Saturday, November 13, 2010

A happy ending to the worst atrocity of Saddam's regime

Ali Ahmad survived the 1988 chemical attack but always thought his mother hadn't.

By Catrina Stewart in Halabja

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 Suleimaniah 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.

The attack occurred in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, and the Iranian military moved into the town two days later, where they found Mr Ahmad barely alive. His father and five siblings had perished in the attack. The soldiers took the boy to an orphanage in Iran, and when nobody claimed him, a volunteer called Kubra Pour brought him to her home near the Afghan border to raise alongside her two sons. She named him Ali.

Years later, US-led allied forces would topple Saddam Hussein, and the wheels were set in motion to hold senior figures in the regime to account for the crimes they committed.

Given prominent display at Halabja's memorial centre is a tatty pen that was used by an Iraqi judge to sign the death warrant of "Chemical" Ali, the man who masterminded the atrocity.

"Chemical" Ali, or Ali Hassan al-Majid, was one of Saddam's most brutal henchmen, and he was executed in January for his role in the gassing of the Kurds, although he had received the death sentence three times previously for war crimes.

Mr Ahmad, 22, meanwhile, 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.

"Before I found my mother, I faced a lot of problems in my life," says Mr Ahmad. The "first night [with my real mother] was the safest, quietest night of my life."

For his mother, it was nothing short of miraculous. "Thank you, God! You brought back my son Zmnaku," she was quoted as saying at the time. "It's like my whole family has come back to life. My son has returned."

Mr Ahmad now lives with his mother and her second husband just outside Sulaymaniyah, but it hasn't been an easy journey. At first, Mr Ahmad could barely converse with his mother, for he spoke no Kurdish. They communicated initially through friends and relatives, who could translate.

Meanwhile, he keeps in close contact with his Iranian family, and he sometimes listens to recordings of his late mother's voice, desperate not to forget her. Now enrolled in the American University in Sulaymaniyah, Mr Ahmad is leading the life that was beyond his reach in Iran. But he is aware that his unique experience is likely to dictate the pattern of his life. "In the future, I must offer some service to my people," he says. "I tell my story to all the students, and to my lecturers. It's important that people know what happened to me and my nation."

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