Forever hopeful: In search for the lost children of Halabja three decades on from Saddam Hussein’s gas attack
“My little sister, Hamida, was one and a half when she was taken out of my arms at an Iranian hospital in Tehran in 1988. I thought they will give her a toy and return her to me, but I did not see her again since then,” said Mohammad Mohammed Saed, the representative of hundreds of Kurdish families from Halabja whose kids or beloved ones are missing for decades after the former Iraqi regime attacked their city with chemical weapons.
Thirty-four years on from the attack, relatives of the victims and survivors hold the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) responsible for failing to compensate them and help them heal their wounds.
On 16 March 1988, Saddam's regime attacked the people of Halabja city, killing more than five thousand people, and wounding tens of thousands. Saddam's regime was toppled following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and Hussein was captured in December 2003. He was hanged three years later following his conviction for 'crimes against humanity,' including the Halabja massacre.
Tens of thousands of people had escaped to neighbouring Iran for treatment, but it is here where some of them mysteriously went missing.
While being treated in Iranian hospitals, hundreds of Kurdish children were allegedly taken by Iranians and their destiny is still not known even three decades on, the families of the missing children told The New Arab.
“Seventy-three families from Halabja have registered complaints at the Halabja initial court for a number of years saying that 178 of their kids have been missing in Iran since 1988, and they are hoping to find them and embrace them again,” Saed told The New Arab. “Unfortunately the process of finding those missing children is going on very slowly, and unfortunately the age might not let those families see their kids again.”
Still a mystery
He clarified that the Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is supervising the process of finding the missing children. He also said most of the missing children are now living in Iran.
“The stories of those missing remain a mystery. Eye-witnesses have confirmed that some of the children were taken from Iranian hospitals and brought up by 'good Iranian families' but whether this is true or not, is still not clear as is the fate of the other missing children," he adds.
“So far, eight children have been found – four of them were physically recognised during the early days of the chemical attack on Halabja,” Saed said. “ The rest were identified through DNA tests."
"Eye-witnesses have confirmed that some of the children were taken from Iranian hospitals and brought up by 'good Iranian families' but whether this is true or not, is still not clear as is the fate of the other missing children"
Saed further clarified that some of the results of the tests were disappointing and consequently discouraged the families in Iraq to pursue more tests.
However, Kurdish authorities decided to take the samples to King's College London for further examination. Although the reports were completed and sent back to the court in Halabja, the results have not yet been made public due to expenses not being cleared.
"The KRG, as well as the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad, should cooperate on this dossier," Saed said. "The Iraqi government, in particular, should adopt this dossier formally in a special way with the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to settle this issue, since this dossier might not be completed by the Kurdish officials and local NGOs.”
The tragedies of the people of Halabja are more than what is being described in local and international media every year. Nearly 760 wounded people from Halabja died in Iran, and they were buried at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in Tehran, but since 1988 the tombs have been “neglected”.
"Nasrin was hysterically crying asking where the grave of her son had gone"
“Even some of the graves were sold, and dead Iranians were buried within. We have proof that the tomb of Nasrin Jaaefer’s son was in the graveyard, but when we visited the place in 2014 the tomb was missing,” Saed said. “Nasrin was hysterically crying asking where the grave of her son had gone. The graves of our beloved ones are under the threat of annihilation and need rehabilitation as well as political prioritisation."
What does the KRG say?
Adil Mullah Salih, the director of media and relations at the KRG ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs told The New Arab that 183 children from Halabja are missing, and a delegation from the ministry will soon visit Iran to make “serious” follow-ups for the issues of the children as well as the issues surrounding the Bahashti Zahra graveyard.
Regarding the expenses of the DNA tests, Salih said, “We have not received any formal document from families of the missing children to ask us to shoulder the costs.”
"We still have not lost hope though..." Awat Ali Mohammed, 42, a teacher from Halabja told The New Arab.
"My family members and I lost our eyesight due to the chemical gas on March 16, 1988. We were transferred to the Iranian hospitals in Kermanshah for treatment. It was my four-year-old brother, Hiwa (the Kurdish word for hope) who went missing.
“At one hospital in Kermanshah, we lost Hiwa, we lost our eyesight but we have not lost hope."
He said that the KRG shouldered the expenses of several surgeries for him in Tehran, hence his eyesight was restored, but he indicated that he still suffers from chronic breathing problems.
Shawnm Abdullah is the mother of two missing children as well as five siblings. She, with the help of other families, established a local NGO in 2018 under the name the Organisation for Missing Children from Halabja. She is now heading the NGO.
"The KRG authorities are not taking their responsibilities in making full follow-ups for their case seriously," she lambasted to The New Arab.
“I myself have addressed the KRG ministry with a written document, asking them to pay the expenses for the DNA tests, but unfortunately they are taking a cold shoulder to our demand,” she added.
She also opened the first photo gallery of the missing children at the Iraqi parliament, whom they have asked to formally speak to the Iranian authorities to offer them data about the whereabouts of the missing children.
Luqman Abdulqadir, the head of the Halabja Chemical Victims' Society, told The New Arab that, “The Iraqi parliament should pass several laws on the missing children from Halabja, compensating the survivors, and wounded people from the gas attack.”
Shawnm stated how she had asked the Iraqi federal government to build a modern DNA testing centre in the Kurdistan region for the purpose of identifying the missing children.
“The Iraqi government promised to fulfil our demand,” she concluded, but only time will tell.
Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative freelance journalist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets.
Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy