|"Ali Ahmad, who survived the gas attack in 1988, greets his mother after more than two decades apart." (Associated Press)|
By Catrina Stewart
The Independent, November 10, 2010
"Etched on to the marbled walls of Halabja's memorial centre are the names of the thousands of victims of the 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja. One name, though, is ringed in green, because the boy who died never actually died at all. At four months old, Zmnaku 'Ali' Ahmad was believed to be one of the youngest victims of the attack, which claimed 5,000 lives and remains the single worst atrocity of Saddam Hussein's rule. But he was whisked away to safety by Iranian soldiers, and grew up in Iran, believing that his real mother was dead. But last year he was reunited with his birth mother, Fatima Saleh, after a request for Iraqi identity papers led him to find his real parents. 'When I first saw Halabja [last year], I started crying,' says Mr. Ahmad, 23, who is now studying English in Sulaymaniya before embarking on a degree course in IT. 'It was a very strange feeling for me.' The tragedy of Halabja was the culmination of the Iraqi regime's brutal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s, aimed at crushing Kurdish resistance in the northof Iraq. Some 200,000 Iraqi Kurds died during the campaign, often brutally, and hundreds of villages were destroyed. But it was the particularly horrific nature of the attack on Halabja that would come to symbolise the regime's ruthless repression of the Kurds.
On 16 March 1988, Iraqi jets swooped down on the town of Halabja and unleashed a devastating cocktail of mustard gas and nerve agents, sarin, tabun and VX. As the smell of garlic and sweet apples wafted over the town, animals started to drop in the pastures, leaves fell off the trees, and residents who had not fled after an earlier aerial bombardment started to collapse, vomiting and their eyes streaming. Mrs. Saleh tried to flee the town with her children, but as they ran, one of her older children cried out that he was burning. She watched helplessly as her children died in front of her before passing out. She woke days later in a Tehran hospital. ... Mr. Ahmad, 22 ... grew up near the Afghan border, knowing that he had come from Halabja but believing his family dead. It was only when his adoptive mother died after a car crash (his father had died several years earlier) that he started to wonder about going back. Denied Iranian identity papers, he faced a future with few prospects. He could not go to university, and he had little money of his own to start a small shop. His last hope was to obtain Iraqi papers. As he probed the possibility of obtaining Iraqi identity, he met an Iraqi Kurdish official who raised the possibility that his parents might be alive, telling him that 44 families from Halabja were still seeking their missing children. The process to find his parents was quickly set in motion, and when Mrs Saleh saw on a television bulletin that there was a survivor from Halabja of roughly the age of her missing son, she immediately came forward and was asked along with four other families to take a DNA test. An agonising few weeks followed, during which Mr Ahmad returned to Iran and to his adoptive relations. He returned to Iraq a few days before the results were to be announced. 'I was so desperate to find my family, but I had to wait four nights in the hotel waiting for [the Muslim festival of] Ramadan to end,' he recalls with a smile. Eventually, the waiting was over. In an emotional conclusion, the hopeful families and officials gathered with Ahmad in Halabja last December to hear the results of the DNA test. Ahmad recalls: 'I was thinking of my Iranian mother and I was crying, and all the families were looking at me and crying.' When the result was announced, a cry went up from his mother, who promptly fainted, and surviving relatives. 'Before I hugged my real mother, I went to hug the other four mothers, and told them "you are also like my real mother." But they were broken-hearted,' he says. [...]"