There is no monument to Ahmed’s heroism, but for the people of Halabja, he is the symbol of loyalty and courage. Photo: Rudaw
HALABJA, Kurdistan Region – If Ahmed Sofi had not acted on his wife’s dream only days before Saddam Hussein’s poison-gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, 26 years ago this week, his children would probably have perished along with the estimated 5,000 people who died. And his heroism immediately after the attack, saving the lives of at least a dozen other young and burying the abandoned dead, has earned him gratitude for life.
He recounts that, four days before the March 16, 1988 attack, his children were in Halabja while he had gone to Baghdad with his wife. That morning, after seeing her children crying for her in a dream, Ahmed’s wife awakened with a start and told her husband they must return to Halabja.
“Ahmed, if you don’t return, I will go alone, today!” she warned him, when he tried to tell her it was only a dream.
Having no choice, he returned with his wife to Halabja, where a letter from Peshmarga forces in the mountains warned residents to evacuate, because an invasion by Saddam’s forces was imminent. At dawn next day, he left town, together with his wife and children. When he came back alone several hours later to get some of their belongings and food, the town he returned to was not the one he had left. Saddam’s forces had already done their murderous deed.
He had returned to a nightmare: Streets strewn with dead bodies of humans and animals, even the insects dead; at his home, a neighbor had left two dead bodies of his own children in a bag, with a note asking Ahmed to bury them, while the man himself had gone in search of his other children.
Ahmed recalls burying those bodies, and others from his extended family. But in the streets, he was shocked and saddened to see panicked people trampling corpses underfoot as they hurriedly fled to save themselves. Instead of doing the same, Ahmed decided to go street to street, burying bodies he would find, later joined in the task by his own daughters.
"After burying 31 dead from my family, I went around searching in the streets and houses, picking up bodies to bury later,” he told Rudaw. "With the help of other people, we buried 1,430 bodies," he said, recalling that his daughters dug the graves that he would fill with corpses.
That courage and heroism, evident in the burn marks on his hands from handling bodies sprayed with mustard gas, has earned him eternal gratitude and respect. Today, many Halabja residents consider themselves indebted to Ahmed, greeting him with respect whenever they see him.
There is no monument to his heroism. But for the people of Halabja, he is the symbol of loyalty and courage. In every mass grave in Halabja there are some bodies said to have been buried by him. He receives enormous respect from people who wonder if some dead relative was placed in the ground by Ahmed’s hands.
When the Iranian military entered Halabja and tried to evacuate residents, Ahmed refused to budge, declaring he had vowed to stay to see how he could help. Faced with this predicament, the Iranians decided to take him prisoner, just so they could get him out.
But in all the dark nightmare of Halabja, Ahmed is happy to have brought a little ray of light. That is because he did not find only the dead among the bodies. There were also 12 children, found alive and saved by Ahmed.
“They are all alive, most of them live in Europe," he says proudly.