Anger boils in Halabja, Iraq’s "town of martyrs"

HALABJA, Iraq – Broken glass crunched under Adnan’s feet as he walked through Halabja’s vandalised memorial. He stopped and pointed to an inscription on the wall.
“There is my father’s name. I remember the day they gassed us as if it were yesterday. We ran but my father and sister didn’t make it,” said the 27-year-old Kurdish Peshmerga militiaman.
Near Iraq’s border with Iran, Halabja became synonymous with atrocities against civilians after Saddam Hussein’s forces killed 5,000 people here in a gas attack in 1988. Iraqi Kurds call Halabja the “town of martyrs” and hold the massacre in their collective memory as a Kurdish Auschwitz.
Today, the victims’ memorial also bears witness to more recent violence and simmering discontent in this dusty town.
In March, on the 18th anniversary of the gas attack, hundreds of locals attacked the memorial and set it on fire as anger at perceived neglect and corruption by Kurdish authorities boiled over.
“It is sad to see what happened to the museum,” said Adnan, who camps with his unit on cots in what used to be an exhibition room. In another room, decapitated statues of women and children, representing victims of the gas attack, lie scattered.
Local officials blamed Islamists and outsiders, a veiled reference to Iran. But youths in Halabja said the protests were spurred by local anger at the Kurdish government.
They said Kurdish leaders had exploited Halabja for their political ends, and that donations and investment from outside had not translated into better schools, roads or services. Adnan, who was 9 when Halabja was gassed and survived by fleeing to the mountains with his uncle and mother, does not understand the reasons.
“We are all from Halabja. Why did they do this?” he said.
Makuan Raouf has an answer.
“The government has done nothing for Halabja. The only thing they built here was the memorial,” the 29-year-old barber said.
“Politicians only come to Halabja for the anniversary. They built the memorial on the outskirts to avoid seeing our faces and asking us about our problems.”
Nearly two decades after the gas attack, Saddam faces genocide charges over the military campaign that razed hundreds of Kurdish villages — his trial resumes on Sept. 11 — and Kurds have an autonomous government in peaceful Kurdistan.
Nearby Sulaimaniya and other cities are enjoying a construction boom and foreign firms are considering investing in oil and communications here.
But the prosperity is not reaching the villages, which bore the brunt of Saddam’s Anfal — or Spoils of War — campaign.
Kurdish leaders say 100,000 people were killed during the seven-month onslaught. The populations of entire villages disappeared, rural areas were declared “out of bounds to all persons and animals” and troops were allowed to fire at will.
Although the Halabja gas attack took place in the same period as Anfal, Saddam will be tried separately for it.
Like most villages in Kurdistan, Halabja’s streets are unpaved, its schools are old and residents complain of electricity shortages and unemployment.
The road to Halabja runs along a fertile valley with massive rocky mountains. At the town’s entrance, sunflowers sprout next to a large billboard that shows women and children lying dead after the gas attack. “Welcome to Halabja. We, the trees and the water are the Kurdish people,” it reads.
Kocher Mohammed, 23, said he wants his town to be known as more than just a symbol of Saddam’s persecution against Kurds.
“Our parents keep telling us what happened in Halabja during the war but we want to move on. The only way to make a living here is smuggling gasoline from Iran.”
Mayor Fouad Saleh Ridha blamed the lack of reconstruction programmes in Halabja on violence in the rest of Iraq and the financial constraints of the regional government.
“The Kurdish government cannot rebuild all the places at the same time but we need more attention in Halabja,” he said.
For Meth Ali, 21, the neglect seems deliberate.
“The world knows of Iraq because of Halabja but the donations have gone into the pockets of the politicians. They all live in Europe and don’t even come here.”

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