Iraqi town’s still coping with 1988 chemical attack
March 18, 2009
HALABJA, Iraq - A cloud still hangs over Halabja.
Twenty-one years after the city’s history was written in deadly vapor, the effects of one of Iraq’s most infamous days is evident in vacant eyes, still-abandoned farm fields, scarred bodies.
On Monday, mourners sat on grave sites, mostly in ones and twos, intact families being a luxury here. They cried softly, stared into space as if still not believing their fate.
"It’s been 21 years, but we feel suffering every day," said Khadija Mohammed, dabbing her eyes while leaning on the mass grave site where the bodies of her seven children were hastily dumped.
Monday was the anniversary of the chemical attack that killed, by some estimates, 5,000 people, mostly Kurds, mostly civilians, and is oft-cited as an example of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s brutality.
Military helicopters swooped into Halabja and surrounding towns in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Sulaymaniyah province on March 16, 1988, and unleashed first bombs, then a combination of deadly gases.
Victims, as was well-chronicled by residents and journalists, died in the streets, in the mosque, in their parents’ arms. The lucky ones had to drive to safety over the bodies of their neighbors, who fell on the dirt road out of town.
Frozen in timeHalabja is a city of grim monuments. Walk five minutes in any direction and you’re likely to run into a reminder of March 16. In a way, Halabja’s people have been prisoners of their past. Once a year, dignitaries and politicians shuffle in to make "never again" speeches and grand promises about rebuilding. In between anniversaries, though, the townspeople wither — some from lingering health effects from the chemicals, some from crushing grief — and so does Halabja.
Poverty is rampant, many residents living in ramshackle cinderblock homes. Psychological scars fester, with little available in the way of mental health treatment.
Some farmers are still frightened to go back to their land, convinced it is still contaminated despite a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study that showed the soil in the area to be safe. That fear devastates the economy of a city built into the rolling hills of one of the most fertile regions of Iraq.
The city lacks adequate schools, medical care and housing, residents said.
Young people are leaving, seeing no future in Halabja, said Mansour Hama Sharif, a border guard who buried the bodies of his sister, two nephews, and brother-in-law after the attack. The population is shrinking.
"A lot of people that day saw everything destroyed in front of their eyes," he said.
Nazira Mohammed Wasta Sharif sat alone with a photo of her three sons, ages 3 to 18, atop their simple stone grave marker. They were killed and her husband was paralyzed and severely brain damaged in the attack. He doesn’t recognize his wife anymore.
Severely scarred across her body in the attack, and caring for her husband round the clock, Sharif, 50, receives the equivalent of about $250 a month in compensation.
Sharif said each year’s anniversary only reopens her psychological wounds. "It’s like it’s happening again," she said.
Rage, anger persistThere is still, of course, rage toward Saddam Hussein’s former Baathist regime. A sign in English and Kurdish at the entrance of a memorial reads "It’s not allowed for Ba’aths to enter."
But there’s no great love for the Kurdish authorities either.
Amid canned political speeches during an anniversary ceremony Monday, the biggest applause by far was for a victim of the attack who railed against the Kurdistan Regional Government, saying the people of Halabja would have to take care of themselves.
"We’re not waiting for the KRG to say the Iraqi government will help," he said, thrusting an outstretched finger to punctuate his speech.
Two years ago, anger spilled over when townspeople burned down the original monument to the attack. A new monument, two clasped hands reaching skywards, opened Tuesday with an attached museum.
"It’s a symbol for those people who were killed — we want to keep them in the view of the people," museum guide Keshwar Mauloud said.
Trumping anger, though, is fear. Worries over a reprise of past abuses is widespread among Iraq’s Kurds, but maybe nowhere as poignant as in Halabja, said U.S. Army Maj. Jim Lawson, with the 4100 Border Transition Team, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony along with several other American soldiers.
"It’s tough when people ask, ‘You’re not going to leave are you? You’re going to stay by us, right?’ " Lawson said. "You just hang your head and say, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’"