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

The Other Halabjas

Survivors of chemical attacks on two Kurdish villages less famous than Halabja say they too must be remembered.
By Dilshad Kawani

Victims of a chemical attack on the villages of Balisan and Sheikh Wasanan 18 years ago are demanding that their voices be heard.

On April 16, 1987, Balisan and Sheikh Wasinan were hit by chemical weapons, leaving 750 out of the 2,000 residents dead. Saddam Hussein’s forces targeted the area because it was a Kurdish stronghold.

But the plight of the surviving victims has not had the publicity accorded to the Halabja chemical attack a year later.

Since the Kurds’ bloc won second place in the Iraq’s parliamentary election in January, Kurdish politicians have increasingly pressed for compensation for the victims of Halabja, where 5,000 people were killed in 1988.

On March 16, the anniversary of the Halabja attack, members of the Iraqi government and parliament observed a minute’s silence to mourn the victims.

Government spokesman Laith Kuba announced on June 5 that prosecutors investigating Saddam Hussein would focus on 12 well-documented cases, although he could face up to 500 charges. One of these central cases is the gassing of Kurds in Halabja, while the attack on Balisan does not feature.

In January, the then deputy prime minister Barham Saleh, who is now planning minister, visited Halabja and promised that Ali Hassan al-Majid, otherwise known as “Chemical Ali”, would face trial in the town.

But no high-ranking government officials have visited Balisan or Sheikh Wasanan, located 150 kilometres north of Sulaimaniyah, and the villages are rarely mentioned in the media.

“We feel unhappy that officials don’t visit our area,” said Mustafa Yousif, who lost 18 members of his family - including his wife and children - and 41 others from his wider tribe in the attack. “Our victims died silently and no one came to their aid. Humanitarian organisations and the media have turned their back on us.”

Zeerak Kamal, secretary of the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate, said it has been harder to publicise this “other” chemical attack because simply gaining access to the area has in the past been difficult – not only because of the rough terrain, but also because of a civil war between the main Kurdish political parties in the Nineties.

“But we must not forget the bombing of Balisan and Sheikh Wasanan, as it is living evidence that the Kurdish people were oppressed,” insisted Kamal.

People here say they do not begrudge the attention paid to Halabja; they just want to make sure they too are remembered.

“I hope in the coming years we can compensate for the life of the martyrs and injured families,” said Ahmed Mustafa Najmaddin, head of Balisan’s cultural centre.

Sheikh Salah Ashraf, the governor of Erbil province where the two villages are located, said the local government is now trying to rebuild the area, citing projects to construct schools, hospitals and mosques.

“This is the first step and there will be others, like building houses for the people,” said Ashraf.

Arez Abdullah, a member of the Kurdish regional parliament, said the attack on Balisan and Sheikh Wasanan must never be forgotten.

“We must inform future generations about this crime,” she said. “It must be included in the school curriculum so it won’t be forgotten.”

During this year’s anniversary of the chemical attack, Halabja sent representatives to Balisan to empathise with their fellow-victims.

“I see no difference between the attacks on Halabja and the attacks on Balisan and Sheikh Wasanan,” said Shaho Abdullah, who was part of the mission from Halabja who travelled to Balisan. “So if charity organisations assist Halabja, we will ask them to help Balisan, too.”

In April this year, survivors and family members of those killed in Balisan and Sheikh Wasanan submitted an open letter to President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and international organisations, asking for compensation, medical treatment for surviving victims and a speedy trial for those responsible.

“They annihilated our whole family,” said Ala Muhammed. “But once Chemical Ali, Saddam and his accomplices are put on trial, I will have a sense that my mother and father have come back.”

Dilshad Kawani is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.

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