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Remembering Halabja – scene of a massacre

34 years ago Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds as part of his blood-soaked Anfal campaign. Today STEVE SWEENEY sees parallels with the alleged use of chemical weapons by Turkish despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan

“MUMMY, it smells of apples,” five-year-old Dayki said as she ran excitedly outside.

Just seconds later her tiny body lay crumpled on the ground, dead. She was one of the 5,000 Kurds gassed in the town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan on March 16 1988.

Ali, who is the sole survivor, losing seven members of his family in the attack, described the horrors he witnessed as a 12-year-old boy.

“My mum was convulsing and vomiting a green liquid as she fell to the floor. My baby sister was already dead, my other sisters were screaming for what seemed like a long time. Then there was silence.

“My father was in a panic and his body was burning. My eyes were stinging and it was hard to breathe. He tried to save us and put us in a car to take us away. But it was too late and he died later.

“I remember like it was yesterday. That day is burned into the soul of every person in Halabja. We are still fighting for justice today,” he tells me.

Like many others, Ali was taken by Iranian forces and spent months in a refugee camp. Most of his immediate family died and he was brought up by relatives who lived outside the border town.

The attack, which came just days before the Kurdish new year, was the deadliest single assault launched by Saddam Hussein’s forces against civilians at the tail end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

Corpses remained on the streets for months as Iraqi soldiers who had retaken control of the town refused to bury them, instead levelling the houses with dynamite as the dead were left to rot.

Halabja was not the first — nor indeed the last — Kurdish town or village to be bombed with chemical weapons by Saddam’s regime.

In 1987 alone Ba’athist planes dropped banned munitions on more than 20 settlements while artillery shells were also used by the Iraqi armed forces.

 

Halabja had a reputation as a pole of resistance and the year before the chemical attack communists played a leading role in an uprising against the Ba’athist regime.

Some 300 Kurdish civilians from the village of Sheikh Wasanan — half the population — had been killed in a chemical attack in April 1987 which was believed to be a trial run for the bombing of Halabja.

It was one of around 45 Kurdish villages destroyed in the area surrounding Halabja, which forced thousands of refugees to swell the town, a deliberate tactic of the Ba’athists.

Anger over the attack, and fears that Halabja was to be next, led to the clandestine organisation of a series of marches planned for May 13. 

Initiated by students and members of the Iraqi Communist Party, it was also supported by others including supporters of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

The word was spread among the local community, including messages broadcast via the speakers of local mosques which had been taken over by militants.

A small group of around 20 people started the march before others swelled the ranks. But they were attacked by the Iraqi armed forces. 

Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid — known as Chemical Ali — ordered those injured in the protests to be buried alive while he had drawn up a “kill list” made up of 16 of the protest organisers.

Hundreds were dragged from hospital beds after the uprising was put down by Saddam’s forces and are believed to have been buried in mass graves.

It is not believed that the attack on Halabja was a reprisal for the failed uprising. It remained strategically important due to its proximity to the vast Darbandikhan dam, a major supply of water for Iraqi troops.

But it was also part of a planned extermination of Kurds as part of Saddam’s Anfal campaign, which saw 182,000 men, women and children killed simply for being Kurdish.

 

My friend Rebwar from the Communist Party of Kurdistan — Iraq was among those in Halabja at the time of the attack, having forced the Ba’athists out of the town days earlier.

“We were there with some other leftist peshmerga and the PUK. The Iranians had already left by then and we expected the Ba’athists to fight back.

“Before the chemical attack, Iraq launched a counter-offensive. They bombed the area around Halabja with napalm and many people and animals were killed.

“When chemicals were dropped on the town it was a weekend. Children were playing in the street while their mothers baked bread outside. 

“It was the days before Newroz [Kurdish new year] and preparations were being made. But those that died were mainly women and children,” he says. “The soldiers had gas masks and survived.”

Iraqi forces knew the peshmerga were prepared. Intelligence documents revealed they were aware that 4,000 gas masks had been delivered and that “saboteurs” they had placed inside Halabja would also wear them when they used chemical materials.

The attack started in the north of of the town, far away from the military bases, leaving no doubt about who the intended targets were.

 

Kurdistan Communist Party — Iraq spokesman Subhi Madhi was also present at the time of the attack and told me how he “saw the disaster with my own eyes.

“I heard the mothers and fathers screaming for their children, saw the dead bodies of animals, a newly married bride who had suffocated from the gas in her wedding dress and the body of a newborn child.”

He remains critical of the regional government for failing the people of Halabja who continue to live with poor-quality housing, lack of jobs and infrastructure with bold promises made on camera by politicians never delivered.

In 2006 this anger erupted into mass protests at the Halabja monument, which was burned down, the people feeling abandoned and manipulated by Kurdish leaders who turn their backs once again when the TV cameras and journalists have left.

