Halabja witness tells about Saddam’s poison gas attack


By Lorin Sarkissian – Ararat News (ANP) – 15.3.2013 – Witness of poison gas attacks in Halabja : Halabja is the unfinished story of the Kurdish nation. It’s also a symbolic city of a crime committed against the humanity at whole. Unfortunately, there are many more victims from Halabja who are still suffering from the mustard gas exposure. – Ali Zalme from the Kurdish city Halabja eye witnessed the tragic events on 16 March 1988, when 5 000 Kurds lost their life and more than 7 000 people were injured or suffered long term illness by the poisonous gas attack of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Lorin Sarkissian: Could you shortly present yourself ?

Ali Zalme: I was born on 11 March 1972 in Khormal-Hawraman town of Halabja, city of Sulaymania in Southern Kurdistan. My mother died when I was only 5 years old and my father re-married. At that time my family consisted of five brothers and six sisters, but unfortunately during the mass exodus in April 1991, I lost one of my brothers and later, during the American invasion in Iraq I lost another young brother who was only 19 years old.

I’ve lived and I was raised in Halabja and the surrounding areas until 15 March 1988. Like everyone else during these times, we were forced to move a lot and live in nearby towns until the uprising in March 1991, when people freely returned to the city of Halabja. In 1999 I left Kurdistan and after 6 month of very tiringand long journey I finally stalled in the United Kingdom. My wife and little son joined me after 2 years in exile. I am currently living in Bristol, UK with my wife and our two lovely children.    

Lorin Sarkissian:  You have witnessed the Halabja poisonous gas attack. Can you describe the days of 15 and 16 March 1988? How did the attack happen and what was the context of the events preceding the attack? 

Ali Zalme: If we want to have a real picture of the Halabja massacre, we should understand all the aspects of this tragic event. First of all, Halabja chemical attack came just before the end of the Iraq-Iran eight years war. Halabja was a symbolic city of the Kurdish recent resistance against the Ba’ath regime in Iraq. Saddam and his brutal regime were looking for an opportunity to take revenge on the people of Halabja region (Hawraman and Sharazoor ). Particularly just 10 months before the Halabja attack, on 13 May 1987 people from the city of Halabja and the surrounding areas including Khormal, Sirwan Hawraman and Sharazoor had rebelled, which is known as May Uprising against the Ba’ath government.

I and thousands of other mostly young Kurdish students came to the streets and demonstrated to stop razing Kurdish villages and rural area, while the regime was forcing the local people to live in controlled camps. For at least 5 hours we all celebrated the short freedom in the Halabja, but soon Saddam’s army came back with assistance from other Iraqi army units and they were able to control the area. They used heavy artillery and helicopter gunship. Many innocent people were killed and many others were injured, in addition the army randomly arrested hundreds of people, who were instantly killed by the Iraqi army and buried in mass graves near the town of Sayidsadq. Three of my cousins and one of my closed friends were among them.

Secondly, we also need to know that prior to the Halabja attack the Iranian intelligence forces were working with some high ranking Iraqi army individuals, mostly Shias, to plan an attack against the Ba’ath regime. Some Kurds also believed that, in the context of strong oppression from the Iraqi army and regime, an eventual cooperation with Iran will help them liberate Halabja. On 13 March 1988, the initial attack of Iranian artillery and soldiers started. It was midnight, when I saw many Iranian soldiers marching and they told us to stay at home until all the region of Halabja would be cleaned from the Iraqi regime. But the Iraqi regime started fighting back by using helicopters and jet fighters, people were confused. Civilians split, some people fled the area, but many others stayed in the liberated towns. My family decided to stay in the city until 8.00 pm on 15 March. Later we realized that we should leave the city and we were lucky to escape on time. The five-hour attack began early in the evening of 16 March 1988, following a series of random attacks using rocket and napalm, when Iraqi Mirage aircraft began dropping chemical bombs on Halabja’s residential areas, far from the besieged Iraqi army base on the outskirts of the town.

An Iraqi aircraft conducted up to 20 bombings in sorties of seven to eight planes each; helicopters coordinating the operation were also seen. We all eye witnessed clouds of smoke billowing upward “white, black and then yellow”‘, rising as a column about 50 m in the air. Later many of my relatives and friends who were victims of the attack, said to me the gas at first smelled of sweet apples; they said people died and were wounded in a number of ways, some of the victims “just dropped dead” while others “died of laughing”; while still others took a few minutes to die, first “burning and blistering” or coughing up green vomit.  It is believed that Iraqi forces used multiple chemical agents during the attack, including mustard gas and the nerve agent Sarin. Most of the wounded people, including my own maternal uncle, were taken to hospitals in the Iranian capital Tehran with heavy suffering from mustard gas exposure.

Lorin Sarkissian: What is the current situation in Halabja today? What do you think is the role of Halabja in the construction of the modern Kurdish identity abroad?

Ali Zalme: Halabja is the unfinished story of the Kurdish nation; it is also a symbolic city of a crime committed against the humanity at whole. Unfortunately, there are many more victims from Halabja who are still suffering from the mustard gas exposure. Of course, Halabja now is looking alive and people are happier than before, but there are many other things, which have to be done. For example, recognising Halabja and Anfal as genocide crime by the United Nation and the international community is what people from Halabja need urgently. I think our new generation here in exile is well aware of those tragic events that happened to us just because we were Kurds. My daughter is only 8 years old and her date of birth is accidently on 16 March. But as respect to the victims of Halabja, she decided always to celebrate her birthday in a different day. Halabja now becomes an identity of the Kurds everywhere and becomes an ambassador of the Kurdish oppressed people in the world. Deep in my heart I pay tribute to my thousands of brothers and sisters who died innocently in Halabja. – ANP –