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Remembering Halabja

A Kurdish family have their photo taken in front of a tank used during the Saddam Hussein regime, as hundreds commemorated the 25th anniversary of the gas attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja, on March 16, 2013. ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
A Kurdish family have their photo taken in front of a tank used during the Saddam Hussein regime, as hundreds commemorated the 25th anniversary of the gas attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja, on March 16, 2013. ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

Flying into the city of Suleimaniyah with a hundred-strong international delegation of politicians, diplomats and academics one was greeted by a gentle breeze signalling the arrival of the Kurdish spring in this part of Iraq. The early morning haze rose gently from the pastoral fields that circle the city, painting a picture of tranquillity and calm. Twenty-five years earlier at 11:35 a.m. the residents of the nearby town of Halabja were exposed to an all together different atmosphere as an aerial chemical bombardment was launched against them by Saddam Hussein’s military. The attack, which killed an estimated 5,000 people, was the darkest moment of the arguably genocidal campaign that according to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) killed over 182,000 Kurds.

On Saturday, March 16, in contrast to the state of revolutionary flux that characterises much of the region, the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq remembered the 25th anniversary of Halabja. The occasion was a mixture of both remembrance and celebration, against a background of relative stability. As we raced along in a convoy of protected buses in the shadow of the ubiquitous mountains of northern Iraq, the KRG put on a peacock-like display of force.

After arriving at one of the region’s two sparkling new airports, the entire hour-and-a-half-long drive to Halabja was a reminder, if needed, that the Kurds are running their own state in everything but name. Soldiers stood 200 meters apart on both sides of the road, interspersed by armoured cars, police four-by-fours, fire trucks and ambulances. Most wore commemorative sashes that were complemented by a sea of Kurdish flags, its yellow star sparking against the spring sunshine. Others wore black SWAT uniforms with the US flags attached to their shoulders, a reminder of Washington’s role in bringing this new Iraq into existence.

Arriving in Halabja, thousands of Kurds streamed into a silver-fisted monument that rose some thirty meters up from the ground, a not-so-subtle demonstration of the continued endurance displayed by a people who feel that the world watched on with disinterest as deadly gases were deployed against them. Inside a large white marquee, Kurdistan’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner keynoted in front of a diverse and bizarrely random assortment of international visitors. The speakers stayed on-message with pledges that, despite concerns over Assad in Syria, “never again” will such attacks be allowed to happen.

Yet the memorial was not without controversy. The Halabja residents have shown an enduring resentment against the lack of investment in their town, despite it being a symbol of the Kurdish tragedy. In 2006, local residents took advantage of the international media presence around the anniversary to riot and even burn down part of the memorial. Speaking to The Majalla before the ceremony, Ahmed, a twenty-seven-year-old local resident, complained that “nothing has changed in the town since the 1980s. We’ve had lots of promises but they have all been lies.”

Towards the end of Barzani’s speech, Ahmed joined a dozen other young men in the marquee to rise in protest against the KRG’s focus on the town’s horrific history over its struggling present. They shouted for a re-districting of the administration of local services in the area, but perhaps more worryingly they also attacked the family lineage of the Kurdish political elites who run the territory.

The Kurds’ battle over the narrative of their past has clear and potentially-explosive links to their future. It was striking that the protestors were neither forcibly removed nor heckled by the audience. Although it was clearly not planned, Prime Minister Barzani actually responded. Following a diplomatic pause, he claimed that fault for the lack of political progress in the district can be laid at Baghdad’s door. Such an excuse will likely become increasingly common as Baghdad-Erbil tensions continue to heat up.

Leaving the memorial, I was struck by the dilemma that, despite the area’s tragic past, Kurdish history may be used as a tool by a political elite looking to consolidate its power. With the display of state-like power and the thousands of businesses now investing in Iraqi Kurdistan, there can be little doubt over the area’s potential prosperity; however, this promising future may be administered by an elite that refuses to abandon a monopoly over the narrative of the Kurdish nation’s suffering.

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James Denselow
James Denselow is director of the New Diplomacy Platform and a Middle East Security Analyst based at King's College London.

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