During my most recent visit to Halabja last week the governor reacted angrily to my questions, insisting that the people of the town are happy and that it is thriving once more, highlighting a forthcoming international theatre performance.

The survivors, however, are less convinced. The anger was palpable as we met members of the Halabja Chemical Victims Society, all of whom lost family members in the attack. 

“The KRG does nothing for us, they don’t listen,” we were told. “If you want to know the truth about Halabja, speak to the people, not the politicians.”

 

The long-term effects are unclear, although evidence suggests that soil and water in Halabja may be contaminated, with several researchers describing it as “an environmental catastrophe.”

Ten years after the attack, geneticist Professor Christine Gosden found evidence of sterility, complications with pregnancy, birth defects, increased cancer cases and nerve damage.

While responsibility for the gassing of Kurds lies with the Ba’athists, the uncomfortable truth is that it could not have happened without the tacit support and complicity of Western governments and companies.

The immediate international response to Halabja was muted, despite statements issued by the PUK and numerous media reports, with journalists on the ground documenting the scale of the atrocities.

British manufacturers acting on government orders went as far as to block detectors and decontaminators from reaching Halabja in April 1988, one month after the gas attack.

Then Labour MP Tony Benn was told that Saddam was an ally, with the government favouring an Iraqi victory in the war with Iran. 

Indeed the Thatcher government in its callousness suppressed any criticism and continued trade with the Ba’athists after it knew about Halabja, doubling its export credit facility to Iraq.

The 1993 Scott inquiry heard that a director of the Coventry-based Matrix Churchill company was working for British intelligence services and shipping high-quality components for Saddam’s secret arms programme.

Its deadly trade was facilitated by the Ministry of Defence which enabled Matrix Churchill to circumvent a trade embargo and win export licences without gaining attention.

It was only months later, when it was clear that Iran could not continue to fight the war, that its position changed and the international community began to speak out, albeit timidly. 

Britain finally expressed “grave concern” in August 1988, although the next month it denied having received firm evidence of chemical attacks, refusing to condemn or censure Baghdad while ruling out launching its own investigations.

Cynically, both Britain and the US feared that doing so would torpedo their bids for the post-war construction projects which were estimated to be worth some $50 billion.

The residents of Halabja are still living with the long-term effects today. Around 2,500 people are still receiving treatment for breathing difficulties, skin conditions and mental health issues.

Today will see an influx of politicians to Halabja as they mark the anniversary with grandiose speeches. 

But once the TV cameras and media have left the poverty-stricken town, the government will turn its back on the people again.

The survivors are used to it and know that political leaders manipulate the tragedy for their own ends.

Yet the lessons of history are clearly not being learned by those who will shed crocodile tears for the Kurds of Halabja today. 

Saddam’s Anfal campaign, which aimed to exterminate Iraq’s Kurdish community, ended with chemical attacks on villages in Badinan, close to the Turkish border as Iraqi planes bombed areas in which fleeing civilians were gathered.

Nearly 3,000 had been gassed there by the end of August 1988 and their bodies burned by Iraqi soldiers. 

Today, the very same area is being subjected to chemical attacks by Turkish jets and artillery fire while, in echoes of the muted response in the 1980s, the international community and its institutions remain silent.

I am one of the only Western journalists to have accessed the affected areas and have met and spoken to the victims of Turkey’s 11-month war and military occupation. 

The testimony of the villagers and medics I met there is strikingly similar to those given by the victims of the Halabja gassing 34 years ago.

They told me of vomiting, a burning sensation on their skin, stinging of the eyes and difficulty in breathing. 

I felt the heat and saw the burns on many villagers’ bodies a month or so after their exposure to what they believe were chemical weapons.

Politicians, human rights organisations, health workers, peshmerga, security officials and journalists all believe that banned substances have been used against civilians in hundreds of attacks.

Most worryingly, I spoke to doctors who told me that forces affiliated to the regionally dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party seized medical reports and altered them to remove mention of treatment of patients for chemical attacks.

They were threatened against speaking out, and warned that there would be consequences for them and their families if they did.

I have collected soil and other samples from the ground, however there has been a reluctance to test them to see what substances have been used in Turkey’s attacks.

Once again Britain, along with Germany, has said that it has not seen any concrete evidence of such attacks and refuses to speak out or take action. 

Likewise the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has ignored repeated requests to send a fact-finding team to the region while the UN and Nato fail to bring their member states to heel.

This position is now untenable.

Today, on the anniversary of Halabja, a delegation of trade unionists, journalists and politicians has issued a call for the chemical watchdog to conduct urgent investigations into the allegations and for Nato and the UN to bring an end to Turkey’s illegal war and occupation.

It has also called for Britain to immediately halt arms sales to Turkey and initiate a case against Turkey’s modern-day Saddam Hussein, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for war crimes.

The world remained silent in 1988 and 5,000 Kurds were gassed. We must not allow this to happen again.

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