Monday, March 17, 2008

Genocide: Iraq - In Halabjah, the the past has not been forgotten

By Ahmad al-Zubaidi RFE/RL
Residents like the owner of this home, which suffered a direct hit in 1988, feel officials have done little to ease their plight

The sign at the cemetery entrance is unforgiving. "No Ba'athists allowed inside."

It is a reminder that in Halabjah, the Iraqi Kurdish town that was the center of the Hussein regime's 1988 chemical attacks, the past has not been forgotten.

In this small plot of land, walled in by towering gray stone slabs, there are an estimated 1,500 bodies of Kurds killed during the attacks, 20 years ago this week.

"This location was the target of napalm rocket attacks, and there was a very large hole in the ground," says a journalist on a recent visit to the town. "The townspeople gathered a number of the martyrs' bodies and buried them here haphazardly. They used earthmoving machines because of the pervasive stench."

Less than 16 kilometers from the Iranian border and about 260 kilometers north of Baghdad, Halabjah is run-down, populated mostly by shepherds and farmers. Many of the buildings, even on the town's main street, still show signs of the attacks.

In Halabjah, the past is inescapable, the town's memorials a constant reminder: a cenotaph erected by the Kurdish regional government, with battered helmets and hands reaching out to heaven; or less conspicuously, in front of a municipal building, an electricity worker who was killed in the attacks.

The attacks -- or what the Kurds, many human rights groups, and a Dutch court have labeled genocide -- took place during the Iran-Iraq war, when the region was under the control of Kurdish peshmerga fighters backed by Iran.

Over a period of four days, in March 1988, Iraqi warplanes dropped bombs on the town and the surrounding area. It has never been established what the exact mix of the chemicals was, but it reportedly included mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.

Some 5,000 people were killed, mostly civilians. In June 2007, the Iraqi High Tribunal sentenced Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," to death for using chemical weapons against the Kurds.

In spite of the Iraqi and international media's interest in Halabjah, reconstruction has been slow, with residents complaining of a shortage or a total lack of civil services.

The townfolk say promises of more development have been made and are still being made by officials, but nothing has come of them.

That frustration has sometimes erupted into violence. In 2006, local residents attacked the cenotaph during a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the attacks. They claimed the regional government had not provided enough aid, or even had siphoned off funds bound for Halabjah.

The head of the town's municipal office, Fu'ad Salih, agrees that reconstruction has been limited, given the extent of the damage.

"All the villages [around Halabjah] have been destroyed," Salih says. "This increases the burden on the regional government, and I -- as a municipal head and as a citizen -- am not satisfied with what has been done for Halabjah."

There has been some international aid relief to Halabjah, including a project funded by the Japanese government to provide drinking water, which Salih says costs more than $70 million.

But some residents are reconciled to the idea that they have to go it alone. A local intellectual, who prefers to remain anonymous, says the town had been neglected since the Ba'athists came to power in 1963.

"The town lived on its own, relying on its agriculture, its orchards, the mutual assistance of its inhabitants, and on trade in general," he says.

"With regard to construction, or any assistance in this regard by the Iraqi government, it was practically nonexistent. But, despite that, the town was living in peace."

Revisiting Halabjah: 20 Years After Chemical Attack, Town Still Bears Scars
Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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