Two weeks after the attack on Halabja, Dersim Razyana, an eighteen-year-old engineering student, returned from Beirut to the remains of his hometown—to bury his parents and two brothers.
His childhood friends, seventeen-year-old Ismet Timur and sixteen-year-old Hawre Vandad, were also victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Ismet suffered horrendous burns over his face, upper body, and arms. His lungs seared by chemicals, Hawre became weak and developed a persistent cough.
Despite their injuries they numbered among the few survivors.
Halabja, a peaceful city of 70,000 inhabitants in Iraqi Kurdistan was surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides, the Sirwan River to the west, and less than ten miles from western Iran.
Forty-eight hours earlier, bombardments shattered the city’s peace. Continuous pounding by Iraqi artillery reduced many homes to rubble and destroyed the infrastructure.
The earth shook with each barrage. The screams of the injured penetrated the putrid stench of the dead and acrid, billowing smoke. Many suffocated in the toxic air. Cries of grief over the mangled bodies of loved ones rose everywhere.
Rocket and napalm attacks resumed on the third day, March 16, 1988. Fires raged out of control and residential areas collapsed. People hid in basements or crawled under teetering concrete slabs.
The softening of Halabja had ended.
That evening, sounds burst over the city—jet engines and strange whistling noises like metal falling to the ground. “Gas!” someone yelled. Others picked up on the warning and shouted at passersby. People panicked, trampling one another in vain to find safety.
An aroma, not unlike sweet apples, mixed with the pungent odor of rotten eggs spread across the city. Birds fell from the sky. Insects curled up and died. Cats, dogs, livestock, and then humans sank to the earth.
Waves of Iraqi aircraft flew over the doomed, dropping sarin, mustard gas, and other chemical agents.
Those fortunate enough to be outside the immediate blast area fled. If they owned a vehicle, they drove. If not, they ran. The nearby mountains provided temporary escape as refugees fled into Iran. Those who couldn’t became statistics.
More than five thousand died that day, and during the following weeks and months, thousands more joined them due to secondary infections and lack of sustainable medical care.
After burying his family, Dersim sought out his friends. He searched everywhere but couldn’t locate them.
“Check at the hospital.” A masked worker paused his search through the rubble to speak with Dersim. “The authorities transported many injured people to Zakho.”
Dersim made the trip to Zakho’s hospital, arriving two days later. He spoke to several nurses, all too busy to waste time on a healthy person. A male aide recognized Dersim’s frantic face as belonging to someone searching for relatives.
“Try room four. Many from Halabja are there.”
The stench reached Dersim before he entered. A room designed to hold ten patients held twice that number. He went from bed to bed, stopping at each one.
In the far corner, he spotted them, crammed into the same bed. They appeared to be asleep.
“Psst. Ismet. Hawre, it’s me, Dersim.”
Filthy bandages covered the injuries to Ismet’s face and upper body. Hawre, whose face appeared almost normal, except for burns around his mouth, opened an eye. “Dersim.” He pushed aside an oxygen mask and stretched a shaking hand out to his friend.
“Dersim. I … knew you'd find … us.”
“How’s Ismet? He seems bad.”
“Yes.” Hawre coughed several times before using the oxygen once more. “They keep him ... sedated. So he ... will heal.”
“No more talking, my friend.” Dersim grasped his arm and replaced the mask over Hawre's face. “Rest.”
Hawre drifted off.
“Sleep, my friends. I'll be here for you.”
As his friends dozed, Dersim’s thoughts wandered.
What’s our future? How’ll we persevere?