At exactly 11:35 in the morning on March 16, 2013, everything on the normally noisy, busy streets of Halabja stopped. Cars didn’t move and people stood still. Hardly anybody spoke. The people of the town were commemorating the 25th anniversary of the chemical weapon attack on their northern Iraqi homes.
The five minutes of silence were timed to start when the first chemical bombs, dispatched by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to quell a Kurdish uprising, fell on the town. More bombs fell during that morning in 1988 and the final death toll left at least 5,000 dead and close to an estimated 10,000 injured. Almost 70 percent of those killed were women and children.
And although 25 years have passed, many in Halabja are still grieving; many are also still suffering from the after effects of the chemical gas attack. And they are also still complaining about how they have been treated since then: many victims of the gas attack believe that the size of the problem has been underestimated.
It’s actually only relatively recently that the people of the town have had their suspicions confirmed about ongoing effects of the chemical attack from over two decades ago. Luqman Abdul-Qadir, chairman of the Halabja Victims Association and one of the victims of the chemical weapons himself, started to suspect something was wrong when some chickens being kept in his cellar died. He reported this to specialist teams from the UK, Iran and Iraq.
“The two teams [from the UK and Iran] and one group from the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment told me they found traces of mustard gas in the cellar and that it was dangerous for humans in there too,” Abdul-Qadir told NIQASH. “The Iranians told me that the danger would continue especially in areas where there was no rain, sunshine or ventilation. They also told people not to eat fruit they’d planted.”
Abdul-Qadir ended up leaving his house. And he also wanted to point out that over 250 people in the area were still very ill; they suffered from respiratory and vision problems.
To add to Halabja’s woes further, there have also been several unexploded bombs found in the area. The US military helped locals defuse one in September 2011, but five people were injured in the process. Several weeks later another three bombs were found, two of which were able to be defused. A third still lies in the middle of a mine field. This leaves many locals living in fear.
As a result of all of the above, many in Halabja still don’t feel they are being trated fairly by their government. Late on March 16, after speeches commemorating the anniversary of the bombing, the President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan said they would ask the federal government in Baghdad to allow Halabja to become the fourth province of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister, Najirvan Barzani and his deputy, Imad Ahmad, said they would do this as a gesture of goodwill and faith to the people of Halabja.
While some in the city are justifiably sceptical about these promises – after all, it’s not that easy to add a new province to Iraqi Kurdistan – others were pleased about the plan. Halabja\'s mayor, Khder Kareem, was one of the latter. Kareem told NIQASH he had met with officials from Iraqi Kurdistan and that they had promised to table the issue at the first cabinet meeting after holidays for the Kurdish New Year. Kareem said he was well aware that any decision would need to be approved by the federal government as well as the Iraqi Kurdish one.
“But I am sure that the government of Baghdad will also approve of this plan because the people of Iraq really sympathize with [Halabja],” the mayor said optimistically. “ If this goes ahead it could heal some of our wounds.”