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The Chemical Weapons Attack on Birjinni

Fear of chemical weapons attack was a prime reason why the villagers of Koreme tried to flee to Turkey. It was also a prime reason why they decided to return to Koreme and surrender. They had seen close-up the effects of chemical bombardment in the village of Warmeli. They had seen the terror of the Warmeli villagers. They had seen the dead lying by the roadside, unburied. Thus, although Koreme and its families were never attacked chemically, a complete case history of Koreme requires understanding how chemical weapons attacks on villages were carried out during Anfal. For this reason, this chapter now leaves aside the narrative of Koreme's villagers and turns to the account of a chemical weapons attack on a village in the same region as Koreme.

The Decision to Exhume at Birjinni

The logical place to make an investigation of a chemical weapons attack would have been the village of Warmeli, since it was the place, located some three hours' walk from Koreme in the direction of Turkey, where the Koreme villagers arrived in the immediate aftermath of a chemical attack. For scientific and forensic reasons, however, Warmeli was not ideal. Although extensive interviews were carried out by MEW/PHR investigators with some families who had survived the attack and returned to Warmeli following the March 1991 Kurdish uprising, the relatives of those who had died in the chemical attack on August 27, 1988 could not be interviewed. They had managed to enter Turkey in 1988, remained there in refugee camps for over three years, and then dispersed to different locations after mid-1991, when conditions in Kurdistan made it possible for them to return.

As a consequence, direct eyewitnesses of the Warmeli chemical attack were not available for interview. Moreover, the victims had apparently remained unburied during several years, according to Warmeli villagers. They took MEW/PHR investigators to places where they said the bodies had been left, indicating that the skeletons were still there when they returned in 1991, and said that slides of earth following storms had partially covered them. They had heaped on more earth to complete the burial.

The MEW/PHR forensic team had hoped to find graves of persons who had been buried shortly after a chemical attack and in thesame clothing they were wearing at the moment of the attack in order to determine whether residues or other evidence of chemical agents remained after so many years. It was not very likely that residues of an air-disseminated chemical agent would remain after four years, even on a body that had been immediately buried; it would be extremely unlikely in the case of an unburied skeleton exposed to the elements over several years.1 Nonetheless, it was important for MEW/PHR to pursue the possibility as a scientific experiment; while lack of physical evidence would indicate little, the presence of chemical agents after exposure over four years would be an important forensic and scientific finding. But this experiment could not be carried out in Warmeli. Furthermore, without relatives and eyewitnesses to interview in Warmeli, positive identification of skeletal remains of persons who had died in the chemical attack would have been impossible.

For these reasons, the MEW/PHR forensic team did not exhume at Warmeli, and instead undertook to investigate a chemical weapons attack on the village of Birjinni. Birjinni is near Warmeli -- also a few hours' walk from Koreme in the direction of Turkey -- and although Koreme villagers did not pass through it during their flight, it had the main elements of chemical bombardment typically reported by survivors of the August 1988 Anfal campaign in the Dohuk region. Just as important, its survivors included eyewitnesses and relatives of the victims, and two of the victims were apparently buried soon after the attack in their original clothing.

[Reserved for Birjinni Village Plan]

Birjinni's Isolation

Birjinni, before Anfal, was a small village of some 30 houses. The houses were made of stone and mud-brick, and there was a stone-and-cement mosque and a school built by the government in 1984. The village did not have electricity. It lies in the District of Zawita, Dohuk governorate, about an hour- and-a-half by car in good weather, plus a half hour walk up a mountain slope, from the town of Zawita.

The village occupies a narrow saddle and mountain pass along a chain of higher ridges between the cities of Zakho and Dohuk. It comprises a tell 10 meters high and 100 meters wide. On the north side of the village lies a low sloping terrace, consisting of about 0.3 hectares with orchards and limited farmland. (See Birjinni Village Plan.) Prior to the Anfal campaign, the villagers raised wheat, barley, lentils, watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, apples, grapes, and pomegranates; they also kept flocks of sheep and goats. Temperatures are hot and dry in the summer, and villagers report that up to 2-3 meters of snow falls on the mountain saddle in winter. The slopes on each side of the saddle fall away steeply.

