‘Hell had arrived in Halabja’: 25 years ago it was Kurds bombarded with chemical weapons - now Syrians might share their fate

The regime has been accused of using chemical weapons, as have the rebels

Share
Related Topics

The accusations of chemical weapons use in Syria come on a sombre and poignant anniversary that serves as a reminder of the brutality a pressured regime can unleash against its own people.

It was 25 years ago that Saddam Hussein dropped volleys of mustard gas and nerve agents on the citizens of the Kurdish town of Halabja - killing 5,000 people. It was the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian troops had advanced and been welcomed by the long-suffering Iraqi Kurds - for that they paid an unimaginably heavy price.  

The Kurdistan Regional Government rolled out the red carpet at the weekend to foreign dignitaries as it campaigns to have the attack officially recognised as genocide - a move taken by the UK last month. 

Amid the swirl of speeches and performances to mark the event the gravity was somewhat lost, but away from the pomp and ceremony Halabja residents vividly recounted the minute-by-minute details of a day forever etched in their collective memory. 

The war planes swooped in from the south, dropping their first payload at 11.35am. Khayal Wshyar, then aged 15 was washing up in the kitchen. Alone in the house she fled to hide in a neighbours basement, lucky to be upwind of the toxic gases that were seeping through her town. Her immediate family survived - though they still suffer from respiratory and eye problems - but 37 cousins, aunts and uncles were not so lucky. 

She fled for the caves of the nearby border mountains, a damp cloth pressed to her face. Even after 25 years she cannot hold back the tears as she describes the horror on the town’s streets. Birds had fallen from the skies, animals lay motionless by the roadside, as did the bloated bodies of her friends and neighbours. 

“It was hell,” she says. “Hell had arrived in Halabja.” 

In the bright spring sunshine it is hard to imagine the horror she describes. It was a horror that was largely ignored by the international community - the US State Department attempted to apportion some of the blame on Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war Baghdad was seen as the lesser of two evils. It was with this knowledge that Saddam felt he had carte blanche to gas his own people with impunity, and did. Halabja was by far the worst incident, but the waters had been tested with other gas attacks during his Anfal campaign to crush the restive Kurds, which claimed a total of 182,000 lives. 

Halabjans still feel a sense of abandonment, though now the resentment is largely focused on their regional government, which they claim has neglected this town that has already suffered so much. Anniversary celebrations were disrupted by a small but vociferous protest by local residents. 

It is a sense of abandonment that the Syrians share as the international community dithers. Rebels accused the Bashar al-Assad’s forces of using chemical weapons for the first time late last year, but with the regime also claiming that weapons of mass destruction had been used this week the world has taken notice. The fog of war remains thick but the White House contends that there is no evidence of a chemical attack. 

Reluctant to be involved militarily, the last thing the US wants is to be dragged over its seemingly flexible “red line”.  But with more than 70,000 dead the lack of clear “red lines” gives a desperate Assad little reason not to lash out further. 

“We feel their pain,” says Khayal. “The Kurds know what its like to cry and for no one to hear your voice.” 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook  

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot