Halabja – The city of Poets

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Shanga Amin is the daughter of survivors of the genocide. Her mother and uncle were among those who returned to bury their fellow men and women. Many of her relatives and family fiends have experienced the genocide which in turn affects their daily lives. In this article we get a brief history lesson about the city, revealing the background to the Al-Anfal campaign.

Picture: an Iranian photographer takes a photo of the baker Omer Xawer with his son. The image of them is today the symbol of the genocide in Halabja.

March 16 is a national day of mourning for the Kurdish people. During the war between Iran and Iraq the city was captured by Iranian forces on 15 March 1988. The following day, March 16, the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein answered by bombing the city of Halabja with chemical weapons such as nerve-, cyanide- and mustard gas.

In about one hour between 5000-10 000 Kurds were killed where the majority was women, children and elderly people. Many men in those days were in the mountains as Peshmerga (”those who face death”) troops. Tens of thousands of Kurds were injured by the gases and are traumatized for life. The number of dead animals is unknown but the city was lined with reeking cattle’s and the natural ecosystems of the region is still not back to where it used to be.

During the Anfal campaign, around 5,000 Kurdish towns and villages were burned down and destroyed which led to around 1 000 000 kurds having to leave their homes. Around 180 000 Kurds were killed during this period. 24 years later, Halabja and Anfal still not acknowledged as genocide.

What many do not know is why Saddam chose Halabja of all cities in the region. There was another plan with the gas attacks in addition to the Iranian invasion. The people of Halabja had always been revolutionaries and culturally enriched. The town was called ”The City of Poets” where nationalistic and revolutionary urging poems, texts and journals where distributed.

The city was also known for its equality and women promoting culture which was unusual for that period of time. The queen ruled until the extermination in the 1940’s. After that they had a female mayor and the first school in Halabja was founded by a woman. Female principals were common and schools where boys and girls were mixed were standard. England also had a base in the city during World War I which affected the local culture a lot.

The people of Halabja managed for decades to keep the Iraqi regime away from the area but after a series of attempts of revolution during the 60 – and early 70’s, the regime responded by bombing the city in 1974. This was the first time they tried to silence the city and its soul, and it left its mark for a long time. Al-Anfal was carried out primarily against Halabja to silence the people of the region once and for all, as it was seen as the seed of the uprisings in Saddam’s eyes. The campaign was thus a, long, elective surgery. Weapons were being purchased from many countries around the world, but mainly from European countries.

The city that once was known for its ”Baxchei Pasha” (King’s Garden), where all sorts of flowers, plants and fruit trees flourished, ended up as a ghost town. Today, the garden is a distant memory. Even today the people are facing the consequences that the gas attack caused. The land cannot burden, the water is polluted and the number of people with various forms of cancer has increased over the years. Uterine cancer, ovarian cancer and miscarriages are common among women. Deformities and disabilities are common among newborns since then and the number of impotent people is increasing in both men and women. Depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia are common mental disorders. People today are more religious than before, and Islamist movements have taken root in the area.

The city is slowly rising from the abyss, but a lot of work is required for that to happen. To begin with, Halabja and Anfal must be recognized as genocide by the international community.

Shanga Amin