“I learnt that day how death smells: it smells of green apples.” Mam Mahmoud must have told the story thousands of times over the 15 years since the horror descended on his home town and killed nearly 5,000 people, but the elderly Kurd’s reedy voice still shook a little when he told me about surviving Saddam Hussein’s gas attack on Halabja. He inhaled deeply when describing the odour of the sarin gas, and wheezed and coughed in the manner of the victims, many of whom had been his friends and neighbours.
We met in the summer of 2003, in a then incomplete monument and museum to what is still regarded as one of the worst atrocities of the modern era. I was in a small group of journalists and Peshmerga fighters he showed around the museum, and we kept a respectful silence as Mam Mahmoud frequently stopped to control his emotions. Photographs and dioramas showed bodies slumped in the street, some of them in pools of bilious vomit: Some faces were arrested in a twisted rictus of pain, others were surreally calm, even beatific. Mam Mahmoud had known some of them personally, and recalled little details of their lives and personalities. “She made very good cakes,” he said about one old woman. About a boy of perhaps 10: “He was very good in maths, and much older boys would ask him to do sums for them.” When we arrived at a wall on which were etched the names of all the victims, he simply turned his face away and sobbed.
Not one of us in the group was able to keep a dry eye: It was impossible not to be overcome by the sheer monstrosity that was being chronicled in the museum, and recounted by an eyewitness. As he spoke, the monster responsible for it was still at large, and Mam Mahmoud was anxious that Hussein might get away without answering for his war crime. “What he did to us, only Hitler did before him,” he told us. “Justice was done to Hitler, and it should be done to Hussein. He, too, must smell the green apples.”
At the time, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to correct Mam Mahmoud (“Mam” means uncle in Kurdish, and is used as an honorific for older men, in the way chacha is used in the Hindi-speaking parts of India) on a small point: Hitler never used sarin. German chemists had invented the deadly nerve agent in 1938—“sarin” is an abbreviation of the names of the four scientists who created it: Gerhard Schrader, Otto Ambros, Gerhard Ritter and Hans-Jürgen von der Linde—and the Nazis certainly planned to mass-produce it as a weapon of war, but Germany was defeated before the factories were completed.
So Hussein’s Iraq was the first to actually use sarin as a weapon of mass destruction, his air force dropping it on Halabja late one March morning in 1988. Seven years later, a Japanese cult known as Aum Shinrikyo released a small quantity of sarin in a Tokyo subway, killing 12 people. But it would be a full 25 years after Halabja before it would be used again in war. This time, it was in Ghouta, near the Syrian capital of Damascus, where another exceptionally cruel dictator, Bashar al-Assad, deployed it against his own people, killing nearly 1,500. And last week, he did it again, killing over 50 people in Khan Shaykhun.
Let’s quickly dispense with the conspiracy theories that both the sarin attacks in Syria were “false-flag” operations, designed to make Assad’s dictatorship look bad in the eyes of the world. There are some reports that rebel groups ranged against Assad have used mustard gas and chlorine in some attacks; sarin is a magnitude more sophisticated, and well beyond their ability to create, weaponize, store and deploy. The regime in Damascus, on the other hand, developed that capability over decades. After the Ghouta attack, under international pressure, Assad agreed to destroy his chemical-weapons stockpiles and infrastructure—this was, incidentally, tantamount to an admission of guilt—but American and European intelligence agencies have all along suspected he kept some. The Khan Shaykhun atrocity suggests they were right.
What is to be done about it? The punitive American missile attack on the airport from where Assad’s planes had delivered the deadly payload was a good first step: It was necessary for the dictator, as well as his protectors in Moscow and Tehran, to know that such atrocities will not go unanswered. Welcome, too, are statements by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, that the Trump administration has reconsidered its previous position that regime change was not the necessary outcome of the Syrian civil war. “We don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there,” she told CNN. “There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.”
It must now be the goal of the US—and indeed, of all right-thinking nations—to bring Assad to justice. But the lesson of Halabja is that justice, even for so horrific a crime, can take years.
A month after my conversation with Mam Mahmoud, American soldiers found Hussein cowering in a hole in the ground. He was never tried for the Halabja atrocity. Prosecutors at the special tribunal appointed to account for his sins had a great many to choose from, and tried him for a different mass killing: He was hanged in 2006. But his cousin and chief executioner, Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as “Chemical Ali”, was found guilty of masterminding the Halabja attack, and hanged in 2010.
There’s hope, then, that Assad and his own “Chemical Ali” will one day meet justice, for having unleashed the “smell of green apples” on Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.