A Monument to a Troubled Time
As our taxi pulls up at the checkpoint just outside Halabja, a Kurdish soldier looks at each of us in turn. My heart sinks as he fixes his eyes on me. No one speaks English — this is Iraqi Kurdistan, after all — but no one needs to. The man signals for me to get out and walk, as directed, to a shabby office on the other side of the dusty highway. Inside is pandemonium. A group of guards, cradling assault rifles, stand by the door firing questions at me and at each other in Kurdish as I shake my head to signal that I don’t understand.
I notice that, despite wearing a full uniform, the ringleader — a giant of a man — is barefoot. A few soldiers get bored and return to their lunch of bread and chickpea soup, spread out on a sheet on the concrete floor. “What… are you doing here?” the leader finally stutters in English, the disbelief in his voice palpable. “Halabja,” I quickly reply, “The monument?” They all suddenly smile. “Ah, welcome, welcome,” and they hustle me out of the door and down the path towards the waiting taxi, crisis averted.
Few foreigners come to Halabja other than journalists and a few hardy backpackers, but those that do generally come to see the Halabja Monument and adjoining museum. Built in 2003, the monument commemorates the deaths of 5,000 residents in the 1988 chemical weapons attack on the city. Halabja is famous for its pomegranates, I am later to learn, but far more famous for its scars.
Prior to the Iran-Iraq War, Halabja had a big reputation, sitting alongside cities such as Najaf and Karbala as a centre of religious learning in Iraq. With a population of some sixty-thousand and located about 240km north-east of Baghdad and less than ten miles from the Iranian border, it was also a commercial hub for Kurds from surrounding villages and, before the war, from neighbouring Iran. But its importance as a centre of Kurdish nationalism increased during the conflict with Iran.
“The people see leaders and politicians coming here every anniversary and organising a big festival. But after March 16 everything is forgotten.”
This independence movement had begun decades earlier, in the 1920s. World War One had seen the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires and the carve-up of Kurdish areas between the modern Republic of Turkey and the new British- and French-mandated states of Iraq and Syria when it ended. Armed Kurdish peshmerga (which literally means “those who confront death”) rebels had been fighting ever since. They used the city and surrounding mountains as a base during its long guerrilla war with Saddam Hussein and, with the Iran-Iraq war raging, Halabja’s relative proximity to Baghdad, made the town strategically important to Hussein.
When Halabja fell to the Kurdish militia and the Iranian army in 1988, Hussein and his right-hand man, Ali Hassan Al-Majid (“Chemical Ali”, as he is known by the Kurds) decided it was time to teach the upstart Kurds and their Iranian allies-of-convenience a lesson. The exact composition of the chemical weapons used in the March attacks is still not known exactly — it may have included mustard gas, sarin, tabun, VX and possibly cyanide — but it killed five thousand over the course of a five-hour assault.
Photographs from the scene show men, women and children lying in the streets, mouths and eyes open, belongings scattered around them. Frozen in death. Between seven- and ten-thousand are thought to have been injured aside from the immediate deaths, while thousands more are thought to have died from complications following the attacks. When the Iraqi Army took Halabja back, some weeks after the chemical attack, they razed the town to the ground, burying much of the evidence beneath the rubble.
Both Hussein and Al-Majid were tried and later executed for their crimes during the Al-Anfal campaign against Iraq’s minority groups, which killed an estimated 100,000 Iraqi Kurds, according to Human Rights Watch. The Halabja attack is considered in Kurdistan to be the culmination of that genocide — the rope used to hang Saddam is proudly displayed in the city’s museum — and for the Kurds, the events of Al-Anfal only bolster their moves towards independence from volatile and chaotic Arab Iraq.
The years since the fall of Saddam Hussein have seen a gradual establishment of an autonomous state in Iraqi Kurdistan. The region has its own military, its own government and institutions and is increasingly entering into negotiations with its neighbours — Turkey, in particular — over the exploitation of its vast oil resources. And for the government of this emerging Kurdish state, Halabja is a rallying cry. The city remains known as Halabja Shaheed — meaning “martyr” — and, when the old town was finally re-built in 2003, the Halabja Monument was built to honour the dead. Every year since then, Iraqi Kurdistan’s great and good have flooded into the city to commemorate the attack, in 2013 holding a six-day-long programme of conferences, memorials and speeches.
This year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the attack, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, used the event to call for March 16 to be made an international day against chemical weapons. He also pledged $97 million to develop water and sewage systems, paving and general reconstruction in Halabja.
