Iraq: In the shadow of the Halabja massacre
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Twenty-five years ago, Saddam Hussein orchestrated one of the worst massacres of the 20th century. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the Baghdad regime accused the Kurds of treason and collaboration with the Iranian army. In retaliation, on March 16th, 1988, the town of Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan, was bombarded with chemical weapons. In just a few hours, 5,000 people were killed. Today, the wounds of this massacre have still not healed. Our reporters went to Halabja.
Operation Anfal, led by Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (nicknamed “Chemical Ali”), destroyed the city of Halabja and wiped out a large part of its population.
On March 16, 1988, from 10.45am, Iraqi army MiG and Mirage fighter jets flew over the area for five hours and dropped chemical bombs containing a mixture of mustard gas and Tabun, Sarin and VX nerve gases. A thick white, then yellow, cloud rose. A sickening smell of apple filled the air. The inhabitants, trapped, collapsed one after the other. The attack killed up to 5,000 people, mostly women and children, and injured thousands more.
A quarter of a century later, what has become of the region? What are the long-term consequences of such a massacre? How do the survivors and their descendants live today? With these questions in mind, we travelled to Halabja.
We discovered that all the inhabitants of this Kurdish city located 250 kilometres north-east of Baghdad were affected in one way or another by the massacre. In every house, people keep apples in memory of the dead. Everyone remembers stories, each more tragic than the next.
We met survivors of Operation Anfal, who still bear the scars of the massacre. Cancer, respiratory and dermatological problems are the daily lot of those in the region. We also saw indirect victims of the massacre; children born with birth defects, or others who became ill after discovering a mass grave. There are also the unexploded bombs that farmers stumble upon in their fields.
Despite this, there is no psychologist or specialised doctor present in the region. Victims travel to neighbouring Iran to see doctors and accrue debts in order to have treatment. For several years, a specialized centre for the victims has been under construction in Halabja, but it has not yet been completed.
Today, the Kurds want the Halabja massacre to be recognised as a “genocide". The international community remains silent. Because it supported Iraq against Iran at the time, it looked the other way. Only the Iraqi High Criminal Court and the Court of Appeal of The Hague employed the term "genocide" in 2007.
Meanwhile, some Western companies are accused of providing unconventional weapons to Saddam Hussein. Last year, on June 10, 2013, twenty Iraqi Kurds filed a lawsuit in Paris for "complicity in crimes against humanity". They are asking for an investigation into the role of several French companies and individuals who may have made the chemical weapons massacre possible. Aside from the conviction of possible accomplices, the victims of Halabja also want the courts to grant them medical and financial aid.