By Janis Hutchinson
This short story won First Place in the Arts Commission Literary Contest at the 1988 “Write on the Sound Writers' Conference” in Edmonds, Washington.
This poignant story is of two Kurdish children, ages three and twelve, survivors of the 1988 massacre at Halabja. It is fictional, but based on historical fact, recounting the genocide perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s forces when chemical bombs of cyanide, mustard gas and nerve agents were dropped on Kurdistan villages.
The first part of the story relies heavily upon literary license to show the back story. However, Tomar’s goal, his sister Nusha, the note he writes, and the ending of this story is true. At the end is the picture of the little girl that inspired this story.
Tomar couldn’t help but spread a wide smile across his sun-bronzed face as he hastened through the dusty streets lined with mud-brick houses and stone-rubble huts. The joy he felt, especially today, radiated from his face, pushing his boyish cheeks upward and crinkling the edges of his dark brown eyes. He sucked in a deep breath as he passed an outdoor clay oven, sniffing in the pleasant aroma of bread baking. At the same time, he kept an eye on Nusha, his three-year old sister, who skipped ahead of her twelve-year old brother. The caress of the morning sun and the warm breeze that wafted in from the south promised that nothing would mar this special day. Tomar had no reason to believe otherwise.
He headed toward the outskirts of his small village, Halabja, situated near the Iranian border, and wound through the same by-ways he and Nusha always followed. Passing his grandmother’s home, he spied her carrying an armful of wood across the yard. Shading his eyes from the sun with his hand, he called to her.
“Good morning, grandmother!” At the same time, he flashed her a wide grin to relay his excitement about the festivities the family planned for that evening. She looked up, smiled, and returned the greeting.
That night they were to celebrate his father’s birthday. There would be dilok, the spirited dancing, and he intended to wear his best shirt and pants, along with the colored sash his mother made for him. He could hardly wait. And the food…his eyes widened with anticipation.
Grandmother would bring Baslog, filled with nuts and sprinkled with shredded coconut. His aunts and cousins would bring sweet cakes and other delicacies, and his mother, Fesenjam chicken with pomegranate molasses and walnuts. There would also be fresh bread and thick honey. The house would fill with relatives and neighbors laughing and talking, and everyone would nibble on Nakho-Chi cookies topped with sugar and pistachios. They would also sip Chai Kurdi tea through sugar cubes held in their teeth, Tomar’s favorite. He loved the soothing taste of the cinnamon. It reminded him of the feeling he got when his mother tucked the covers around him at night.
Then, after dinner, his father would work music on his flute-like zornah, accompanied by his grandfather drumming his fingers on the dahol, and everyone would sing the stories of their Kurdish heroes, especially the Peshmerga—the village fighters who face death for Kurdistan’s freedom. The music often varied but the words were always the same so that they could be memorized and handed down to posterity. Often, his father told him, “Tomar, some day you will make a fine warrior.”
This morning, he and Nusha’s task was to climb the high hill and pick berries and almonds for the celebration. Tomar carried two baskets for this, a third for the wildflowers which Nusha would fill. She ran down the street ahead of him in anticipation, her short black hair bouncing up and down about her head.
They cut across the square, a small open space and the focal point of the village. In the center stood an old gnarled walnut tree with branches that shaded most of the plaza. The area was already noisy with chattering women and loud voices of competing vendors bargaining over apples, sugar beets and tobacco. He and Nusha finally reached the outskirts of the village, skirted a wheat field and headed for the foothills.
They climbed the hill under a brilliant blue sky filled with puffs of white clouds. Within an hour they reached Tomar’s favorite place, the plateau, where the sun slid golden fluid down the slopes that overlooked their peaceful village. A mild breeze wafted the tall grass into soft, rolling waves. Only the gentle lapping of a nearby stream broke the profound quiet of the hillside with its perfumed fragrance of honeysuckle and wildflowers. Something special always stirred deep inside Tomar in the palpable silence on the hill.
He spent the next hour picking berries, loading his basket and shaking enough almonds down from tree branches to fill the other. After that, he plopped down on the ground to rest. Nusha continued to dart about barefoot, picking purple and yellow wildflowers.
Shading his eyes with his hand, Tomar took in the panorama lying in the valley below him. Sun-drenched fields and pastures rolled endlessly in all directions. Beyond them, more villages.
With a pleased smile, he lowered his head and started to reach into his pocket for his pencil and small drawing tablet he had brought along. But a sudden noise startled him. He looked up.
That’s when he saw them—low-flying airplanes swooping down over his village. He let out a half-choking gasp, and leapt to his feet.
In an instant, thunderous bombs dropped from the planes, ripping the ground apart. Explosions shattered the air . . . homes blew into fragments . . . people screamed. Thick, blackish-yellow clouds of deadly gas mushroomed over his village. Then, a deep rumble resonated against the hillside, accompanied by a surging gust of wind that rushed up the slope to where Tomar stood. It smelled like rotten garlic.
