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One Night in Halabja: Memories of a Ghost Town

By Alexandra Di Stefano Pironti 17/3/2014
Shano Aziz with her daughter. 'I do believe that past experiences in life make you who you are.' Photo courtesy of Shano Aziz.
Shano Aziz with her daughter. 'I do believe that past experiences in life make you who you are.' Photo courtesy of Shano Aziz.

BARCELONA, Spain – More than two decades later, Shano Aziz still remembers the terrifying night she spent in Halabja, three years after the March 16, 1988 poison gas attack that turned it into a ghost town.

A frightened nine-year-old, she was escaping with her grandparents towards the Iranian border to flee a crackdown by Saddam Hussein against a Kurdish uprising in 1991, not knowing if her parents were among the 1.5 million Kurds also running for their lives across neighboring borders.

She recalls the family taking shelter for the night in just another empty house, left vacant since the mass-murder of an estimated 5,000 people, killed by Saddam to punish Kurdish rebels who had taken over the town in the closing months of the 1980-88 war with Iran.

In her own words: “It was in the early afternoon in March 1991 when we arrived in the city of Halabja and took shelter in a very big, beautiful house. We didn’t realize what had happened in this particular house during the 1988 atrocity against the Kurds until hours later. The house had a very big basement and it became apparent that most of the neighbors had taken shelter there to escape what they thought was an air strike, not realizing it was a chemical attack. Over 100 people had died in the basement. I remember my uncles going down the basement and saying there were traces of blood, bodily fluid and hair. I didn’t go down  myself, and remember after that I was too scared to even go inside the house. We couldn’t touch anything or eat, and ended up sleeping in the car with my uncle and two of my aunts.”

She remembers spending that day going around the other houses, reading signs posted by neighbors or relatives about who, among the dead, had lived there. Sometimes there were pictures to go with posts on the wall, and the names of those who had died. Some of the properties had been left untouched since the day of the attack, as if frozen in time.

Aziz, who is now a mother and professional dentist living in England, was born in the city of Khanaqin in 1981, but forced to spend most of her earlier childhood in the city of Kalar. Due to Saddam’s forced Arabization of Iraq’s Kurdish regions, her family was forcefully resettled during the Iran-Iraq war.

“There are very few Kurds you will ever meet who haven't suffered persecution or imprisonment during the Saddam era,” Aziz told Rudaw.

“Maybe not all suffered directly, but certainly they are all emotionally and psychologically scarred. Most families had a member or more who had suffered direct persecution or imprisonment.”

Her father was always involved in politics and suffered imprisonment and persecution, and as a result the family suffered even more than others.

“Being nine or ten, as far as I was concerned, a safe, warm bed, playing with my friends and going to school was all that was important to me, not realizing those were the very basic needs compared to Kurdish national rights and security that my father was standing and fighting for,” she says.

She moved to the United States with her family in 1996, when she was 14, part of the 8,000 Kurds who migrated there during the civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the reinvasion of the autonomous region by the Iraqi regime.

Saddam’s so-called “Anfal Campaign” against the Kurds, now recognized by Britain, Norway, Sweden and a growing list of countries as genocide, exterminated some 180,000 Kurds and destroyed their villages and towns.

“We fled due to fear of persecution and imprisonment by the Iraqi regime, as my father, along with thousands of others, had worked with American or European humanitarian organizations after the Gulf War,” she says.

“When we arrived in the USA, the options were to live very temporarily on minimum social care or work to support yourself. I had three siblings and my father took up employment within two weeks of arriving. My father had two jobs and my mother was working part-time, whilst I was caring for my brothers after school and managing to excel in my studies,” she remembers.

In 2002, she moved to the United Kingdom and after a couple of years started her university education in dentistry, graduating from the University of Sheffield in 2012 and taking up employment in the UK as a general dental practitioner.

Even as an adult, she remembers that night in Halabja as “the most terrifying and heart-wrenching experience of my life.” It is part of a past she cannot forget.

“I do believe that past experiences in life make you who you are,” she declares. “However, you choose how those experiences shape you.”



Stewee Guy
Stewee Guy | 18/3/2014
Very touching story. I'm so proud of Kurdish women like Shano who make the best out of what we Kurdish people went through. PS This is the way I like to see Kurdish women confident, free and not afraid of smiling :) just like Shano and her cute daughter.
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