HALABJA, Kurdistan Region – A year before the infamous chemical attack on Halabja, the Iraqi regime had violently ended a protest described by locals as an uprising.
Angered with any form of public discontent, the regime destroyed entire neighbourhoods and carried out forced disappearances of tens of people. Some of those who went missing were never heard of again. The crackdown led many people to leave the city and flee to neighbouring Iran through the mountains about 40 kilometers to the east.
On a March day twenty-nine years ago, the regime attacked the then liberated city of Halabja with chemical weapons, killing thousands and injuring thousands more. Many of those who could flee chose again to head east, meeting with those who had already done so the previous year.
Some months on in September, the Iraqi regime issued an amnesty calling on the people to return home and promising there will be no persecution. Despite the fact that Halabja people knew all too well the iron fist of the Iraqi regime and its methods of killing with conventional and unconventional weapons, some decided to head home, not knowing they may end up in one of the regime's death camps.
Sabria and her five children left Halabja to Iran where they sought refuge immediately after the chemical attack. Her children, however, returned to Iraq under the amnesty.
She never saw them again.
Sabria says they went missing in Anfal, a genocidal campaign carried out against the Kurds in the late 1980s. Kurdish officials say about 182, 000 people went missing throughout the intensive campaign.
Sabria believes her children are now in Saudi Arabia, after they were initially taken to the Iraq-Saudi border area.
She has written scores of letters to public officials, but to no avail, she says.
“A foreign journalist spoke on TV. He said they had visited the 3-star Rafha desert in Saudi Arabia, seeing some detainees there,” Sabria explained, “He said, I asked 'There are no Kurdish borders near you. What are these Kurds doing here?' They said that they were in Ar'ar desert during the Iraqi-Kuwait war , and we took them to Saudi Arabia so they didn’t suffer the war.
She lives in pain for her children to this date.
“How can I not be worried? My heart burns in pain for them.”
Ruba too lost four members of her family to the Anfal genocide after she had lost her husband and nine of her relatives to the effects of the chemical attack.
She is the only one left in her family, and thinks it is her duty to look for them.
She grieves mostly for her four-year-old niece Bahar, whose mother was killed in the chemical attack.
“Bahar couldn’t forget her mother. She was missing her mother. If I were a bit distracted, she would start lamenting her mother, calling for her,” Ruba recalls as she tried to raise her niece on her own.
“I very much regret that I gave up on her. Her relatives are missing, and we are looking for them. We ask God to help us get some information on her. They say she is in Saudi Arabia.”
In Halabja, 1,600 people were affected by the Anfal campaign. Of those, 1,100 have returned home. Five hundred more are either killed or missing.
Eight families say that nearly 100 of their family members affected by Anfal are in Saudi Arabia.
It was rumoured several years ago that some of the people affected by Anfal were also in Egypt. The Kurdish government sent a fact finding mission to the country, but it found no evidence.
Commenting on the potential Anfal survivors, a city official told Rudaw that they are taking these cases seriously, but they need evidence to do so.
“I am sure the Kurdistan Regional Government won’t sit idle,” Mamosta Kamaran, the head of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs department in Halabja said. “After all, we need to have some official documents. The ministry and the government should look into this legally or scientifically.”
Upon their return following the amnesty, some Halabja people were taken to Topzawa, Ar'ar, and Nugra Salman, areas far from Halabja, and then they suffered Anfal.
The rights organization Human Rights Watch documented the testimony of a 39-year old teacher called Faraj who was taken to Topzawa camp, southwest of Kirkuk where many Kurds from other parts were trucked to their final destination.
Faraj, his wife, and two of six children left for Iran immediately after the chemical attack. After spending two and a half months in Iranian hospitals and refugee camps, they sneaked back to Iraq where they were caught by the Iraqi security forces in Raniyah, near the Iranian border.
Faraj and his family were transferred to Topzawa in a bus that contained twenty-five people from Halabja and the Kalar area, reads the report published in 1993 detailing the Kurdish genocide.
“The conditions that Faraj observed in Topzawa were broadly similar to what earlier witnesses had described. The sexes were still being segregated on arrival; 150 people or so were crowded into a single large cell; and they existed on starvation rations. But there was now a Kurdish army doctor in attendance, a man named Najib, who hailed from Khanaqin. Faraj became aware that all of his fellow-prisoners were from Halabja, and that many of them had not fled to Iran as he did, but had been captured inside Iraqi Kurdistan after the bombing of the city,” the report continued.
He was released about two months later and resettled in a forced camp near Sulaimani.
In Halabja, while some of the city’s families are still waiting to reunite with family members who went missing after the chemical attack, some are still waiting to reunite with those who went missing in the Anfal campaign.