by Joe Scarangella
Around the world, far too many testaments stand symbolizing man's inhumanity to man. Whether it's Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz or the Cambodian Killing fields or the Hiroshima memorial in Japan, tributes pop-up around the world with the hope that we will not forget the fallen. While the above monuments may be the most famous, there are countless others. In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, there is such a monument, the memorial and graveyards of Halabja.
Halabja is a Kurdish village, about 250 km north of Baghdad, and only a stone's throw away from the Iranian border. Near the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's, local guerilla fighters (known as Peshmerga) liberated the village from Saddam's forces with the help of the Iranians. Saddam fought back. After days of shelling with artillery, what happened on March 16th, 1988 could never have been thought of except in the mind of a mad man.
Saddam's warplanes dropped an endless array of bombs containing mustard gas, sarin, tabun, VX and hydrogen cyanide. After the bombardment, some 4,000-5,000 innocent men, women and children were killed. Some just dropped dead where they stood, some died laughing, some took a few minutes to die after blistering and burning while coughing up green vomit. Many of the other 10,000 injured died years later after prolonged and painful complications from the attack. While Saddam blamed Iran, foreign governments were not fooled. The attack was called a "Crime Against Humanity" by many countries, including Canada.
In 2003, a wonderfully designed and very befitting memorial was built on theoutskirts of the city. Although initially rejected by the locals, any visitor to the region is guaranteed to stop by. There are photos of how the town was before the attack, leading to a hall depicting the aftermath of March 16th. In the centre, a large hall has the names of the dead inscribed. Following this, it gets rather graphic as actual photos of the days following the attacks line the walls. The pictures are truely disturbing and may not be for the faint of heart. Survivors of the attack act as guides. They are very informative and help visitor relate to the villager by using names and stories. The memorial and the guide are free of charge.
With so many dead, survivor and rescue crews were left with little option to bury the victims in mass grave in the city's grave yard. Several large stones mark the final resting place, listing the number of dead buried there. One plot having as many as 1,500 bodies. It is my experience that region cultures do not view cemeteries with the reverence of people in the west. But the one at Halabja seems different. Locals, visitors and family members sit nearby. Many of them are very friendly and willing to share their experiences, thoughts and feeling about the attacks and life since. As life must go on.
And life does indeed go on. the town has seen significant growth, particularly in the last few years. Although other than the memorial and graveyards, there is little of interest for travellers. The town's main bazar surrounds the central grand mosque. There are a few simple restaurants and tea shops, but little else. There are frequent buses and some shared taxis from the nearby city of Sulymaniyah. It is entirely possible to leave Suly in the morning, see the sites of Halabja and make it back to Suly. Although you might need a taxi within the city to find the cemetery which is rather far from the memorial.
It goes without saying that a visit to Halabja is a sobering and mildly depressing experience. But to understand the plight of the Kurdish people while in the region, a visit to Halabja is an absolute must.
You can read more by Joe here: http://www.joestrippin.blogspot.com/.
More by Joe ScarangellaIraq (Kurdistan Region)
Stumblin' over History
Goin' without Knowin'
Fallin' in Northern Iraq
Charmed by Koya
Doublin' Up on Dohuk
Za-kho, Za-kho, Off to the Bridge I Go
Divine Lunchin' (Mar Mattai)
Shaqlawan Sugar Coatin'
Al Kosh, of Course!
A Day at the Museums (Erbil)
Parkin' it in Erbil
Suly the Sequel (Sulaymaniyah)
Duckin' into Dukan
Crackin' the Citadel (Erbil)
Takin' the High Road (Dohuk - Erbil)
Iraq's B-Side (Amedi)
Back to list of experiences