4.1 Haunting Memories, Enduring Grief
Survivors of the poison gas attack on Halabja have all gone through highly traumatic experiences. Their homes, their families, their social structures, their entire world was destroyed in a few minutes. They witnessed their children, partners, parents, siblings dying a terrible death right in front of them, while being themselves injured, immobilized, struggling with death and thus unable to help them. Many struggle with feelings of guilt for not having been able to protect their children or for not having been able to attend to their relatives during their last moments and adequately mourn their death thereafter. Their concepts of themselves and the world were deeply shattered.
Kamaran Haider was 11 years old then and survived hidden in a makeshift shelter. He stayed there for many hours. When he left the shelter, he found his father, mother, and siblings lying dead on the stairs. “I lost my feeling, all my feeling,” he recounts. “I knew that my mum died. I knew that my brother died […]. At that time, I didn’t cry […]. I didn’t feel anything. No happiness, no stress. Well, I knew that people around me died, that’s it.”Footnote 13
Iranian soldiers and the Iranian Red Crescent took hundreds of survivors to Iran for medical treatment after the attack. There was an indescribable chaos, panic, and fear of more attacks to come and of the gas that was still lingering around. Injured and uninjured alike were hectically loaded on trucks and brought outside the town and into Iran. Many survivors lost track of their family members.
Many of the severely injured survivors spent years in Iran going from one hospital to another for medical treatment. Others were taken abroad for treatment—to Austria, Germany, and other countries, unaware of what happened to their relatives. A number of children, babies at the time, could not be identified by Iranian authorities and were adopted and brought up by Iranian families. In 2011, the heartbreaking story of Ali Pour was covered by Kurdish and international media and a documentary film (Hidou 2011).Footnote 14 Ali grew up as the son of an affectionate Iranian family. At the age of 21 he learned that he was originally a baby survivor of the poison gas attack in Halabja. He went back to Halabja in search of his original family. Three families claimed and hoped for Ali to be their lost son. The evidence provided by a genetic test led to an outbreak of joy in one family and to a new emotional breakdown in two others. Ali, whose original name is Zimnako Mohammed Salih, went the Halabja graveyard and erased his name he found engraved on one of the tombstones.Footnote 15
To this day memories and images of the attack are deeply impressed upon the survivors’ minds and thoughts. They suffer from what can be clearly defined as traumatic symptoms: nightmares, anxiety, restlessness, depression, panic attacks, flash-backs. Ako Sirini’s documentary film “There is Hope Behind the Tears” (2013), based on testimonies of survivors, shows the intensity and presence of pain and grief in survivors twenty five years after the event. The young man, a child of maybe ten years in 1988, was taken to Iran with his siblings after the attack and spent weeks hoping and waiting for his parents to join them. He describes the moment of reunion with his uncle who brought certainty that his parents were dead: “Imagine at that young age, I did not cry because of the presence of the other children. From the day I received that news, I behaved differently. To this day, I haven’t cried as much as my heart ached for them” (Sirini 2013, 10:46–11:11). A woman in her seventies stated: “When I think, every moment is like death for me. This pain is not like a soul; once it leaves, it never comes back. The pain lies within you forever” (Sirini 2013, 17:38–17:49).
4.2 Survivors’ Life Conditions Between 1988 and 2003
We know from psychological trauma research that for victims of extreme violence and trauma the ability to recover and reconstruct their lives largely depends on the life conditions they find themselves in after the traumatic experience.Footnote 16 Safety, economic and political stability, social support, societal and political recognition of their experience, and punishment or at least accountability of the perpetrators help victims of extreme violence to recover and find a balance between the past and the present. On the other hand, ongoing conflict and violence, poverty, impunity of the perpetrators, and a lack of assistance prolong and aggravate their suffering and keep them frozen in the moment of their trauma.Footnote 17
The life conditions of the Halabja survivors in the years following the attack were more than adverse to any kind of recovery. First of all, many survivors died in subsequent years from their injuries.Footnote 18 Numerous others suffered from the long-term impact of the poison gas, from skin and eye diseases, damage to the respiratory and neural systems, and various forms of cancer, infertility, miscarriages and congenital disorders. Even in the third generation, the rate of leukemia is high among children (Gosden et al. 2001). The soil in and around Halabja will remain contaminated for a long time to come (Ala’Aldeen 2005).
