Adil Majeed looked distraught as he smoked a cigarette and recounted the devastating events of the late 1980s Anfal military offensive.
Unleashed by the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein against Kurdish people in the north, the campaign killed at least 100,000 Kurds, mostly civilians, with some estimates suggesting 180,000 people died. Thousands went missing and hundreds of villages were destroyed.
Rights organisations say the Anfal campaign was a systematic ethnic cleansing amounting to genocide.
Saddam claimed he was quelling a rebellion after Kurdish Peshmerga fighters – who were fighting against the government – sided with the enemy during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and used Kurdish villages as their safe havens.
As part of the offensive, Iraqi warplanes and artillery pounded the Kurdish town of Halabja with mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin on March 16, 1988. About 5,000 people – mainly women and children – were killed.
Weeks later, another town, Goptapa was targeted with chemical weapons. The death toll in Goptapa was arguably only exceeded by that of Halabja.
Majeed, who fled from his home in a nearby village, remembered seeing the residents of Goptapa suffocate from the poisonous gases.
“I saw people from Goptapa village on the banks of the Lesser Zab River suffering from the effects of the chemical weapons used by the Iraqi army,” he told Al Jazeera as he sat in his home in Chamchamal, an Iraqi Kurdish town located west of Sulaimaniyah City.
“We fled in fear of our lives, but we were soon arrested by the Iraqi forces,” recalled Majeed, who was 15 at the time. Although Majeed was taken to prison, his young and agile body helped him escape.
“Only one soldier was guarding the prison door. When he was off-guard, I seized the moment and climbed over the door,” said Majeed. “He fired several bullets towards me, but fortunately I was not hurt and managed to escape.”
While Majeed lived to tell the tale, he lost eight members of his family during the campaign, along with 163 people from his village in the Garmiyan area of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. His only wish is to find their remains.
“After 33 years I cannot forget them,” he sobbed. “I wish I could embrace their relics.”