Two roads originally led to the village, one from Zawita and the second from Dohuk. The road to Dohuk was traditionally of great importance to the village, because the villagers went to the city to sell produce in the market. The villagers reported, however, that in 1980, the government closed the road as a counterinsurgency measure. Reportedly the government, concerned about peshmerga activity in the area, ordered the villagers to abandon Birjinni and move to a collective town near Dohuk. In addition, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government began bringing in Arabs from the south to regions in Dohuk to replace Kurds who had been removed from their lands to collective towns.

When the Birjinni and other villagers in the area refused to abandon their land, "the government cut off our village. They put up a line of military posts and checkpoints, and no one from our area was allowed to come through. We weren't allowed to go to Dohuk or to sell anything. If they caught people they beat them, and once in 1984 they executed seven men caught along the road." This was not the first time the road had been closed and the village isolated; villagers reported that it had been closed at various times, sometimes for several years, between the early 1960s and 1975.

There had long been active fighting between the army and peshmerga in the mountains and valleys around Birjinni. At various times during the 1980s, the peshmerga had bases within an hour's walk from Birjinni. Birjinni was fired upon with artillery and aerial bombardment off and on from "1975 through Anfal," although villagers reported that "no one was ever hit in those raids. We built ourselves shelters in the caves nearby on the hill. The army didn't dare come up here, there were too many peshmerga all around." Many of the village men were active peshmerga fighters in the mid to late 1980s, serving fifteen days on duty and fifteen days off. The peshmerga, villagers said, did not maintain a garrison in Birjinni itself.

The Chemical Weapons Attack

At dawn on August 25, 1988, Hassan, a farmer, was awake, but still inside his house in Birjinni. He lived there with his father and mother, his four brothers, and his wife and four children. He was preparing to go to the orchards that morning, unless bombing and artillery prevented him. There had been "a lot of bombing for days. We could see many aircraft passing all the time."

Hassan knew that the government and the peshmerga had each built up large ground forces to the north, but no battle had broken out. He had heard from numerous displaced persons passing through that the border with Turkey was closed, and that government soldiers were killing many who tried to cross. "They were being forced back into the lower valleys," he explained, "where they could be captured by the soldiers." He and other villagers tried to get more information from the KDP clandestine radio, but it was being jammed.

Hassan's wife was on the roof of the house at dawn and saw planes pass overhead. She saw them circle several times, but was not sure if they were observing the village or something else, because they were still far away. Hassan went outside to look, and reported a squadron of eight aircraft. Some of the villagers became frightened and went across the saddle to bomb shelters they had built on some ledges. Hassan and his family remained at home.

Shortly afterwards, the aircraft made a bombing run across the saddle on which the village sat, from east to west. Hassan reported seeing three planes drop four bombs each. Other surviving villagers agreed with his report; many had been watching the sky since early dawn, concerned that bombardment with conventional bombs was about tobegin. The bombs fell in three groups of four bombs, one group on the eastern edge of the village, and the other two on the western edge. Hassan's wife said they created a "tremendous noise"; her sister said the explosion was not like any of the other bombs that had been dropped on the village in previous years. Hassan said, by contrast, that the explosions were not as strong as other bombs dropped on the village. He reported seeing one group of four bombs fall "about 80 to 100 meters from the houses in the village."

Surviving villagers described the smoke rising from the bombs as "white, black, and then yellow, rising about 50 or 60 meters into the air in a column. Then the column began to break up and drift. It drifted down into the valley, and then passed through the village. Then we smelled the gas for the first time."

The smell of the gas was "pleasant, at first. It smelled of apples and something sweet." Several men said it smelled like "pesticides in the fields." Shortly thereafter, however, "it became bitter. It affected our eyes, and our mouths, and our skin. All of a sudden it was hard to breathe. Your breath wouldn't come. You couldn't breathe."2

The planes continued to fly overhead, said Hassan's sister-in-law, "in circles. They flew around and around. They watched us." And another village man added, "the [planes] flew very low, but they didn't fire at us with their machine guns." The planes reportedly stayed perhaps a half hour, until the main cloud of smoke had dispersed. Other villagers reported that the aircraft made other bombing sorties following thechemical bombing, starting fires in the fields which, because it was late August, were dry and brown. There was burning everywhere.

