The first occasion to leave Suly and explore the surrounding region came during my first real weekend living here. (I don’t consider the three-day Easter weekend a real weekend, as I had been in town for less than 24hrs when it started, I didn’t know anyone, I couldn’t walk around the city because of my ankle injury, and I ended up just sitting in my apartment by myself the entire time. Got lots of reading done though.)
The university had organized a trip for expat staff and faculty to the city of Halabja, east of Sulaimani, right on the border with Iran. It was a chance to visit the closest other town to Sulaimani, and get another glimpse of Iraqi Kurdistan. But Halabja is not just another city, and the trip wasn’t meant as a jolly one. The unfortunate reason for Halabja’s fame is that it was the site of a horrifying chemical attack by Saddam’s Baath regime in 1988, which killed thousands of Kurds in an act that was recently recognized as genocide by the Iraqi High Criminal Court.
It was the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and the various Kurdish factions within Iraq had played a fluctuating role in the conflict, mostly because of internal politics. In general, however, the Kurds had an interest in an Iranian victory in the conflict, as Saddam Hussein had a history of oppressing them (see the Anfal campaign for the most brutal of his tactics). Halabja, a Kurdish town extremely close to the border, was seen by Saddam as all but infiltrated by Iranians, and he decided to teach the city a lesson the Kurds would remember for a long time. Iraqi forces dropped chemical bombs on residential areas of the city, clearly targeting the civilian population. The bombs released a mysterious gas that smelled like something in between sweet apples and garlic, and before they knew it inhabitants were dying in different ways, some collapsing right away, some catching a fit of hysterics and dying while laughing and running, some blistering on their faces before succumbing. As you can imagine, a visit to Halabja is of the same tone and spirit as a visit to Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum: remembrance; reflection; respectful condolence.
We were lucky enough to have three university students from Halabja with us on the visit, who showed us around and gave us an unparalleled perspective on the city, its history and the tragedy. Two of the three, for example, were born in Iran, right over the mountains from Halabja. These students are in their early 20’s. You can do the math. Their families were lucky enough to survive the attack and fled across the border, where they lived in refugee camps until they were able to migrate back (usually in the mid/late-90’s).
First we visited the city’s cemetery, which of course acquired a whole new meaning for the community after ’88. Tombstones for all who died in the attack are marked with the victims’ names, arranged by family. Bigger marble plaques indicate where hundreds, even thousands, of victims of the attack lay, with a prayer dedicated to them. There’s a sign at the cemetery entrance that coldly reads: “Baath’s Members are not Allowed to Enter.”
Then we went to the memorial, a modern-looking structure resembling hands reaching into the sky. Inside the structure is a very well-made mini-museum with ancient pictures and artifacts capturing the history of Halabja, shocking (and gruesome) photographs of the immediate aftermath of the attack, and a room with the names of every single victim inscribed on a beautiful black stone wall. Kurdish flags adorn almost every angle of the museum.
(As an interesting side note, in 2006 the memorial was burnt down by Halabja residents who were protesting the lack of services benefiting the people of the city. The local government had spent money and resources on this memorial, but was neglecting the current population of the city, which included some survivors of the attack. After the incident the memorial was re-built, but paved roads were also extended past the memorial and into the city: a sign of how the local government had learned its lesson and would begin catering to the current inhabitants more.)
While the trip had a sad theme, it was by no means a downer. The town is now vibrant and full of markets and people running around, and the three students with us on the tour were extremely bright, curious, interesting people, all incredible ambassadors for their city and culture. I left Halabja with a positive outlook: a city and a people that have gone through such tragedies are now doing great for themselves, and can only look to the future with confidence.
To see more pictures of my trip to Halabja, click here.