High Noon in Halabja
Kurdishaspect.com - March 16 in Halabja is always a special day, as the town gathers to remember the victims of that horrible day in 1988 when 5000 people were gassed by Saddam Hussein. The images of that day never lose their resonance and their lives are never forgotten. Much genocide has been perpetrated since then in places such as Rwanda and the Balkans, no less horrific, but none of these have involved a regime gassing to death the people of its own state. March 16 2006 in Halabja was a truly extraordinary day as the people of that town could no longer contain their anger at the broken promises of foreign and particularly Kurdish politicians to invest the pledged amounts of money, provide better local services, give compensation to the victims families and the survivors, and complete the reconstruction of their town.
The journey to Halabja from any part of Iraqi Kurdistan is a beautiful one. The snow capped mountains on the horizon provide a stunning backdrop. The land is lusher here. The cattle graze happily in rich green fields. As I approached the town just after 9am, the tension and anger was palpable and all graceful images of the setting were rapidly forgotten. The students of the town had promised a demonstration this year. Besides all the broken promises, they were also angry about what they see as the perennial hijacking of their day by Kurdish politicians cynically exploiting the annual ceremony for their own ends while doing little to help the town. It was poignant that the memorial was sealed off from the people of the town by the security forces. The people of Halabja could not go to their own memorial on their remembrance day. The politicians were going to conduct their own ceremonies with invited foreign dignitaries. The local people though had other ideas and were determined to prevent these going ahead.
All up the road entering the town were banners expressing fury. The demonstrators carried placards, some in English, "Victims of Halabja, the Kurdish symbol, are waiting reconstruction". A crowd of thousands marched down towards the memorial. "Azadi, Azadi", Freedom, Freedom, they shouted. Halabja Day had become a fundamental issue of freedom rather than commemoration and that was always going to be dangerous. The crowd made a dramatic surge for the memorial. The security forces with neither training in crowd control nor equipped with riot gear, opened fire. Wave after wave of bullets went into the atmosphere. The air was full of screams and shouting as people scattered in all directions for cover. Three people fell to the ground, clutching parts of their bodies, their bloody wounds superficial from crossfire shrapnel. No direct hits yet.
Eventually the firing stopped and the crowd started to regroup beyond the road leading up to the memorial. Around the monument were peshmerga, the Kurdish army, dressed in smart ceremonial uniform. A military band stood around. They never got to play. On the notice board at the entrance, local people had pasted their posters on top. "The victims of Halabja are the identity of the Kurds. They are awaiting reconstruction funds". A man approached the entrance with a glancing bullet wound to his head, the blood on his neck was starting to dry. "Who shot at us?" he kept screaming. He was ushered away by security staff. Shahu Mohammed Saed, the regional leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) swirled around talking urgently into mobile phone. He didnt want the ceremonies to stop He had important guests after all.
I headed for the hospital to check on the casualties. Word was now spreading of the security forces firing on their own people. In response more of the local populace mobilised and poured down the main street towards the memorial. A banner above read "If we want to respect the people of Halabja, let the people responsible be brought to justice at the martyr's graveyards". In a taxi, we drove through the streets where the chemical bombs fell. I remembered the photo of the dead man with his lifeless baby next to him. Little has changed in these streets in 18 years. At the hospital there were fierce denials of any casualties being admitted. The security forces kept close to the doctors. Eyewitnesses had reported that ambulances had come and gone. Emotions were high and it was hard to see where the truth lay.
Checkpoints on the approach roads to the memorial were now turning people away I could not get back. Instead, we headed out to the hills and the tracks where the fleeing people of Halabja in 1988, with safety within reach, were bombed in a second wave of chemical gas. We passed some fine new apartment blocks, rare examples of new building. The taxi driver swore that they had been given to politicians and local officials for them to enjoy or profit from. Whatever the truth, it was clear how estranged some of the local population have become from their rulers.
Above Halabja, I walked around the graves of the martyrs of Anab, the village on the outskirts. There is peace at last for the buried victims here. The mountains are yet closer and the birds sing beautifully. The contrast of this spot with the events in the town could not have been starker. The peace was soon shattered by the sounds of renewed gunfire. This time it went on and on and on. While I was paying my respects to the dead, Shahu Mohammed Saed had tried to address the crowd near the memorial. He never finished his speech as the crowd stormed the museum where they set fire to displays reconstructing the gas attack as well as photographs of victims and glass cases containing the clothes of the dead. I watched a thick cloud of acrid black smoke spin up out of the memorial site. Kurdish security forces shot dead one man and wounded at least eight others
Back at the hospital, large crowds gathered. The air was full of sirens. Denials of casualties were no longer possible. From the roof of the Save The Children office, I watched the drama unfold. The smoke continued to stream from the monument site in the distance. Below, cars sped by ferrying the injured; their horns blowing, people sitting outside the cars on window edges screaming for the way ahead to be cleared. Soldiers came to the office and told me to leave the building immediately. As I left I could smell the burning. I passed the mosque where the body of the young man, was already being washed. Halabja now had a new martyr.
At the town of Said Sadiq on the road back to Suleymania, there was a larger than normal military presence at the checkpoint. I was travelling with journalists from the highly acclaimed independent newspaper, Awena. The soldiers took their films. The authorities sought to destroy all evidence of what went on. A student from another vehicle that had been pulled over, hissed in my ear "there is no democracy" here and he was right that there is no true western style democracy. The soldiers conducting the search were embarrassed and very apologetic for what they were doing. One can still not lose sight of the fact that life is preferable here to several other Middle Eastern states.
As the riot erupted in Halbja many of the Kurdish leaders were attending the opening of the Iraqi parliament in the Green Zone in Baghdad. We have to keep hoping that democracy can prevail in Iraq. For it to do so, and for the sake of the long suffering Kurdish people, let the Kurdish politicians take keen note of March 16, 2006 in Halabja and reconnect with their constituency.