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Haunted by the smell of apples: 28 years on, Kurds weep over Halabja massacre

EPA/Ali Haider

Haunted by the smell of apples: 28 years on, Kurds weep over Halabja massacre

Kurdish history is full of oppression, suffering and tragedies. But the gas attack at Halabja, 28 years ago this week, must surely be the most egregious.

In 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s army attacked the Kurdish province near the Iranian border with chemical gas, including mustard gas, sarin, cyanide and tabun. Survivors from Halabja say the gas smelled sweet like apples and instantly killed people who were exposed.

These attacks were part of a larger genocidal campaign mainly against the Kurdish people. Called al-Anfal, it cost 50,000 to 100,000 lives and destroyed 4,000 villages between February and September 1988. Al-Anfal referenced the eighth “sura” of the Koran, “The Spoils of War”, which described the campaign of extermination of non-believers by Muslim troops in 624CE under Ali Hassan al-Majid.

In Halabja, nearly 5,000 civilians were killed on the spot. A further 10,000 were left with serious injuries that affect their lives to this day. It was reported that more than 75% of the victims were women, the elderly and children. The attacks completely destroyed residential areas. Many of those who fled were never to return.

The legacy of the attack is an increased risk of cancer, miscarriage, infertility, birth defects – and a lingering trauma that is being transmitted from one generation to another.

Poignant: Halabja Memorial in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Adam Jones CC BY-SA 3.0, CC BY

Shocking images taken by journalists were to become global symbols of Halabja – and proofs of the depth of human cruelty. After these genocidal campaigns, many Kurds fled the country and became asylum seekers or refugees in Europe and elsewhere. Today, combined with Kurds from other countries, they constitute the largest stateless diaspora in the world.

Many Kurds believe that the rest of the world turned a blind eye to the massacres. Despite a handful of European politicians who are considered “the friends of Kurds” and who constantly raised the issue in their parliaments, such as the French politician Bernard Kouchner, the outside world did nothing to prevent these crimes and in many case still doesn’t acknowledge them for what they were – genocidal acts.

Once the main perpetrator of these crimes – Saddam Hussein – had been toppled from power, Iraq’s High Tribunal and Supreme Court recognised the al-Anfal campaign as genocide – although Halabja was not one of the crimes for which the late dictator was hanged. For many, the issue is not resolved and Kurds do not think that justice has been done. They want to see the campaign recognised as genocide across Europe.

‘Chemical’ Ali Hassan al Majid faced questions about Halabja during his trial in 2004. US Air Force photo

Talk to people in the Kurdish diaspora, as I have for ten years now, and they’ll explain why recognition of the al-Anfal campaign as genocide across Europe is so important to them. They will tell you that various European companies supplied Saddam’s regime with the poisonous gas that murdered so many Iraqi Kurds – and should be held accountable.

They’ll point out that many of the perpetrators of these atrocities, including some of the pilots who dropped the bombs and the soldiers who directed the execution of Kurds on a systematic basis, fled to Europe as asylum seekers after the fall of Saddam. They demand that these people should be found and tried for committing crimes against humanity.

International silence

Many Kurds believe that their suffering has not been sufficiently acknowledged by the international community. Under pressure from attacks by Islamic State they are frightened at the possibility of massacres to come – and believe that international recognition would prevent these genocidal acts from happening again.

They also believe that recognition of these massacres will bring more visibility to the Kurds and to the plight of the Kurdish people in general. It would counter the consistent denial of their ethic identity and existence as a people.

The KRG has had some success with its lobbying over the years: the Norwegian, Swedish and UK parliaments have all recognised the al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds as genocide. In all these cases, MPs of Kurdish origin played a vital role in arguing their case. For instance, in the UK, Nadhim Zahawi – the first Kurdish-origin British MP – was the one who put forward the motion that prompted the British parliament to recognise the Kurdish genocide (a motion supported by, among others, Jeremy Corbyn).

Meanwhile diasporas in European cities have done what they can to keep this issue on the agenda. There have also been local diaspora initiatives, including one that convinced the Hague City Council to build a Halabja memorial to commemorate the victims.

This is all well and good. But while the atrocities visited upon the Kurds remain unrecognised as genocide by most of the world – and while murderous groups still bombard and attack defenceless people in their region, the people of Kurdistan still live in fear.