Personal Stories Stories from Kurdistan

Halabja: A ‘Lost Daughter’ Finds Her Way Home

Halabja lost daughter

The story below appeared in BBC magazine on November 13th, 2015. It has been republished below, and can be read in its entirety at

Halabja: A ‘lost daughter’ finds her way home

By Jiyar Gol and Kathryn Westcott

In 1988 Saddam Hussein dropped chemical weapons on his own people – the Kurdish residents of the town of Halabja. Thousands died and in the chaos that followed many families were scattered. One woman, a baby at the time of the attack, was brought up in Iran but recently returned to find out whether any relatives had survived.

Tonight your destiny will be clear. Everyone in the crowd wants to know who your family is.”

Bizarrely, the climax of Maryam Barootchian’s search for her parents and siblings is taking place on live television, in front of an audience of millions. Gathered in the auditorium where the announcement is to be made are four families eager to claim her.

For Maryam’s story is bound up with their own – all lost a baby on that day in March 1988 when Saddam Hussein’s jets swooped down and dropped a mixture of mustard gas and nerve agents on the rebellious Kurdish community.

Maryam’s Story

Maryam, who is now in her 20s, was a baby at the time. She was evacuated with her family by Iranian troops and taken to Tehran by helicopter, though it would be many years before she found this out. In the process, she was somehow separated from her mother, whose sight had been damaged by the chemicals.

She was then adopted and brought up in the Iranian town of Sari, close to the Caspian Sea, by a family whose 14-year-old daughter had recently died from leukaemia.

Maryam and her adopted mother.

Maryam and her adopted mother.

Maryam’s relationship with her adopted mother hasn’t always been easy, but she was extremely close to her father, Hushang.

At some point after she turned 18, he confirmed that she had been adopted. He explained that she was Kurdish, although he wasn’t sure what region she came from. Shortly afterwards he died, and again Maryam felt the stigma of not belonging.

“The day my father died, no-one consoled me. I was crying over my father’s grave, and they said, ‘Why are you crying? You are not his child,'” says Maryam.

Maryam at her adopted father's grave.

Maryam at her adopted father’s grave.

“Then I understood that my problems were only beginning. That my misery had just started. I felt so alone that, after two years, I asked my mother to help me find my family.”

Searching for her family

She travelled to Iranian towns and cities with a large Kurdish population to search for clues, and luckily ran into two Kurdish social workers at Tehran airport. They had connections with the Halabja Chemical Victims Society, which has helped reunite seven “lost children” with their families by matching their DNA.

“I knew I had been born around the same time as the chemical attack on Halabja,” says Maryam. “And I thought I might be one of the children from Halabja whose family were killed or displaced.”

Graves at Halabja

Graves at Halabja

Luqman Qadir, the head of group, took up Maryam’s case.

“When this catastrophe occurred in Halabja, we were there, we saw what happened – so understanding Maryam’s story is easy for us. We saw tens, and even hundreds of children who lost their parents, and were scattered in Iran,” he says.

No-one knows the exact number of children who are still missing. Maryam is one of a trickle of “lost children” who are now returning to Halabja, searching for their roots.

DNA Testing

When she arrived in Halabja in May to begin the DNA-matching in earnest, she found bereaved families desperate to claim her. Maryam didn’t know how old she would have been at the time of the Halabja attack but each of those families had lost lost a baby at the time.

Dr Farhad Bazarnji a specialist in genetic diseases in the nearby Iraqi town of Sulaymaniyah volunteered his services to help Maryam. She appeared on Kurdish TV and appealed for people to come forward for DNA testing. Dr Bazarnji tested 58 families before narrowing it down to just a handful.

The Results

In August, guests assembled at the Halabja Peace Monument for the televised climax of Maryam’s search. Dr Farhad now has a definite answer.

“Everyone has been waiting for this moment for many months,” he says.


“Maryam, unfortunately your father is dead, he was one of the victims of the Halabja attack.”

“But, fortunately I can tell you tonight – Maryam, you have a brother, Maryam, you have a mother, and you will be happy tonight because you are going to meet them. Until today you were known as Maryam, but today I can tell you your name is Hawnaz, and you are the daughter of Mrs Gilas Eskander.”

The agonising wait is over. Cheers, screaming and applause erupt from the crowd. An elderly woman wearing dark glasses gets to her feet and is led to Maryam. Gilas repeats her child’s birth name, “Hawnaz” and, as she clutches her daughter, she is overcome by emotion, screaming and sobbing.

Gilas Eskander was the last person to come forward for DNA testing in July, and she is a definite match.

“I am so happy. I feel as if I am reborn, as if I am seeing the world through new eyes,” she says.

Maryam with her birth mother (left) and adopted mother (right).

Maryam with her birth mother (left) and adopted mother (right).

Maryam’s birth mother thought her daughter had died in the attack. She remarried and divides her time between Halabja and the Iranian town of Paveh, where she is still receiving treatment for her damaged eyesight.

Maryam has been getting to know her older brother, who has flown over from the Netherlands to meet her, and a half-brother and half-sister. A younger brother has been missing since the 1988 attack.

She has spent the months since Dr Bazarnji’s revelation getting to know her extended family in Sulaymaniyah and Irbil. She grew up speaking Farsi, the language of Iran, and is learning Kurdish. She hopes to study in Halabja.

The welcome Maryam has received from so many people will be matched by financial support from the Kurdish regional government, which has vowed to help all the lost children who find their way home.

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