March 16, 1988. Bloody Friday. That was the day the worst chemical attack against a civilian population was carried out. The Iran-Iraq War was drawing to an end, but the Al-Anfal campaign by the Iraqi Government to eradicate the Kurds was still ongoing. Two days after the town fell to Irani forces, Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka “Chemical Ali” ordered the attack to eradicate the Kurdish population of the area. Military targets were ignored as fighter jets dropped conventional bombs over the villages. This had the effect of shattering all the windows in all the buildings. Then, as people thought that the attacks were finished, the jets came back, this time with chemical bombs. The main gas used was mustard, but other nerve agents were used as well (Tabun, Sarin and VX), as evidenced by the variety of symptoms people exhibited after the attack. Here is the testimony of one of the survivors:
It was a beautiful spring day. As the clock approached 11:00 in the morning, I felt a strange sensation; my heart convulsed as if it were telling me that we were on the verge of a major calamity. Within minutes, artillery rounds began to explode in Halabja and planes began dropping bombs on the town. The bombing was concentrated on the northern neighborhoods, so we ran and hid in our basement. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, as the intensity of the bombing wound down, I carefully sneaked out of the basement to the kitchen and carried food to my family. When the bombing stopped, we began to hear noises that sounded like metal pieces falling on the ground. But I didn’t find an explanation.
I saw things that I won’t forget for as long as I live. It started with a loud strange noise that sounded like bombs exploding, and a man came running into our house, shouting, “Gas! Gas!” We hurried into our car and closed its windows. I think the car was rolling over the bodies of innocent people. I saw people lying on the ground, vomiting a green-colored liquid, while others became hysterical and began laughing loudly before falling motionless onto the ground. Later, I smelled an aroma that reminded me of apples and I lost consciousness. When I awoke, there were hundreds of bodies scattered around me. After that I took shelter again in a nearby basement and the area was engulfed by an ugly smell. It was similar to rotting garbage, but then it changed to a sweet smell similar to that of apples. Then I smelled something that was like eggs. Some time later, I discovered that the Iraqi air force had bombed Halabja with chemical weapons. (source)
Some of the first people on the scene after the attacks were Iranian photographers; their images were the ones that informed the world as to what happened that day. Kaveh Golestan, one of those photographers, happened to be in a helicopter a few kilometres away and witnessed the attack:
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. (…) 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.
Over 5000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, some 7000-10,000 more suffered from long-term effects and illnesses, including higher rates of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. Initially the attack was blamed on Iran, and there wasn’t much of a response to it by the international community. Despite the blame on Iran, it was to Iran that the Kurds relied on after the attack. Thousands crossed the mountains that border the two countries to seek refuge and medical treatment. It wasn’t until many years later (2010) that the Iraqi High Criminal Court recognized the attack as an act of genocide.
This memorial museum is as difficult a place to visit as other places of genocide, such as the concentration camps of Europe or the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Pehn. When you first arrive you notice the memorial with its roof of billowing chemical clouds. In the surrounding park are a number of statues, the most striking that of Omeri Khawer, a father who died trying to protect his young son from the gas. The original photograph, taken by the Turkish photographer Ramazan Öztürk, and the diorama that re-creates it are featured just below, the statue of that image is the one at the top of this post. In the featured image at the top, you’ll also notice a photographer in the background, a tribute to the Iranian and Turkish photographers who documented the tragedy and also help transport victims to safety.
One of the survivors was a baby who was later adopted by an Iranian family and given the name Ali. At the age of 21 he found out that he had survived the Halabja attack and went back to see if he could find any of his family. A DNA test found a match and he later visited the cemetery to erase his name of his gravestone (see top photo below). While visiting the museum we were lucky enough to be accompanied by one of the survivors of the attack, Mr. Umed Hama. Fourteen at the time, after the bombing he was brought to a hospital in Iran where he was thought to have died, but didn’t. He was featured on a news report (we watched the original video) and took photos with him. The bottom left photos show him standing next to a photo of his 14-year-old self after the attack. In the picture to the right, the photo in the top left shows his family members (including his grandmother) lying in the street, waiting to be rescued (he already had been, at this point). One man with a truck had been going through the town picking up people who needed help and putting them in the back of the pickup. So many people were piled up in there, those who succumbed to the gas fell out the back (one of the dioramas, in the photos above, shows that scene).
The museum was razed to the ground in 2006 by local residents who were angry that there was money to build this big memorial, but no money to rebuild the town, which had been razed by the Iraqi government in the aftermath of the attacks. As a result, a lot of original documents and items were lost. The museum does have some photos and other memorabilia, but it is quite limited. Some of the photos are about the Al-Anfal Campaign in general, showing other genocidal attacks (for which Saddam Hussein was finally tried for). In many cases, thousands of Kurdish prisoners were brought out to the Empty Quarter near the border with Saudi Arabia, and gunned down in mass pits that had been dug out there. In the photos you can see skulls with their mouths wide open, evidence that people were buried alive. With the help of locals who lived in that area at the time, they are still looking for these mass graves in the desert.
The museum has other artifacts, many documents highlighting the war crimes conducted by Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party. Some individual belongings are also there, including the camera one of the photographers used to photograph the atrocities – it was a bit unsettling to realize it was exactly the same camera I was using on this trip (a black Nikon FE). More important documents in the museum included copies of Saddam Hussein’s death certificate (and those of his sons); it also contains the rope that was used to hang Chemical Ali. He was captured in 2003 and sentenced to the death in 2007, but delays and retrials meant that the execution of the death sentence (he had 8 by this point) did not take place until January 2010. While there had been talk of the hanging being done in Halabja, in the end the residents did not want to be associated with his death and he was hung in Baghdad. The rope that hung him is inside the museum however.
Outside the museum are other important artifacts left over from the attacks. One includes the pick-up truck that was used to rescue victims in the aftermath of the attack; next to it are the gates where the father and son died. Throughout the museum and ground are old mortar casings, many are used as flower pots now. A more recent acquisition is that of Soviet fighter jet that was used in the attacks against the Kurds.
This was a really sobering memorial that was difficult to go through at times, but, like similar memorials, an important one to visit if only to pay tribute who lost their lives to this horrible attack.
Site: Halabja Monument and Peace Museum
Location: Yadgaree Street 964, Halabja, Iraq
Hours: Uncertain. I was told that they were open every day, but a recent internet search shows them only open Thursdays from 13:00-23:00.