Halabja Watches Hussein's Trial and Waits for Its Day in Court
Residents of Kurdish Town Worry Conviction Will Preclude Chance to Avenge '88 Chemical Attack That Killed 5,000

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005

HALABJA, Iraq -- The winds whipped through this unpaved town of modest cement houses near the Iranian border one morning, kicking up sand and small flecks of rock. The whirling dirt rolled down the hill, quickly consuming the main commercial drag.

In the small stall where he sells snack chips and candy bars, Goran Qadir, 22, closed his eyes. Qadir had been talking to a visitor about what happened on March 16, 1988, when this sandstorm suddenly brewed. It was an eerie reminder of the day the Iraqi government bombed this Kurdish town in northern Iraq with chemical weapons. The attack killed 5,000 people, most of them women and children.

"I was only a child, but I have flashes of memory," Qadir said, telling how he fled with his family, trying to outrun the mixture of mustard gas, poison and nerve agents that blew with the winds down the very street where he now stood. "We were crawling over barbed wire, and the dead and dying were tangled in it. Some of them were so weak they couldn't free themselves. We were crawling over them."

With the trial of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and seven others over killings in the town of Dujail once again stalled, survivors of the Halabja chemical bombings -- one of the darkest examples of persecution of Iraqi's ethnic Kurds under Hussein -- are grasping for their own sense of justice.

In Hussein's trial, the first since he was captured by U.S. forces two years ago, he and seven others face charges stemming from the execution of 148 men from Dujail following an attempt on the Iraqi leader's life there in 1982. Legal analysts and advisers to Iraq's Special Tribunal say the narrow scope of the Dujail case made it a natural choice for the first of what could be several trials involving Hussein. But if the deposed president is convicted and sentenced to death, he could be executed before ever answering in court for the attacks in Halabja.

"If he will be tried and executed just for Dujail, I am sure it is not a just court," said Nariman Ali, 26, who works as a tour guide at the Halabja Memorial Museum, a monument to the victims of the chemical attacks.

Ali's viewpoint, echoed in more than a dozen interviews in the town, points to the complexities in seeking justice after a decades-long dictatorship in which suffering was so widespread and memories still evoke such deep emotion.

"Saddam sacrificed the rights and the life and the land of the people for his own benefit," Qadir said from his stall.

At the Halabja museum, Ali led a trio of visitors through a room filled with giant photographic images of the chemically mutilated bodies of the victims of the gassings. Hussein allegedly ordered the chemical attacks in retaliation for the Halabja Kurds' sympathy for Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Ali, who graduated from college last year with a degree in political science, contemplated the concept of justice for the former dictator.

"If the court decides to punish him by death, the play will end," said Ali, whose brother and father died of cancer he said was associated with the attacks. "But I hope we could bring him here to the monument."

Anwar Hassam, 48, a government employee at the Department of Electricity, said that in the days leading to the chemical attacks, people in Halabja could see Iraqi troops congregating on the surrounding hillsides. Residents heard rumors that the soldiers were preparing a major attack on Iran.

Then the chemical weapons hit near the center of the city, sounding more like thumps than large explosions. Survivors recalled smelling rotten apples, and people began dropping in the street, blood seeping from their eyes, noses and mouths.

"People were screaming and shouting," Hassam recounted. "We were in the basement of our house. A lot of families were in their basements because of the rumors of the attacks on Iran. We gradually felt our lungs getting tighter. We couldn't breathe easily."

Hassam said his family stayed until dark, then fled Halabja on borrowed mules and donkeys. "The road, it was filled with corpses, hundreds and hundreds of corpses and animals."

"How can Saddam Hussein not be put on trial for this?" Hassam said. "Is there any crime in this world sicker than this? Bring the trial here. They killed children here that were still in the womb."

In a nearby market, balancing a stack of hot bread on her head, Taleea Salih, 55, refused to talk about the day of the attack. As she scurried off to a waiting truck full of family members calling for her, Salih offered only this, "I want Saddam to be executed."

The Halabja Human Rights Ministry keeps a file on families who lost relatives in the chemical bombings 17 years ago. Nearly 900 still receive some assistance from the government -- pensions, medical treatment or housing.

"If we calculate the disaster as a genocide, as killing mass numbers of people at the same time, if we try to describe that disaster, it was pure hell," said Sasan Anwar, director of the ministry. "Visualize it in your mind, stepping on hundreds of your friends and neighbors without having the ability to help them. If we allow ourselves to remember, we can't stop ourselves from crying."

Anwar, 33, who was a teenager then, said the best punishment for Hussein would be a fair trial. "This would be very different from his own trials," Anwar said. "He was trying people without any rights. If Saddam Hussein is not psychologically ill, then each day passing between the trials is death for him."

At the Halabja hospital, not far from a sprawling, symbolic graveyard with a stone memorial for each family that lost someone to the attacks, doctors still treat patients with medical conditions brought on by the gassings.

Rebeen Haidar, 25, a physician, has been compiling cases for a study that would gauge the extent of the health damage, including thousands of cases of respiratory problems and infertility. "There's not a research center in Halabja that does this, and as time passes by, these people are going to die and take their cases with them," he said. "For the future, we need this data."

Haidar, who decided to become a doctor after watching a neighbor treat his father's bleeding throat on the day of the bombing, said the people of Halabja could not look to a courtroom for justice.

"In my opinion, as a doctor, Saddam Hussein is gone, but he left a bad legacy in Halabja, a legacy of destruction, pollution, killing and societal problems," he said. "He left those legacies on the shoulders of the people. If we could eliminate those legacies in Halabja, then we will have executed Saddam in Halabja."

Special correspondent Sarok Abdulla Ahmed contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company