Halabjans Wary of New Aid Pledges

Locals commemorating twentieth anniversary of chemical attacks recall past broken promises.

Halabjans Wary of New Aid Pledges

Locals commemorating twentieth anniversary of chemical attacks recall past broken promises.

Thursday, 1 May, 2008
The Kurdish town of Halabja, site of a brutal chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein’s forces, is being promised millions of US dollars of aid, after years of neglect.

But locals are sceptical of the aid pledge - which comes as they prepare to mark the twentieth anniversary of the bombing outrage - and are angry with the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, for not sponsoring this year’s commemorations.

The Iraqi cabinet this week pledged six million dollars-worth of assistance for Halabja and said it would investigate and sue the companies that supplied the chemical weapons used on the town, as it prepares for the twentieth anniversary of the bombing outrage.

The KRG and the province of Sulaimaniyah, where Halabja is located, have also said they will provide about 23 million dollars, according to Halabja mayor Fouad Salih.

If the funding comes through, it will be the largest aid that Halabja has received since many parts of the town were destroyed on March 16, 1988. An estimated 5,000 people were killed and 10,000 injured when the Iraqi regime attacked the town with internationally-banned chemical weapons including VX, sarin and mustard gas.

Residents of this town of about 80,000 often complain that the Kurdish government has done little to improve Halabja's healthcare, roads, schools and houses, many of which have remained piles of rubble for the past two decades.

Many Kurds consider Halabja a symbol of suffering under Saddam Hussein, but Salih said that efforts are being made to improve the quality of life there.

“The year 2007 was a milestone in rehabilitating Halabja, and many millions of dollars were spent,” said Salih. “This year, there will be even more projects.”

The provincial government has promised six billion Iraqi dinars (5 million dollars) for healthcare, road and sewage systems, according to Salih. The Kurdish government has offered four million dollars to renovate a deteriorating 100-bed hospital and 13 million dollars to build a hospital for victims of the attacks, as well as three schools at an approximate cost of 800 million dinars each. The KRG said it would commit 13 million dollars for the hospital in 2006, but has not broken ground on the project yet.

Halabja residents have given news of the funding pledges a cautious welcome.

“I can’t comment until I see results,” said Falah Najm, a 21-year-old Halabja resident, reflecting widespread feeling. “We are totally discouraged because of all the broken promises of the past few years.”

The six million dollars pledged by the central government is Baghdad’s largest aid contribution to Halabja. In a press release, the government said the funds will be used to help reconstruct the town, but did not specify how the money will be spent.

The cabinet did not detail which companies it planned to investigate for selling the chemical weapons. But the decision to hold an investigation was praised in the northern Kurdish region.

“We welcome this news,” said KRG spokesman Jamal Abdulla. “We feel responsible for the people of Halabja, and we will do whatever we can to help move the case forward.”

“We are very happy with the central government’s decision to provide services for Halabja,” said Luqman Abdul-Qadir, head of the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims of Halabja. “But the Kurdish government should have taken this initiative a long time ago.”

Abdulla said that the KRG built 500 houses last year in Halabja and plans to build another 1,000 homes in 2008.

Citing a lack of funds, the KRG decided not to sponsor an annual commemoration for the victims. Tensions between the KRG and residents have run high since the 2006 event, when Kurdish forces fired on demonstrators holding an anti-government protest over the lack of services in the town. Abdulla said the 2006 clashes did not influence the government’s decision to pull-out this year.

The KRG has sponsored commemorations for Halabja victims since the region obtained semi-autonomy from Saddam’s regime in 1991.

Halabja will hold ceremonies on March 16 to honour the victims of the attack with speeches, music and a play, paid for by Sulaimaniyah province, said Salih. He said the budget will be 40 million dinars.

The lack of financial support from the KRG has not gone down well with residents, however.

Not sponsoring the commemoration “downplays the importance of the event”, said Abdul-Qadir.

Komar Mohammed, a 32-year-old teacher who lost eight relatives in the chemical attack, described the symbolism of the Halabja anniversary.

"Every year, I am reminded of the disaster on this day, and it's very painful for me," he said. "It reminds me how, on this day, hundreds of defenceless people were killed. The world watched, and no one defended them.

"I really hope officials will pay attention to the families of the victims. They've suffered for a long time, and they need help."

Azeez Mahmood is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah. Mariwan Hama-Saeed is IWPR’s Iraq editor.
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