The smoke from the chemical bombs, Hassan said, "settled into the lower land, it drifted down the valley toward the fields and the orchards. I took my family, three of my children and my wife, and we ran to higher ground. We went the other direction from the smoke." There was complete panic in the village; people ran in all directions, trying to escape. Families were separated, children were lost from their parents, and everyone, Hassan's wife said, "was trying to save themselves, each one himself, even the mothers of children, because they couldn't breathe."

But Hassan's father and mother, several brothers and a sister, stayed in the house, because "they didn't know what the smoke could do." When they understood what was happening, they ran from the house to an orchard in the ravine, "but it was deep in the valley. The smoke followed them, and there they were overcome." Hassan and his wife realized that one of their four children, Dejwar, a boy of five years, was missing. Dejwar had gone with his grandfather to the orchard in the ravine, and not up the hill with his father and mother.

After about half an hour, Hassan and other survivors on higher ground thought it was safe to come back down to the village. The planes had flown off, and Hassan took that as a good sign. Nearby the house, however, they found Hassan's mother and twelve-year-old sister lying on the ground, overcome by the gas. Survivors took them and the other injured people to the spring and began to wash them with water. The mother and sister had similar symptoms, family members said; their hands and legs were paralyzed, they "were trembling and shaking all over, especially in their limbs." Hassan's wife and sister-in-law tried to get them to swallow water, but "they couldn't. Their throats were burning, and they were vomiting. My mother whispered, 'I think there's a hole in my head'." Within several hours after exposure to the smoke, both the mother and sister went blind, according to family members; the condition lasted several weeks for each of them.

Hassan went down from the village and found his father, a man "more than sixty years old," and his son Dejwar lying dead just outside the orchard. He could find no marks on the bodies that he could see, "it was like they were sleeping, except their faces were blue." His two brothers were also found dead in the small cave where they had taken cover together.

These four -- the grandfather, Hasan Saleh Hasan, born c. 1930; Hasan's two brothers, Hakim Hasan Saleh, born 1964, and Kurdi Hasan Saleh, born 1965; and Hasan's son Dejwar Hamid Hasan, born 1983 --were the total dead from the chemical attack on August 25, 1988, according to village survivors.3 There were "many injured, some more seriously than others," villagers said, but no tally was made.4

The Aftermath of the Attack

Those who could fled Birjinni within hours of the attack. They feared the planes would return and that government soldiers would arrive shortly. They understood that this was a wholly different kind of attack; whereas, in earlier episodes, they had only to protect themselves from artillery and bombardment, relatively sheltered in their remote mountain home, the gas attack was obviously a prelude to something new. Looking down into the valleys from their mountain saddle, they could see large groups of peasants trying to flee to Turkey, as the villagers from Koreme, Warmeli, and numerous other places sought to do. The peshmerga did not seem able to fight a holding action to allow the civilians to retreat behind them. The enormity of the government action and the use of chemicals as a weapon of terror had thrown everything into confusion.

Not everyone was able to go to Turkey, however. Hassan's mother, injured in the chemical attack and by now blinded and partly paralyzed, her muscles "fluttering like an insect's," was unable to undertake the arduous trip. She started out with the others, her son said, but could not go on and turned back with other villagers, including some men who later disappeared in government custody.

The fleeing villagers left the bodies unburied, so great was their hurry. They brought the grandfather and little boy's bodies further down the valley to the bottom of the orchard and left them there. The two brothers were left in the cave where they had succumbed. Government soldiers apparently arrived in the village two days later and subsequently buried the bodies of the grandfather and little boy near where they had been left. They were buried in their clothes, without the performance of Islamic ritual. The two brothers were not buried at all, but instead the soldiers left them in the cave in large nylon or plastic wrappings.

