” Every life has a measure of sorrow, and sometimes this is what awakens us.”
Halabja was a thriving city of 80,000, on Iraq’s northeastern border with Iran , known for its rich history and embrace of Kurdish culture. Its local politicians, artists and intellectuals were notoriously outspoken in demanding basic rights for the people of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan who had long been oppressed by Hussein’s regime. The chemical attack came in waning days of the Iran-Iraq war, as rumors circulated that Iranian forces were hiding out in the besieged town.
Today, Halabja remains a nostalgic, quiet place – haunted by the massacre that gutted the town. Beyond the thousands instantly killed in the attack, another 10,000 were injured and, in the ensuing years, thousands more have died from subsequent complications and birth defects. The impact of that fateful day is still reverberating.
The Halabja chemical attack, also known as the Halabja Massacre or Bloody Friday, was a genocidal massacre against the Kurdish people that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war in the Kurdish city of Halabjain Southern Kurdistan. The attack was part of the Al-Anfal campaign in northern Iraq, as well as part of the Iraqi attempt to repel the Iranian Operation Zafar . It took place 48 hours after the fall of the town to Iranian army and Kurdish guerrillas.
On March 17, 1988, the morning after Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party unleashed a tirade of chemical weapons, killing some 5,000 Iraqi-Kurds in the city of Halabja, a few brave photojournalists ventured into the city to ensure the brutal dictator’s atrocities would be documented for history.
Two Kurdish ladies had survived the Iraqi chemical attacks with too much damages on their bodies, who knows if they are still alive. There are still the effects of the chemical agents in the area and had altered genes of those had close contact with the agents during the attacks. There are still too many birth defects. Children are born with very unusual symptoms; such as disfiguration, and malfunction of internal organs. Moreover, there are too many miscarriages and premature death.
Not long after the Halabja massacre, the latest and most comprehensive in a series of international agreements banning the use of chemical weapons, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, came into effect. Only six nations, including the pariah regime of North Korea and the nonexistent state of Somalia, haven’t signed the multilateral treaty. And one of them is right next door to here: Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad maintains one of the world’s largest chemical arsenals.Assad may want to consider carefully whether he really should use those weapons.
Saddam Hussein was hanged in 2006, for crimes unrelated to the Halabja massacre, but it’s a safe bet he would have received a death sentence for it, too, had he made it to a trial alive. That’s what happened to his cousin, Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti — also known as “Chemical Ali” — the nickname he earned by directing the genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds that included the Halabja attack.
“Chemical Ali” in his own words
According to a 1988 audiotape of a meeting of leading Iraqi officials published by Human Rights Watch, al-Majid vowed to use chemical weapons against the Kurds, saying:
“I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! the international community, and those who listen to them!
“I will not attack them with chemicals just one day, but I will continue to attack them with chemicals for fifteen days.”
He received five death sentences for that campaign and was executed in 2010.
The Kurds, a people with a distinct language and culture, number at least 30 million. Before World War I, they lived under the Ottoman Empire. After it collapsed, the region they inhabited was divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The Kurds were scattered, becoming citizens of newly created states, but continued dreaming of their own state.
The militia they created to fight for an independent Kurdistan, the Peshmerga, was allied with Iran, Hussein’s enemy. In 1988, Iraq and Iran were in the final throes of their eight-year war, and one of the last gasps of the fighting was around Halabja. The Iranian army had captured the city briefly, and after retaking it, Hussein wanted to punish the Kurds for the help they’d given the Iranians.
“Halabja is only 44 kilometers (27 miles) from the Iranian border and there, on the mountains, the peshmerga had been hiding since the 1960s to fight for the independence of Kurdistan, occasionally with the help of Tehran,” Sarkhel Hama Khan, a survivor of the chemical attack, who is now a director of the Halabja Monument museum, said.
“But even before attacking here, Saddam had fired chemical weapons against seven other villages at least, and arrested thousand of Kurds, who were later buried alive. It was a genocidal campaign, named Al-Anfal, which killed 180,000 out of 3 million Iraqi Kurds,” he recalled, while showing snapshots of that tragedy collected by the museum.
Now, the monument towers above the outskirts of Halabja, looking like an iron fist reaching for the sky. Around it, almost 1,000 new houses, built along neat lines and spotless playgrounds, are a testament to Halabja’s return to life.
The pastel-painted neighborhood was built in 2011 to house survivors of the attack, more than two decades later.
Yet, nobody here seems to blame local authorities for any shortcomings. In fact, many proudly point out that Kurds now have some power of their own, albeit a de facto autonomy, after decades of armed struggle and an American-led invasion of Iraq. The new federal constitution for Iraq, approved in 2005, two years after Hussein was deposed, paved the way for a new Kurdistan Regional Government with a budget of its own, funded by the region’s large oil reserves.
“That said, it is hard for people who are still wounded in their body and minds to overcome such trauma. We will live with it forever,” said Koran Adham, who was appointed three years ago as mayor of Halabja, by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, the party headed by Iraqi president — and Kurd — Jalal Talabani. Before Koran Adnan became a mayor, he was a lawyer representing the Halabja families seeking justice and compensation from the Iraqi central government.
The aftereffects of the attack will last a long time and has already gone through the generations, affecting those who weren’t even born in 1988.
“So far there is no comprehensive study showing a cause-effect relation between the chemical attack and the high number of congenital defects or blood cancer we have been registering among kids here,” said Jihad Hama, a doctor in Halabja’s German Center for the Psychologically and Physically Disabled, which is financed by German aid.
But most of the victims in Halabja are certain that direct exposure of parents to the gas, and then to contaminated soil and water, has caused a high number of miscarriages and children suffering from severe diseases.
The absence of official data is in contrast to the German Center’s anecdotal evidence, including at least 50 recent cases of birth defects.
A team from South Korea visited last year to begin research into the medical history of Halabja after 1988. The Iraqi Health Ministry also launched an investigation a few months ago, seeking to prove a correlation between the use of gas and congenital anomalies, according to Hunar Jaafar Hama, director of the Halabja Health district.
“Every kind of gas may have two kinds of effects on the human body. The direct ones are clear: glaucoma and cornea damage, degenerative lung illnesses like fibrosis, skin scars or cancer, and psychological disorders,” Hama said in his office, which is next to the first Halabja hospital that will specialize in chemical-related diseases.
“Then, you have long-term effects. According to medical literature, gases can increase the risk of birth defects and cancer. And they might cause genetic mutations in the victims, which can be transmitted to the second and even the third generation. As my experience suggests, the high rate of ovarian cancer here could be a case in point for a study,” he added.
Awat and Jino Karim Hama said no doctor gave them an explanation for the microcephaly — a neuro-developmental disorder resulting in an abnormally small brain — affecting their two small children. During a recent visit to the expensively decorated family house in Halabja, Ara, 4, and his sister, Ana, 3, appeared excited to meet new visitors.
They dragged themselves on a large purple carpet in the living room, squealing with joy. Neither can walk or talk, and both have a paralyzed left arm.
Equipment to conduct prenatal tests to identify birth defects isn’t available in Iraq or Iran. If the couple decides to have another child, they have been advised to go to Jordan for prenatal screenings, but Jino said she won’t risk having any more children. In this remote corner of Iraq, with two disabled children and limited health care, the family’s daily routine is already hard enough.
Political feuds over Kurdish oil in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, and the economic boom visible in Erbil, the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government, are far away from Halabja, where citizens dream just of a free and peaceful life.