As we approach the Halabja Monument, a series of fortified checkpoints block our path. A handful of stony-faced soldiers gather around the car, shaking their heads as I take photographs. It is not unusual to be prevented from visiting “tourist attractions” by armed soldiers for spurious reasons in Iraqi Kurdistan, but on this occasion the issue runs deeper than simple bureaucracy.
In March 2006, three years after the monument was built in Halabja, thousands of residents of the town rioted and burned it to the ground. One year later the process was repeated. This year, even as the KRG gathered in the city, there were non-violent protests by residents. The soldiers are here to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
In a doctor’s surgery on the outskirts of town, Azad Mustafa sits behind an empty desk, the curtains drawn. Mustafa is the director of the Iraqi human rights organisation, Jiyan Foundation, based in this dusty, ramshackle city, and he is explaining the story of Halabja. I ask him why, when Halabja is such a rallying call for the Kurds in present day Iraqi Kurdistan, the people of the city are still so angry. “They see leaders and politicians coming here every anniversary and organising a big festival, but after March 16 everything is forgotten,” he replies. “Nobody knows what is happening in Halabja after that. People are not satisfied with the services of the government here, and they are really suffering.”
The Jiyan Foundation, which Mustafa runs from a villa close to the headquarters of the local Kurdish Democratic Party (PDK), was set up in 2010 to provide free medical care to the thousands of residents of Halabja who continue to suffer from the effects of the poison gas. And those problems are longstanding: the first report into the health impact of the bombing, conducted ten years after the attack, found that miscarriages in the city outnumbered live births, the number of babies born with Down syndrome had doubled and cases of leukaemia trebled. And in the last three years the centre has treated over 1,500 Halabja residents, averaging fifteen to twenty patients a day. “There are a few main problems,” explains Anas Ibrahim, the centre’s twenty-nine-year-old doctor. “You have respiratory issues such as asthma, skin problems such as eczema and allergic reactions, and you also have eye problems.”
As we talk, a patient arrives for a check-up. Her name is Amira Fatah, and as she sits down in a chair opposite, she recalls the attack as if it was yesterday. “When we heard the bombs start falling, I got everyone together and we made for the mountains towards Iran.
I had heard about chemical attacks — I’d read about what they do — so I knew we had to go. That night, as we climbed, the symptoms started. My son and daughter began coughing blood and their eyes were streaming. I tried to make masks, but it didn’t work. Then I lost my sight.”
Amira and her family reached safety in Iran, where her sight was restored and she discovered she was pregnant with her third child. He was born with severe learning difficulties that he has to this day. Amira, for her part, still suffers from anxiety attacks, heart problems and shortness of breath. This, explains Ibrahim, is normal for residents here. “You usually find that they have combined disorders — so perhaps hypertension, depression, and skin problems,” he says. “These illnesses are not reversible. You can give them medicine but if they stop taking it the problem comes back. There is no cure.”
Jiyan is the only the NGO in the city providing medical care to victims of the attack, using funding from Germany to purchase good quality medicine from Europe and provide trained doctors and psychologists. Many of those working in the centre, Anas included, hail from Halabja and, as a result, know the residents well and understand their anger towards the KRG. “If you want me to be honest, the problem starts from the government. We are in the Middle East, and we have a corrupt government, even if it is better here than in Baghdad and other cities,” says Anas, signalling towards the rows of branded medicine packing the glass-fronted cupboards behind us. “All of this came from outside and it is good quality. What the government provides us is from India, and it is cheap, low quality medication. It doesn’t work.”
Saddam Hussein knew what he was doing when he sought the Arabisation of Kurdish cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul by moving Iraqi Arabs en masse to the north. Iraq has the fifth largest proven crude oil reserves in the world, and a third of it lies in the Kirkuk field, which straddles Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq proper. Since his fall, and the increasing independence of the Kurdish area, oil has been a regular bone of contention between the Kurdish Regional Government, based in Erbil, and Baghdad.
By virtue of their far superior security situation, the Kurds have moved much quicker towards improving their oil industry, granting exploration agreements to major oil companies and establishing a pipeline between Kurdistan and Turkey, worth billions of dollars.
This has angered Baghdad, with Ali Dhari, the deputy chairman of
Iraqi parliament’s oil and gas committee, telling the New York Times
in December that the Kurds were “stealing” Iraq’s oil and selling it to neighbouring Turkey.
