On March 16, 1988, after sustained shelling and aerial bombardments had driven most of the inhabitants of the Kurdish town of Halabja into their basements, Saddam Hussein ordered his air force to change munitions – and missions.
Instead of softening up the Kurdish town for an assault by Iraqi government troops, the air force now planned exterminate the population using chemical weapons.
One survivor, Kherwan, said he remembered smelling “an aroma that reminded me of apples” shortly before losing consciousness. “When I awoke, there were hundreds of bodies scattered around me.”
Mothers were later found lying in the streets, wrapped around their dead infants; some had died cradling their children to keep them from falling.
Today, thirty years later, the surviving victims continue to remember the horrors of that day and those they lost.
Zimnako Mohammad Ahmed was just three months old when his mother tried to carry him to safety in the nearby mountains and fell unconscious in the darkness. Iranian soldiers found him the next morning and took him to Tehran for treatment, and ultimately, adoption.
“My whole family thought I was dead,” he told Radio Free Europe. Those who survived had even erected a tombstone for him in the family grave plot.
Zimnako was lucky. He managed to return to Halabja and convince local authorities to conduct DNA tests to find his family. But hundreds of others have not been so lucky.
While Saddam Hussein and “Chemical Ali” (aka Ali Hasan al-Majid) were tried and executed by the Iraq High Tribunal for their attempted genocide against the Kurds, many of their victims continue to suffer from the effects of chemical weapons and can ill afford expensive lung transplants and other treatments.
This week, a group of survivors filed a historic lawsuit in an Iraqi court, hoping to find some measure of justice – and potentially, compensation – from the companies and individuals who built Saddam’s chemical weapons.
For the most part, the defendants are Germans and German companies. And one of them – tourism giant, TUI, formerly known as Preussag – have deep pockets.
Chicago lawyer Gavi Mairone began working on the case eight years ago, at a time when neither Iraq nor Germany had laws that would permit such a suit.
Today that has changed, and Mairone is hoping that a liability judgment in Iraq will help the victims to collect against the companies in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
“When warned by Western intelligence and the media about how these weapons were being used, rather than ceasing engagement, these companies allegedly chose to find alternatives to continue the conspiracy and ensure the chemical weapons plants could continue to operate,” Mairone told a press conference in Halabja yesterday.
The complaint alleges that TUI and others “knew” that building Saddam’s chemical weapons plants “would require each of them to conceal their activities, falsify documents, mislead and lie to government officials, intentionally violate laws in numerous countries, and fraudulently induce other companies and persons to unwittingly assist” their efforts.
The German government twice tried to prosecute the most notorious of the perpetrators, including Karl Kolb GmbH and Preussag. But German laws in force in the late 1980s were insufficient for a conviction.
It became the most notorious and best-documented case in history of Western companies enabling a dictator to commit genocide. And yet, the guilty suffered no consequences, and the victims continued to suffer.
I documented the German “poison gas connection” for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1990, and two years later in my book, The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq, which included a map and detailed descriptions of scores of Iraqi WMD facilities, some of them unknown at the time.
Later, I worked with attorneys who sued some of the American companies of the poison gas connection on behalf of U.S. veterans poisoned by what became known as Gulf War Syndrome.
This body of work – which included extensive, proprietary data bases I maintained on suppliers of WMD technology – came to Mairone’s attention when he decided in 2013 to push his legal action on behalf of the Halabja victims into higher gear.
I had the opportunity five years ago on this day to attend ceremonies in Halabja to commemorate the 25thanniversary of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attack against Iraqi Kurds along with Mairone and his legal team.
Once again, it was a question of German companies aiding and abetting a genocide.
We sat for hours listening to the stories of survivors. We collected documents from the earlier trials against Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali. We made contacts and laid the groundwork for a future lawsuit.
I was engaged to sift through documents and reports from German Customs, the United Nations Special Commission for the Disarmament of Iraq, and many other sources, to identify the biggest culprits whose guilt I felt Mairone and his team had a good chance of establishing in a fair court.
Now, five years later, that time has come. You can read the complaint here.
Dr. Gregory H. Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, has identified ten stages of genocide, from the identification and stigmatizing of the future victims, to post murder denial and cover-up.
“Genocide is not an unpredictable phenomenon like a hurricane,” he told a conference to commemorate the Halabja genocide earlier this week. “By understanding the logic of genocide, people can recognize the early warnings signs,” he says.
Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds was many years in the making, just as were the genocides in Rwanda, and the Assyrian Christians in northern Iraq.
Dr. Stanton believes the signs of the next genocide – once again, against the Kurds – are already visible.
“In 1989, I predicted the genocide in Rwanda, five years before it happened,” he said this week. “In 2008, Genocide Watch predicted another genocide on its way in northern Iraq. The next genocide will come from Turkey, Iran, and Syrian and Iraqi government forces, and it will be directed against the Kurds.”
He believes these powers have gone way beyond the initial stages of discrimination and dehumanization, and are actively preparing for military operations to eradicate the Kurds, of which Afrin is perhaps the first step.
“The Ottoman, Persian, and Arab empires must never rise again,” he warned.
Genocide takes time. It requires planning, a great deal of preparation, and methodical execution.
But justice takes even longer. The Halabja victims have waited for thirty years already, and they haven’t yet had their day in court, while their victimizers remain free.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in FrontPage Magazine.