Survivors call for recognition, compensation, action

Halabja commemorates 36th anniversary of brutal chemical attack

HALABJA — The city of Halabja is solemnly commemorating the 36th anniversary of the devastating chemical attack that claimed thousands of lives, with survivors and families urging for more substantial government engagement and recognition.

Nermin Kamal, a survivor who lost 14 family members in the 1988 attack, voiced concerns over the fading memory of the tragedy. “The remembrance of Halabja has grown colder,” Kamal told reporters, emphasizing the need for higher official presence in commemorative events to honor the victims and acknowledge the ongoing suffering of survivors.

The attack, which remains one of the deadliest chemical weapons assaults against civilians, saw Saddam Hussein’s forces bombarding Halabja with lethal gas, leading to the immediate death of over 5,000 people and injuring more than 10,000.

The chemical weapons used included mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin, tabun, and VX, which caused immediate deaths by asphyxiation, skin burns, and blisters, impaired vision, breathing difficulties, and long-term medical effects like permanent blindness, respiratory disorders, and various forms of cancer.

Decades later, the community is still grappling with the physical and psychological aftermath.

Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani criticized the Iraqi government’s reluctance to compensate the victims’ families and officially recognize the magnitude of Halabja’s suffering. In his statement on the anniversary, Barzani pointed out, “It is deeply regrettable that after the fall of the previous regime, successive Iraqi governments are not ready to compensate the families of the martyrs of Halabja.” He highlights the ongoing frustration over the inaction of successive governments and the international community’s silence at the time of the attack.

The international community’s response in the aftermath of the Halabja attack was widely criticized for its muted reaction, largely attributed to geopolitical interests in the region during the closing years of the Cold War and Iraq’s strategic position against Iran. The Halabja chemical bombing was a key event in the Iran-Iraq war, the Baath regime’s brutal response to perceived collaboration between Kurdish Peshmerga rebels and Iran, as Saddam Hussein sought to punish Kurds in response to Iranian forces gaining territory in Kurdish regions of Iraq during Operation Zafar 7.

Barzani also condemned the failure to acknowledge the systematic attempts to erase the Kurdish identity through such brutal acts. “The main purpose of this crime and other crimes of successive Iraqi regimes against the Kurdish people was to genocide the Kurdish people and erase their identity,” Barzani added, emphasizing the need for recognition and justice for Halabja and the broader Kurdish community affected by historical atrocities.

Efforts to keep the memory of the tragedy alive are evident through the dedication of individuals like Mohammed Hama Saeed, an employee at the Halabja Monument Directorate, who lost several family members to the attack. Saeed has committed himself to educating visitors about the massacre and has collected over 250 items related to the tragedy since 2011. Promoted recently to the director of the monument, Saeed’s initiatives underscore the importance of remembrance and education in the healing process.

Despite Halabja being officially recognized as a governorate by the KRG in recent years, efforts to fully implement this status and provide the necessary support and reconstruction have been met with delays. The bill to solidify Halabja’s status federally has faced postponements in the Iraqi parliament, highlighting political challenges in addressing the city’s needs.

On this anniversary, the Independent Human Rights Commission called for the passage of the Halabja bill, emphasizing the city’s right to recognition as the 19th governorate of Iraq. This step is seen as crucial for acknowledging the Kurdish city’s suffering and facilitating its recovery and development.