Day Seven: Halabja Genocide Memorial, Iraq

by - August 21, 2012

Having met up with Nabaz and Omed the night before, they showed us typical Kurdish hospitality in offering to take us to our next place of interest - the town of Halabja, around 10km from the Iranian border with Iraq.  The town became world famous in the 1980s as the site where Saddam Hussein and his partner in crime Chemical Ali launched a gas attack of unprecidented scale against a modern city.  Nabaz and Omed had last visited the city around 15 years ago and neither of them had been to the memorial, so they were happy to drive us there and escort us around.

From right to left: me, Tom, Omed, Nabaz, Nabaz’s son and Omed’s brother

Swimming in a local river
We got a taxi to their house on the edge of the city and sat with them while they gave their midday prayers, before climbing into the car with the whole family and heading off to a local river.  The fact that it is currently Rammadan means that most shops and sights are closed in the middle of the day, so we wouldn’t need to arrive in Halabja until later on.  To help them cope with the strain of fasting, Omed and Nabaz have been going down to the local river to swim during the hottest part of the day and Tom and I were happy to join them.  It was a popular spot with locals - and lots of people were interested to speak to us Englishmen.  Omed had brought two of his brothers and Nabaz had brought his little son along (that’s right, eight people in a five seater car - it’s the Iraqi way) and it was nice to see how local people cool off.

The Halabja Memorial
 At about 4pm we arrived at the Halabja monument, a world apart from swimming in the river.  Around 5000 people had died in the attack on what was a totally civilian target.  Expecting a conventional artillery bombardment, the Kurdish inhabitants headed into their basements to take cover.  This was no conventional attack however as Chemical Ali poured napalm, phosphorus and mustard and nerve gas on the city.  The gas, heavier than air, sunk into the town’s basements, suffocating those who had taken cover.  Thousands of people spent their last moments trying to protect their families from the gas to no avail - the memorial is full of pictures of fathers and mothers wrapped around their young children in a futile effort to keep the gas at bay.  The nerve gas took a few hours to kill the target, and as the gas began to assault the nervous system many people were physically unable to stop themselves laughing hysterically.  The inside of the memorial features the names of the dead, carved in stone and divided into families.  We watched a video about the attack at the end, with the curator of the museum who featured in the video as he had been in Halabja during the attack.  He lost his eight brothers and sisters and was only able to survive as he hid in a pile of bodies.  He now stands and watches the documentary video about the attack every day.

A photo exhibit within the memorial
Perhaps it was the fact that we had travelled to the Halabja monument with a Kurdish family, including a father with his young son, or perhaps it was because western photographers were able to enter the city immediately after the attack to document the chaos, but the museum really hit home the horror of the attacks in a way that even my visits to Auschwitz and the Cambodian Killing Fields couldn’t.  Omed and Nabaz were speachless at first and when they spoke you could sense the anger in their usually cheerful Welsh and Geordie accents.  An archive had been set up to the side of the memorial and this contained some fascinating artifacts, including the death certificates of Saddam’s two sons and the death sentence and rope that had been used to kill Chemical Ali.  I had travelled to Kurdistan with the belief that the recent Iraq war had been little more than looting by the Americans and British.  Our visit to Halabja changed my mind somewhat - by ridding the world of men like Saddam and Chemical Ali we certainly made it a better place.  It is a little-reported fact that on the day that anti-war protests took place in New York and London, a pro-war rally took place in Kurdistan.  We liberated them and they make it very clear that they are eternally thankful.

Pre-Eid shopping in Sulimaniyah
After such a sombre visit, we spent the journey back to Sulimaniyah in quiet contemplation.  On the way, we stopped at some relatives of Omed and Nabaz who welcomed us into their home to sit and chat for a while.  We arrived on the outskirts of Sulimaniyah and decided to hitchhike back into the city centre - as it was approaching the time for the breaking of the fast and we didn’t want to make our two guides wait any longer for their food.  The man that we thumbed a lift with was listening to the radio when we got in and just as the call to prayer came on, he pulled out a basket of figs and a bottle of water and broke his fast - offering both to us.  That night we wandered around the city centre as it is approaching the end to Ramaddan and the atmosphere is something similar to Christmas Eve as families start to buy presents for Eid on Sunday.  We finished the night at the city’s one and only bar, at the only five star hotel in town.  We sat with the owners - a Russian and a Georgian guy who treated us to a few drinks and even gave us a bottle of vodka.  It had been a day of contrasts as we saw the best of Kurdish hospitality and the worst of human evil. 

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