Why It’s Important to Remember Halabja


Tomorrow, March 16th, marks the 22nd anniversary of the Halabja poison gas attack which was carried out as part of the Al-Anfal genocide campaign to terrorize the Kurdish population and peshmerga rebels in northern Iraq. The attack, which was executed by airplanes on March 16th and 17th in a heavily populated area, away from the area of fighting on the outskirts of the city. Several sorties dropped multiple bombs each of various chemical weapons such as mustard gas and nerve agents like Tabun, VX and Sarin gas. 5,000 people died on the spot and many died later of complications. Around 10,000 were injured, and generations that followed were born disfigured. This is the largest chemical weapons attack on a civilian-populated area in history.

Le Monde Diplomatique described the scene the next morning this way:

The streets were strewn with corpses. People had been killed instantaneously by chemicals in the midst of the ordinary acts of everyday life. Babies still sucked their mothers’ breasts. Children held their parents’ hands, frozen to the spot like a still from a motion picture. In the space of a few hours 5,000 people had died. The 3,200 who no longer had families were buried in a mass grave.

Yet despite the high casualty rate, the merciless murder of Kurds in Halabja accounts to only 5% or even 2.5% of the Kurds who were killed during the Al-Anfal campaign carried out by Saddam’s regime between 1986-1989. The story of Halabja demonstrates not only how vulnerable the Kurds were in Saddam’s Iraq, but also the world’s inaction in stopping the ongoing genocide. The US, which was allied at the time with Iraq, continued to blame Iran for the attack until Saddam stopped being their ally in the early 1990s. Iraq’s western allies like France and Germany, which helped Saddam maintain his war machine, did not react strongly, the UN kept silent too.

It is important to remember Halabja because its story embodies the story of the Kurds throughout history – flagrant abuse of basic human rights in the face of inaction and politicking by the world community. We must remember the innocent victims of this attack, this assault on humanity. We must not let history repeat itself, at a time when Kurds face increased repression all across the Middle East.

Below is an illustration we created to commemorate this day:

Kurdish Rights animation

* Link to a video the Kurdish Network created for the remembrance of the Halabja attack
* Link to our video – Stand up for Kurdish Rights