Three of Saddam Hussein's military leaders were sentenced to death for their complicity in the March 1988 massacre of more than 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in Halabja. But now a fierce debate has erupted as to whether they should be hanged.
The smell of gas was in the air on March 16, 1988, at 2:00 p.m. --and, unlike the usual kitchen odors, it was not unpleasant. Outside, grenades and bombs thundered. Twenty-three-year-old Aras Abid Akram crouched close to his family in the cellar. Everyone thought a gas pipe had burst following the explosion.
Then Aras began to feel hot, like a fever only much more intense. His whole body began to itch. His saliva tasted sweet; it was red with blood. Then the first of his neighbors began to collapse. Poison gas was seeping invisibly through every crack. The Halabja massacre, which ultimately saw the deaths of more than 5,000 Kurds, had begun.
Aras hasn't forgotten anything from those hours of horror. He remembers how his parents ordered him to hold a wet cloth in front of his nose in order to filter the poisonous gas. "Then they said they would go upstairs and find another hiding place for us, one that is safe," Aras, now 43, says.
The more he remembers, the more his voice falters. He only saw his parents, his seven sisters and his three brothers again days later -- on a flat-bed truck together with other corpses. "My brother, he was still a baby. His eyes were open and he was looking at me. But he was dead," Aras reports. He wipes tears from his face.
Halabja, part of Iraqi Kurdistan, is located close to the Iranian border. In late October 2007, 19 years after the massacre, the city still seems paralyzed from the catastrophe that occurred when Saddam Hussein's military took on the insurgent Kurdish fighters known as the Peshmerga and attacked them with poison gas.
Everyone here has a similar story to tell. There are monuments to the 5,000 gas victims everywhere -- even though those dead represent only a fraction of the 180,000 victims of Operation Anfal, the military intervention directed against the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq. The city still lies largely in ruins. And the wounds, too, have failed to heal. Whoever was able to has left.
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