Vicken Cheterian

Lessons from Halabja

Halabja is a remote town isolated from the world, located in eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, encircled by Iranian mountains on three sides. The climate is mild; Sirwan River irrigates the gardens of the planes around the town, making the region a little paradise compared to the dry planes to the west. Its Kurdish population speaks Hewrami dialect, reflecting their historic isolation from the rest of the Kurdish population in the area, who speak the more common Sorani dialect. To the rest of the world Halabja is known for the massive chemical attack that the armies of Saddam Hussein carried out on March 16, 1988, killing an estimated five thousand peoples.

Kareem Khder, the mayor of Halabja, kindly met us in Suleinamiye and led us to his town. He told us the high moments of Halabja’s history: in 1909 Adila Khan, a woman, served as mayor of the town; first school established was in the 1920’s; in 1964 Jalal Talabani – later president of Iraq – had found refuge with a group of his fighters. Quickly, our conversation turns to that fatidic date: How many people died? “More than 5’000 people. We do not know exactly,” answers the mayor. Two third of those who died were women and children. Halabja was one in 200 chemical attacks that Saddam’s army carried out during the al-Anfal campaign. 

We arrive to Halabja and we go directly to the Halabja Monument museum, where pictures and documentations about March 16, 1988, are gathered. Entire families come and in silence watch, learn anew or remember sufferings of the past. There we meet Aras Abid Akram, the head of Halabja Chemical Victims Society; he was 19 years old when the attack happened, in which 12 of his immediate family members died: father, mother, seven brothers and three sisters. “I buried them by my own hands. I have this feeling that God kept me alive so that I become witness to what Saddam did to Halabja.”

War and extermination

I went to Halabja to seek answers to the blind violence burning the cities and gardens of the Middle East. Many writers consider that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq the moment when the regional order was overthrown, igniting the wave of violence. But Halabja tells another tale: the town, on the border with Iran, was always a refuge for rebels. In March 1988 Kurdish Peshmerga’s and Iranian soldiers, within the long and bloody Iraq-Iran war, had managed to push the Iraqi army out of the town. The answer to this defeat did not wait long: on March 16, 1988, Iraqi army, under the supervision of Ali Hassan al-Majid (Chemical Ali) started shelling the city, followed by the air force dropped over 200 bombs stuffed with mustard gas, VX, and sarine gas over the town. “The next day the attack continued on surrounding villages knowing that people will seek refuge there,” told me Nariman Ali, a survivor.

The Halabja chemical attack is an episode of the Iraq-Iran war, but it was also part of the Iraqi state’s campaign to subdue Iraq’s Kurdish population. The ruling Baathist regime with its “pan-Arab” ideology could not accept the existence of population groups that failed to correspond to its ideology. Moreover, the Kurdish population in those parts of the world lived for centuries in semi-autonomous status, and resisted centralization efforts since the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, al-Anfal was to subdue a non-conformist ethnic population that took place under the shroud of a major war, just like all modern genocides.

In 1988, there was an Iranian TV crew who visited Halabja and documented the crimes, followed by handful international journalists. Yet, Western leaders were not interested in the case back then; Saddam Hussein was a Western ally in his war against the Islamic Republic of Iran. American President George W. Bush, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, remembered Halabja and the crimes committed there years later, only after their decision to invade Iraq was already taken.

The Suffering Continues

Kamel Abdel Kader was 15 years old when the chemical attack took place. “I was in Basha neighbourhood in city centre. When the attack started, my parents prepared humid clothes with charcoal” which was their only protection from the chemical attack. “We waited until night to escape, but airplanes were bombing continuously.” As they were escaping towards Iran, the road came under attack. “I saw bombs hitting our convoy, bodies blown up. I lost consciousness.” He was lucky to be saved by Iranian medical teams who finally took him to a Teheran hospital. His parents five sisters and a brother were not. His brother Jamil was transported to a hospital in Shiraz, where he died and was buried in Beheshti Zahra cemetery in the Iranian capital. Abdel Kader survived to go and continue his studies and become Arabic teacher. Then, suddenly, nine years back he could not breathe anymore. The chemical agents that he inhaled in 1988 led to the collapse of his respiratory system. “Until now, every week, some of the wounded are dying. Many of us need lung transplant” but it can only be done in foreign hospitals, and could cost up to a million dollars. “I cannot breathe without this machine,” he says, “I cannot even go out for washing without help.” He and many others in Halabja feel that politicians manipulate their cause, but there is not enough attention given to their suffering. In 2011 there was even a big demonstration asking for government assistance. 

Iraq’s Changing “Minorities”

The mayor knowing my interest to Iraq’s diverse population took me to Hawaryakan neighbourhood, where a community of 600 Kakai families live. There we went to the temple and met with Ako Shawes, a community leader. They are also known as Yarsan, or Ahl ul-Haqq, and live in eastern Iraq and parts of Iran, having followers among Kurds, but also smaller groups of Arab, Lori, Persian followers. Sultan Ishaq Barzinji wrote down the holly texts in the 14th century, compiling the Kakai holly book known as Saranjam. Kakis, like other minority groups in Iraq, fear for their future: “What happened to the Yazidis made us very afraid,” Shawes said, “For them, for ISIS, we are kuffar. There were six Kakai villages between Mosul and Erbil which was occupied by ISIS” and its inhabitants had escaped to safety. 

But the biggest surprise in my Halabja trip came at the end. The mayor took me to Julakan neighbourhood, which is today an area of ruined, abandoned houses. Some of them are well built, stone houses, revealing that the neighbourhood had lived through prosperous times of past. This was the neighbourhood where once Halabja’s Jews, a quarter of the total population in the 1940’s, lived. Then, one day, they were forced to escape to Iran, from where they were put on airplanes to continue to Israel. The Jews of Halabja, Hewrami speaking ethnic Kurds, had no guilt in occupying Palestinian farms, colonizing Palestinian land. But they were pushed out of their homes, out of their ancestral land, for belonging to a religious community. 

In the Middle East, history seems to repeat itself in a cruel manner.