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Iraq: Halabja

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Halabja | Iraq | Asia

[Visited: January 2014]

The name has an unfortunate ring to it since 1988, when Saddam Hussein's forces performed an attack on the town with chemical weapons. While I was in Sulaymaniyah, I decided to visit the unfortunate town. Getting there was easy, and while we passed the memorial on the outskirts of town, I got off in the new town before I walked back. The tall memorial building, looking like hands clutching the air above, was easily found, but to my big disappointment, it was under reconstruction. After some deliberation, the soldier at the entrance allowed me inside, so I could at least walk to the circular park above surrounding the memorial building. Inside, I had read gruesome pictures tell the story of that fateful March 16, 1988, when jets of Saddams air force attacked the town and dropped rockets containing several chemical actors; it is widely assumed that Sarin, Tabun, and VX, as well as mustard gas were all included. The death toll is estimated to have been between 3,200 and 5,000, while many more suffered injuries, but the long-term effects continue to this day: doctors see genetic defects in newly born babies that are probably related to the attacks.

Picture of Halabja (Iraq): The memorial building for the victims of the chemical attack on Halabja of 1988

According to some reports, even just seeing the pictures that were taken just after the attack can make you sick. But I would not be able to enter: the building is closed for the time being, and judging from the reconstruction works, it might take a while before the doors open again. Actually, the monument has seen several attacks by the locals, who feel cheated by the new political leaders who do not do enough to improve the plight of the inhabitants, according to their opinion. After the attacks, which Saddam at first tried to blame on the Iranians with whom Iraq was still at war at that time, the Iraqi army razed and destroyed Halabja. It is therefore amazing to see a quite bustling town now, expanding in all directions. I decided to walk to the other side of town (it was only later that I would learn that there are more, smaller monuments and sculptures to commemorate the chemical attack), where I hoped to find the cemetery with the victims of the chemical attack. I had spotted an area on a satellite picture which I thought could be a cemetery, but when I arrived, it turned out to be one of the quarters of the town. At a new hospital, I asked an old man for directions in Arabic, and he waves his hand in a direction, continuing to wave; I took this to mean it was a long way off, and started out in the direction he had pointed to.

Picture of Halabja (Iraq): Statue at the mass graves of Halabja

At times, the clouds were lifting, and I could see high, snow-capped mountains above me, in the direction of Iran which was not far from here. Now that I was getting higher, I realized just how much Halabja was expanding: entire new quarters were built here. The downside was that the road was not asphalted yet; the muddy soil was sucking at my shoes, and after a while, they had turned into heavy lumps of mud, turning my walk into a good exercise for my legs. I started to doubt the directions given to me, as I could not see anything like a cemetery, and when I finally found someone to ask, he pointed me back, more or less from where I had come. Not wanting to walk the same way twice, I walked straight through the fields, and found a small cemetery - clearly not the one I was looking for. When I ended up at the small hospital I had been more than an hour before, I found a friendly soldier, who called out to someone pushing up a trash cart. To my big surprise, the guy took out car keys, opened the doors of a taxi, and ushered me in, and then, surprised me even more when he told me he had been living in my own country. At the entrance of the cemetery, a big black sign warned Ba'ath members not to enter, and on the right, I found a big grave containing 24 bodies, and a rocket that had been used during the attack on top. I continued on the wide lane, saw more big graves with hundreds of bodies inside, until I came to the far end, where a silent statue was standing over a big field with hundreds of smaller graves, containing one or more bodies each. An older Kurd guided me around, and took me back to the graves I had seen before. When I walked back to the new centre of Halabja, I realized that all those of 25 years or older had lived the attacks - a chilling thought. They were going on with their daily lives, while I wondered if there will ever be a day when humans will live together in true peace.

Picture of Halabja (Iraq): Mass grave containing 24 bodies at the cemetery of Halabja
Picture of Halabja (Iraq): Entrance to the mass graves of Halabja
Picture of Halabja (Iraq): Mountains in the background, new buildings in the foreground on the outskirts of Halabja
Picture of Halabja (Iraq): Mass grave of the victims of the chemical attacks on Halabja in 1988
Picture of Halabja (Iraq): The main lane of the cemetery of Halabja
Picture of Halabja (Iraq): Entrance of the Halabja cemetery where victims of the chemical attack are buried
Picture of Halabja (Iraq): Kurdish guide in front of one of the mass graves in Halabja

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