'I watched Saddam massacre my village'
The Independent online - by Michael Schmidt
Praying and with tears streaming down his cheeks, 19-year-old Walid Darwish watched through binoculars from the mountains above his Iraqi home town of Halabja as Saddam Hussein's air force dropped chemical warheads on the town.
Darwish - now 34 and running a petrol station in Durban - had expected to see much death and destruction after signing on as a guerrilla in the anti-Saddam forces of the separatist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but nothing prepared him for the horror of what has now passed into infamy as the Halabja Massacre.
The massacre, in which about 5 000 people were killed by a combination of mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX over March 16-17 1988, is the worst chemical warfare attack on a civilian population in modern times.
'I could see the whole thing from the mountain'
It came amid bitter fighting by Darwish and a few thousand PUK guerrillas, who faced a force of 200 000 Iraqi soldiers bent on genocide: the three-year Al-Anfal campaign, led by Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, that aimed at the destruction of Iraqi Kurdistan by the extermination of all Iraqi Kurdish men of military age.
Darwish had never intended taking up arms. But life under Saddam became intolerable and he joined the clandestine PUK in 1986. He wanted to qualify as a doctor in Halabja, but within a year he had secretly joined the party's armed wing.
"I was with the PUK fighting against Saddam when the regime attacked Halabja," Darwish told The Independent on Saturday this week. "I could see the whole thing from the mountain. We were being bombarded all over the place.
"They first bombarded the town with heavy artillery shells, which forced the entire town to go underground to hide: we had bomb shelters because we were used to being attacked. And that's when the jets dropped the chemical bombs.
"I was watching Halabja through binoculars. I saw the whole thing. It was a terrible thing because my entire family were down there and there was nothing I could do. I just prayed and tears came out of my eyes.
"The PUK went back to Halabja afterwards and picked up the bodies and buried them in groups. They killed about 5 000 people, including my 18-year-old cousin Khalid Abdullah. His brother identified the body only by its clothing."
Kurdish pains under Saddam
Darwish's failure to publicly join the ruling Ba'ath Party did not escape the attention of Saddam's secret police.
"At that time in Iraq, if you were not joining the Ba'ath Party, you could not study to further your education or own a big business," Darwish said. One night in 1989, without warning, he was arrested by Saddam's secret police.
"They put me in jail for days. They punished me so bad, I can't even remember half of it. They put a hot iron on my back ?" his voice trailed off.
"I went into the PUK camps in Iran in 1991 along with (PUK leader) Jalal Talabani, who is now the president of Iraq. Then in December 1994 I came to South Africa ... My family have all returned to Halabja, except for me and my sister, who is in Sweden. Half the Kurdish youth, millions of us, are in exile because of Saddam's politics. When I heard he had been executed, I was shocked. I phoned family and friends in Halabja and they were all shocked and not happy.
"I couldn't believe what happened. I thought we were going to put him on trial for Halabja and for the other crimes against the Kurds and everyone else. What about the 180 000 people who disappeared?" he asked, referring to the victims of the Al-Anfal campaign's death camps. "What about the entire villages in Kurdistan that were burned to the ground?" he asked, referring to about 4 000 villages that were obliterated.