Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Halabja's Unfinished Business

By Mariwan Hama-Saeed

I remember March 16 as if it was yesterday.

I remember the roar of military aircraft overhead, hiding in my family's shelter with family and friends, and emerging hours later to find twisted, deformed bodies lying in the street. I remember people crushed under buildings and crying for help. And I remember the black smoke from the napalm bombs, which billowed into the sky as we fled on foot to Iran.

I was eight years old.

When I was a child, the name Ali Hassan al-Majid always scared me. It reminded me of the horror I witnessed and the relatives I lost. In Halabja, we so feared "Chemical Ali" that no one dared mention his name in public until after the 1991 Kurdish uprising, when Kurdish fighters gained control of three provinces in northern Iraq.

POLITICAL CAPITAL

When Chemical Ali was arrested by US troops in August 2003, I was in shock for days. I could not believe that the man responsible for our atrocity, and also for killing so many Iraqi Shia Muslims, would actually be brought to justice.

I was just as shocked by his hanging this week. He was executed quietly and without much fanfare. I learned of his hanging from a local radio announcer who screamed over the airwaves, "Congratulations to you, the people of Halabja! Chemical Ali has been brought to justice."

I had wanted Majid to pay for his crime but the hanging seemed more of an ambush than an execution. It will likely be used to stir up more sentiments against the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, ahead of the March parliamentary election but will not bring Halabja residents justice in the true sense of the word.

Halabja's survivors continue to suffer health problems and live in poverty more than 20 years after the chemical attack. They have died of cancer and respiratory problems, and given birth to children with deformities which doctors say were caused by the chemicals.

The town has long been considered a symbol of Kurdish suffering and the atrocities of the Baathist regime. Since the attack, politicians have used Halabja as a political card, with Kurdish, Arab and American leaders parading through to express their utmost sympathy. They then drive away, leaving behind their unfulfilled promises to help my people.

Majid's hanging seems equally political. Prior to the Halabja trial, he was given four death sentences for killing thousands of Shia Muslims and Kurds in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I have no doubt that his hanging will be exploited by politicians. As we approach the election, Shia parties are competing over who is the toughest on Baathists.

The campaigning, which has yet to officially launch, is revolving around anti-Baath rhetoric, especially in the Shia-dominated south.

A committee tasked with rooting out Baathism from Iraqi politics recently banned more than 500 candidates for having ties with or promoting the Baath party.

In this climate, ruling Shia parties can boast that two of the most notorious figures in Baathist history - Chemical Ali and Saddam Hussein – have been hanged.

STILL SUFFERING

As a survivor of the chemical attack, I am no fan of the Baathists. I and other victims feel relieved that the man responsible for the death of their loved ones and the source of their pain is gone.

But we are living in the present, not the past. Chemical Ali's execution will be trumpeted by political parties but it will not bring Halabja the healthcare, jobs and basic services that it needs. His arrest and trial have done nothing to improve the quality of life of the survivors.

The authorities can claim that Chemical Ali's execution brought justice to Halabja but the reality is that our pain and struggle is far from over.

The victims are left suffering, those who helped the regime produce chemical weapons may get away with their crimes and some political parties may rise to power because of it.

Mariwan Hama-Saeed is an editor and online training coordinator with IWPR’s Iraq programme.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR or the BBC.

A version of this article was first published on the BBC News website.

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