Published December 05, 2009
HALABJA, Iraq – Six families nervously awaited the DNA tests on the young man who returned from Iran. They wondered: Could this be their son who was just an infant in 1988 and somehow lived through a deadly chemical attack by Saddam Hussein's regime?
There was absolute silence as the judge announced the lab results. The man, who called himself Ali, was deemed to be the sole surviving child of 58-year-old Fatima Mohammed Salih, who had lost her husband and all her other six children in the poison gas clouds that covered the mostly Kurdish city of Halabja.
For the first time in more than two decades, they embraced.
"I'm in a dream," said 21-year-old Ali Pour as he comforted the weeping woman.
The reunion Friday in Iraq's northern Kurdish region was the rarest of artifacts from Halabja: a moment of joy from the day the city became an open cemetery for an estimated 5,600 people killed when lethal gas was dropped by Saddam's military.
It was part of Saddam's brutal 1987-88 campaign to crush a Kurdish rebellion. Nearly 200,000 people died in Baghdad's scorched-earth offensive.
The alleged mastermind of the Halabja attack, Saddam's cousin known as "Chemical Ali" Hassan al-Majid, is among regime officials who have been sentenced to death for the Kurdish crackdown and other crimes. The trial specifically on Halabja is still under way.
It's the only known case of a long-lost child from Halabja being definitively reunited with a relative. The assistant chief of the Directorate of the Martyrs of Halabja, Abdul Rahman Yasin, said 41 names — children at the time of the attack — are still registered as missing.
"I wonder if it is a dream or a gift from God," said his newfound mother.
She repeated her son's birth name: Zimnaku Mohammed Saleh.
She then recalled the day Halabja was attacked. The family was at home. There was utter panic. They first ran into the streets and then went back inside.
"We didn't know where to go," she said. "Zimnaku, the 4-month-old, was on my lap and suddenly my older son screamed saying, "Mother, I feel like I'm burning.' I tried to help him and my other sons, too. But it was in vain. I saw them dying in front of me. I collapsed and the next thing I remember is lying in a hospital bed in Tehran."
As Ali Pour learned the fate of his Kurdish family, his own story was told through translators. Pour speaks only Farsi and knows only life in eastern Iran — far from the Kurdish region that straddles Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
"The baby Ali was survived for three days," said his adopted uncle, Habib Hamid Pour.
He was found by the Iranian military, which had moved into Halabja after the gas attack. It was the closing months of a horrific war between the two countries that began in 1980 and many of the Halabja survivors were taken to Tehran.
The infant boy was brought to a hospital with plans to send him eventually to an orphanage, said the uncle. But his sister, Kubra Pour, offered to care for the boy along with her two children in the Iranian city of Mashhad.
"My adopted mother was nice," said Pour, who was dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing of baggy pants, tunic and scarf tucked into his belt. "When I entered primary school at age 6, she told me I am from the Kurdish people from Halabja. She said I should return someday to meet my relatives."
Four months ago, his adopted mother was killed in a car accident, Pour said.
"I felt lonely and I felt a strange feeling calling me to return to the arms of my relatives," he said. "I decided to go back."
He contacted Iranian officials who kept records on the Halabja survivors brought to Iran. They contacted Halabja officials, who answered that six families said they were missing a boy who would now be Pour's age. A judge asked for DNA tests from a medical lab in Jordan.