| An Iraqi woman raises her arms in celebration on Wednesday as US tanks roll into the heart of Baghdad. (AFP)
Tears streamed down Fakhradeen Saleem's face today as he watched television images of Saddam Hussein’s government crumbling in Baghdad.
Listening to his devastating story of loss at the hands of the Baathist administration, it was not hard to see why.
The softly-spoken teacher, 54, took nearly two hours to explain what happened in the run-down northern Iraqi town of Halabja on March 16, 1988, a date etched in the memory of millions of Kurds.
On that day Iraqi warplanes roared over the town, dropping chemical weapons including nerve agents which killed 5,000 people in the dying days of the war against neighbouring Iran.
Three of Saleem's seven children died of the agents they breathed in. He buried Sangar, a son of six, and Nigeen, a daughter of eight with his own hands before going with the rest of his family to the cemetery, where they lay down expecting to die. During the panic in Halabja, his eldest daughter took away his infant son, but to this day he does not know if they survived.
“Every now and again people who lost each other that day come back to Halabja from Iran and elsewhere. I keep hoping one day it will be me.”
At the cemetery a second daughter died quietly in her sleep, but the rest of the family survived. The 10-year-old Hawreen was buried by a friend in his garden and reinterred by Saleem three years later. Among his children, only Tara, a daughter who is now 27, and Bafreen, another daughter of 19, are known to have survived the attack, for which Saddam will be forever despised by Iraq’s Kurdish minority.
“How can I feel happiness or sadness after what I have been through'” Saleem asked. “To be honest, I can no longer feel the difference.”
But that did not stop him shouting to his wife a few days ago when initial reports about the demise of Saddam Hussein’s notorious cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, surfaced from the south of the country where he commanded Iraqi forces.
Nicknamed “Chemical Ali”, he led the campaign against rebellious Kurds in the 1980s, and has been hated by the minority that now controls the north of the country ever since.
The British military believe they may have found the body of Saddam’s cousin, although they have yet to confirm its identity.
”When I heard about Ali I was overjoyed and called my wife over to come and hear the news,” Saleem said, his sunken eyes lighting up momentarily.
”But the head of this regime is Saddam, and he is behind what has happened to the Kurds. If he is allowed to survive, he will only create more Alis.”
Saleem, a small, grey-haired man, expressed his gratitude to the United States and Britain for spearheading the war on Saddam.
”The Kurds never wanted this war, but I hope that if you listen to my story you will understand why I feel the way I do.”