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

Halabja Reunion Bolsters Search for Lost Kids

Mother and son together again after 21 years thanks to new DNA matching scheme.
By Falah Najim
The Kurdish authorities are to step up efforts to find children lost in the chaos of the brutal Saddam-era chemical attacks on Halabja.

The new impetus was promoted last week when some 50 Halabja families with missing children watched with newfound hope as a local mother embraced her long-lost son after an agonising absence of 21 years.

At a December 3 ceremony in the town, Fatima Muhammad Ham Salih was reunited with her child, lost as a three-month-old baby among the thousands of corpses left by chemical attacks unleashed on Halabja by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988.

The highly publicised discovery of Zimnako, the name Salih gave her now 21-year-old son, has redoubled government efforts to locate the remaining lost children.

“After finding Zimnako the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] is going to start a vigorous campaign to work with Iran to find the others,” said Chinar Sadullah, former minister of the KRG’s martyr and Anfal ministry, who helped organise the reunion.

Zimnako’s return is the only confirmed instance of a Halabja family finding a lost child; it also marks the first use of DNA in a location campaign.

According to the Halabja Chemical Victims Association, HCVA, more than 5,000 people were killed in the 1988 attacks allegedly ordered by Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known by his sinister nickname Chemical Ali.

The HCVA claims as many as 200 children were among the 1,000 victims reported missing at the time, with 41 still unaccounted for.

“Because of the huge numbers of wounded people, they were taken to dozens of different hospital and cities in Iran. As a result, many children were separated from their family, and they have been difficult to track down,” Luqman Qadir, head of the HCVA, said.

Forty-seven families in Halabja have registered their missing children with the authorities. Among them is Fakhradin Karim, a grieving father who lost his three children.

“I have been waiting for my missing children since the attacks and I don’t even know if they are is alive or dead,” Karim said. “I am sure there are a lot of missing children of Halabja in Iran, but all I can do is to keep waiting for the government to find them.”

Halabja families and officials hope the story of Salih and Zimnako is a template for the return of the dozens children still believed to be missing.

“At the time of the attack we tried to escape the bombings. I was running with Zimnako in my arms when I fainted,” Salih told IWPR.

When Salih woke, she was in an Iranian hospital where she was told that her husband and six other children had been killed.

“Now I realise Zimnako was sent to a different hospital," she told IWPR. "Now I feel like my family has returned."

After medical treatment, Zimnako was taken to an orphanage in north-eastern Iran, where he was given the name Ali and was later adopted by a woman with two other children in the city of Mashhad.

“When I turned seven, I was told that I am from Halabja and my family had died in the attack,” Zimnako said.

After his adopted mother died in a car accident three years ago, Zimnako contacted the Martyrs Association of Iran. When Sadullah, then minister of the KRG’s martyr and Anfal ministry, arrived for a visit, Zimnako was brought to meet him.

The KRG’s unprecedented DNA testing campaign was the key to him being reunited with his birth mother.

In Iran, Zimnako underwent genetic tests to find his original family. At around the same time, Salih took part in DNA testing with other Halabja families with lost loved ones.

The test results confirmed the link.

“I have not seen Ali [Zimnako] as happy as when he found his real mother,” said Hamida Por, the sister of the woman who adopted Zimnako. “I am happy to see Ali with his family and I hope all the missing children of Ali’s city can be found.”

Sadullah said that in the past a lack of information about the lost children had frustrated location efforts. She feels that more investigations using the DNA process may bring more Halabja families back together.

For now, Zimnako has returned to Halabja, adopted traditional Kurdish garb and is busy learning Kurdish to continue his education.

“There is no happiness better to see and hug your real mother. And there is no sadness worse than not being able to see your father, brothers and sisters ever again,” Zimnako said.

Falah Najim is an IWPR-trained journalist based in Sulaimaniyah.

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