Transfixed with terror, his eyes riveted on the roaring planes that whipped about in fury. They circled and dived, dropping their loads of destruction. Then they banked. Half of them sped off toward the horizon but the other half headed straight in his direction. He widened his eyes in panic.
Nauseating spurts of adrenaline coursed through his body as he rushed forward, grabbed Nusha and bolted up the slope. Stumbling and falling with her screams in his ears, he headed for the cover of nearby trees just as the planes roared overhead and disappeared over the rim of the hill.
When he could no longer hear them, he emerged slowly from his hiding place. Nusha clung to him, still crying, her arms wrapped tightly about his neck.
“Shhh, now,” he said, patting her on the back. “They are gone . . . they are gone.” Her cries gradually subsided but her body still trembled.
Continuing to calm her, his eyes swept down the mountainside scanning the distressing scene. He looked for small spaces on the streets beneath the smoke hoping to spot some sign of life. He zeroed in on the village square, then widened his gaze to take in the vicinity of his house.
From his vantage point, a scattering of still objects dotted the streets. The gradual realization that they were bodies caused a dissonant reaction as feelings of denial clashed with the reality.
Then came more horrific booms of explosions that once again startled him. Lifting his head, he looked toward the horizon—toward the other distant villages. The same ugly-colored clouds rose high into the air.
In a few seconds, another flurry of wind swept up the slope and Tomar wrinkled his nose. His insides lurched with urgency—the ominous smell was growing stronger.
Without hesitation, he tightened his arms around Nusha and broke into a run. His legs hammered into the ground as he ran up the hill zigzagging around boulders, plowing through tall weeds, and leaping over clumps of brush. Nusha began screaming again.
“Shhh . . . shhh, little sister,” he managed breathlessly into her ear as he ran. “It will . . . be okay.”
Reaching the summit, he shot down the other side, tripping, sliding, twice losing his balance and falling but with his arms still wrapped firmly around Nusha.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, he collapsed by some trees. He huddled down, still clutching Nusha’s small body tight to his chest. His shirt and pants had torn from falling, exposing bloody scrapes and bruises. He quickly examined Nusha. She was all right—his arms had protected her.
He stroked her hair to calm her, while anxieties turbulently spun about in his head. His parents would need him I must return! But there was something menacing about the smell that made him reluctant. Maybe it would dissipate if he waited an hour or two.
Peeking out from under the thicket, he crawled out. The smell wasn’t as strong. He took Nusha’s hand.
“Come, little sister, we are going home.” She took a few quavering steps, and then followed him across the clearing.
It took twenty minutes to climb back up the summit. During that time, Tomar continually scanned the sky for planes. As soon as they reached the top he anxiously looked down at Halabja. Most of the smoke had cleared, but he saw far more bodies than before. Still, in his heart he knew his parents were alive. He needed to hurry—they were probably searching for him.
Fifteen minutes into their descent back to the plateau, the pungent vapors grew stronger. Tomar’s eyes smarted and he began coughing. Then Nusha started crying, doing the same thing. He stopped, instinctively sensing they should go no further.
Suddenly, off to his right came the sound of branches and dry leaves crunching under stumbling feet. Grabbing Nusha’s hand, he turned to run. But before he could move, a man broke through the trees. A quick scrutiny of his clothes and color of his striped turban that hung askew on one side of his head, told Tomar that he was from his village. His spirits lifted. Now, they were not alone. The man would tell him what to do.
But the expression on Tomar’s face gradually changed as he stared at the man tripping and falling, coming closer to him across the clearing. His face and arms were covered with ugly, mustard-colored blisters. One eye was stuck shut, and blood matted his hair and trickled from his nose and ears. A shiver shot down Tomar’s spine as he studied the man’s facial expression. It reflected an agony he had never seen before.
Despite the blood and oozing sores on his body, Tomar recognized him. He owned the market, only a block away from his parent’s house.
“Child . . . you . . . must flee,” he spoke in strangled tones as he lurched toward him, his body shaking. He could barely whisper. “Poison gas . . .”
Tomar stared into the man’s one opened eye that excreted a yellow liquid and the twitching muscles that distorted his face.
“Our neighborhood,” Tomar gulped . . . near the square?”
“Hardest . . . hit,” came the man’s halting response, struggling for breath. “All dead. I was . . . in another part of town . . . ran toward home. But . . . none survived.
His words sent Tomar’s emotions reeling. Everyone? His father . . . his mother . . . his grandparents?
“There could be,” the man interrupted, his lips quivering and now coughing up greenish colored blood, “a few survivors from other . . . sections of the village. Still . . . you must not go there. If you go, this,” he said, pointing to his own body, “is what will happen . . . to you.”
