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Halabja survivors seek justice

By Caroline Hawley
BBC News, Baghdad

Bodies line the ground following the gassing of Halabja
Five thousand Kurds died in the gas attack on Halabja in 1988

"I screamed," Aras Abed remembers. "But there was no-one left to hear me."

Seventeen years on, he shows his children fading photographs of members of the family he lost in a single night, in one of the worst atrocities of Saddam Hussein's rule.

Determined to keep their memory alive, he teaches his young sons the names, one by one, of his parents and 12 brothers and sisters, who all died when warplanes dropped chemical bombs on Halabja.

They linger over the black and white picture of his strikingly beautiful 19-year old sister, Awaz.

"If only they were all still here," 8-year-old Renoir whispers, to comfort his father.

Mr Abed, who survived only because he was in hospital recovering from an earlier injury, had found their bodies the day after the gas attack, in an underground shelter where they had thought they would be safe.

Impatient for justice

"I believe God spared me so that I could testify against Saddam Hussein," he said.

"I would walk from here to the tribunal in Baghdad if I had to."

But it is not Aras Abed's turn yet.

Kurds in Halabja are impatient to see Saddam Hussein face justice.

But many believe the trial should have begun with the gassing of 5,000 Kurds, and the wider Anfal campaign against them, rather than the murder of 143 Shias in the town of Dujail.

"Halabja is the bigger crime, it should have started here," says 42-year old Ibrahim Hawramani, the director of a memorial museum to the victims.

"We are happy he is going on trial, but we wish it was happening in Halabja itself, and was for what happened here."

Saddam 'responsible'

The Halabja museum captures the horror of what happened in March 1988 as the planes dropped their toxic bombs.

The life-sized figure of old man is huddled over a tiny child. A young woman lies with her dead baby by her side. An elderly woman is slumped against a wall underneath a broom.

Ibrahim Hawramani has no doubt that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the massacre, along with the man dubbed Chemical Ali, Ali Hassan Majid.

"Saddam was the commander-in-chief of the army. The ultimate authority in this country rested with him," he says.

"If a bird was killed, he knew about it."

Investigators from the Iraqi Special Tribunal have come to Halabja in search for evidence.

"We gave them documents signed by Chemical Ali ordering the razing of 600 houses and the burying alive of 15 people," he says.

'Forgotten'

Kamil Abdul Qadir Wais was 14 when the bombs were dropped.

Like Aras Abed he is the sole survivor from a family of 10, all killed as they fled Halabja into the surrounding hills.

Kamil, who was separated from them in the chaos and panic, was temporarily blinded and still has chronic bronchitis.

"I believe the world has forgotten about us," he says, with a cough.

"The Americans and the British did half the job when they got rid of Saddam Hussein. We thought they would come and help us and reconstruct Halabja - especially after they used it as a symbol to justify the war."

Many other survivors are bitter too, angry that the economic boom taking place elsewhere in Kurdistan is passing Halabja by, and that some parts of town still lack basic services like running water.

And Aras Abed has another complaint.

He says that earlier this year he tried to travel to London for a memorial to commemorate Halabja's dead - only to be denied a British visa.


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