As he journeyed to Iran one fine spring day in 1988, Ahmed Ghafour caught the scent of fresh apples. He took a deep breath, and exhaled. Blessed with rugged good looks, 18-year-old Ahmed, a resident of the Kurdish town of Halabja, had never given a second thought to his future.

He never would have imagined that the deceptively sweet smell would haunt him for the rest of his life.

The following year, he began to suffer from chronic headaches and nausea. Then, he lost sensation in his legs. Doctors told him his condition was a result of exposure to chemical substances – and irreversible. He would remain paralysed from the waist down.

"Before 1988, I never thought about the future. We all hoped Saddam would be removed from power somehow, sometime," sighed Ahmed, now 33, lying on the floor of his brother's living room, under a woolen blanket.

Since the diagnosis, he has spent his days watching satellite television and reading books. He never leaves the house.

"I am not waiting for the Americans to start the war… But if Saddam were in front of me now, I would cut him into pieces!" he groaned.

For Kurds worldwide, Halabja is a national tragedy, and a testament to the cruelty of Iraqi President Saddam Hussain, who did not shrink from attacking "his own people" with biological weapons. Thousands of innocent civilians died and hundreds more suffered gruesome injuries.

Rozgar showing the pictures of his two brothers. ©Gulf News
Fifteen years later, Halabja seems to have recovered from the ordeal. Extensive reconstruction efforts have resulted in the restoration of some of the infrastructure and buildings, which were destroyed by the bombardment. There are toddlers skipping on the stony pathways, and merchants selling their wares.

But the scars of its sinister past will never fully disappear. Every few steps, there are the skeletal remains of a landmark building. The centuries old House of Osman Pasha is now a heap of rubble covered with grass – as if it were never anything but a grazing field for cows.

A sense of lethargy now hangs over the Kurdish town, which has more recently become a target for Ansar Al Islam, a terrorist group based in neighbouring Biara.

At every street corner, an armed soldier stands guard against possible attacks from Ansar militants, who usually creep into town at night to terrorise the people, and then retreat to the mountains in Biara, a district bordering Iran. But residents are not daunted by the prospect of a U.S.-led war on Baghdad.

Nizar Mohsen, who lost several aunts and uncles in 1988, believes the residents of Halabja have seen too many horrors to be fearful of yet another war.

"We are ready and willing to become martyrs in this war if it will rid the country of Saddam once and for all," he said. "We don't think we will be affected. If Kurdish areas are hit, it will likely be Sulemanieh, or Arbil. But even if we are affected, we have seen too much to be afraid now."

Rozgar Ahmed, a 30-year-old teacher who lost four brothers in the chemical attacks, welcomes a U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"We have been expecting this war for a long time," he said. "The international community could not remain indifferent to the situation here for much longer. It was bound to happen sooner or later."

Osman Homran Mohammed, whose parents and siblings perished in the chemical attacks, takes care of his sole surviving sister, Qadriya.

"She lost her mind when she saw her friends die in front of her eyes," he said. "Her husband left her, and took with him their four daughters. Now, she spends her days puttering around the house."

Osman lives in a rented home with his wife and young children. He is originally from a village near Biara. In 1982, he and his family were driven out due to Saddam's ethnic cleansing programme.

They settled in Halabja. After the chemical attacks, Osman returned to his village, but he was forced to leave again in 1991 when Ansar Al Islam converted Biara into a terrorist training ground.

There were some 60,000 inhabitants in Halabja at the time of the attacks in 1988. Today, the population numbers more than 75,000, as the town has absorbed large numbers of refugees from villages near Biara.

"I don't have a job," recounted Osman, on the roof of his two-story house. "I sold my car and most of my belongings to rent this place. We are waiting for the situation to improve in Biara so we can head back home."

Hashiar Karim, head of security in Halabja, added: "Ansar Al Islam wants to establish a Taliban-style government here. We are Muslim, but not like them!"

After breaking open a few walnuts for his guests, Osman walked over to the edge of the roof fencing, and pointed north at the settlements near the mountains.

"That's where they stay, these Ansar militants. You can aim your rifle this way," he told our bodyguard. They laughed bitterly.