Thursday, July 22, 2004

Balisan Valley, 1987

Tuesday May 18, 3:23 PM

Saddam's Kurdish victims eager to provide testimony

By Seb Walker

BALISAN VALLEY, Iraq (Reuters) - In a darkened corner of his modest farmhouse, Aziz Mahmoud removes a pair of dark glasses to reveal a legacy of Saddam Hussein's attempt to control Iraq's rebellious Kurds with chemical weapons.

Mahmoud's eye-sockets are wizened and sightless -- burned by poisonous gas bombs dropped by Iraqi planes on the Balisan valley in northern Iraq in 1987, devastating the population of his tiny mountain village.

He cannot go outside into the daylight without sunglasses and still has difficulty breathing. His mother, sister, and two brothers perished in the attack.

"The jet fighters came in the early evening, bombing our village and the surrounding mountainside so nobody could escape," recalled Mahmoud, now 51.

"The smell was like apples and sulphur, we didn't know what was happening -- I climbed blindly into the mountains to die."

When more than 4,000 Kurds were killed in a similar attack at Halabja a year later, Saddam dismissed accusations of genocide, saying Iranian forces, with whom Iraq was intermittently at war from 1980-88, were the target.

Unlike Halabja, the Balisan valley is far from the Iran border and villagers remember how government forces arrived the next day trying to force people to state in front of TV cameras that the bombs were dropped by Iranian planes.

Injured survivors seeking treatment at hospitals in government-controlled Arbil were taken away by the security forces -- and many were never seen again.

"I didn't go, but the price was losing my eyes," said Mahmoud, adding that 150 men from his village had disappeared in the same way as authorities tried to bury the evidence.

"I am now just living to see the day when those who took my sight are brought to justice."

READY TO TESTIFY

Kurds from villages in the Balisan valley are being given the opportunity to give testimony to prosecutors gathering evidence for trials of former government figures, and they are buoyed by the prospect.

"Even if it's in Baghdad we are ready to use our own money to go and testify," said Najiba Rasoul, a resident of a neighbouring village who lost several family members, including a young son, when Iraqi planes bombed the area.

"Saddam has to pay for what he did."

According to Kurdish government officials, the Iraq Special Tribunal -- a body set up to organise the trials process -- will soon be opening an office in Arbil where victims can go to present their cases.

Mohammed Ihsan, human rights minister for the Kurdistan regional government and a member of the Tribunal committee, said the Arbil office would serve the whole northern region, although teams of evidence-gatherers would also travel to the provinces.

"Claimants will have to have some kind of documentary evidence that they have been affected," said Ihsan.

"The difficulties are that most people will be highly emotional and will probably also be after some kind of compensation -- which would bankrupt us if we were to follow up every claim."

Ihsan said the new office would open in less than a month -- lawyers and investigative judges are currently being trained in the basics of crimes against humanity -- and trials will be held in Iraqi courts under international supervision.

Halabja is a possible venue for the court, and some news reports have suggested that Ali Hassan Majid -- known as "chemical Ali" for his leading role in chemical weapons attacks against the Kurds -- could be among the first to be tried because of damning evidence immediately available from Kurds.

HUGE NUMBERS

Kurdish human rights activists say Iraq's Kurdish zone should be of special interest to the tribunal because the area suffered years of relentless persecution under Saddam.

"Evidence and documents we already have will be useful in the trials," said Adalat Saleh, a senior official at the Kurdistan Anfal Victims' Centre, a Kurdish charity working to collect data and witness testimonies from victims of Saddam's Anfal campaign to suppress the minority Kurds.

Saleh said years of relative autonomy for the Kurdish region had allowed human rights groups to investigate crimes perpetrated in the area. She said her organisation was just weeks away from completing a count of complaints from Anfal victims in two of the three Kurdish governorates.

"We've had about 10-15,000 claims so far, some of them for the loss of entire families," Saleh said.

"We're expecting a lot of problems for the tribunal office since huge numbers will come once it's announced in the media."

For Kurds in the Balisan valley, the start of the trial process is something eagerly awaited for years.

In 1991, peshmerga fighter Fakhir Mustafa and some friends collected the huge rusted bomb casings littered around the hillside -- they now stand at the entrance to his village as graphic evidence of the attack.

"We thought that one day it just might be useful," Mustafa said with a smile. "It's not too late to bring Saddam to justice now."

Balisan Valley, 1987