Have you ever heard of “Chemical Ali?” You know, Saddam Hussein’s cousin who was responsible for “Gassing the Kurds?” His biggest claim to fame happened on March 16, 1988 on an otherwise quiet day, at least as quiet as it gets in an active war zone! It was late in the Iran-Iraq War when Saddam Hussein’s war planes flew over the bustling northern Iraqi city of Halabja, dispersing a bomb that smelled strangely of sweet apples. Within the next 30 minutes, upwards of 5,000 people in this Kurdish city were dead as the most stunning example of genocide against the Kurdish people.
24 years later, Halabja never really has recovered and, along with Amna Suraka (“Red Security”) in nearby Sulaymaniyah, it is one of the lasting throwbacks to Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror. City no more, Halabja is now a small town, struggling to maintain its footing, something that was immediately apparent when I visited with a few friends who were living in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region (Kurdistan) in Northern Iraq.
It was a Friday, the Muslim holy day, and the town was nearly deserted. We did, however, succeed in finding a taxi driver to take us to the towering memorial on the outskirts of town that resembles a pair of opposing cupped hands going into the air, a ride that he insisted on not accepting money for, something that stunned us for a town that faced such financial hardship.
Halabja Massacre Memorial
The memorial itself is a somber place. Immediately after walking in, you are directed to a room full of eerily lit dioramas of what the scene looked like immediately after the bombing.
Next come an assortment of photos of the aftermath, which show that life just stopped suddenly. There is a man caught mid-prayer. People with bags of things that just fell on the ground as they themselves collapsed. The father who is shielding his child, yet they are both dead (which is also featured as a sculpture outside the complex, as pictured below). These are the horrifying images of what come from chemical weapon use.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a symbol of Kurdish national pride, swathed in green, red and white fabric, the colors of the flag of Iraqi Kurdistan.
From the memorial, the other site of interest in town is the cemetery, full of mass graves. When we finally found a taxi driver (it’s not so easy to communicate cemetery through hand signals, what with miming bombs, dead bodies and pointing to the ground…), he insisted on showing us around, stopping at one of the individual tomb stones. His whole family was buried there, translated my friend. Stoically posing with the names of his family members, the driver insisted we simply had to take his photograph.
As you wander down the path with mass grave after mass grave, each listing how many bodies were buried there, you arrive back at the front gate with its bone chilling sign: “Baath’s Members are not Allowed to Enter,” a stark reminder of the hollowed ground that this is and the disdain that the Kurds feel for the Arab Iraqis, a feeling that is not unjustified.
Nearby Sulaymaniyah (also spelled Slemani and often called simply Sulay) holds another lasting relic of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign, which the Halabja Massacre was part of. There you can wander the halls of an eerie former prison that was once used to torture political prisoners. This complex has no fancy displays like the Hoa Lo Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”) in Vietnam does. No, instead you walk into a room and suddenly come face to face with this…
It was behind these walls that Saddam Hussein’s forces brutalized the Kurdish citizens residing in the northern part of Iraq. And a walk through these decaying hallways leads to more dramatic encounters, though not nearly as hair raising as that first set of figrues.
The Kurds call this place Amna Suraka, literally “Red Security,” named for the now-bullet riddled pigment on the exterior of the buildings. It’s a striking site at first glance for the sheer level of violence that’s immediately apparent to you. Those bullet holes are from the 1991 Kurdish Revolt, when the Kurdish Peshmerga Soldiers “liberated” the prison. It was that revolt that led to the autonomy that the Kurds now enjoy (and also led to a little something you may have heard of called the “No-Fly Zone”).
“March 31, 1991, is considered as a turning point in our struggle for freedom. In that day, we all decided to confront the Baa’thists occupiers, turning the “Mass Exodus” [of Kurds] into our struggle’s identity.”
So begins a sign explaining the huge significance of this revolt in recent Kurdish history. Though the Kurds do not currently have an independent state, this revolt ultimately led to the greatest degree of freedom and self-government that the Kurds have experienced in modern history. When the cease-fire was finally signed in October 1991, Kurdish forces were in control of what we now know as Iraqi Kurdistan.
The last stop in the complex (after another array of old-fashioned tanks) is the Hall of Mirrors, a poignant memorial whose curvy walls are covered in 182,000 shards of mirror, representing each of the Kurdish people killed during Saddam Hussein’s murderous crusade. Above shine 5,000 lights, each representing a Kurdish village that he destroyed.
The whole experience of both of these places makes you do a bit of reflecting about the unthinkable horrors that the Kurdish people faced under Saddam Hussein. Living in the West, it’s easy to lump acts such as these into the simple notion that there are bad dictators abroad and that they do bad things to their people. But when you come face to face with the sites of such atrocities, everything suddenly becomes very real. It’s not just something written in a history book in some far off land, but something that affects real peoples lives…real people who you meet and it’s just heartbreaking.
Needless to say, I left Halabja and Sulaymaniyah with a far deeper understanding for Kurdish identity and why it’s so important that the Kurds, at least in Iraq, maintain control over their own lands.
What About You?
Have you visited troubled places like these? What sorts of reactions did you have?