Immediately after the attack, the Baath regime had razed the town of Halabja to the ground; there was no possibility of return. Many survivors stayed in Iran; others continued to hide in the mountains. The majority of survivors were forcibly resettled by the Baath regime in a so called mujamma (collective town) cynically named “New Halabja” at a distance of some 70 km from the destroyed town. Like other urban settlements built for Anfal survivors, “New Halabja” was a camp-like structure with housing, schools, and medical facilities. Its population lived under military control and was forbidden to leave and, especially, to set foot in Halabja.Footnote 19
In 1991 a U.S.-led military coalition attacked Iraq in reaction to the latter’s invasion of Kuwait. The Kurds in Iraq—seeing finally a chance to defeat the dictator—followed the U.S. call to arms, but were let down and abandoned by the coalition after its armistice with Iraq. The Kurdish insurrection was subsequently brutally crushed by Iraqi forces. At the moment of defeat, two million Kurds fled in utmost panic to Iran and Turkey, leaving behind all their belongings. The images of their mass exodus went around the world in the Spring of 1991. The panic among the fleeing Kurds could only be explained by their fear of further poison gas attacks that had been deeply imprinted into the minds of the Kurdish people in 1988.
In response to the mass exodus, Dutch and British troops set up safe havens for the refugees and the United Nations declared a no-fly zone over Iraq to prevent the Baath regime from carrying out airstrikes.Footnote 20 In the wake of these events the Kurds achieved provisional autonomy and a Kurdish government was democratically elected in 1992. Anfal survivors started to reconstruct their villages and Halabja poison gas attack survivors returned to their home town, from then on referred to by all Kurds as Halabja shehid—the “martyr’s town of Halabja.”
Despite these first steps toward their safety, the survivors would stay in precarious conditions for another twelve years. The Kurdish Regional Government had not been internationally recognized; the Kurdish region suffered from international sanctions against the whole of Iraq and an additional embargo from Baghdad imposed on the Kurds. There was no trustworthy agreement about Kurdish autonomy with the Iraqi regime, and the fear that the Baath-regime will come back was pervasive throughout those years. Iran and Turkey frequently intervened militarily in the unstable region and from the mid-1990s the two main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), engaged in a bloody internal struggle for power and resources that caused further violence and death in the region.Footnote 21
During all those years until 2003, Halabja poison gas survivors lived in a city of ruins, in extreme poverty, facing multiple new waves of violent conflict, and fearing that the Baath regime will come back and the catastrophe will recur. Absorbed in a daily struggle for survival they had no possibility to rest, take care of themselves, reconstruct their town and lives and thus regain some trust, courage, and hope. Instead, anger and bitterness added to their injury and exacerbated their suffering. In the 1990s the people of Halabja were outraged about the lack of assistance by both the Kurdish parties and government and the international community. They denounced Western countries’ previous complicity with the Iraqi Baath regime and its production of chemical weapons and urgently called upon the international community to engage in the reconstruction of Halabja. They felt betrayed and forgotten once again.Footnote 22
4.3 Changes After 2003
The situation only changed in 2003 with the second U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In the run-up to the invasion, U.S. president George W. Bush made frequent reference to Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas against his own population. After years of silencing, the chemical attack against Halabja now became an argument for legitimizing the invasion.Footnote 23 This time the military invasion led to the demise of the Baath regime and as such was enthusiastically welcomed and celebrated all over Kurdistan. For the first time after 1988, a sense of safety was restored to the Halabja survivors. The sanctioning of Kurdistan as an autonomous region in a federal state of Iraq by the Iraqi constitution of 2005 brought about a sense of political stability. The main perpetrators—Saddam Hussein and Ali Hassan al-Majid— were sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal and executed. Al-Majid received four death sentences for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide against the Kurds and was hanged in 2010. Saddam Hussein was already executed on December 30, 2006 for the massacres against Shiites in Dujail before the Anfal and Halabja trials had come to an end.Footnote 24 Internationally, there has been a highly controversial debate about the legitimacy of the trials because of the strong U.S. role in the set up of the trials, the victor’s justice involved, and the non-compliance with international law standards.Footnote 25 However, for the Anfal and Halabja survivors, these trials—the fact that survivors gave testimonies in a court of law facing the main perpetrators—were important milestones for restoring their sense of justice and satisfaction. Yet many survivors were disappointed that Saddam Hussein was not executed for Halabja and Anfal, as they wanted his death to be linked in the historical record to these crimes (Mlodoch 2014, 364–365).
