It has been 31 years since that bloody Friday which oversaw the diabolical massacre of Kurds living Halabja, one of the cities of Iraqi Kurdistan. Also known as “Kurdistan’s Hiroshima”, the Halabja massacre is one of the many atrocities that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s army committed throughout its history. The massacre is classified as both a war crime and a crime against humanity.
Halabja is located 15 kilometers from the Iranian border and 225 kilometers from Northeastern Baghdad. On March 16, 1988 the city was counting down to Nawruz and the Hijri New Year. But instead of festive cheer, the city’s inhabitants were greeted with attacks from the Iraqi army. The massacre lasted five hours and was one of the 8 stages of Saddam Hussein’s Anfal Genocide campaign.
The genocide was a long and calculated operation which aimed to ethnically cleanse Iraq from its Kurdish population. Saddam Hussein’s cousin, Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, aka Chemical Ali, was the head of the operations, which resulted in the murder and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Iraq. Days before the massacre, Iranian forces seized the Kurdish regions of Halabja, Said Sadiq and their surrounding areas. As a result of Iran’s actions, Saddam Hussein ordered Ali Hassan al-Majid to plan a large chemical attack on the city of Halabja. The purpose of the attack was two-fold, first Saddam Hussein wanted the massacre to serve as a lesson and warning for the rest of the Iraqi citizens and second he wanted to retaliate against Iran’s military operation and thought that Iraq’s Kurds would conspire with Iran against him.
Isa Buzzyar is an Iranian Kurdish demining expert who spoke to us about the massacre. According to him Chemical Ali had claimed that both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) headquarters and leader at the time (Jalal Talabani) were located in Halabja. Moreover, Chemical Ali also claimed that the PUK was aiding Iran.
Buzzyar also spoke of the Iraqi colonel pilot, Aden Mustafa Hamid, who refused to take part in the massacre. His heroic dissent resulted in his execution, but this Christian Iraqi did not die in vain as he became a hero for the Iraqi Kurds, so much so that a statue of him was erected in Halabja. Omar Khawer is another hero from the massacre as his famous photo of him hugging a child to protect him from deadly weapons spread all across global media outlets.
Prior to the chemical attack, Halabja suffered non-stop heavy bombardments from Iraqi forces for two days. The bombardment was designed to weaken any Kurdish resistance and prevent anyone from taking refuge in underground shelters. Initially, the people in Halabja thought that this was one a normal bombardment like any other as they had grown accustomed to the military attacks from Hussein’s army. But, soon a yellow fog would fill Halabja’s skies; a fog that smelled of rotten eggs, apples and rubbish. Minutes later the birds in the skies fell on the ground, soon after Halabja’s citizens and livestock would also fall to the ground. A myriad of chemicals was released on the Kurds; among such agents were cyanogen, VX, sarin, tabun and mustard gas. This cocktail of toxic nerve agents caused many different symptoms on the victims: some started to loudly and hysterically laugh and then subsequently fall to the ground; some instantly collapsed and started vomiting green liquid before going into a coma, some people got boils, burns and swellings on their skin. The gas had terrible effects on the animals as well as many of them developed pale skin and others’ eyes were horrifyingly gaping as if their eyeballs would pop out of their sockets.
No one saw any means of escape from this hell, all they could do was cry and wail: “The gas! The gas!” The horrors of this genocide became more apparent after images of the gas attack were published. After which, people all over the world saw painful photos showing elderly men and women who died in a matter of seconds while trying to find a hiding place to save themselves, photos of mothers and fathers clutching on their babies and children, doing anything they could to save them.
“I was a child at the time but I remember when a group of residents from Halabja came to Iranian border cities and the Islamic Republic established tents for families of the victims,” Isa Buzzyar told Majalla. Exact statistics on this crime against humanity don’t exist, but media outlets and non-governmental organizations, such as the Halabja Disaster Victims Organization, have reported the deaths of 5,000 people and the injury of nearly 10,000 others.
Thirty years on since that bloody Friday, the Kurds of Halabja are still feeling the trauma and after effects from the attack. For instance, many Kurds were diagnosed with cancer years after the attack, others developed respiratory problems and infants were born with multiple congenital malformations or genetic disorders.
The leaders of the Islamic Republic took this attack as an opportunity to launch a smear campaign against Saddam Hussein as they wanted to expose one of his many crimes against his own people. They would not allow families of victims to go to Halabja to bury them, instead they sent journalists and photographers from their news agencies to document and record the atrocity for the history books.
Isa Buzzyar agreed with this sentiment as he told us: “The foreign policy wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was the first body to go into Halabja after the chemical attack. Saddam Hussein attacked Halabja because of cooperation between Kurdish and Iranian forces. Iran didn’t allow any other body to go into Halabja so that it can photograph the aftermath of the attack and send their experts to take samples of the toxic chemicals used”.
Every year Kurds in Northern Iraq and all over the world remember this bloody massacre. However, during the last decade, the Iranian government has taken steps to prevent Kurdish activists and students from holding workshops or programs observing the anniversary of the massacre.
The same cannot be said about Halabja as many groups and activists do their part to properly remember the attack and the victims that suffered from it. For example, a group of women in Halabja raise money every year to help disenfranchised women in the city and help raise their morale. To do this, the group uses the money it raised to establish educational and cultural workshops that teach women in the community various skills such as computing, sewing and speaking the English language. The charity also forms women’s sports teams that give Halabja’s women (especially those who lived through the difficult decades of the 1970s and 1980s) an outlet to ease their grievances and trauma.
The Halabja massacre is still very much entrenched into Kurdish collective memory as it is often said that Kurds can never read the Quran in its entirety as they always fall into a silent sadness when they reach Surah Al-Anfal.