In 1991, shortly after the March 1991 Kurdish uprising, a peshmerga from Koreme, whose sister was married to one of the dead brothers, ventured up to Birjinni. He found the skeletons of the two brothers in the plastic or nylon sacks, and buried them at the cave. He found the unmarked graves of the grandfather and son, partially digging up one body to be sure, and then covering it back over. The soldiers took custody of the villagers who had either returned or never left, removing them first to the fort in Dohuk, and later to the collective camp at Beharke near Erbil. An unknown number of the village men, who had stayed behind rather than flee to Turkey, disappeared after being taken to the Dohuk fort.

Those who went on to Turkey traveled by night. On the afternoon of the attack, they went to a nearby mountain and hid until dark. Then they moved slowly and cautiously across the hills and ravines between Birjinni and the mountains marking the border. There were "thousands and thousands of other people on the roads," and in the end, it was perhaps the fact that so many people were fleeing that enabled them to slip through. Even given the size of the government force assigned to capture the Kurdish villagers, the number fleeing was so great that some got through the Iraqi army lines.5 But it took the Birjinni villagers three days to get to Turkey. Iraqi soldiers shot at them and shelled the area. The survivors saw the bodies of people killed by Iraqi soldiers as they tried to flee, and at least two of their own villagers were killed by mortar fire; as "soon as [the soldiers] saw us, they shot at us. I don't know how we could have surrendered to them, they just shot at us." Still, many did surrender, including families from Birjinni and "the men from those families, we don't know where they are today, they disappeared."

At the border, the Birjinni villagers were met by units of the Turkish army. Turkish soldiers took them into custody and, according to the villagers, planned to repatriate them to the Iraqi army.6 They watched others being repatriated, but for unknown reasons, the Birjinni villagers were taken to a refugee camp and given asylum. At the camp, Turkish physicians examined their chemical weapons injuries, but gave them no specific treatment, villagers said.7 The sister who was blind regained her eyesight after several months; her muscles continued to have spasms, and she suffered from partial paralysis and "weakness."

The Birjinni villagers remained in the refugee camp at Diyarbakir, Turkey until the uprising in March 1991, when they came back across the border. They returned to their village and discovered that it, like so many others, had been methodically destroyed in its entirety. The school, mosque and stone houses had been dynamited to rubble; the mud houses had been scraped to the ground. Nothing remained. Landmines were placed around the village to deter its inhabitants from returning.

They went to live as refugees in a collective town near the main Dohuk highway, going up to the mountains to begin replanting the crops and the orchards for a few days at a time, walking the six hours in each direction from the busstop on the main Zawita road to the village.

Since then, the apple trees have blossomed, despite an unusually harsh winter in 1991-92, and some of the grape vines and pomegranates have been replanted. By June 1992, the wheat was ready for harvest, although landmines in the fields presented a consistent danger.

Investigations By the Forensic Team

Members of the forensic team visited Birjinni in the company of villagers on June 1, 7, and 10, 1992. The team's activities, detailed in Appendices 1 and 2, divide into four types: Taking the survivor testimony summarized above; archaeological investigation and mapping of the village as it existed prior to destruction; investigation and sampling of the sites where chemical bombs were reported to have fallen; and exhumation of the remains of two victims of the chemical weapons attack.

Birjinni village. The team archaeologist undertook to map and survey the village to establish the structures that existed prior to its destruction (see Birjinni Village Plan). His investigations demonstrated that the village consisted of approximately 40 houses, as described above, with two stone and concrete structures reported by villagers to have been the school and mosque. All buildings had been destroyed; it was not possible on the basis of physical evidence to state with certainty the year of destruction, but the vegetation growth and other evidence was consistent with the former inhabitants' report that the village had been destroyed in 1988.

The school and mosque, as identified by villagers, had evidently been destroyed from the inside, with explosives aimed to implode structures rather than explode them, given the configuration of rubble located within the interior of the building site. The buildings had collapsed upon themselves. These conclusions are consistent with eyewitness accounts of the destruction of cement buildings in other villages.8 They are also consistent with the account in "The End ofAnfal" of special demolition teams detailed to undertake the "destruction and removal of the remnants of the saboteurs and their premises."9 The remainder of the houses had been razed down to their foundations, in a fashion indicating the use of earth moving and scraping equipment.

