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Waiting For A Miracle:
Dozens of Halabja Families Still Hope Their ‘Dead’ Children Will Return

Salam Handani
As the anniversary of deadly chemical attacks on Halabja nears, the families who still mourn the city’s ‘lost children’ – children who disappeared in the aftermath - still hope for a miracle.
9.03.2016  |  Halabja
Mariam & Shaily (photo: Salam Hanadny)
Mariam & Shaily (photo: Salam Hanadny)

His story would make for a truly tear jerking movie. After all, there’s already been a documentary on the same subject.

Just under 28 years ago, Ali Pour, who was a one- year-old baby at the time, lost his family. Pour’s family are Kurds who come from the northern Iraqi city of Halabja. The city is well known around the world because on March 16, 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein launched a chemical weapons attack on it. The attack, dispatched to quell a Kurdish uprising, left at least 5,000 dead and close to an estimated 10,000 injured. Almost 70 percent of those killed were women and children. And it also caused thousands more to flee the town, heading for the relative safety of Iran over the border because the road to Sulaymaniyah was blocked – among those fleeing were a number of children, separated from their families.

Pour was one of those children. An Iranian family in Mashhad adopted the lost boy and Pour grew up in Iran. However after he finished high school, he found he was not able to go to university in Iran because it turned out he didn’t have Iranian citizenship. It was at that stage that he decided he needed to find his real family.  

Many of the Kurdish children who lost their families in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attacks returned home. But an estimated 100 or so never came back and to this day, they remain “the lost children of Halabja”. Most of them have been presumed dead and have had gravestones erected with their names on inside the city’s memorial to the attacks. Yet Kurdish families who lost their offspring have never forgotten their loss, and continue to hope for a miraculous return.

Maryam's mother, Gilas: 'I feel as though God has returned her to me'.

Like Pour’s. When he returned to Halabja five years ago, at the age of 24, there were five different families awaiting the outcome of DNA tests, to see if this grown man, who didn’t even speak Kurdish at the time, was their lost baby. It turned out Pour was actually Zimnaku Mohammed Salih.

This is not the only such story in Halabja. Eight months ago Maryam Barootchian, 29, was reunited with her biological mother in Halabja in a live TV broadcast that revealed the results of Barootchian’s DNA test. She had grown up in Iran too after being adopted there.

“There is nothing better than finding my daughter again after she was away from me for 28 years,” says Gilas Eskander, Barootchian’s biological mother. “I lost her when she was one year old and now I feel as though God has returned my Hawnaz [Barootchian’s given name at birth] to me.”

Eskander had three children – one is Barootchian, another is a son who immigrated to Europe and the third is another son, who was also lost in the aftermath of the chemical attacks. After Barootchian returned to her, Eskander says that now she is hopeful that her other lost son might also return to her. “I will wait for him until I die,” she says.

“Six years ago my parents told me I am not their biological daughter and that I came to them after the tragedy in Halabja,” Shayli Hussein told NIQASH; Hussein was also raised by a couple in Iran, who want only to be known as Hussein and Fatima and she works as an agricultural engineer. “After I saw the television show where Maryam was reunited with her mother, I was encouraged to come back and try and find my family.”

Right now, Hussein is awaiting the results of DNA tests in Halabja as are two others, Barazan, a 29-year-old who is married and finishing his studies in the Iranian city of Sanandaj, and Atham, 30, who lives in Tehran. The two men have undergone DNA testing and the announcement about their origins will be made on March 16 this year, on the anniversary of the chemical attacks.

Announcements about reunions between the lost children of Halabja and their grieving families have become a major cause for celebration and publicity in Iraqi Kurdistan. And usually at such events, the local authorities pledge to support the lost children and their families as well as to do everything within their power to seek out the lost children who have to yet return.

The Halabja Victims Association estimates that there are around 100 children who went missing on that terrible day 28 years ago, who still haven’t been located. The names of the missing children are registered and have been inscribed on symbolic gravestones in a cemetery for the victims of the chemical attack.

Halabja’s deputy mayor, Ali Othman, confirmed the number, noting that the children belong to 67 Halabja families. The few children that have returned have all come back from Iran, he says. “We have tried to put pressure on the responsible ministries to hurry the process of finding the children,” Othman told NIQASH.

Iraqi Kurdish media network Rudaw reports that of the missing children, seven have been returned. There had also been a handful of cases where individuals had claimed to come from Halabja originally but had turned out to be there seeking the financial compensation the government offers to victims of the attacks.

All five of Aisha Ahmad’s children disappeared after the chemical attacks. “I sent them to safety with one of our neighbours but that was the last time I saw them,” the 65-year-old told NIQASH. She knows that at least four of the children made it over the Iranian border because four names were registered with a Tehran hospital. “Officials at the hospital told me they were then sent to an orphanage,” Ahmad adds. Nobody knows what happened to the fifth child, a baby.  

Salah Mohammed, 45, is in a similar position – he was much younger himself when the attacks happened. At the time his family lost all contact with one of his brothers and two of his sisters – their names are on the list of lost children – but he too continues to hope they may return one day.

Both Ahmad and Mohammed say that, despite their claims to the contrary, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities haven’t done enough to help trace the lost children. “The government claims that they are all dead,” Mohammed notes. “But if they are all dead, why do some of them return? We mourn their loss every day. My father died hoping he might see his children again one day.”

Ahmad says that the Iraqi Kurdish government has done nothing to help her find her children on an official level. Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs is an authority founded to look into this and other ongoing issues related to the genocidal Anfal campaign conducted against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein.

Luqman Abdul-Qadir, chairman of the Halabja Victims Association and one of the victims of the chemical weapons himself, agrees with the two bereaved family members. “We have asked the Ministry for Martyrs to bring back the missing children from Iran and to help conduct DNA tests for them,” Abdul-Qadir says. “But it’s completely neglected those requests, saying they are too busy with other things.”

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