Gassed once, Kurds fear reprise
Iraq killed 5,000 people in Halabja with chemical weapons in 1988. Locals still lack masks, and no nations have offered help.
When Roukhosh Arif climbed out of her basement, past the metal door draped with a wet towel that had kept out the gases, the light of a chilly, cloudless dusk was tinted yellow.
Covering the mouth of her 1-year-old daughter, Ms. Arif and her husband rushed through the streets of this small city in northeastern Iraq. The poisoned air, smelling of onions and apples, crept into their eyes and nostrils.
They saw its effects everywhere. Bodies lay on the street. People sat down, unable to run. A neighbor shouted prayers mixed with nonsense.
These are Arif's memories of March 16, 1988. The Iraqi military, waging a genocidal campaign against this country's ethnic Kurds, killed 5,000 people in Halabja that day, according to human rights organizations.
Today, she and other Kurds fear that Iraq may use chemicals against them again if the US leads a war against the regime of President Saddam Hussein. But Kurds are no more ready to protect themselves against such an attack than they were 15 years ago.
While Israelis, Kuwaitis, and even some Americans acquire gas masks, stock up on plastic sheeting, and learn when to inject an antidote, Kurds are left to rely on wet towels. They say their appeals to US and European governments for the means to protect themselves from chemical or biological attack have yielded sympathy, but not action.
Many Kurds worry that Mr. Hussein might strike at them again to provoke an exodus of refugees to Turkey - as occurred in 1991 - that could complicate a US war effort. But although the US and Britain say that disarming Iraq of its chemical and biological weapons is a moral necessity, they have not made efforts to protect the Kurdish victims of such weapons from future attack.
Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two parties that administer the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, says US and European officials have responded with "positive answers" to Kurdish requests for protective material. He also concedes that nothing has happened.
Invoking an Iranian expression, he says that Kurds must practice "revolutionary patience."
Abdel Qadir Faraidoon, the PUK interior minister, concludes that there is a lack of American and European resolve to help protect Kurdish civilians. "They didn't want to or they would have done it," he says. He adds that US officials could turn another mass killing of Kurds into political advantage - "so they can point to the world [and say] that they were right that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction."
"It's terrible," adds Hoshyar Zebari, foreign-policy adviser to Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), referring to Kurdish vulnerability. The KDP controls the western half of northern Iraq; the PUK is responsible for the east, which includes Halabja. He, too, says that US and European governments have not fulfilled promises of aid.
At the same time, Kurdish officials do not seem too shocked that their requests have gone unfulfilled. That may be because Kurds - a stateless ethnic group spread across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria - have a long history of being trampled upon by neighbors and great powers alike.
Spokespeople for the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency said they were unable to comment on the situation in northern Iraq.
In Halabja, Arif says the prospect of another chemical strike is "the worry of our day and night." To listen to her account of March 16, 1988, is to understand why. The attack remains the most devastating use of chemical weapons against civilians since the Nazi exterminations of Jews during World War II.
At midday, Iraqi forces began bombing the city, a front line in the Iran-Iraq war and an area of Iranian infiltration. Roukhosh Arif, her husband, Abdullah, and their daughter Parwa descended into their basement with 23 others. The bombing was so intense that one blast jarred their lantern and extinguished its flame. After another explosion close by, they heard a neighbor screaming that four people in his house had died.
"We had a miserable time," says Abdullah, a placid man who parts his hair neatly over his rectangular face. "The young cried and shouted and demanded to go out and the adults prayed and raised their hands to God to save us."
At one point, they thought the Iraqis were firing duds, since munitions were landing without an explosion. Then they realized the rumors of the past few days had been accurate. The Iraqis were using chemical weapons. The Arifs and others in the basement could smell traces of the gases.
The four families waited for the attack to subside.
At about 6 p.m., the Arifs and another family decided to flee. Abdullah carried a bundle of food and clothes. Roukhosh held Parwa. They opened the door and went up the stairs to the outside world. They found the streets clotted with the dead and the dying.
Roukhosh remembers passing a stream were people had tried to rinse their burning eyes and cool their faces. They were bent over the water, but they weren't moving. Too tired to lift their heads, the people had drowned.
Disoriented, her eyes hurting and her vision failing, Roukhosh quickly felt too exhausted to carry the baby. Other parents were also fading, begging those still on their feet to take children to safety. "You couldn't help them, so you just ran away," recalls Roukhosh, an engaging woman with thick eyebrows and round cheeks. "Nobody was in the business of helping others."
Two relatives saved her - one took Parwa and another led Roukhosh and Abdullah out of the city. By the time they reached a nearby village, they were blind, but regained their sight several weeks later.
Today, the Arifs have other health problems they attribute to the Iraqi gas: Abdullah's lungs bleed and Roukhosh has had an operation to remove tissue from her eyes. They know that if they have to face another attack, they will not be able to flee. Parwa, now a teenager, has a sister and three brothers. The Arifs say they won't be able to carry their little ones.
This realization stirs a memory of March 16. The two families who stayed in the shelter that evening did so because they had too many small children to carry. All of them - 14 people - died.
"The only preparations we have now are the same as we had 15 years ago. Nobody has helped us. Nobody has given us a hand," says Abdullah, who has seen television coverage of Israeli and Kuwaiti programs to protect their citizens from chemical attack.
If the worst happens, he says, he and his family will make do with "just the wet towels and the wet blankets and whatever else we have."
• Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Washington.