March 15, 2013

25th Commemoration of the Halabja Massacre

Picture by Kurdistan Photo

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the Halabja massacre, one of the most horrendous chemical attacks in world history. Recognition of this catastrophe with thousands of casualties is still limited.

By the evening of March 16th, 1988, Halabja, a town in Northern Iraq close to the border of Iran, had been a hotspot of conventional rocket and napalm attacks for many days. But nothing had prepared the Kurdish population for the gruesome crime against humanity that was about to culminate the day. Suddenly, Iraqi MiG and Mirage aircraft began dropping chemical bombs on Halabja's residential areas, far from the besieged Iraqi army base on the outskirts of the town. According to regional Kurdish rebel commanders, Iraqi aircraft conducted up to 14 bombings in sorties of seven to eight planes each; helicopters coordinating the operation were also seen. Eyewitnesses told of clouds of smoke billowing upward "white, black and then yellow"', rising as a column about 46m in the air.

Survivors said the gas at first smelled of sweet apples; they said people died in a number of ways, suggesting a combination of toxic chemicals (some of the victims "just dropped dead" while others "died of laughing"; while still others took a few minutes to die, first "burning and blistering" or coughing up green vomit). It is believed that Iraqi forces used multiple chemical agents during the attack, including mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX

Iranian photojournalist Kaveh Golestan, who took some of the first photos on the scene, recollects:

It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. (...) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl's mouth and she died in my arms.

The attack killed approximately 5,000 civilians and injured more than 7,000, notwithstanding psychological damage to anybody present at the site. Some of those who survived the attack or were apparently injured only lightly at the time, later developed medical problems doctors believe stemmed from the chemicals, and there are concerns that the attack may be having a lasting genetic impact on the local Kurdish population, as an increase in birth defects has been detected.

Saddam Hussein's government officially blamed Iran for the attack. The international response at the time was muted and the United States even suggested Iran was responsible. The United States government, which at the time was allied with Iraq in its war with Iran, said the images could not be verified to be the responsibility of Iraq.

Kurds form around 17% of Iraqi population. They have always been very determined and brave advancing their autonomy and resisting injustice implemented upon them by Iraqi central government. Kurds led by Mustafa Barzani were engaged in heavy fighting against successive Iraqi regimes from 1960 to 1975. In March 1970, Iraq announced a peace plan providing for Kurdish autonomy. The plan was to be implemented in four years. However, at the same time, the Iraqi regime started an arabization program in the oil rich regions of Kirkuk and Khanaqin. The peace agreement did not last long, and in 1974, the Iraqi government began a new offensive against the Kurds. Moreover in March 1975, Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Accord, according to which Iran was to cut supplies to Iraqi Kurds. Iraq started another wave of arabization by moving Arabs to the oil fields in Kurdistan, particularly those around Kirkuk. Between 1975 and 1978, two-hundred thousand Kurds were deported to other parts of Iraq. These were deliberate attempts to halt Kurdish self-determination by forced assimilation.

Roots of the Halabja attack are tied to the Al-Anfal campaign, a violent program meant to eradicate Kurdish separatist ambitions and national Peshmerga units.  The campaign was headed by Ali Hassan Al-Majid, a cousin of president Saddam, whose notorious moral ease at using chemical weaponry earned him the nickname "Chemical Ali". Thousands of civilians were killed during the anti-insurgent actions stretching from the spring of 1987 through the fall of 1988. The attacks were part of a long-standing campaign that destroyed approximately 4,500 Kurdish villages in areas of northern Iraq and displaced at least a million of the country's estimated Kurdish population of 4 million. Amnesty International collected the names of more than 17,000 people who had "disappeared" during 1988. The campaign has been characterized as genocidal in nature. It is also characterized as" gendercidal" by Human Rights Watch/Middle East, because "battle-age" men were the primary targets. According to the Iraqi prosecutors, as many as 182,000 people were killed.

Kurdish efforts to gain international recognition of the massacres against them date back to early 2008. At the time, Iraq’s parliament recognized the Al-Anfal Campaign carried out by Iraqi forces in 1988 as an act of genocide against the Kurds. The first UN commemoration of the massacre took in 2009 and so far, only Norway and Sweden have officially recognized the genocide. Canada has condemned it as a crime against humanity. In February 2013, British Parliament voted approvingly for the recognition after electronic signature collection campaign initiated by MP of Kurdish origin, Nadhim Zahawi

Acknowledging events like the Halabaja massacre at the international level is crucial as it sends a clear message that the international community does not tolerate breeches in universal human rights.  To quote Kenneth Roth, president of Amnesty International: “It is wrong to close one’s eyes to atrocities, because as once a measure of impunity is set, all kinds of dictators around the world are all too eager to listen and to act”.

To support the cause and commemorate the suffering of the Kurdish people, a conference on the recognition of the Kurdish genocide (titled “Recognition as a Tool to Prevent Genocide") will be held in Hague, Netherlands, on 18th of March. Additionally, UNPO joins Kurdish organizations in the Netherlands to support a Citizens’ Initiative, asking the Dutch Parliament to address the issue of the recognition of the Kurdish genocide.