On a summer evening in 2015 a big crowd of Halabjans gathered in the city’s Peace Monument to witness history in the making. Several families were there, along with hundreds of relatives, each hoping a young girl who cannot even speak their language is their missing loved one. Meanwhile, the girl is going to hear for the first time her true name, her true age, and meet her real family, if any are left. This drama has become a TV reality show aired to the entire nation in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The girl’s name is Maryam. For 27 years this is the only name she has known. Her age, she believed, was eight months when she went missing and was adopted by an Iranian family. For 18 years, her adopted family did not tell her the truth, though she always felt that she was not one of them. But when she was told, at her adopted father’s deathbed, she started searching for her family, first in Iran, and then in Iraq. It was in Iraq’s Halabja, a Kurdish town with a painful history, where she found a clue to her past.
Halabja lies on the Iraqi-Iranian border. During the 1980-1988 war between the two countries, the town fell victim to bombardments from both sides. On 16 March 1988, during the last stage of the war, the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein attacked the city with internationally banned chemical weapons. It led to the death of an estimated 5,000 people, and injured another 10,000 – the largest chemical attack against a civilian population in history. Many families fled to Iran after the attack. Families became separated and for many they never reunited. Some 70 families have reported they have lost a total of 114 children. As of now, only 10 children have rejoined their real families.
(Chya (right) and her sister reunited in Halabja's Peace Monument in March 2016. Credit: Zardasht Osman)
The Halabja Chemical Victims Society along with local authorities and a private hospital has begun a process of collecting DNA samples from claimant families and children who claim they are from the city. Maryam’s initial findings showed a close match to three families. One family had all died but two step-brothers, another family had only two uncles left, and the last was just a brother and a sister.
“I was hopeless,” Maryam said, “I thought my parents are not alive”
A fourth family however gave their DNA sample at the last minute without hoping for much. Gelas never returned to Halabja after the attack which killed her husband. She remarried in an Iranian town, and her only son took refuge in Holland where he received treatment for lung complications caused by the gas attack.
Back at the Monument, a curious crowd inside the main hall and those outside in the packed gardens wait for the moment of truth. Dr. Farhad holds a certificate in his hands: in it, a name Maryam has chased for almost three decades.
“From now on I call you Hawnaz,” the doctor told Maryam. With this announcement Gelas burst in tears and went hysteric. She hugged Hawnaz tightly, as though she was trying not to lose her again. Last time she heard her voice—she could not see her child because she lost her sight for some time after the attack—that was when they tried to cross the border into Iran.
(4 Hawnaz and her mother Gelas in the family garden. Credit: Draw Mahdi)
“They said your father and your brother are dead, and another brother lives abroad. Then I thought all the sadness of the world has come unto me. But when they said your mother is alive, then my ears went deaf, my eyes went blind, and I lost feeling in my legs.”
That night after the reunion, Hawnaz had two mothers, her biological mother and her adopted one. She spent the night with neither. Instead she spent it with a family who had helped and hosted her in their home for months, Tata’s family. Tata is the local word for dad. Hawnaz calls Luqman Abdulqadir daddy. He is also a victim of the attack, and head of the victim’s society.
Gelas returned to an orchard her family owns in a village just outside Halabja. She stayed awake on a swing listening to birds and the sound of the trees. She did not sleep for a single second the whole night. In nature she found comfort, imagining “the trees and the birds are crying with me.” The swing gave her the impression she was left in limbo between reality and illusion.
“I asked myself is this a dream or an illusion?”
Hawnaz resisted going to bed for as long as she could. “I was afraid to go to sleep that night, because I was afraid to wake up and realise it was all a dream”. She slept for just two hours. Asked whether she dreamed of anything in her sleep, she said she did not have time for it.
Before the reunion Hawnaz spoke Persian, not her native Kurdish; she was yet to learn the language. Staying with Tata’s family, she was hopeful of finding her family, or at least a name. But she was hopeless too, because the more she learned about the city and about thousands of dead, the less she expected to find a family member alive.
Now that her identity had been discovered, Hawnaz sat near the swing her birth mother had spent the night on, alone building memories. Hawnaz is now eagerly getting to know her uncles and her cousins.
“The family I dreamed of in my mind was a family like this, a crowded family”
(Alan standing before his father's statute in Halabja's city centre. Credit: anonymous)
Laughter and happiness was all over the place. But as we talked with Gelas, another great sadness blocked her excitement and joy. Her son Niyaz, just 40 days old at the time of the attack on Halabja, also went missing. Gelas has been waiting for him ever since, now more than ever since Hawnaz brought a glimpse of hope to her and all families who lost their children.
Hawnaz is now 30 years old; she was two years and four months old at the time of the chemical attack. Time healed some of her wounds and buried others. But she does not know how much longer she has to wait before she knows the fate of her missing younger brother, Niyaz.
Hawnaz's story is one of the four publicized cases of Halabja's missing children, and the second to receive as much attention.
It began with Ali Zmnako. Ali was his Iranian name, Zmanko his birth name.
Zmnako lost his father, four of his brothers and his sister during the attack. He reunited with his mother in 2009 after spending some 20 years in Iran with a family who adopted him.
Chya A'zam, Chya is her birth name, was missing for 28 years before she was reunited with her family on the anniversary of the attack in 2016, along with another missing child, Alan. She lost all her family members except for her sister in the gas attack.
Alan Barzan, Alan is his name and Barzan his adopted name, is left with just a statue of his father, and his father's dedicated service to the city.
Alan was not as fortunate as Hawnaz, Zmnako or Chya. None of his family members survived the attack though his family is well known by all Halabjans. His father, Tofiqi Karaba-Tofiq, the electrician in Kurdish, was a dedicated electrician in the public sector. A statue of Tofiqi Karaba lies just outside the city's main park.
With Hawnaz's return, Halabja held perhaps its first ever commemoration of International Missing Children's Day, 25 May. This year, now that Chiya and Alan are back, the prestigious American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), where Zmanko received a grant to study a BSc and Hawnaz is also hoping for the same, will organize a conference on Halabja's missing children.