walking in their sleeps. I didn’t know what was happening, on the road, some of them kept saying, “Sister, I have to do my homework”. I didn’t know that the nerve gas had made the children lose their mind. I thought that they were asleep and were dreaming, talking in their sleep. No matter what, we had to carry them with us. We arrived in Ababaili, there was a house, half destroyed. We tried to get inside, on the other side, a door was open. We called out to the owner to come out, we didn’t know it was empty. There was nobody in the house, I told the other that we have no choice but to go inside and take refuge until next day.
When went inside the house, you could tell the place was crowded before, there were signs of life. We went into a room, all tired, wounded and in pain. We had come by the road, with the children, as if walking in a sleep, vomiting all the way, tired and confused. We put down the children in a room, they crawled to a corner. I went searching to get the children something to eat. I looked around, I could not find any food ready to eat. I opened a top of a container, it had milk in it. I tried to get the milk ready for the children. I could hear one of them shouting, “My eyes, I can’t see, I’m blind”, I thought that she was exhausted and wanted to sleep, that is why she was saying, “I’m blind”. Another one shouted that he was also blind, then, everyone kept shouting that they were blind. They kept asking me how I could see? I told them, trying to comfort them; “No, you all are tired and sleepy, you are not blind”, I didn’t know what was happening. When I was about to warm up the milk, it didn’t take long, I went blind also. I sat down on, crawled into the room, joined the others, and from that moment on, I lost consciences.
There were nobody around to help us. Next morning, when my family had arrived at the place that we were supposed to meet, they could not find us. My husband started to search for us, he had looked everywhere, asked around. He had visited the Mosque in the town, and they had told him that there were some people in that house. When he found us, he thought that we were all dead, he came into the room crying. My brother, Luqman shouted to him that we were not dead, that we were alive, but all blind, we could not see anything. He took our hand, took each of us to the Mosque. He washed our eyes and face. Told us that this had happened to all the people in Halabja, we were not the only ones, that we had no choice but to escape to Iran.
After all the suffering in the hospital, and living in Iranian refugee camps, we always had a dream of coming back to our homeland, to return to our homes. After the death of all our relatives, all the suffering, we had no choice but to return to Iraqi Kurdistan again. We returned, the story of our return is as tragic as the attack on Halabja, it will take along time to tell it.
This is Halabja. This house is not the only example, in many places of Halabja, the same weapon was used. You see all over Halabja, houses like this. We lived here for many years, now it is empty, it is empty because nobody want to come and live here. If you look closely into my eyes, you could see that I’m still wounded in the eyes. The wound that I have in my eyes is under constant doctor’s watch. I have lost my lungs, they no longer function. I have to get a surgery for my eyes in the future or I will go blind, there are many victims who had to get eye transplant because they were going blind.
Among the many who died in the cellar, from my family, I lost four of my sibling, two brothers and two sisters. Hawraman who was 8 years old, Ashna who was 10 years old, Wazera, who was 11 years old and Awesar who was 9 years old. I lost my Mom, my dad, and 17 other relatives. The final result that we got from hospitals, 22 victims from the cellar died in Iranian hospitals.
Every one want to live, to continue on living. But, what kind of life? A life without pain. We, in Halabja, after all that had happened to us, 25 years later, our suffering and pain still goes on. Everyday we live the day of the attack, because we are wounded, psychologically and physically, there are scars all over our bodies. The pain is still in our hearts, deep down, I suffer each second, remember that day on March 16, 1988, the day I lost everything that I cherished in life.
Here is also links to a few documentaries that I worked on in the past year:
Survivors of Iraqi Mass Graves aka One Thousand and One Apples (Taha Karimi) POST-PRODUCTION
Dress in Iraqi Kurdistan (Fulvia Alberti)
The Dark Side of Democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan (BBC)
Sulaimany Protest (Baudouin Koenig)