Black Friday: The 1988 chemical bombardment of Halabja

Iraqi Kurds wave flags of Iraqi Kurdistan during a demonstration (photo credit: SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
Iraqi Kurds wave flags of Iraqi Kurdistan during a demonstration
(photo credit: SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
Halabja, a city near the border with Iran, lies about 241 km. north of Baghdad. This multi-religious city, which included Muslims, Kaka’is, Jews or descendants of Jews, was bombarded on Friday, March 16, 1988, by more than 25 fighter jets, supervised directly by Saddam Hussein himself, according to some accounts. The bombardment spanned almost three days and concentrated on the city center and the roads leading to the city. The first bombs were not chemical. My relative, Faraidoon Namdar, who was a Peshmerga at the time and witnessed the bombardment from a mountain southwest of Halabja, said that “an Iraqi fighter jet was shot down by the Iranian army and the bombardment stopped for almost two hours.” During the bombardment it was the only jet shot down, and after that there was no resistance.
Today this incident is known as the Halabja massacre, and there have been attempts to get it recognized as genocide, though none have been successful. The incident has been officially defined by Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal as a genocidal massacre against the Kurds in Iraq, and remains the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian- populated area in history.
At the time of the massacre, the Iran-Iraq war was in its closing days, and Iraq was losing its power gradually. On March 15 the Iraqi army evacuated Halabja, and the Iranian army, guided by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, entered the city. “At about 10:30 a.m., before the bombardment, some big planes dropped many white papers to determine the direction of the wind,” said Shler Pasha, an eyewitness and survivor. This indicates that the Iraqi government wanted to maximize the destruction of the city and its people. Many wanted to evacuate the city, however they were stopped by the Iranian and Peshmerga forces to discourage the planes from striking the city.
One of the reasons behind the bombardment was that Halabja is very close to the Iranian border and the city was bombarded frequently by Iranian artillery. This was draining Iraqi resources, and thus Saddam Hussein wanted to get rid of Halabja and retreat to the Syrwan River on the outskirts of Halabja, which flows from the Iranian mountains.
However, to this day the key reason behind the bombardment is not clear, even though according most accounts the operation was directly supervised by Saddam Hussein.
The international community was silent as usual and did not do anything to help the people of Halabja. Iran was the only country that hosted the refugees and tended to the wounded. Saddam built a new city about 30 km. from Halabja as a facade to deceive the international community and show them that the city was safe. He called the new city Halabja or, as the people called it, “New Halabja.” Now it is called Sharazoor. Many Halabjase who fled to the neighboring cities were denied equal rights and most were not allowed to attend schools.
Initially, as mentioned above, the planes dropped only conventional bombs – but later the people who sought refuge underground smelled an odor like apples. “...Many people started vomiting and we knew it was chemical weapon and started evacuating the city” said Raana Ahmad. According to most accounts some 5,000 people lost their lives.
People started evacuating the city via three routes. First was “Sazan,” an area bordering Iran which is about 15 km. from Halabja. Most who escaped via the Sazan route survived due to its mountainous terrain; some victims were taken to Iranian hospitals by Iranian army helicopters and others became refugees in Iran. Most of those who died tried to escape via the “Aanab” route, at the time a village about 5 km. from Halabja, on the way to the Iranian border.
Most of the precursors for Iraq’s chemical weapons production came from Singapore (4,515 tons), the Netherlands (4,261 tons), Egypt (2,400 tons), India (2,343 tons) and West Germany (1,027 tons). One Indian company, Exomet Plastics, sent 2,292 tons of precursor chemicals to Iraq. Singapore-based firm Kim Al-Khaleej, affiliated with the United Arab Emirates, supplied more than 4,500 tons of VX, sarin and mustard gas precursors and production equipment to Iraq. West Germany assisted Iraq in producing the chemical weapons. There have been many attempts to hold the companies who helped the Iraqi regime to produce the chemical weapons accountable, however none have succeeded.
Today Halabja is largely forgotten by the Iraqi and Erbil governments, and by the international community as well. Many of the victims are still dying from the effects of the chemical weapons used in Halabja, and they have not been granted any special health care. Most of them cannot afford to go to doctor. Galawezh Ahmad, a victim, says that “sometimes I can hardly breathe due to the chemical weapon and I have to travel to Sulaimaniyah [about 85 km. from Halabja].” No scientific research has been conducted on the consequences of the chemical weapons used in Halabja and many victims are ailing as of 2018.
According to the United Nations definition of genocide Halabja should be recognized as a genocide, however, after 30 years the incident is known only to a small fraction of the global population, even as most of the wounded are stilling suffering from the effects of Saddam’s chemical weapons.
The author is a Kurdish writer.