Kurds mark 34 years since Saddam Hussein’s gas attack on Halabja
Halabja's residents commemorated on Wednesday the 34th anniversary of a chemical attack by the former Iraqi Baath regime of Saddam Hussein on their city, calling on the current federal government in Baghdad to compensate the survivors.
On 16 March 1988, Saddam's regime attacked the people of Halabja city, killing more than five thousand people, and wounding tens of thousands. Saddam's regime was toppled following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and Hussein was captured in December 2003. He was hanged three years later following his conviction for 'crimes against humanity', including the Halabja massacre.
34 years on from the attack, relatives of the victims and survivors hold the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) responsible for failing to compensate them and help them heal their wounds.
"It is the duty of the Iraqi federal government to compensate the people of Halabja," Omed Hama Ali Rashid, now an employee at Halabja Monument, told The New Arab.
"The Iraqi government is careless in the first place; it should have compensated us before compensating Kuwait. The KRG and Kurdish representatives in Baghdad are also to blame in this regard since they should be more insisting on making the Iraqi officials fulfil their duties," he added.
He recalled how he survived during the attack on Halabja.
"I am the only survivor in my family. I was only 10 years when I was wounded and was rushed by an Iranian military helicopter for treatment. Seven members in my family were martyred in 1988," he said. "After staying for two days in an Iranian hospital, they thought that I had died and had put me in a coffin. Fortunately, I became conscious."
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Wednesday tweeted a promise to recognise a previous decision by the KRG that elevated Halabja from a city into a province. The Iraqi prime minister also made hints about the possibility of compensating Halabja's residents, but he likely may not have enough time to carry out his promises, as a new Iraqi cabinet is expected to replace him.
"Halabja, the martyr of tyranny, is a living witness to our people's struggle for justice; and a symbol for brotherhood and hope of a democratic Iraq. It deserves to be a province, to honour its sacrifices. We will spare no effort to achieve this. Peace be upon the martyrs of Iraq," al-Kadhimi tweeted in English, Arabic and Kurdish languages.
Bakhtyar Omar, 47 years old, is another survivor from Halabja. He holds the KRG authorities responsible for "doing nothing worth mentioning to help the relatives of Halabja martyrs, the wounded people from the chemical attack, and the people of Halabja in general."
Presently, Halabja is struggling with providing its residents basic life services and is witnessing an increase in unemployment rates. Thousands of people from Halabja suffer from chronic illnesses as a consequence of the mustard gas used 34 years ago.
"All that was been done in Halabja have been carried out by the KRG, the Iraqi government did not do anything for us. They did not even recognise our province nor did they allocate a share in Iraq's budget for us," Azad Tofiq, the Governor of Halabja, told The New Arab in a phone call.
"Today in a memorandum we raised shortcomings in Halabja to the KRG council of ministers and they promised us to at least to fulfil half of them. We are also asking the Iraqi government to fulfil our demands."
Fed up with "unfulfilled promises" by the KRG officials over years, some relatives of the Halabja victims have boycotted the formal commemoration organized by the KRG at Halabja Monument.
Instead, they held a separate commemoration to mark the massacre.
"Our stance was to tell the KRG, as well as the provincial authorities, that the relatives of Halabja martyrs are upset. For 34, we have been listening to them and waiting, but our miseries are increasing year after year," Luqman Abdulqadir, head of the Association for Victims of Halabja Chemical Attack, told The New Arab.
"Hence our stance is to urge the Kurdish officials to make a revision and press the Iraqi government to compensate affected people of Halabja gas-attack," he added.
More than 5,000 Iraqi Kurds, mostly women and children, were killed on 16 March, 1988 when deadly gas was released on the northern town of Halabja by Saddam Hussein's forces.
It is believed to have been the worst ever gas attack targeting civilians.
In the final months of the eight-year Iraq-Iran war ethnic Kurdish fighters who sided with Iran captured the large farming town of Halabja on 15 March.
The Iraqi army retaliated with artillery and airstrikes, with Kurdish fighters and most of the town's men retreating to surrounding hills, leaving behind women, children, and the elderly.
The following day Iraqi fighter jets circled the town for five hours, releasing a mixture of toxic gases.
Kurdish fighters who came down from the hills alerted foreign journalists, who soon arrived at the scene.
By 23 March the first images were broadcast on Iranian television, showing images of streets scattered with corpses.
[With input from AFP archives]