Archive photo from Halabja in 1988
© نامعلوم
Archive photo from Halabja in 1988
Last updated: April 29, 2013

The ghost of Halabja

Banner Icon Every year when the memorials of Saddam’s chemical weapons attack come to an end, the media pans out and the leaders drive home. Halabja then returns to its daily routine, trapped in a lonely struggle to return to the bustling city it was before March 16, 1988.

The suns on the Kurdish flags looked brighter than usual against a typically British backdrop of looming grey clouds, as men, women and children slowly placed daffodils at the foot of a young Memorial Tree.

Kamaran Haider was gentle-mannered, he pulled his hands to his chest as though to say thank you. The scene was a familiar one to the young Kurd: it was March 16 and Portsmouth had organized its yearly Halabja memorial ceremony. I smiled in return, and thanked him for his time. He’d been kind enough to stand in the bitter seaside wind, under the relentless drizzle, and talk to me about life after Halabja.

Kamaran was eleven when his hometown suffered a five-hour chemical attack at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Regime. Following a series of conventional rocket attacks, the Iraqi aircrafts dropped chemical weapons on the Kurdish town, killing 5,000 civilians and injuring thousands more.

”It’s one of the great atrocities of our time. Everything had been killed within seconds,” said Times foreign editor Richard Beeston after having visited Halabja shortly after the attacks.

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The young boy survived by hiding in his family’s makeshift bomb shelter, whilst others died around him; including his father, mother, brothers and sister. After three days, he was discovered by Iranian soldiers and taken to Iran for treatment.

”I was completely blind for forty days, my skin was burnt, and for two and a half years no hair grew on my body,” said Kamaran. Today, the thirty-six year old still suffers from a debilitating respiratory disease as a consequence of the attacks.

Halabja was a bustling town before Saddam silenced it with chemical weapons. It had a busy commercial section, a number of government offices and a population of some 60,000 Kurds. Many of the residents were internally displaced victims of the region’s on-going turmoil. More importantly, Halabja became home to a large number of Kurdish rebels seeking refuge; drawing the unwanted attention of the Ba’ath Regime.

Twenty-five years have passed since the mass murder of Halabja’s citizens. Although every month of March, Kurdish and international interest in the city is heightened by memorial ceremonies, a sense of disillusion and abandonment has become widespread amongst its inhabitants. Critics claim that progress and reconstruction has been scarce. In 2006, thousands of residents took to the street to protests against what they perceived as neglect. That day, the Halabja memorial was set on fire, dozens were injured, and one protester was shot dead by the police.

According to Safaq News, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) allocated 120 billion Iraqi Dinars (circa $97 million) last year for projects in Halabja, including water, sewage, sidewalks and street paving. Despite the budget allocation, residents are yet to see the results of such investment.

”Most of the families who survived Anfal (the name of Saddam’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds) and Halabja live in very poor conditions,” explained Kamaran.

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This year, an average of five million dollars was allocated to the six-day event, during which a series of conferences were held to commemorate Anfal and Halabja. “How many houses, schools or hospitals can be built with this amount of money?” asked Kamaran.

The baffled reaction to the seemingly excessive sum seems to be the general consensus, particularly when the region’s leading tribes have been accused of basking in autocratic power and unrivaled riches.

It would not be correct to suggest that there has been no progress whatsoever. From the opening of two hospitals, one university and one high school to the building of new homes and the paving of roads, the KRG has not turned on its heels and walked away from what is arguably the region’s most wounded city.

Yet government critics still see these as rather limited steps forward for a nouveau riche government which has made no apologies for the continuous development of the region’s two principle cities, Erbil and Slemani.

”Halabja is not developed in comparison to Erbil and Slemani, the level of the basic services is still very low,” explained Kamaran. A sad reality, in a land that is booming in the wake of social and political freedom, massive oil revenues and increasing foreign investment.

Last month, all eyes turned to Halabja and its citizens, as national and international authorities and media spilt into the city to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks. Today, less than a month after the ceremony, the dwindling national and international attention is palpable. Whilst media outlets turn to more current stories, Kurdistan’s authorities strive to tackle more immediate problems in the region.

Particularly in the international arena, Halabja has retreated to its silent corner. Government critics protest against what they perceive as a purely political interest in Halabja as a tool to garner international support, which is then largely forgotten during the rest of the year.

”They keep their eyes on the past, instead of helping us build a future, because it is more convenient for them,” said one diaspora Kurd from Halabja.

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”It’s sad,” said Richard Beeston during the Chatham House-hosted talk, ”because of everything else that has happened in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Halabja seems to be leaving the collective memory."

Each year memorial ceremonies around the world come to an end, the media pans out, the leaders drive home and celebrations for Newroz begin. Halabja then returns to its daily routine, trapped in a lonely struggle to return to the bustling city it was before March 16, 1988.

Sofia Barbarani
Sofia Barbarani is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraq. She has an MA in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies, King’s College London and in International Journalism, City University London. Her main focus is Jewish-Israeli identity and the Kurdistan Region.
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