“But…” Tomar stammered, “where shall I…”
“Anywhere…but the village.”
“You will…come with us?”
The man shook his head. “You must leave me. I . . . cannot keep up.” He crumpled to the ground.
Tomar recoiled, as the man’s body violently convulsed. Blood bubbled from his mouth and a horrible gurgling sound rose up in his throat. His vacuous face froze in muted agony and his one good eye stopped blinking. It stared at nothing. He no longer moved.
An avalanche of fear crashed over Tomar. He didn’t want to die like that. But if he returned that’s what would happen—to Nusha, too. His arms tightened around her as he stepped away from the man’s body.
Despite the trepidation enshrouding him, he had to leave. He took one last glance at Halabja and slowly turned his back on the only home he’d ever known—where his family boasted they had lived for twenty grandfathers.
He began walking—to where, he didn’t know.
They trudged for hours. Now and then he carried Nusha, continually reassuring her everything was all right. Occasionally, Tomar turned and glanced behind him. A sickly cloud on the distant horizon could be seen. He walked faster, remembering how the man died.
It was late afternoon as he plodded on, still carrying Nusha. His back hurt, his legs ached, and the hard ground beneath his sore feet felt like solid rock.
Sweat dripped from his forehead as he moved onto the scorching plains that stretched out before him. Temperatures soared and his lungs burned from breathing in the dry, gritty dust swirling about his feet. Now and then he would find himself hoping they would come across friendly villagers who would take them in. But then he recalled what his father told him. “Remember, Tomar, Kurds have no friends.”
Realizing how easily he and Nusha could be spotted from the air, he decided to hide during the day and travel by night.
The next day, while the intense heat undulated from the plains, they hunkered down under an overhanging ledge that jutted out from a group of huge boulders.
The vision of Halabja and the bodies he saw from the hillside played over and over in his mind until he nearly went crazy picturing his family, his father’s birthday celebration that would never take place, the man with the oozing blisters and his ominous words that broke Tomar’s heart. “None survived . . .”
He studied Nusha. She didn’t cry as often anymore. She just stared and refused to move more than two feet away from him. How was he, a boy of twelve, to take care of her? He tried to clear his mind by drawing in a few deep breaths and forcing a slow exhalation. Then, over the remaining hours he carefully processed his thoughts.
By evening, he knew what he had to do. By following the remains of old irrigation canals that laced the sand, he would locate the Tigris. By keeping the river well in sight, it would lead him to his destination—Diyarbakir.
Journeying through the black silence of night for the next three weeks, he and Nusha passed through bomb-shattered villages and deserted dwellings that fortunately had no bad smell.
Trudging up and down valleys, gorges and over bony, moon-swept hills, they eventually crossed over the Turkish border and found an abandoned village.
Shudders of fear swept through Tomar as he crept into the eerie quiet of the darkened streets. Clutching his sister’s hand, he pulled, half-dragged, her along, her tiny legs barely able to keep up.
When he finally stopped, Nusha collapsed onto the ground. She let out a whimper, and rubbed her sore feet. He looked down at her.
Poor little Nusha. She had been so good to walk for many days with no shoes—crossing the border into Turkey, trudging bleak paths and roads, staying in dark Zivinge caves—whereas, he was accustomed to traveling great distances. He often hiked with his father to the cool pastures of the remote mountain plateaus to herd sheep and goats. It was a long trek; but there, the animals could feed on the profusion of pink and lavender wild flowers that blanketed the slopes.
He smiled dreamily, remembering the joy when they returned home—everyone gathering around the fire in the evening, his mother laughing and playing with little Nusha, his father working music on his zornah.
Tomar’s eyes misted. He glanced again at his little sister, who now rested her head against his legs, and stared into her tired, frightened eyes. He reached down and stroked her hair.
She looked up, letting out a shivery sob.
“Nusha . . . hungry.”
Letting out a deep sigh, he glanced around the darkened streets of the village—it was too dark to scrounge for food. He thought of his mother’s Fesenjam chicken and flat bread brushed with spicy oil.
He plopped down onto a segment of broken concrete, his head pounding. His chin fell dejectedly onto his chest and he massaged his temples.
Would he find food tomorrow? So far, they’d been fortunate to find some in a few deserted villages. A couple of times he came across Khans, places built for caravans and travelers. Inside the courtyards by the wells he found a couple of gourds to fill with water. At one, a lone nomad who spoke a different dialect offered them cheese, bread and a few Nabugs, a plum-like fruit.
Nusha began crying softly. “Hush now, my sister.” He gently pulled her up onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her. He rocked back and forth—the way his mother used to. He kissed her short black hair and whispered, “Shhh, soon you will not cry anymore. I will sing our mother’s song.”
Swaying slightly from side to side, he sang the familiar tune.
