Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chemical Attack Survivors Want Retribution

In a highland Kurdish village poisoned in a chemical attack, some say execution is too good for the man who ordered it.
By Sarhang Hama

Aziz Ali, 53, lost the sight in both his eyes 17 years ago when Saddam Hussein’s planes dropped poison gas on his village.


He seldom leaves the shade of his mud brick house - but now he wants to go to Baghdad.


"I want to stand against Saddam and tell him 'you are guilty'," said Ali, who is determined to attend the former president’s trial in the capital.


Ali lives in the village of Sheikh Wasanan, 150 kilometres north of Sulaimaniyah, in a valley surrounded by rugged mountains.


Sheikh Wasanan and the village of Balisan, 1.5 km away, were targeted in the opening salvo of Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds. On April 16, 1987 the two villages were bombarded with chemical weapons.


Of their 2,000 Kurdish inhabitants, 400 were killed while dozens more suffered severe damage to their skin, nerves and eyes.


The July 1 appearance of Saddam Hussein in an Iraqi court reminded people in Sheikh Wasanan of a day of horror and death which still seems like only yesterday.


The survivors, while relieved to see Saddam in court, nonetheless fear that a decision by a court established by an unelected government might not stand.


Not surprisingly, many want to see him suffer as they have done for 17 years.


"Saddam deserves more than death," says Fatima Mustafa, 54, angrily pointing to pictures of her three brothers and parents who were all killed in the attack.


Fatima still suffers from psychological stress and chest diseases because of the chemicals.


While the death penalty has been reinstated, Fatima, like many of the villagers, thinks even execution is not enough for the man found guilty of such heinous crimes against them. They want to take revenge with their own hands.


"We do not want him executed," said Asmar Hassan, 39, a widow whose husband died in the chemical attack. "We want him tied up, and we will remove part of his flesh every day."


Hameen Wasu, who also lost several of her relatives, echoed this view, saying, "If Saddam were put at my disposal, I would cut him into pieces and bleed him every day."


Ahmed Hussein, 48, agrees that Saddam Hussein should not be executed – but for a different reason. He believes killing the former dictator would count as revenge for only one person killed, while – according to common tribal practice – one person should die in retribution for each life taken.


"Saddam should stay in prison for ever," said Hussein. "And every day in prison would be like going through death."


Although the better-known chemical bombardment of Halabja is one of the charges facing Saddam, inhabitants of these two villages think the gassing of their families was no less tragic – or criminal.


"We want to be cited like Halabja, and to form one of the charges brought against Saddam," said Kamal Othman, 52, who lost a brother, two sisters and his mother in the one-day chemical attack.


Many victims in Sheikh Wasanan and Balisan have been following the news of Saddam's future trial from the radio and TV, but they are suspicious of a prosecution conducted within Iraq.


Some see a problem with a court system that is under the authority of an unelected government.


"We cannot rule out the possibility that with the end of this government's rule, Saddam's sentence will be overturned," said Jawhar Kamal, 27, a police officer who lost five uncles during the chemical attacks.


Hama Amin, 50, is from Balisan village and has been a Kurdish peshmerga fighter for 20 years. He does not believe that Arabs can hold a fair trial of Hussein. "Saddam is an Arab, too, and I do not think they will give him a fair punishment," he said.


In Sheikh Wasanan, at the end of a road leading up from the cluster of mud-built houses, a new concrete building overlooks the village.


At first glance it looks like the home of some rich person. But at the top of the stairs, a sign in big red letters reads, "Hall in honour of the martyrs of the Sheikh Wasanan chemical bombardment."


Visitors must take off their shoes in respect and recite the opening verse of the Kuran for the souls of those victims, whose black-and-white photos are posted on the four walls of the hall.


A photo of a flower stands in place of those for whom there is no picture.


Many of the victims were never accounted for. After the chemical attack, some people died inside the village and were buried by relatives.


Others died on the road as they fled. Some bodies were buried by attacking Iraqi soldiers at unidentified mass grave sites.


Under the pictures of some of the victims, several lines of verse tell the story of the person on the day of the gas attack.


"Haji Sadiq, his wife Fatima and his daughter-in-law Rahima, blinded by the chemicals, fled but were martyred by the regime’s helicopters on the way," reads one verse beneath a photo of an old man wearing the traditional Kurdish turban.


Some survivors spoke in favour of Saddam’s trial being held in their villages, even though they know the possibility of that happening is remote.


"We would like Saddam to be placed at our disposal and tried in our village," says Khajij Mustafa, 42, who lost four brothers, both parents and twelve of her nieces and nephews.


Meanwhile, Ali, though blind, is hopeful that someone will take him to Baghdad so that he can accuse Saddam to his face.


Sarhang Hama Ali and Shabaz Jamal are both editors with Liberal Education, a youth oriented newspaper in Sulaimaniyah.