After 2003 the Kurdish region saw a rapid process of economic development and modernization, which brought improvement to the life conditions of the Anfal and Halabja survivors as well. The Kurdistan Regional Government finally started to invest in the destroyed areas’ infrastructure. Survivors’ pensions were raised; they received grants for building houses and their children stipends for university or college education. Today, the survivors’ economic situation has improved. Those who were children during the chemical attacks have meanwhile grown up, started their own families, finished their education, and became a source of pride for the entire survivors’ community. Indeed there are strong collective structures and a sense of community among the survivors due to the shared experience. All these changes have at last created the possibility for the survivors to take some rest and engage in the reconstruction of their town and their social structures.
Mamosta Fakhradin, who saw two of his children die in his arms on March 16, 1988, is today a teacher at a primary school in Halabja and says that he regards each of his students as his own child (Hidou 2011). A young man in Ako Sirini’s 2013 documentary who was a baby when he lost his parents in the gas attack talks about the day he took his degree at the Medical School. However, he said it was a sad day for him as he imagined how proud he would have made his parents coming home with the university certificate. He is now practicing medicine in Halabja. The other young man in the film who lost his parents has become an artist. He gives art lectures to young people and says that he wants to bring color back to Halabja. They are examples of how survivors live with haunting memories and indelible images, but at the same time try to relate to the present and engage in reconstructing their lives.
Today Halabja is step by step turning into a lively town again. Streets and markets are crowded; the town has playgrounds, schools, a university, women centers, and cultural projects. The reconstruction of the town of Halabja gives a sense of triumph to survivors over the destructive impact of the poison gas. Yet the scars of the past and its representation are visible everywhere. Besides the huge graveyard for the victims with the endless-looking rows of 5,000 tombstones and the huge central memorial at the outskirts of the town, there are numerous smaller memorials, art pieces and wall inscriptions reminding of the poison gas attack all over the town.
However, there is still an intense feeling of rage and bitterness among Halabja survivors. They feel exploited by the Kurdish national discourse and political elite, who define the chemical attack against Halabja as a national trauma but fall short of addressing the survivors’ claims and needs. At the occasion of an official remembrance ceremony at the Halabja anniversary in 2006, survivors turned against the attendant Kurdish politicians and their guests, demanding better services instead of high-profile ceremonies and ultimately set the central Halabja monument ablaze (Hiltermann 2008).Footnote 26
Survivors are also bitter about the lack of international assistance and recognition. They strongly call upon international governments and parliaments to recognize the Anfal and Halabja attacks as genocidal and to take to justice the international companies which delivered supplies for the poison-gas production to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Indeed, although UNSCOM inspections and the Baath regime’s confiscated documents brought evidence about the implication of European and specifically West German companies in Iraq’s poison gas production in the 1980s (Kelly 2013), there has not been to date any noteworthy legal prosecution of those responsible. Only one Dutch businessman, Frans van Anraat, whose company had delivered thousands of tons of chemical substances to the Iraqi regime in the 1980s, has been convicted to 17 years in prison for supporting war crimes by a District Court in The Hague in 2005, but was acquitted of the charge of supporting genocide (Oñate et al. 2007).