Still Suffering From ´88 Gas Attack, a Village Distrusts Iraq´s Arms Report (NY TIMES) By C. J. CHIVERS HALABJA, Iraq 12/11/02)
NEW YORK TIMES
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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
"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 1988.
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 lies."
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
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
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
"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
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 currency.
"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
Aras Abid Akram, who lost 22 family members, offered a widespread
feeling. "We, the people of Halabja, wish death upon Saddam Hussein,"
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
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." (Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company 12/11/02)
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