BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sometimes tearfully, sometimes coughing, two Kurdish villagers on Tuesday told an Iraqi court hearing genocide charges against Saddam Hussein that they were poisoned by gas that spewed from planes passing overhead, then were detained for days while suffering from blindness and burns.
Unlike an earlier trial against Saddam, in which witnesses were allowed to remain anonymous out of fear of intimidation, Ali Mostafa Hama and Najiba Khider Ahmed freely confronted the former dictator, describing the day in April 1987 when the air filled with fumes above their villages. The gas reminded them of rotten apples and garlic, they said.
"Workers were heading home, shepherds were taking home their goats and sheep, birds were returning to their nests," said Hama, whose village, Belisan, was bombed. "All at once we see several jets overhead. They controlled the sky. They threw their fire and their bombs."
Ahmed, from the northern Kurdish village of Sheik Wasan, talked of fleeing to nearby caves when the planes came. She was detained for nine days and discovered that her 3-year-old son and a nephew had been killed. She returned home to find her village destroyed and livestock dead.
She said the gas attack affected later pregnancies. In the first, her baby was born with skin peeling off. In the second, she miscarried.
"Even Hitler did not do this to his people," Ahmed said. "Saddam Hussein used to say we were his people. If we were his people, why did he strike us with all those weapons?"
Prosecutors have accused Saddam and six other former high-level Iraqi officials of masterminding what has become known as the Anfal campaign, in which as many as 182,000 civilians were killed in chemical attacks, bombings and sweeping detentions in the Kurdish region of Iraq. As many as 75 witnesses are expected to take the stand.
It's the second trial for Saddam. In the earlier case, Saddam was accused of ordering the executions of 148 men and boys from the Shiite Muslim town of Dujail after a failed assassination attempt against him there in 1982. The verdict from that trial is due on Oct. 16.
Saddam, who began the trial on Monday by refusing to submit his name to the court, accused both witnesses of being coached. At one point, he contended that Ahmed, speaking Kurdish, was being given instructions in her earpiece by the translator.
Earlier in the day, two of Saddam's co-defendants defended their actions, saying the campaign was designed to weed out Iranian fighters and Kurdish rebels, not to target innocent Kurds. Sabir al-Douri, a former head of military intelligence, said Iraqi officials attempted to evacuate affected villages and civilians before launching the strikes.
"You will see that we are not guilty and that we defended our country honorably and sincerely," al-Douri said.
The trial, which could last through the end of the year, is being broadcast live throughout the Middle East, and Iraqi newspapers covered the first day on their front pages.
But with the capital convulsed with violence and Iraqis facing major obstacles to just living each day, the country isn't as riveted by the trial as one might expect. Tuesday's newspapers devoted almost as much attention to a gasoline shortage that is forcing drivers to queue up for miles to fill their tanks. Some are waiting an entire day to gas up.
Even in the affected areas of northern Iraq, people interviewed said vengeance against Saddam is a luxury compared to daily survival.
Electricity department employee Khubad Nozad, from Halabcha, one of the towns hit during the campaign, described Saddam's trial as "a joyful and big event" overshadowed by daily violence and political instability.
"What we watch of sabotage, killing and blood on TV destroyed the joy we feel when justice is done against big criminals like Saddam and his cousin."
In a conspiracy-rich country, some also say that the truth of Anfal may never come out because Kurdish factions now in power through the leading Kurdistan Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan may have assisted Saddam's government in its war against Iran and the Kurdish rebels.
Rawnak Ahmad, a 32-year-old mother of four children, lost her husband and a number of relatives in the Anfal campaign. While she's pleased that Saddam is facing trial, much of her wrath is directed toward armed Kurdish battalions that were supportive of Saddam's Baath Party. They often rounded up suspected rebels to turn them in. They are known in the region as The Heads of Donkeys.
"What is the use of the trial if these people are free?" she asked.
(Brunswick reports for The (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.