A soldier stands in front of the Halabja Monument
It’s been 25 years, seven months, six days and around five hours since Saddam Hussein’s bombs rained down on Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan, but Amira Fatah remembers it as if it were yesterday.
Sat in a chair in a doctor's surgery in the suburbs of the dusty town, she recalls the hours following the chemical weapons attack on March the 16th, 1988: stumbling towards the mountains, watching her children grow weaker and, finally, reaching safety in neighbouring Iran, several hours' walk away. "When we heard the bombs start falling, I got everyone together and we made for the mountains towards Iran,” she told me. “I had heard about chemical attacks – I’d read about what they do – so I knew we had to go.”
A stronghold of the Kurdish militia who were fighting Saddam Hussein in the dying days of the Iran-Iraq War, the bombing of Halabja bears frightening similarities to the chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta area of Damascus in August of 2013. But Halabja’s nightmare didn't end when the toxic fumes – which killed 5,000 residents instantly – subsided, or when the Iraqi army poured in and razed the entire city to the ground.
It didn't even end when the Peshmerga took control of the town in 1991. Nor, indeed, with the end of Saddam. Halabja’s nightmare continues, and thousands of residents like Amira continue to live it. Twenty-five years on, Halabja demonstrates that whether Syrian president Bashar Al Assad clings to power or not, Ghouta’s suffering may only have begun.
“That night, as we climbed, the symptoms started,” Amira continued. “My son and daughter began coughing blood and their eyes were streaming. I tried to make masks, but it didn’t work. Then I lost my sight.” These early symptoms were signs of worse to come for those who escaped the bombing. A decade after the attacks, a report claimed that miscarriages in the city outnumbered live births, the number of babies with Down's syndrome has doubled and cases of leukemia trebled. Within a few months of the attack, Amira’s son was born with severe learning difficulties and now, 17 years on, Amira herself suffers from anxiety attacks, heart problems and shortness of breath.
These are problems that Anas Ibrahim, 29, has seen all too often. He is a doctor working in the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights in Halabja, funded by the German government. The centre has treated over 1,500 Halabja residents since opening in 2010, and Ibrahim and his colleagues see, on average, 15 to 20 patients a day.
“There are four main problems,” he explained. “Firstly, respiratory issues such as asthma; then skin problems such as eczema and allergic reactions. Then you have eye problems. The last is arthritis, which is not related to the attacks, but old age. But you usually find that they have combined disorders – so perhaps hypertension, depression and skin problems. Multiple disorders.”
Ibrahim provides treatment to the patients, but within a month the problem tends to return. “It is not reversible. You can give medicine, but if they stop taking it the problem comes back. There is no cure,” he said.
Dr Azad Mustafa
Residents share a collective depression in Halabja, and any visitor can sense unease in its bustling streets and busy teahouses after only a short time being there. Amira described a “nervousness in people’s hearts” – whether physical or psychological – whereas Dr Mustafa, director of the centre, just spoke of a “bad feeling” about the town.
The dying child monument
Maybe it's the numerous monuments to the attacks constantly reminding everyone of their traumatic shared experience. On Piy Mohammed Street, the centrepiece to a busy roundabout is a statue of a man struggling to cover his dying child, its mouth wide open having already succumbed to poison gas. A few streets away is another monument to the attacks, showing hands grasping from a mountain as bombs fall.
But it is the Halabja Monument, clearly visible from the dusty highway, that links the city to the regional hub of Sulaymaniyah, which is arguably the most symbolic piece of remembrance for the present-day city and the things that are still happening to it.
The Halabja Monument
The Halabja Monument was erected by the regional government in 2003, a time when the city remained largely derelict. Three years later, town residents – believing that the money spent on the monument could have been better spent on services for the city – rioted and burned it to the ground.
It was re-built, only to be torched again during protests the following year. On my visit in 2013, the towering steel sculpture was guarded by a platoon of gruff soldiers from the Kurdistan Regional Government )KRG), who refused to let us in. After two arson attacks, perhaps the KRG is finally getting the picture.
Another monument in Halabja
But as Dr Mustafa explained, there are reasons that the residents of Halabja keep burning down a monument erected in their honour. “Every anniversary, they see leaders and politicians coming here and organising a big festival for Halabja. But after the 16th of March, everything is forgotten – nobody knows what is happening in Halabja after that,” he said. “People aren't satisfied with the services of the government here. And they are really suffering.”
As the doctor treating victims of the attack, Ibrahim has seen this neglect firsthand. The centre is the only place in the city – indeed in the wider area – that is treating Halabja residents. “If you want me to be honest, the problem starts from the government," he said. "We are in the Middle East (and we have a) corrupt government… Even if it is better here than in Baghdad and other cities.”
The suburbs of Halabja
He pointed at the rows of branded medicine packing the glass-fronted cupboards behind us. “All of this came from outside and it is good quality. What the government provides us is from India, and it is cheap, low quality medication. It doesn’t work.” A major worry for Ibrahim and Mustafa is that funding for the Jiyan Foundation is due to be cut from January of 2014, meaning it may have to close. If it does, the people of the town will be left to fend for themselves.
It is a prospect that Amira, now far too elderly to leave Halabja for care – even if she could afford it – dreads. “I’ve been sick for 17 years and I have never received any help from the government. We don’t get anything from them,” she said. “All we have is here.”
Follow Orlando on Twitter: @ocrowcroft
WATCH – Female Fighters of Kurdistan