The unforgettable massacre of Halabja

15/3/2019 15:11:00

Halabja massacre or Bloody Friday, was a genocidal massacre against the Kurdish people that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran–Iraq War, when chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi government forces in the Kurdish town of Halabja in Southern Kurdistan.


The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people, and injured around 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians; thousands more died of complications, diseases, and birth defects in the years after the attack. The incident, which has been officially defined as an act of genocide against the Kurdish people in Iraq, was and still remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.


On the morning of March 16, 1988, Iraqi war planes and artillery pounded with mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin.


5,000 people - mainly women and children - died on the day, and up to 12,000 have lost their lives since.


The result of the chemical warfare attack on Halabja was one of the worst sights to be seen. Everywhere there were huddled bodies, lying in the street, sheltering against walls.


Many of them were protecting someone else, who was also dead: a baby, a child, a wife.

The Iraqi air force used a variety of chemicals against the town: nerve agents like VX, Sarin and Tabun, and the terrible but far more primitive mustard gas, the use of which dates back to World War I.


There were two days of conventional bombing before the gas attack. It seems as though Ali Hassan al-Majid wanted to break the windows in the town, so there would be as little resistance to the gas as possible.


31 years later, the horror is not over. Some of the mustard gas which was used is still present in the cellars of the town, where people took refuge during the bombing.


Unlike the nerve agents, which evaporated very fast, mustard gas is heavier than air. It sinks down and forms pockets which are still dangerous today.


The Halabja attack has been recognized as a separate event from the Anfal Genocide that was also conducted against the Kurdish people by the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi High Criminal Court recognized the Halabja massacre as an act of genocide on March 1, 2010, a decision welcomed by the Kurdistan Regional Government.The attack was also condemned as a crime against humanity by the Parliament of Canada.


Chemical attacks

The five-hour attack began early in the evening of March 16, 1988, following a series of indiscriminate conventional (rocket and napalm) attacks, when Iraqi MiG and Mirage aircraft began dropping chemical bombs on Halabja's residential areas, far from the besieged Iraqi army base on the outskirts of the town. According to regional Kurdish rebel commanders, Iraqi aircraft conducted up to 14 bombings in sorties of seven to eight planes each; helicopters coordinating the operation were also seen. Eyewitnesses told of clouds of smoke billowing upward "white, black and then yellow"', rising as a column about 150 feet (46 m) in the air.


Survivors said the gas at first smelled of sweet apples; they said people died in a number of ways, suggesting a combination of toxic chemicals (some of the victims "just dropped dead" while others "died of laughing"; while still others took a few minutes to die, first "burning and blistering" or coughing up green vomit). It is believed that Iraqi forces used multiple chemical agents during the attack, including mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX; some sources have also pointed to the blood agent hydrogen cyanide (most of the wounded taken to hospitals in the Iranian capital Tehran were suffering from mustard gas exposure).



The first images after the attack were taken by Iranian journalists who later spread the pictures in Iranian newspapers; a film of the atrocity was also shown worldwide via news programmes. Some of those first pictures were taken by Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan. Recalling the scenes at Halabja, Golestan described the scene to Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times: he was about eight kilometers outside Halabja with a military helicopter when the Iraqi MiG-23 fighter-bombers flew in. "It was not as big as a nuclear mushroom cloud, but several smaller ones: thick smoke," he said. He was shocked by the scenes on his arrival in the town, though he had seen gas attacks before during the Iran-Iraq War:


   It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. (...) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl's mouth and she died in my arms.


Medical and genetic consequences

In surveys by local doctors, a higher percentage of medical disorders, miscarriages (14 times higher), and colon cancer (10 times higher) was found in Halabja compared to Chamchamal; additionally, "other cancers, respiratory ailments, skin and eye problems, fertility and reproductive disorders are measurably higher in Halabja and other areas caught in chemical attacks". Some of those who survived the attack or were apparently injured only lightly at the time, later developed medical problems doctors believe stemmed from the chemicals, and there are concerns that the attack may be having a lasting genetic impact on the Kurdish population, as preliminary surveys show increased rates of birth defects.


Becoming a province

On Thursday, 13/3/2014, a delegation from Halabja City visited the KRG’s Council of Ministry with the purpose of discussing how to make the city a province officially. In the framework of that step, President of Kurdistan Region and Head of the KRG signed the papers for making the city officially a province and a governor was appointed for it.





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