Gravestones for families who lost loved ones on March 16, 1988
HALABJA, Kurdistan Region – A foreigner would be forgiven for thinking there is only one city called Halabja in the Kurdistan Region, but the truth is more complex.
In Suleimani’s Sharzaur taxi terminal if a cab driver is hired for a journey to Halabja, he would certainly ask whether your destination is Halabja or Halabja Taza—New Halabja. The two cities share more than just their names.
On March 16, 1988, the Baathist regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein bombed Halabja with internationally banned chemical weapons, killing an estimated 5,000 people - almost all civilians - and wounding another 10,000 residents.
As the attack unfolded, the fleeing locals faced two choices: head to Iran, or leave for regime-controlled areas, like Suleimani and elsewhere.
The mass exodus to Iran was more than a tiring experience. Many Kurds made the journey on foot, and only the luckiest could afford a donkey. A photo by an Iranian journalist in the mountains surrounding Halabja, shows a man carrying his three children in a small wheelbarrow. The man had left all his familiy’s belongings behind, the journalist told me as he attended the 27th anniversary of the chemical attack in Halabja.
For those who chose to stay in Iraq, Halabja was not an option. Soon after the attack, the Iraqi regime declared Halabja and its surroundings forbidden territory: nobody had the right to visit these areas let alone to live there.
Halabjans soon scattered to different parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, where many were denied access to basic services, like education.
Only one year after the gas attack, Iraq built a new town from scratch some 50 km northwest of what became Old Halabja—located between Halabja and Suleimani. The Baathist government officially named the new town Saddam’s Halabja, adding salt to the wounds of the locals.
Defiant Halabjans and Kurds call it Halabjay Taza, or New Halabja, though it was an unofficial designation.
In sharp contrast to Halabja, Halabja Taza lacked everything that made the old city home. There were no tree plantations, no mountains immediately surrounding it, and the weather was rather hot. The regime offered incentives, providing compensation for those who left their old houses, and built new roads and housing that was modern for its time.
Halabja Taza was a forced collective town designed to uproot people from Halabja and its surroundings so that they would stop supporting the Kurdish Peshmerga in rural areas.
Names for the neighborhoods in Halabja Taza were given by the original homes of the residents: Halabjans brought from Halabja, Sirwanis from Sirwan sub-district, Biyarayis from Biyara sub-district, Khurmalis from Khurmal sub-district, Tawelayis from Tawila villiage and Shameranayies from Shameran. All of these areas were designated by the government as forbidden places and military targets.
Old Halabja remained a forbidden town through 1991 when the Kurdish people led a successful uprising in much of Iraqi Kurdistan. Only then were the original Halabjans able to come back home and begin rebuilding their city out of the ashes of war.
Jamal Bedar, a father of nine children, left Halabja for Iran immediately after the chemical attack. After six years, he decided to head home.
Bedar found his house, located in Kani Ashqan — the spring of lovers —demolished by the Iraqi troops. He could only afford a house in Halabja Taza and moved there temporarily, watching as many Halabjans sold their new houses in the state-sanctioned city and rebuilt their old ones in Halabja.
“In Halabja Taza, the roads were in better shapes and the houses more developed, but people still felt like strangers. Halabja people preferred their ruined houses somewhere in Halabja or a village because it was where they felt at home,” Bedar said.
Under the Kurdistan Regional Government, authorities changed the name of the collective town of Saddam’s Halabja to Shazaur, in reference to the fertile plain of the same name.
President Masoud Barzani signed a law on March 16, 2014, that was passed by the Kurdistan Council of Ministers to officially make Halabja the fourth province in the Kurdistan region.
According to the law, a referendum is expected to be held in the districts of Sharazur, what was once Halabja Taza, to decide if the residents want to be incorporated into the province.
Bedar had to live another six years in Halabja Taza before he could afford a house in Halabja. For now, he resides in the Khurmal sub-district, part of Halabja province.