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‘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

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.”