The chemical weapons bomb sites. The team archaeologist also investigated the sites where villagers indicated chemical bombs had fallen (see Birjinni Village Plan). He found three clusters of four airborne canisters, each spaced around the edge of the village terrace. Four of these bomb craters, along the western edge of the terrace and about 700 meters from the village, were examined in detail, while the locations of the other eight craters were visually confirmed.

The four craters examined in detail consisted of low conical depressions 2.2 meters across and 0.6 to 1.2 meters deep. Fragments of the bombs were found lying immediately beside and in the craters. In two instances they consisted of an iron outer envelope that was heavily rusted, an aluminum inner canister, a heavy lid labelled "Top" in English, a spout in the lid, and twisted tail fins. The fragments near each crater in those two instances were sizable: approximately 1 meter by 0.5 meter by 0.5 meter, and approximately 10 kilos in weight.

Soil samples were collected from the craters and scraped from inside a canister. At the time of writing, laboratory analysis of the samples is still underway.10 The four craters were spaced on a straight line about thirty meters apart, consistent with survivor accounts that they had been dropped from low altitude by aircraft heading in a westerly direction.

Exhumations of chemical weapons victims. Under the direction of the forensic team's scientific head and chief anthropologist, the skeletal remains of two of the four apparent victims of the chemical attack were exhumed. The forensic team was told that these two skeletons were those of the grandfather and the small boy who had died in the attack. The skeletons of the other two victims, buried in the cave, were not exhumed.

Exhumation of the two skeletons confirmed that one was that of an old man, approximately sixty years old. Relatives identified him as the grandfather on the basis of artifacts and clothing found with the skeleton in the grave. The second skeleton was that of a young boy, approximately five years old. He was identified as the grandson on the basis of clothing. Forensic examination of the two skeletons was limited to determining whether there was any sign of trauma or perimortem violence that might contradict the account of the villagers that the two decedents were overcome by chemical weapons. No indications contrary to death by chemical agents were found. The skeletons were then reburied in new graves in accordance with Islamic ritual.

Conclusions concerning the chemical weapons attack. The forensic team found nothing in the evidence of the exhumation and the archaeological investigation that was inconsistent with the account of the chemical weapons attack given by village witnesses. On the contrary, the lack of trauma to either skeleton supports the villagers' account. The physical evidence of the canisters, although lacking physical evidence of the specific chemical agents deployed apparently by reason of time, chemical and weather-related deterioration, also supports the villagers' account.

Iraq has admitted using chemical weapons during these years, and the international community has concluded there is no question that Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, and against Kurdish civilians in the late 1980s.11 Moreover, the account of the Birjinni villagers is consistent with numerous other confirmed accounts of chemical weapons in the area, and is substantially the same as theaccount concerning Birjinni appearing in Galbraith & Van Hollen, finding that Birjinni was attacked with chemical weapons. Birjinni villagers, interviewed by PHR investigators in Turkey in 1988, gave the same account.

Accordingly, notwithstanding that the laboratory analysis of physical samples of chemical agents has not been completed, and taking into account eyewitness reports by the villagers, the forensic team is of the opinion that the village of Birjinni was attacked by chemical weapons on or about August 25, 1988; that some or all of the craters investigated by the team archaeologist were made by chemical weapons bombs; and that the skeletal remains exhumed by the forensic team were those of chemical weapons victims.

1 See generally Physicians for Human Rights, Winds of Death: Iraq's Use of Poison Gas Against its Kurdish Population, February 1989 ("Winds of Death"); A. Hay and G. Roberts, "The use of poison gas against the Iraqi Kurds: Analysis of bomb fragments, soil and wool samples," Journal of the American Medical Association, 1990;262:1065-1066; Hu, et al., "The Use of Chemical Weapons," Journal of the American Medical Association, 1989;262:640-643; Wolfe, "Chemical and Biological Warfare: Medical Effects and Consequences," 28 McGill L.J. 732 (1983).