The Kurds, for their part, are not overly interested in appeasing the south, wracked as it is by suicide bombings, corruption and a staggering lack of infrastructure. The KRG controls checkpoints in and out of Kurdish territory, and has its own discretion as to who it permits into Iraqi Kurdistan. This political clout comes alongside a booming economy, with GDP forecast at eight percent in 2013 and over 2,300 foreign companies operating in the region.
Yet complaints about corruption and nepotism in Kurdistan are common, and conversations about politics — or indeed, most subjects — often end with criticism of the government in Erbil. Kurds see the states of the Gulf, with their substantial welfare systems (for locals, at least), free schooling, healthcare and housing, and wonder why they — with forty-five billion barrels of untapped oil reserves — don’t enjoy the same privileges.
“Kurdistan has a bright economic future and it is the safest and most stable region in Iraq, but politically things are not that different from the rest of Iraq,” explains Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow on Chatham House’s MENA programme. “Much of the power is still concentrated within a few families and the duopoly that ran Kurdistan for decades has only recently been challenged with the rise of the Gorran (Change) movement. In terms of corruption, a democratic culture, and tribal attitudes, Kurdistan has much in common with the rest of Iraq.”
The duopoly he speaks of comprises two main political parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by ageing Iraqi president Jalal Talabani (whose stroke in December 2012 put him out of action for a year), and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by KRG president Massoud Barzani. They currently share power but there is no love lost between them. The two have faced off in regional elections in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1992 and went to war in 1994 until the fighting was ended by a 1998 Washington-negotiated ceasefire.
The Gorran Movement has in recent years emerged as a third force in Kurdish politics, winning twenty-four seats in Iraqi Kurdistan’s September elections, pushing the PUK into third place and winning control over its former stronghold of Sulaymaniyah. An offshoot of Talabani’s party, The Gorran Movement has run on a firmly anti-Barzani and anti-corruption ticket.
Al-Khoei does not believe that the lack of attention paid to Halabja since the fall of Saddam Hussein has anything to do with financial constraints or the KRG being preoccupied with other issues. He thinks it stems from reluctance on the part of the government to allow cities like Halabja to have the cash to run its own affairs. “The Kurds are federalists in Iraq but centralists in Kurdistan. To put it simply, those who successfully managed to take authority away from Baghdad to Kurdistan don’t like devolving that power further to the Kurdish people,” he says.
For Gareth Stansfield, a professor at the University of Exeter and expert in Kurdish politics, the neglect of Halabja comes down to bad planning rather than an unwillingness of the KRG to invest in the city. “It’s easy to knock the KRG for corruption but, first of all, corruption is always relative. I think within the setting of Iraq, Erbil is a lot cleaner than Baghdad.”
And Halabja is by no means alone in badly needing development if its education, health or social services, he says. Many of northern Iraq’s cities that were decimated during the Al-Anfal campaign face similar problems; Halabja is just better known because of its tragic history.
“It’s not a question of ‘Why is the KRG so rich and Halabja so poor?’ It is about a lack of integrated planning. The situation in Halabja is in keeping with many other places in Kurdistan, where there is no well-considered, thought-out, administrative process towards improving the socio-economic lot of people and regions of Kurdistan,” he says. “Because of that you get waste, you get corruption, you get nepotism. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani acknowledges all this; he doesn’t hide away from it. The big question for him is whether he can change the situation, because the time to do it is now.”
The Halabja Monument may be the largest and best-known monument to the victims of the attack on Halabja, but it is by no means the only one in the city.
On Piy Mohammed Street, the centrepiece of a busy roundabout is a statue of a man struggling to cover his dying child, its mouth wide open having already succumbed to poison gas. A few streets away, another monument to the attacks shows hands grasping from a mountain as bombs fall. Tucked away in the centre of the city is a graveyard for the residents killed in the attack, not to mention those who have died since. Residents speak of a collective depression in Halabja. Amira describes a “nervousness in people’s hearts”, while Dr Mustafa speaks of a “bad feeling” about the town.
Things could be set to get worse. A major worry for Ibrahim and Mustafa is that funding for the Jiyan Foundation is due to be cut from this month as the German government scales back on overseas aid, meaning the foundation may have to close.
the mountains. “I will probably be able find another job. But for these people, it is a big problem.”
Indeed, it is a prospect that Amira, now far too elderly to leave Halabja for care – even if she could afford it – dreads. “I’ve been sick for seventeen years and I have never received any help from the government. We don’t get anything from them,” she said, as she made to leave the centre. “All we have is here.”
By Orlando Crowcroft