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Kurds’ ‘Hiroshima’: Symbol of Hatred for Saddam

April 24, 1991 GMT

HALABJA, Iraq (AP) _ The Kurds have a name for this northeastern mountain town where Saddam Hussein’s forces massacred 5,000 people with cyanide gas three years ago: ″Our Hiroshima.″

The slaughter of men, women and children March 16-17, 1988, is seared into the Kurds’ collective memory, as infamous to them as Guernica, Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz are to others.

Halabja has become a touchstone for their hatred of the Iraqi dictator and the symbol of what they see as a genocidal campaign against them.

Almost as much as they blame Saddam for the massacre, they blame the world for doing nothing to stop him.

The world may now be finally moving to help the Kurds in the aftermath of the latest failed rebellion in their long struggle for autonomy, but to many of these hardy mountain people it’s too little too late.

″The world helped Saddam ruin us. This is what he did to us,″ said Karim Fateh, a white-haired man standing beside the pile of rubble that three years ago was his home.

Five months after the gas attack, Saddam’s troops virtually demolished the once prosperous market town of 70,000 people, located 10 miles from the Iranian border and 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.

″I lost my four sons in that chemical attack. My family was destroyed. Now I have 20 orphans to feed with no house, no money, nothing,″ he said somberly.

It was partly fear that Saddam would unleash chemical weapons again that sent two-thirds of Iraq’s 3.5 million Kurds fleeing for sanctuary in Iran and Turkey after Saddam’s Republican Guard divisions crushed their revolt.

When the guerrillas seized most of Kurdistan in March, following Saddam’s defeat in the war over Kuwait, they reoccupied Halabja.

Many of its former residents returned in that brief euphoria before Iraq’s Republican Guards stormed northward. Now some Halabjans have joined the exodus, dispossessed again.

Others remain, and the rebels maintain control. Still, they lack most essentials because of a government blockade.

″He sucked our blood, killed our families, destroyed our homes,″ said 75- year-old Aziz Rostam, his eyes brimming with tears.

″We don’t want anything from the world except to help us get rid of Saddam,″ said his wife, Asfor.

″Eight of our family died from the poison gas. They’re buried over there,″ she said, pointing to a grassy mound at the side of a narrow, rubble- strewn street.

Thousands more are buried in a mass grave on a green hillock on the outskirts of town.

Saddam’s troops forcibly relocated the survivors of Halabja as part of their scorched-earth campaign against the Kurds. That included razing 4,000 towns and villages to create a cordon sanitaire along the Iranian and Turkish borders to isolate the peshmerga guerrillas, or ″those who face death.″

″We deserve to live like human beings in our land, in our homes, and not like animals as we do now,″ said Shawkar, the local peshmerga commander.

He also was in Halabja that day Iraqi aircraft and artillery attacked with chemical bombs and shells.

″It was something terrible, unbelievable. It was hard to realize it was happening,″ he said. He survived because, like other guerrillas, he had a gas mask. Few civilians did.

He said the planes started bombing the town at 5:40 p.m. and ″they returned again and again during the night until 10 the next morning dropping more and more deadly chemical bombs.″

Shawkar said many people died trying to run away. Others perished when they hid in their basements and bomb shelters. It was the worst thing they could have done.

″They thought it was an ordinary air raid. But the gas is heavier than air and it seeped down on them,″ he said.

The Kurds of Halabja said that if the world had taken action against Saddam in 1988, there would have been no invasion of Kuwait, no Persian Gulf War, no new crackdown on the Kurds.

As the men spoke, their women squatted around an open fire making unleavened bread, the Kurds’ staple. Fahima Hussein Khader, a middle-aged woman wearing a bright blue and red dress, stood up and brushed the men aside.

″There’s no living under Saddam. So many of our sons and daughters have been killed or disappeared into his torture chambers,″ she said.

The men silently nodded.

Kurdish groups and human rights organizations like Amnesty International say tens of thousands of young Kurds, some of them children, have been rounded up by Saddam’s secret police in recent years, never to be seen again.

A recent Amnesty report said more than 6,000 civilians, mainly Kurds, were ″deliberately killed by government forces in 1988 and information was received of the deliberate killing of hundreds of others in 1987.

″Many were victims of extrajudicial execution. The great majority were Kurdish civilians, including whole families, killed as a result of large-scale attacks on civilian targets.″

Mrs. Khader’s daughter, Begat, told how her 2-year-old daughter died four days earlier as the family was fleeing on foot from the provincial capital of Suleimaniyah, 40 miles to the northwest, where they had lived since the destruction of Halabja.

″What good is this life?″ she wailed. ″Nothing will change until Saddam goes. Why won’t the world help us to get rid of him?″