By Dr Simon Ross Valentine
At about 11 o’clock on the morning of 16 March 1988, after two days of conventional bombing by the Iraqi army from nearby hills, airplanes belonging to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi air force began bombing the city of Halabja. For several hours the planes carried out successive sorties dropping, not only incendiaries, but chemical weapons including mustard gas, cyanide and sarin, on the vulnerable city below.
Sangar, a Kurd, a survivor of that horrendous attack, now in his eighties, stated to me how “everything was madness as bombs dropped”. “One moment there was life, precious life”, he said, “next there was nothing but death, the bodies of men, women, children lying lifeless everywhere”.
Many Kurds unsuccessfully tried to find safety in makeshift air raid shelters they had recently constructed near their homes. Some people managed to survive by covering their faces with damp cloths. Little children, painfully separated from their mothers, screamed with pain as they tried to rub their stinging eyes.
At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack on Halabja, three quarters of the victims were women and children, and a further 7,000 people were injured, or suffered long term illness.
A BBC news report of March 2002, quoted a surgeon working in Halabja at that time, saying: "traces of the chemicals agents are still residing in the water, air and food”. The report confirmed that since the chemical attacks in 1988, “the number of various forms of cancer, birth deformities, still-born babies and miscarriages had dramatically increased”.
Iraqi General Ali Hassan Al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, known to millions of people in the West as Chemical Ali, and as Ali-Anfal to the Kurds, was the Iraqi official responsible for the chemical attack on Halabja. At a meeting with members of the Northern Bureau of the Ba'ath Party in May 1988, Al-Majid made it quite clear that the aim of Saddam’s regime was “the annihilation of the Kurdish people”, and “chemical weapons would continue to be used to achieve that goal”.
The attack on Halabja, the worst chemical weapons attack in modern history, was part of a program of attempted genocide of the Kurds - Al-Anfal - which, although much smaller in scale, was just as horrific as the “Final Solution” and the holocaust of the Jews, under Nazism. During Al-Anfal from 1987-88, as many as 3,000 Kurdish villages were obliterated and 180,000 Kurds killed.
The West, although aware of the chemical attack on Halabja and other atrocities carried out by the Ba’athists against the Kurds, remained ominously silent.
As so often occurs in international politics, the age-old proverb prevailed: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. The Iraqi regime was regarded by the US and other western powers as a useful tool for keeping Iran (considered as a threat) and the Ayatollah Khomeini in check. As Noam Chomsky remarked in an interview with ALTERNET in October 2016, instead of helping the Kurds, the West played “footsie with Fascism”, supporting Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War.
As the news outlet Foreign Policy reported in August 2013, “despite Iraq’s terrible track record of human rights abuses”, for most of the Iran-Iraq war, the US, “although aware of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and its own Kurdish citizens, provided considerable military aid to Saddam”.
Alan Friedman, in his book Spider’s Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq, 1993, emphasized how the Reagan regime, determined to prevent Iran from winning the Iran-Iraq war, provided “several billion dollars' worth of economic aid, the sale of dual- use technology, non-U.S. origin weaponry, military intelligence, and Special Operations training” to the Iraqis.
With this point in mind, Barham Saleh, former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and PUK politician, addressing a gathering in Halabja in March 2002, declared with justification: "Halabja is a black mark on the reputation of the international community".
Halabja today, now a modern, developing urban complex, is a city trying to make sense of a tragedy that has come to symbolise the Kurdish struggle against oppression and tyranny.
On the edge of the city is the Halabja monument, with its park, gardens and museum containing documents, videos and the names of all those who died in the attacks. Originally the idea of the PUK leader Jalal Talabani, today the purpose of the monument is the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and the support of the victims of Saddam’s chemical attack.
Above the monument, two large hands made out of concrete and steel, 100 feet high, reach upwards beseechingly, holding a Kurdish flag, a potent symbol of Kurdish aspirations and hopes.
Nearby is another reminder of that horrendous day, a statue, depicting a women lying on the ground clutching her child, unaware that the child is already dead. Such symbols, dramatic in form and shape, embody the Kurdish spirit of hope in the face of constant tragedy and despair.
“The monument is a sign of hope for us”, explained Nishtiman, a middle-aged Kurdish woman I spoke to on my visit to Halabja. “It is a reminder that good, Hiwa darm (hopefully), can arise even from evil”.
In mid-December 2016 I met with Aisha Ahmed Ali, at her home in the town of Khurmal a short distance from Halabja. Tragically, she lost her husband and five children in the 1988 attack,
“Mentally and physically many of us still suffer today”, she stated poignantly. “It was hell. We suffered greatly, we still suffer today”.
She, like many Kurds, feels anger at the West at that time. “They supplied many weapons to Saddam”, she stated through an interpreter. Holding her hands up in frustration she declared:
“They did nothing to help us then against Saddam, they could do so much more for us today in our fight against Da’esh?”
I also met with members of the Ahmed family, now living in Tui Melek, a district of Suleimaniyah. One in particular, Othman Ahmad, Aisha’s nephew, a local businessman in his early forties, was a teenager living in Halabja at the time of the chemical attack, but not present there on that fatal day. He explained to me how in the attack he lost his grandfather and grandmother; many cousins and uncles.
The Kurds have persistently endeavoured to get the international community to acknowledge the chemical attack on Halabja as a crime against humanity, and the Iraqi slaughter of Kurds as genocide.
“Some of the countries that have recognised it as such include Canada, Norway, and the Netherlands” stated The Halabja Genocide: An Imani Lee Case Study” in 2016. “However”, concludes the Case Study, “the United States is noticeably missing from that list”. The UK parliament recognized the Halabja massacre as genocide in 2013, so also has the European Parliament.
The Iraqi High Criminal Court recognized the chemical attack on Halabja as an act of genocide in 2010, a decision welcomed by the Kurdistan Regional Government and Kurds generally.
A British MP recently remarked to me about Halabja, “terrible yes, but isn’t it time to forget and move on?”
Commemorating Halabja each year is essential for various important reasons. As a Kurdish friend at Saran University stated to me:
“Remembering Halabja makes us aware of an ongoing genocide, not only by ISIS against Yazidis and Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria, but also that of the Turkish government against the Kurds in South-East Turkey”.
“When we recall Halabja”, opined another Kurdish contact, “it highlights the continuing need for the Iraqi government to provide the victims with the compensation; and medical and psychological care, that they rightly deserve”.
But most importantly, remembering victims of genocide is necessary to ensure that their lives were not ended in vain.
Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance writer and lecturer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org