ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A day after Mohammed got married in the holy city of Qom in Iran, his father sought him out for a private chat. It was November 2011 and Mohammed was over the moon, looking forward to the matrimonial life ahead. However he sensed from his father’s expression that something was not right.
“I need to tell you a secret,” his father Manouchehr told Mohammed. “While I love you like a son, I need to tell you that you are a survivor of Halabja chemical attack.”
These few words were a bombshell for Mohammed, who had led a happy life, believing he was originally from Iran. He soon discovered he was one of around 70 children taken from the city of Kermanshah in western Iran to be treated for chemical burns in the southern city of Shiraz on March 19, 1988, three days after the chemical attack on the town of Halabja that killed 5,000 people and inflicted horrific injuries on thousands more, including children.
“Some of them were martyred because of severe injuries sustained from chemical bombs and ineffective treatment,” read a letter issued by the Joint Headquarters of Support, Relief and War Treatment of the Islamic Republic of Iran on August 3, 1988.
“Among the injured persons there was a child whose identity was unknown and was about 6-7 months old. He was hospitalized in the Pediatric Ward at Shahid Dastgheib Hospital. After he was better, because he had no guardian… Mr Manouchehr Esmaeili from this headquarters assumed custody of this innocent child,” the letter states.
This letter documented the beginning of a 31-year journey that ended on a rainy day in a town near Halabja when Mohammed was reunited with his biological mother.
Mohammed was one of a thousand Iraqi and Iranian children whose life was scared forever in the regional rivalry in the 1980s. In the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) took the city of Halabja with the help of the main armed Kurdish opposition. A few days later, on March 16, Saddam Hussein unleashed his fury, bombing the town with chemical agents.
Mohammed’s family was among the thousands who fled to Iran. He was the youngest of four girls and three boys, just a few months old at the time and named Khalil. His father was Salih and his mother Halima. Khalil was the only one in his family not affected by the chemical agents.
The whole family was transferred to Kermanshah by the IRGC, arriving on March 18. The men and the women were separated. Everyone was asked to hand over their clothes because the Iranians feared the garments were contaminated.
“The nurse asked my mum to hand over my little brother to be bathed but my mum hesitated,” recalled Ibrahim, who was 14 years older than Khalil. “Another woman from Halabja told her that she had given them three children and after washing them, they had brought all of them back.”
Halima agreed to hand over her baby.
At that moment, Iraqi planes appeared in the sky and everyone screamed and ran for cover. In the midst of the chaos, Khalil was separated from his mother. Halima started beating herself and asking for her child, but it was too late. The women and girls of the family were taken in vehicles to a camp in Kangavar, a town 96 kilometres east of Kermanshah.
Salih and his sons were not aware that Khalil had been lost. They had been taken to Shiraz for treatment, unaware that Khalil was also transferred there. It was only seven months later, when Salih and his sons returned to Kermanshah he learned Khalil was missing.
“My mother blamed herself and kept beating herself for handing over her baby to the nurse,” recalled Ibrahim. The family knew Khalil was healthy when they lost him in Kermanshah. “We kept faith in Allah and waited to see what fate had in store for us,” Ibrahim replied when asked if they knew deep down that Khalil was still alive.
Meanwhile Manouchehr Esmaeili worked at the Joint Headquarters for the war efforts and already had a three year old son called Ali. He sent a letter to Kermanshah to see if he could trace the family of the child in his custody. With no answer and no official documentation to know his real name, Manouchehr decided to name the new baby Mohammed.
Mohammed was never told about his origins during his childhood. He grew up in a religious family and says he was happy. The family moved to the holy city of Qom and Mohammed learned Persian and went to school like his older brother Ali.
In childhood photos, Mohammed appears happy surrounded by his adopted family. The two boys grew up together, played together, and ate from the same sofreh (tablecloth).
Unbeknownst to him, Mohammed’s biological family returned to Iraq after seven months where they were incarcerated by the Baath regime, like many other returnees. Following the 1991 Kuwait war, the family became refugees again, but returned when the US and its allies imposed a no-fly zone cutting Saddam Hussein’s hands from the Kurdish areas.
The family went back to their village near Halabja and settled there. They lived through sanctions in the 1990s, a bloody Kurdish civil war, and the 2003 war, always keeping faith that Khalil would come back one day.
After Mohammed learned his true origins, he assumed his family had not survived the Halabja attack.
“When my father told me that I was originally from Halabja, I made some enquiries and I was told 5,000 people died and was told that it is very likely that my family had perished too,” Mohammed told Rudaw.
About two years ago, he was working at a hospital in Qom when he was told to go to a research centre in Tehran that worked to identify people missing during the Iran-Iraq war to give a blood sample and his DNA. In March 2018 he went back to the centre and was told about an NGO working with survivors of the Halabja massacre. He decided to try his luck, but it was an election year and every door he knocked on was busy or locked.
He finally arrived
in the Kurdistan Region in January to do a blood test, aided by Luqman Abdulqader, the head of Halabja Chemical Weapons Victims Society who has campaigned tirelessly for the missing children of Halabja. While there, Mohammed appeared on a programme on Kurdish TV.
Halima was sitting in her village, Byara, near the Iranian border and saw the programme. She told her son Ibrahim she wanted to see the man who claimed to be a missing child from Halabja.
Halima, Ibrahim, and the rest of the family drove to the town of Said Sadeq where Mohammed, on his way back to Iran, stopped to meet them. Mohammed was carrying several photos from his childhood. Halima had never forgotten her child and had some photos in her pockets too. The similarities in the photos were stark. Halima was sure Mohammed was her missing child. They sobbed together as the reality gradually kicked in.
A DNA test in Tehran confirmed that Mohammed indeed was Halima’s missing child.
This week, Mohammed came back to the Kurdistan Region. The first thing he did was go to the graveyard where his father Salih was buried. He had died ten years ago from injuries he sustained on that fateful day in March 1988.
When asked how he wants to be addressed, whether by his Iranian or Kurdish name, the missing child of Halabja replied: “Khalil Mohammed.”
Zhelwan Z. Wali and Amal Naji contributed to this report.