The Forgotten City of Halabja - By Ahmed S. Wali*

The unknown remote Kurdish town of Halabja near the Iranian border entered the world’s vocabulary of modern-day horrors 15 years ago when Iraqi warplanes bombarded the rebellious enclave for several hours, shattering houses. Around 5,000 people died in the attack that shocked the world and revealed the ruthlessness of then Iraq’s president, Dictator Saddam Hussein. Now that Saddam Hussein has been ousted from power, Halabja’s residents can finally breathe freely again. Although dozens of blocks still lie in ruin and hundreds of residents still suffer from effects of the gassing, there is an atmosphere of relief in the streets and an unabashed pro-U.S. atmosphere that has lingered long after people in many other parts of Iraq have soured on the U.S. military presence.

Nowadays, in the busy central bazaar of Halabja, there was no indication of tension or danger. Shopkeepers in turbans and billowing trousers enjoy their cups of tea; teenage boys proudly displayed collections of soccer cards; geese waddled propound down the street. There was not soldier or gun in sight. Halabja is strongly under the control of Kurdistan Regional Government but more specifically the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two major Kurdish parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government.

However, Halabja is also home to several Terrorist militant groups that once violently battled the PUK and that still make many residents uneasy. Recently, the groups have fallen under the scrutiny of the PUK with the help of American forces, who suspect they may have links to al Qaeda or other armed terrorist movements. Despite the revitalizing effect that the fall of Saddam Hussein has had on Halabja, the town is still very much a place in mourning. Almost every family in Halabja lost a relative in the massacre. Halabja was once a beautiful and historic place; the 1988 attack resulted to an outpouring of aid from around the world that rebuilt public infrastructures. However, Halabja officials and residents complained that the help fell far short of what was needed to neither rebuild their town’s economy nor bring back thousands of inhabitants who fled abroad.

Halabja is a small town in the northern province of Sulaymani, roughly 260 kilometers north-east of the city of Baghdad. The town of Halabja lies about 11 km from the Iranian borders. Halabja is surrounded by the heights of Suran, Balambu, Shireh-roudi and Shaghan in the north, south and east. The lake of the dam of Darbandikhan is to the west of this town. Halabja is situated in a fertile area with forest vegetation. The majority of its inhabitants work in farming and cattle breeding.

Halabja is remembered by many as the place where thousands died in 1988 when Saddam Hussein targeted the Kurdish city with a deadly poison gas attack at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. The Kurds have been experiencing bloody armed conflicts: in Iraq since 1961, in Iran since 1979 and in Turkey since 1984. Due to their appropriate location, Halabja and the adjacent villages of Khormal and Dojailah had for long time been serving as a stronghold of the anti-Saddam Kurdish opposition. The Dictator wouldn't forget this fact off course and as customary under the terror rein of Saddam the punishment would be extremely severe and cruel. But this time the dictator's oppressive retaliation exceeded all his previously recorded crimes.

Very early in the morning on March 17, 1988, the troops of the dictator started the execution of a horrible massacre in which no civilian, child, woman, old or even animals and plants were spared. The town was bombarded by Saddam’s warplanes with chemical agents. In the mean time the artillery bombarded heavily the escape route in a manner that forced the civilians to stay in the danger-zone of the chemical bombardment. The chemical agents used were a cocktail of Mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX. The chemicals to which the people were exposed drenched their skin and clothes, affected their respiratory tracts and eyes and contaminated their water and food.

The direct effect of this crime was the death of more than 5,000 people mostly women and children. However, the long-term effect of the chemical agents used in the bombardment of Halabja is still effecting the environment of that area and causing a wide range of health problems for the inhabitants. The horrible pictures of the piles of bodies on the streets and alleys of Halabja describe the tragic death caused by the subjection to the cocktail of chemical agents used by the troops of the dictator. The indications from the crime seen as the absence any evident wounds, bleedings, or traditional weapon injuries on the strangely discolored bodies of the victims, leave no doubt about the use of chemical weapons. This was later confirmed by the post-mortem analysis performed by the Iranian physicians on the bodies of the victims. Halabja has entered history as the largest case of targeting civilian population with chemical weapons in the world.

The attack on Halabja is the most tragic and horrible of all other examples of Saddam’s criminal activities. For long time the innocent victims slaughtered in Halabja will remind us of the cruelty and barbarity of the most horrible example of dictatorship established by Saddam and his criminals.  This is why the Halabja Gas attacks need to be recognized by the world community as genocide against the Kurds and crime against humanity.

The city of Halabja should never be forgotten, and remembered as a lesson for the Kurdish nation and the world as a whole.  The people of  Halabja showed the world, that a city from darkness, poison and destruction can turn its fortunes around and build a bright future.  Once the land of oppression and tyrant now the land of peace and freedom.  The Halabjia people have shown the world that nothing is impossible with the will and the strength of the people.

*Ahmed S. Wali is a Doctoral Candidate in International Business


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