The city and area of Halabja, which were recently named the Kurdistan Region’s fourth province, hold a special place in the hearts of all Kurds.
In the past, Halabja was caught in internal and external wars that delayed social and economic progress. Even so, political development in the city has been the centerpiece of Kurdish nationalism since the formation of Iraq in the early 20th century.
Halabja has gone through serious turmoil in its history. These upheavals culminated in 1988 in a brutal chemical attack the by Iraqi regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein. More than 5,000 Kurdish people died and tens of thousands of others were wounded. Many victims are still suffering from the effects of the toxic gas.
The heartless attack did not erode the tolerance of Halabja’s people. Non-Muslims have been living in Halabja for hundreds of years, including ethnic minority Kakais and Jews.
Although many Jews left after the establishment of Israel in 1948, there is still a Jewish neighborhood in the city. Older residents still long for the days when Jewish businesses were a boon to the local economy.
Meanwhile, thousands of Sunni Arabs who fled violence and Shiite militias have been welcomed by the locals. Ironically, many of them are from Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
An Arabic school has been opened for the children of the internal displaced people (IDPs) so that they can study in their own language and keep their traditions and culture. In the past, Kurdish children were forced to study in Arabic.
According to Halabjans, some IDPs live more prosperously than the locals because Baghdad continues to pay the salaries of those who fled to the Kurdistan Region.
Local teachers have complained that the Arab schoolteachers continue to receive their salaries in Halabja because the school is funded and administered by Baghdad.
Yet Kurdish teachers have not been paid for three months because Baghdad has denied the KRG its share of the budget despite a deal reached last year on oil exports and the budget.
This double standard have become a source of animosity for some locals, who consider the current regime in Baghdad not that much different from those that came before it.
Despite a local economy slowed by the federal government’s policy towards the KRG, service projects are still going on in Halabja.
A new $200 million university campus continues to be built just east of the city and a South Korean firm is building a water treatment and storage facility in Halabja, which aims to ease the city’s water problems.
A new motel has been opened and hundreds of kilometers of paved roads have been built in Halabja and the beautiful countryside. Resorts have been refurbished, and new restaurants, tea shops and antique stores have sprung up to receive tourists.
The hospitality of its people, geographical border with Iran, and stunning scenery of lakes and mountains make Halabja province one of the most beautiful and fascinating areas in the Kurdistan region.
Several small towns in the Hawraman area boast beautiful nature and unique handicrafts. Hawraman, which was once the capital of the extremist group Ansar al-Islam, is known for houses built on cliffs and a diverse array of local food and products.
Locals speak their own Hawrami dialect and still produce traditional clothing and shoes. Walnuts from Hawraman are famous in Iraq and Kurdistan.
The small town of Byara has two famous kebab shops. One owner claimed “people across Kurdistan, Arabs and foreigners come here to taste our Kabab.”
One shop owners told me some of the products come from the other side of border, an area of Iran also called Hawraman. Kurds in the area have retained their social and economic ties with Kurdish communities in Iran.
In some areas, only a small stream demarcates the international border. In other areas, walnut orchards have made borders meaningless and on a daily basis Kurds from Iraq and Iran interact and help one another with irrigation and harvesting.
Just a 10-minute drive north of Byara, one can find the villages of Wazane and Balkha. On the main road, there are antique stores, Kebab shops and tea houses opened late last year by two brothers Adil and Samad.
Adil, in his early 30s and from Wazane village, is an archeologist who works as a local teacher.
“Many tourists come here. Just yesterday, we had over 30 Arab tourists who came, sitting here, enjoying the beautiful weather, kebab and tea,” said Adil, who plans to expand his enterprises.
“I plan to bring a family from Iranian Kurdistan and open a traditional Hawrami bakery,” he added.
The most striking part of Adil’s teashop are the paintings and calligraphy on sheep and goatskins. The floor is covered by local rugs and a wood stove keeps warms the interior. Organic coal is used to brew tea and prepare kebabs.
Back in Halabja, the Kakai minority recently held an internal election to select a representative who will become the ethnic group’s first elected official in Halabja provincial council.
There is a general sense of disappointment by people in Halabja towards the political parties. Many are frustrated by the failure to reach development agreements despite the fact that Halabja is now a province with its own share of the KRG budget.
In the past, regardless of who ruled in Halabja, its citizens always remained active. These days, civil society organizations play a vital role in keeping political parties in check and pressuring them to act more quickly in forming the Halabja provincial council.
Recently, a group of young people held peaceful gatherings and asked for shops to close as a sign of dissatisfaction with the current deadlock between the political parties. They had hoped the parties would reach a deal before the 27th commemoration of the Halabja attacks, but that was not to be.
To expand the local economy, local officials have been negotiating with Iran to open an international border crossing. This, they believe, will provide more jobs, trade and tourism.
Halabja officials have said everything is ready their side and it’s up to Iranians to make this happen.