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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 October 2005, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Waiting for justice in Iran
Frances Harrison
By Frances Harrison
BBC, Tehran,
From our own Correspondent & BBC Two's Newsnight

In July 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian village of Zardeh was hit by Iraqi chemical bombs. Frances Harrison returns to the village to see how local people are coping with the legacy.

The village of Zardeh, in the Iranian district of Kermanshah
Zardeh: The "forgotten" village

It was a smell like rotten herbs they say, the odour of a new form of death.

Early that morning, in July 1988, the people of Zardeh were gathered in the local shrine.

First they heard the planes flying overhead, nothing out of the ordinary for a village nestling in the side of a dusty dry mountain dividing Iran from Iraq.

Today everyone mentions how small the sound of the explosions was, oddly disproportionate with the calamity they unleashed.

Some of those who survived now believe it would have been better to have perished instantly
Each plane dropped four bombs, weighing 250kg each. The smoke was yellow, green, red, black. One man said it was like a rainbow, another said it was as if the sky was covered in plastic clingfilm.

The birds started dropping out of the trees and then the people fell.

Two hundred and seventy five died that morning in a place of worship - many of them women and children.

Some of those who survived now believe it would have been better to have perished instantly.

Hedieh and her mother shelling walnuts
Unable to go to university, Hedieh helps her mother shell walnuts
Like 19-year-old Hedieh. Her name means "a gift", but now she is a terrible burden to her family.

She has to spend four hours a day attached to an oxygen cylinder. It is expensive and needs refilling every week in the nearest town, three hours drive away.

Hedieh would like to go to university, but that is out of the question.

The most she can do is help her mother shell the walnuts which are now in season. "I am waiting to die," she says.

"Every day I get steadily worse and the doctors cannot do anything."

Her eyesight, her skin, her breathing have all been affected.

She says she has absolutely no hope for the future. I ask her if there is anything anyone can do if they want to help her and she shakes her head and cries.

"Whoever did this to me should have the same thing done back to them so they understand," she says.

Chemical burns

Gulbanoo, who was injured during the chemical attacks
Gulbanoo's injuries worsened when she washed in contaminated water
Others have more energy for anger.

Gulpari says she wants to kebab Saddam Hussein like he kebabed her sister.

It sounds brutal but that is actually how Gulbanoo's face now looks.

She is horribly disfigured, the burned skin stretched over her nose and her mouth all chapped.

Gulbanoo holds up a black and white passport photo from before the bombing.

"Look," she says," Saddam is the main reason why my husband left me and my six kids, because I am no longer beautiful."

Gulbanoo was at the shrine that morning and rushed to the nearest stream to wash off the chemicals.

As she drank and splashed the water over her face the last thing Gulbanoo remembers is that the water was hot.

I found myself mobbed by survivors, desperate to tell their story
Little did she know that one of the chemical bombs had landed on the reservoir contaminating the main water supply for the village.

By washing she only injured herself more. Gulbanoo woke up in hospital to learn that five of her brothers and her father had been killed in the attack.

Health effects

Visiting the shrine, I found myself mobbed by survivors, desperate to tell their story.

Old women in traditional Kurdish dress lifting up their skirts or opening their blouses to show me scars and terrible burns all over their bodies.

"Everyone knows the story of Halabja," they said, "but what about our village, for God's sake do not forget us."

And yet forgotten is what they are.

Map of Iran showing Zardeh
I was told I was the first journalist, Iranian or foreign to visit Zardeh after the initial aftermath of the bombing.

It took nine years before local doctors realised almost the entire population of this village was suffering from the long-term effects of exposure to mustard gas and nerve agent.

And that means 1,500 people ill in a population of 1,700, 70 cases of cancer and a 30% miscarriage rate.

Nobody even knows the environmental damage caused or what the consequences will be for future generations. This was, after all, the first war in which nerve agent was used.

'Blind eye'

So why is Saddam Hussein not being tried for what he did to villages like Zardeh?

Iran has documented 30 such attacks on its soil, some of them using as many as 300 chemical bombs.

Iranians say it is a clear case of discrimination that Saddam Hussein has been charged for war crimes in Halabja, but not what he did just across the border in Iran.

They believe Western governments turned a blind eye to companies supplying Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons.

After all in those days Saddam was an ally against an Iran which had taken American diplomats hostage.

Eighteen years later the people of Zardeh are still waiting for the record to be put straight and until it is, they say the trial of Saddam Hussein will not be a fair one.

Frances Harrison's film from Tehran was shown on BBC Two's Newsnight, Monday 17 October 2005.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 October, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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