Maryam was eight months old when the single most deadly chemical attack in history erased her identity one spring morning thirty years ago. After years of searching, she has abandoned hope of ever learning her real name or finding her parents alive.
Three years ago, Maryam thought she had finally discovered her true identity and been reunited with her mother and brother. But the DNA test results which had briefly brought her solace were found to be mistaken.
Asked if she would consider taking the tests again, possibly abroad, Maryam said she simply couldn’t face the disappointment again.
“No I won’t,” she told Rudaw English. “I am tired. I no longer trust them. I cannot do it anymore. I no longer have faith. It is better if I live alone. Every Kurdish individual is my family. This is my fate.”
Some 179 children have been reported missing by 73 families, according to the Halabja Victims’ Society. As of now, only eight children have rejoined their families. A further ten have come forward claiming to be lost children, but are still searching for proof. Since the scandalous mistakes in Maryam’s case, the DNA tests are now being performed outside the Kurdistan Region.
Maryam’s journey – spun by the media and officials at the time as a fairytale ending – has hit a brick wall and the agony of losing her identity for a second time proved too much.
“Saddam’s chemical [weapons] did not kill me, but all the pain from these DNA tests killed me,” she said.
In the closing stages of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the Iraqi Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein sought to eradicate resistance in the restive towns of the Kurdistan Region.
On March 16, 1988, the morning stillness of the eastern city of Halabja, 12 kilometers from the Iranian border, was broken by the thunder of rockets and napalm. What followed this indiscriminate bombardment of civilians remains one of the most barbaric episodes of the twentieth century.
Echoing reports from Syria today, chemical bombs began to burst in the streets of Halabja, sending plumes of colored gas high into the air. The cocktail of mustard gas, cyanide and sarin – emitting a strange aroma of apples, flowers and eggs – crept into people’s homes and lungs.
Many were killed instantly. Others reportedly died slowly in surreal fits of laughter.
It was just one of several collective punishments meted out in the Anfal campaign – genocide against the Kurds.
Up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in the attack, and as many as 10,000 were injured. In the panic and ensuing evacuation, families became separated.
Maryam was taken to Iran. At some point her mother, whose eyes had been damaged by the gas, is believed to have lost her daughter. Maryam became an orphan.
“In the beginning, I was not Maryam,” she told Rudaw English, days before the 30th anniversary of the atrocity. “The Maryam known as Maryam Barootchian died in the year 1988 in Iran. She would have been my older sister in Iran. Her parents gave me her name after she passed away.”
Fatemeh Barootchian had recently lost her daughter to leukemia. When the orphans of Halabja arrived, the grieving family saw an opportunity to fill the void and ease their pain. They brought Maryam home to Sari, on the Caspian Sea.
Maryam didn’t know she was adopted until she turned 18 when her adoptive father, Hushang, broke the news to her on his deathbed. But somehow she had always known.
“I felt different from the Persians. Of course if you were to tell me that I was from Halabja or Sulaimani, I would not have known in which part of Kurdistan they are. I was oblivious to the four parts of Kurdistan. When the DNA test was done for me, my body was frozen [with shock]. I was proud to know that I was a Kurd, that I was different from the rest of the kids I was playing with. This was my difference.”
After a little research, Maryam was appalled to learn what had happened to her hometown.
“I could not believe it. Why would 5,000 people be bombarded with chemical weapons? Just because they are Kurds? Because they are a different nation? Are they not humans? I could not believe it.”
After the initial shock, Maryam set about finding her family and discovering her roots.
“After my Iranian father, may his soul rest in peace, died, I had no one left standing by my side. When the issue of inheritance came up, some social issues surfaced because I was a child from an orphanage. I was in a Persian city in which Kurds and Sunnis were despised.
“Some said I was the child of an orphanage, and said only God knows whether I am a bastard or not, and if my parents had loved me I would not have been thrown away into the orphanage.
“I was 19 or 20 years old, and I was a university student then. In four years, I visited 24 Iranian provinces. Wherever there were Kurdish refugees and Kurds in Iran, I went there.”
Maryam turned her search to the Kurdistan Region. With the help of victim support groups, she began to take part in DNA tests with other families and children separated by the attack. The experience was draining.
“I had no emotions. There was no compassion left in my heart. They took me into six different families six different times. For example, one day I would be the sister of a person with 99 percent accuracy, then after one week they would tell me they had made a mistake and I became the niece of another man. I had no trust left. I was honestly very anxious. It was two days before the end of the week in a test in Sulaimani they told me that my parents were no longer alive. I did not expect anyone [to be my family]. Then on August 18, they told me they had found my mother.”
The reunion was screened on live television. Maryam allowed global media outlets to follow her in the days leading up to the oddly invasive spectacle. The results claimed her name was Hawnaz and that she was the daughter of Gilas Eskander. She was neither.
“I came back with a belief, after 27 years of waiting, after so much effort. Unfortunately, they did this to create a beautiful scenario. But I was not an international actress, able to handle this scenario.”
Maryam is now coming to terms with the reality that she may never know her true origins. Despite the disappointment, she hopes her case will raise the profile of Halabja’s missing children and efforts to reunite the families.
She also hopes the world can learn lessons from the attack on Halabja – which the international community, then siding with Saddam in his war with Iran, largely ignored.
“When the attacks of Halabja happened, communications were not that strong. Now there is social media, and it is very strong. The silence of the international community [concerning the chemical attacks in Syria] is a great crime. The person who is silent but is aware of the situation is the main culprit,” she said.
“You [Western powers] are a strong country with a strong parliament. Can’t you make a decision to stand against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? Or the Turkish regime? They are themselves the criminals. I hope this occurs to them in their own houses and their countries. This is my prayer, as I am also injured. I am a victim of chemical attacks, and I have lost my family because of it, and I am yet to find them after thirty years.”