Hush the night is coming on,
Rest upon my breast.
Hush, my little baby child,
Close your eyes and rest.
Lullabies are nice, he thought wistfully, remembering the comforting warmth of his mother’s voice that flowed like soft silk in the evenings. He hoped the song worked for Nusha this time. Lately, it didn’tespecially the last few days when her crying had become more persistent and she kept calling for her mother. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that she would never see her again.
Continuing to hum the familiar tune, he watched his sister’s face. Soon, her crying softened to faint sobs and an occasional hiccup. Her eyelids closed. Tomar heaved a sigh of relief.
He wiped her tear-stained cheeks with the ragged edge of his cuff and straightened her dress that he had managed to wash clean in a bucket of rainwater the day before. “You must look as nice as possible,” he whispered.
Knowing what he had to do, he felt pressed with the urgency but clenched his eyes shut. How could he go through with it? Nusha was all he had left!
It would mean that she would never again celebrate the feast of Newroz, follow the Qirdik clown with her friends or go door to door to receive gifts from the townspeople. She would not participate in any village customs or hear the legends of their Kurdish ancestors. She would grow up and not know any of this. Was he doing the right thing? His whole body became a cauldron of swirling emotions.
Shivering suddenly from a gust of wind that blew through the streets, he raised his head and then wrinkled his nose. The air still wasn’t right. The last few days when it wafted in on the breeze it stunk like fertilizer. He knew that this far away it couldn’t be from Halabja, but other towns that had been attacked. But the odor, faint or not, only reinforced what he had to do. His mouth tightened into a firm line.
“I have reached Sin Al-Bulugh,” he said, “the age of maturity.” Had not his father confirmed this by proudly responding to those who asked his age, “Gihaye tifinge, he can use a rifle—he is a man now.” Therefore, he must return and join the Peshmerga—those who face death for Kurdistan’s freedom.
He was too exhausted to travel any more that night. Holding Nusha tightly to his chest so as not to awaken her, he carefully stood.
Skulking through the deserted streets he searched for a place to sleep. Spectral shadows seemed to reach out for him with ghostly fingers and his heart rate climbed.
He finally found an old weathered lean-to no bigger than a chicken coop at the edge of the debris-strewn village. It smelled of damp, rotting wood and part of the roof was caved in. He gathered old rags that were scattered about and made Nusha a soft bed.
He lay down next to her on the wood-planked floor and gazed up through the hole in the broken roof. Tiny stars studded the cobalt sky. It was the clearest he had seen for many nights.
At home, when his mother tucked them in at bedtime, she had told them about the silver river of stars—the big bear, Terme Merxe, the small bear, Terme Ademand how they guided travelers. She also said that whenever they saw a large star encircled by smaller ones, to remember her—it was a sign of a mother’s love for her children and the togetherness they would always have. He diligently searched for a large star encircled by smaller ones but saw none. His sobs burst upward in great heart-breaking rushes, then he fell asleep and dreamed he was eating his mother’s bread drenched in home-churned butter and olive oil.
The next evening, as the sun slipped down over the horizon and the warm, pink glow on the rocky landscape faded, Tomar awakened Nusha and they resumed their moonlight trek. She sleepily stumbled along beside him, clutching on to his pant leg. Only when clouds obscured the moon and it turned pitch-black did he stop. But the rest of the time he kept the moon-spangled water of the Tigris well in sight and kept searching the horizon for the distant lights of Diyarbakir.
When he was young, his father had taken him there. At that time, there was less to fear from the Turks about their Kurdish nationality. But now it was different. Both the Kurdish flag and his language were prohibited—Halabja was an example of the hatred the regime felt. It was dangerous, but that’s where he needed to go.
Yet, despite the danger, he remembered his fascination with the city’s tall, gilt-domed buildings and mosques covered with shiny tiles etched with palms and pomegranates, and skilled weavers who made prayer beads and bracelets with thin threads of silver. Best of all he enjoyed the marketplace because before heading for home his father loaded up his truck with watermelons. Then, during their return trip across the desert they would periodically stop and eat a few slices. He remembered the sweet taste . . . the fun of seeing which one could spit seeds the farthest . . . and how the sticky juice dribbled down their chins, hands and arms. It was a special time he would always remember.
But for now, another attraction in the city held more significance for him than grand buildings or nostalgic memories. The few lone travelers they had met along the way said it was still there. He panicked at the thought that it might not.
About The Author
Janis Hutchinson is an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, graduated Summa Cum Laude with B.th and M.A. degrees in Theology, and was awarded “Writer of the Year” (2008) by the American Christian Writers Association. A former (very active), member of the mainline Mormon Church for 35 years and 2 years in Mormon Fundamentalist organizations, she is in demand as a speaker on Christian radio and TV, and lives near Seattle, Washington.