2 Survivor testimony does not establish what chemical agents were used at Birjinni -- blood agents, choking agents, blistering agents, or some combination -- although descriptions of symptoms suggest nerve agents. Iraq is thought to have used mustard gas, cyanide gas, and nerve agents. See Merkin, "Note: The Efficacy of Chemical-Arms Treaties in the Aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War," 9 Boston v. Int'l. L.J. 175 (Spring 1991) at note 74; Time, "Return of the Silent Killer," Aug. 22, 1988; Newsweek, "Letting a Genie Out of a Bottle," Sept. 19, 1988.

It is also not clear whether biological agents were ever used against the Kurds, although MEW has collected evidence independently confirming the conclusions of other researchers and intelligence agencies that Iraq in 1988 had both biological weapons and a biological weapons program. Letter of Human Rights Watch to Rolf Ekeus, United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, December 30, 1992.

3 Galbraith & Van Hollen, based on interviews in Turkey, list 80 dead from chemical attacks on Birjinni. Their report apparently refers to a wider geographic area than just the village of Birjinni proper, which is very small.

4 Iraqi government denials that it used chemical weapons against the Kurds are patently false. Middle East Watch has viewed video records of chemical gas attacks on Kurdish villages, shot by government forces themselves in 1982. For a general account of the U.S. response to chemical weapons attacks against the Kurds, see Deanne E. Maynard, "Iraq: United States Response to the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons Against the Kurds," 2 Harvard Human Rights Yearbook 179 (Spring 1989).

5 See Int'l. Herald Tribune, "Refugee Kurds Say Iraqi Poison Gas May Be Killing More in Homeland, "Sept. 7, 1988 ("...Iraqi troops now effectively sealing much of the Turkish border..."); Int'l. Herald Tribune, "Turkey Says Iraqis Have Blocked Routes Used By Kurdish Refugees," Sept. 7, 1988.

6 For reports of forcible repatriation by the Turkish government, in violation of international law governing refugees and asylum, see Int'l. Herald Tribune, "Taking in the Fleeing Kurds: Turkey Treads a Difficult Path," Sept. 8, 1988; Sydney Morning Herald, "Ankara Shuts Door on Kurds Fleeing Iraq," Sept. 9, 1988. Turkey, despite certain forced repatriations, reluctantly accepted over 60,000 refugees (including the Birjinni villagers) on humanitarian grounds although it refused to acknowledge the Kurds' rights to the Protection of the Refugee Convention.

7 The Turkish government rejected the claim that chemical weapons were used on the Kurds. N.Y. Times, "Turkey Opposes an Inquiry into Poison Gas Issue," Sept. 15, 1988. Turkish government doctors claimed to find no medical evidence of chemical weapons against the Kurds, and instead suggested exposure and poor diet. N.Y. Times, "Kurd's Symptoms: Gas or Poor Diet?" Sept. 12, 1988.

8 An Assyrian Christian priest interviewed by MEW in June 1992 gave the following account of the destruction of his church in the village of Bakhtoma in April 1987: "I was the last one to pray in the church. After finishing my prayer, I took out the furniture to take to Dohuk. It was a very sad day. The Iraqi soldiers and members of engineering units in the Iraqi army put the equivalent of one kilogram of TNT in each of the corners of the church; then after five minutes they blew it up. They destroyed it completely and they demolishedevery single house in the village."

9 "The End of Anfal" at 33.

10 Laboratory analysis is being conducted in the United Kingdom. Thus far, it has shown only that the clothing contains no residues of mustard gas.

11 Indirect official admissions of chemical weapons use by Iraq include, for example, a news conference in Baghdad in September 1988 in which the then-Iraqi Minister of Defense, Adnan Khairallah, while stating that the policy of Iraq was not to use chemical weapons, added that "if this is the rule, then each rule has an exception." Int'l. Herald Tribune, "Iraq Suggests Gas Use Is Government's Right," Sept. 16, 1988. United Nations investigators had concluded in 1988 that Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War was "intense and frequent." Int'l. Herald Tribune, "UN Is Asked to Check Reports on Kurds," Sept. 14, 1988; among the U.N. reports, see 43 U.N. SCOR, U.N. Doc. S/19832 (1988) (one of four 1988 reports). The U.S. concluded that Iraq used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988; see generally Maynard, Harvard Human Rights Yearbook 179, op cit.

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