Halabja is Not Forgotten
I became familiar with war, the loud noise of bombing and distress during the Iran-Iraq war. The war began in 1980 and was still on in 1988. I vividly remember March 1988; I was only 16 years old, singing in our garden in my city Sulaimaniya, in northern Iraq. I was thinking happy thoughts, trimming the flowers and from time to time smelling the nice ones. I kept singing and jumping up and down in the air when my mother screamed “will you ever shut your mouth? They are bombing again but you never quit singing!” My father arrived home early from work; he looked nervous and pale and said to my mother “everybody went home, you hardly see people outside.” He said everybody thought it is Iran who was bombing the Kurdish cities, but there was a rumor that Saddam’s armed forces had been bombing the city of Halabja since March 13.
Halabja was a couple hours from my city, located in Southern Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, with a population of 70,000. My family and others always spoke highly of Halabja, saying it is a beautiful cozy city; its people are smart, artistic, and down to earth with hearts of gold. At the moment, no one knew this time the bombing was extremely different and beyond serious. Eventually Kurdish officials confirmed and publicized that Saddam Hussein’s regime had been mixing his anger at Iran with anger at the Kurdish freedom fighters “the Peshmarga” and bombing Kurdish cities. People who were coming from Halabja to Sulaimaniya began sharing horrific incidents in the tea shops and calling friends and family warning them not to travel there until the situation calmed.
Halabja became a victim of politics, unjust and unnecessary to the Iran-Iraq war. Halabja criticized and the Kurdish Peshmerga supported Iranian forces to fight against Saddams’ regime. Saddam hired his first cousin Ali Hassan Majid (later nicknamed Chemical Ali) to use chemical weapons against the Kurds in 40 villages and small cities. Halabja was not included in the Al-Anfal Campaign (the project to abolish the Kurdish liberation groups and the rebellion parties against the Iraqi Baathist regime). Saddam did not appreciate the Peshmarga’s association with Iran and their aid in allowing Iran to enter Iraqi cities. He alleged that they betrayed him. Halabja then went to the top of the list for abolishment.
On March 16, 1988, in the early-evening the five hours attack began with napalm and rockets and ended with the use of lethal cocktails of mustard chemical gas and nerve gases sarin and tabun, causing the loss of 5,000 people, mostly civilians, and nearly 10,000 injured, innocent men, women and children. Most of them died a few hours later, but some managed to get in their cars and flee the city, while some others walked on foot, crossing the Iranian border (only 27 miles away) to receive aid from Iranian citizens and transportation to Iranian hospitals for treatment. Eyewitnesses and citizens with minor injuries stated that after the intensive bombing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., they saw, white, black and then yellow smoke in the air with familiar scent of fresh sweet apples or as some survivors described the smell of spoiled eggs or garlic.
The survivors specified that a number of bombs were first dropped to block the major roads leading into and out of the city, and then chemical weapons began to fall. Not only in Halabja, some people in nearby cities, including my city, attempted making gas masks for themselves from rags and towels and stayed in their basements or inside their homes, while some got into their cars to flee. Eventually, they got out of their cars and ran up into the mountains but the military followed after them and kept attacking from airplanes and helicopters. During this time, everyone was trying to find out what happened to the rest of their families, neighbors and friends. Some learned that the rest of their families had been killed during the attack; some others were able to find a few of their family members who later were able to leave the city.
Deadly chemical gas was used to terrorize the Peshmarga and the Kurds’ rural population. Thousands of birds, animals and human bodies piled up all over the city. Several days later, horrific and heartbreaking images were published, revealing the vicious attack. Some of the pictures that I saw were taped onto windows and doors of barbershops, restaurants and business offices. Images of people trying to get to their cars, but they did not make it, some trying to make it to water because the gas was burning their eyes and skin and narrowing their airway to breath, and some were just trying to hug or reach out to their family members. However, the most popular and touching image to the day was an image of a man named Omar “Omari Khawar,” with the baby in his arms. It has become the symbol of Kurdish dilemma and mass-killing. The use of chemical weapons has created a very big, messy and complicated situation for the world to understand. Quickly, Halabja became known as the Kurdish Hiroshima.
World media only covered the event as tragic news resulting from a conflict between two countries. In the aftermath of the horror, confusion resulted over who had carried out the chemical gas attack. Some world leaders were amenable that Iran was the reason; some were neutral about the event, whereas, most declined to comment on the tragedy. After the Iran-Iraq war ended, a few global powers admitted that Saddam Hussein was the first world leader in modern times to have brutally used chemical weapons against his own people. His goals were to systematically terrorize and exterminate the Kurdish population in northern Iraq, to silence his critics, and to test the effectiveness of his chemical and biological weapons. The Kurdish villages were testing grounds for his weapons.
Today, the wounds of this massacre have still not healed. The Kurds are hurt and feeling abandoned, they thought they were America’s allies, but America looked the other way when they needed help the most. Most Kurds agreed that the world, the United States, the West and Saddam’s Arab backers, turned a blind eye and allowed the dictator to commit his crimes because they needed him against the Iranian president Khomeini. The Kurds feel they cannot ever have closure over Halabja.
Iraqi soldiers in protective gear returned to Halabja to study the effectiveness of their weapons and attacks. Gradually, the whole world started pointing a finger at Saddam’s regime and began competing on who would accurately report the detail of the event. What was uncovered was that Saddam’s regime purposefully mixed mustard gas and nerve agents to magnify their initial and long-term effects. The weapons contaminated the food and water supplies, soil and animal population.
Immediate medical effects in Halabja were death by asphyxiation, skin burns and blisters. Most people left with impaired vision, blindness, breathing difficulty, respiratory and digestive shutdown, vomiting, diarrhea, neurological disorder, seizures and coma. The long-term medical effects included cases of leukemia, lymphoma, and breast, lung, skin, and other types of cancers. The direct exposure of parents to the gas, and then to contaminated soil and water, have caused a high number of miscarriages and children suffering from severe diseases. Indirect victims of the massacre are children born with birth defects, or others who became ill after discovering a mass grave.
The Kurds want the Halabja massacre to be recognized and to have the world acknowledge Saddam Hussein’s mass murders and his violation of human rights as genocide. The recognition of their suffering will help heal their massive trauma and psychological wounds. The international community remains silent. Only the Iraqi High Criminal Court and the Court of Appeal of The Hague employed the term “genocide” in 2007. Not surprisingly, there has never been a thorough investigation to trace which country sold Saddam the mustard gas and nerve agent used in Halabja, or aided him with the technology to make them and investigate the role of several French companies and individuals who may have made the chemical weapons massacre possible. It has never been in Western interests to examine deeply Saddam’s suppliers and networks, for fear of the troublesome truths that could turn up. While the Kurds continue waiting for the Iraqi chemical gas use to be internationally justified, in April 4th 2017, the Baath’s regime attacked again, this time in north-western Syria. More than 80 people were killed in a suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Slowly, yet surely all of Halabja city began to work on putting the fragments of their principles together. They became resilient and each other’s support and healer. Along with social support from surrounding small cities with broken hearts parents continued to care for their children and teachers once again opened the doors of schools to teach lessons about love, compassion, unity, community values, courage, justice and human rights. Farmers began working on bettering agriculture and making sure the water supply is tested frequently. To reduce psychological abnormality and elimination of PTSD cases, psychiatrists and therapists traveled from Sulaimaniya and the capital of Kurdistan/Erbil to Halabja to assist in assessing, diagnosing cases of traumas and promote healing.