A witness to the Halabja massacre, which left thousands dead in the city of Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan, on 16 March 1988, speaks to Kurdish journalist and author Roni Nası Kaya.
Ahmad Hosseini, a member of the peshmerga (guerrilla force) of East Kurdistan at the time, recalls being at the peshmerga headquarters near Halabja on that morning and observing clashes from afar between the approaching Iranian troops and the Iraqi military.
“This was a war between two powerful states with armies, it was not our war,” he says.
“We tried to move towards Sulaymaniyah across the Dizalan bridge, but we found that the road had been blocked by Iranian troops. So we were forced to go towards Halabja (…) We were a few kilometres away from Halabja when the bombardment began. There were around 800 of us. The day before, the Iranian army had taken over Halabja with the help of South Kurdistan’s peshmerga. The Iranian army had military helicopters and vehicles stationed in the city.”
“Iraqi helicopters appeared and the bombing began at around 11 o’clock. A white smoke rose after every bomb dropped. They were bombing the outskirts of the city. There was a very strong wind. It blew all the smoke towards the city centre. Bombs were dropping, and we were just watching. We didn’t quite understand what was happening at that moment, then we saw people from the city running toward us. They were in a desperate state, women, children and the elderly. They were crying and screaming, running towards the Iranian border. That was when we first realised that they were using chemical weapons.”
Hosseini says that the people who stayed in their houses during the attack turned out to be the ones who suffered the worst impact, while those who were outside, or who tried to run away, ended up relatively slightly better off.
“There were so many helicopters. After each group of four or five arrived and dropped their bombs, they were replaced by another group,” he adds.
“There was a loud bang after every bomb, and a pure white smoke. Not grey, not black, but pure white (…) It smelled like apples. It smelled sweet and nice, not rank. It wouldn’t taste bitter or anything at first, until people started to breathe in, that’s when they felt it (…) 1,430 out of 5,000 who died were under 18 (…) Children reacted faster to the chemicals, as their lungs were more sensitive.”
“We couldn’t move during the day, only when it was dark. But we could still see everything. People were lying on the ground, their eyes were bright red. It was as if their souls had left their bodies. Animals, horses, dogs, all living things were lifeless on the ground (…) People who did not have access to vehicles had to walk for days, even the injured. The first day no one dared to help anyone.”