Revisiting Halabja, 20 years after chemical attack, town still
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Revisiting Halabja, 20 years after
chemical attack, town still bears scars
By Ahmad al-Zubaidi
March 15, 2008
HALABJA, Kurdistan region 'Iraq',-- The sign
at the cemetery entrance is unforgiving. "No
Ba'athists allowed inside."
It is a reminder that in Halabjah, the Iraqi Kurdish
town that was the center of the Hussein regime's
1988 chemical attacks, the past has not been
In this small plot of land, walled in by towering
gray stone slabs, there are an estimated 1,500
bodies of Kurds killed during the attacks, 20 years
ago this week.
"This location was the target of napalm rocket
attacks, and there was a very large hole in the
ground," says a journalist on a recent visit to the
town. "The townspeople gathered a number of the
martyrs' bodies and buried them here haphazardly.
They used earthmoving machines because of the
Less than 16 kilometers from the Iranian border and
about 260 kilometers north of Baghdad, Halabjah is
run-down, populated mostly by shepherds and farmers.
Many of the buildings, even on the town's main
street, still show signs of the attacks.
In Halabjah, the past is inescapable, the town's
memorials a constant reminder: a cenotaph erected by
the Kurdish regional government,www.ekurd.net
with battered helmets
and hands reaching out to heaven; or less
conspicuously, in front of a municipal building, an
electricity worker who was killed in the attacks.
The attacks -- or what the Kurds, many human rights
groups, and a Dutch court have labeled genocide --
took place during the Iran-Iraq war, when the region
was under the control of Kurdish peshmerga fighters
backed by Iran.
Over a period of four days, in March 1988, Iraqi
warplanes dropped bombs on the town and the
surrounding area. It has never been established what
the exact mix of the chemicals was, but it
reportedly included mustard gas and the nerve agent
Some 5,000 people were killed, including peshmerga
fighters and civilians. In June 2007, the Iraqi High
Tribunal sentenced Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as
"Chemical Ali," to death for using chemical weapons
against the Kurds.
In spite of the Iraqi and international media's
interest in Halabjah, reconstruction has been slow,
with residents complaining of a shortage or a total
lack of civil services.
The townfolk say promises of more development have
been made and are still being made by officials, but
nothing has come of them.
That frustration has sometimes erupted into
violence. In 2006, local residents attacked the
cenotaph during a ceremony commemorating the
anniversary of the attacks. They claimed the
regional government had not provided enough aid, or
even had siphoned off funds bound for Halabjah.
The head of the town's municipal office, Fu'ad
Salih, agrees that reconstruction has been limited,
given the extent of the damage.
"All the villages [around Halabjah] have been
destroyed," Salih says. "This increases the burden
on the regional government, and I -- as a municipal
head and as a citizen -- am not satisfied with what
has been done for Halabjah."
There has been some international aid relief to
Halabjah, including a project funded by the Japanese
government to provide drinking water, which Salih
says costs more than $70 million.
But some residents are reconciled to the idea that
they have to go it alone. A local intellectual, who
prefers to remain anonymous, says the town had been
neglected since the Ba'athists came to power in
"The town lived on its own, relying on its
agriculture, its orchards, the mutual assistance of
its inhabitants, and on trade in general," he says.
"With regard to construction, or any assistance in
this regard by the Iraqi government, it was
practically nonexistent. But, despite that, the town
was living in peace."
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