Kurdish history is full of oppression, suffering and conflicts. Among them Halabja always comes forward as the worst tragedy that has ever been experienced by Kurds. In 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, as a part of the genocidal Al-Anfal campaign to suppress Kurdish uprisings, Saddam Hussein’s army attacked Kurds in Halabja (a Kurdish province near the Iranian border) with chemical gas which included mustard gas, sarin, cyanide and tabun.
Survivor accounts reveal that as soon as the Iraqi airplanes dropped the gas canisters, it smelled like sweet apples and instantly killed the masses of people exposed. In fact, it was an attack which killed almost 5,000 civilians immediately and left another 10.000 with serious injuries that continue to affect their lives today. It is said that more than 75 percent of the victims were women, elderly and children. The attacks completely destroyed residential areas, made agriculture impossible and displaced many who survived. Whole families were killed and the deceased were buried in mass graves.
The legacy of the attack endures as the survivors still suffer from their injuries; there is an increased risk of cancer, miscarriages, infertility, birth defects and other problems related to the impact of the chemicals. Shocking images which were taken by journalists immediately after the attack became the symbols of Halabja and they still remain as the proof of the depth of human cruelty. The Halabja massacre scarred many Kurds for life and left a lingering trauma that is being transmitted from one generation to another. After these genocidal campaigns, many Kurds fled the country and became asylum seekers or refugees in Europe and elsewhere. Today, combined with Kurds from other countries, they constitute the largest stateless diaspora in the world.
March 16, 2016 marked the 28th anniversary of the chemical attack. Kurds in Iraq and all over the world commemorate this day and wish that their people never again experience this. They organize memorial ceremonies and candle vigils. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) offices in Europe and the USA also organize events to engage the host societies and increase awareness about Al-Anfal and Halabja. For instance, the memorial event organized by the Centre for Kurdish Progress at the British Parliament on the 16th of March was attended by many British-Kurds and others. The speeches given by British MPs such as Hilary Benn or Tobias Ellwood showed that Iraqi Kurds are strengthening their ties with the UK via these solidarity networks.
Kurds received de facto autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. The US-led invasion of Iraq gave the opportunity to the Kurdish region to thrive as a quasi-state within Iraqi borders. Since this time, the KRG has become an important actor for the stability of the region. Although the state-building process still continues, they continue to take a leading role in the resistance against the Islamic state, as well as dealing with an ever increasing flow refugees from surrounding regions.
In the midst of the on-going conflicts, the KRG attempted to reconstruct Halabja and in order to commemorate the massacre, they built a memorial and a museum. It also created a Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs. Halabja recently became the 4th official province of Iraqi Kurdistan. It became a site for ‘dark tourism’: for tourists who want to visit the place where the atrocities occurred and a pilgrimage destination for the diaspora to pay tribute to the ones they lost.
However, locals of Halabja complain that so much money is spent on lobbying for the recognition of the genocide and other activities that there are not sufficient services or infrastructure for the people who live there now. In 2006, there were protests against the government which was suppressed with police violence resulting in the killing a teenager. While the survivors of Halabja are seeking justice for their suffering, they are also contesting the government’s policies and they are expecting services, care and rehabilitation for the survivors.
Recognition of Halabja as Genocide in European Parliament
Many Kurds believe that the whole world turned a blind eye to the Al-Anfal and Halabja massacres. Despite a handful European politicians who are considered ‘the friends of Kurds’, there was not been any action to prevent what was happening to the Kurdish people in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War. Kurds remember this radio silence. During and immediately after the Anfal campaign, many Kurds who were already in the diaspora organized protests which included marches, petitions, sit-ins, hunger strikes and invasion of embassies.
Since then, diaspora Kurds never stopped underlining the responsibilities of the international community which were not met then and now. Many from the first generation dedicated their lives to this cause. The second-generation Kurds who are born and raised in Europe have now inherited this duty. They find creative ways of attracting attention from host societies. For instance, in the UK Kurdish diaspora artists commemorated they used theater acts, while in Sweden diaspora youth distributed apples to people passing by explaining them what this fruit actually symbolizes for the Kurds. More than anything else, the diaspora plays another vital role: lobbying for the recognition of the Halabja massacre as genocide.
The Halabja massacre has already been recognized as genocide by the Iraqi High Tribunal and the Iraqi Supreme Court and many were tried at these tribunals. Saddam Hussein was also hanged for the crimes that he committed but Halabja was not included among them. For many, the issue is still not resolved and Kurds do not think that justice has been done. They require genocide recognition also from European courts and parliaments.
But what is the reason behind this constant seeking of European recognition for these atrocities? I have been doing research on Kurdish diaspora activism for almost ten years now and I have been following these discussions closely. I have interviewed Iraqi Kurds all around Europe and in Kurdistan, asking them why recognition from European parliament is so important for them. Some of them pointed out that various European companies were also guilty for supplying the Saddam regime with poisinious gases and they should be tried for their complicity in this genocidal campaign. Therefore, recognition in European parliaments may also shed some light on international community’s, and especially Europe’s, role and responsibility.
Some also stated that many of the perpetrators such as the pilots who dropped those bombs or the soldiers who directed the execution of Kurds on a systematic basis also fled to Europe as asylum seekers. They demand that these people should be found and tried for committing crimes against humanity.
Furthermore, a few issues came up during the interviews. Firstly, many Kurds believe that their suffering is not sufficiently acknowledged by the international community and they continue to be left to their fate when attacked and subjected to massacres. Secondly, they repeatedly underlined that international recognition would prevent these genocidal acts from happening again, not just in Kurdistan but all around the world. Thirdly, they pointed out the Armenian and Jewish examples and commented that genocide recognition legitimizes demands for self-determination, which given the prevalence of independence aspirations, seems a logical step for Kurdish communities.
Lastly, according to interviewees recognition will bring more visibility to the Kurds and the Kurdish plight in general and will be a counter reaction to the denial of their ethic identity and existence as a people. It is based on these reasons that Kurds are pursuing continuous efforts to push the European Union to officially recognize this genocide and to achieve a sense of justice after all.
The KRG has conducted rigorous lobbying throghout recent years. The Norwegian, Swedish and British parliaments have now recognized Halabja as genocide. In all these cases, Kurdish-origin MPs played a vital role in pushing this case to parliamentary discussions. In Sweden, Jabbar Amin from the Green Party and Amineh Kakabaveh from the Swedish Leftist Party, were highly influential. In the UK, Conservative Party politician Nadhim Zahawi and KRG representative to the UK, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, were the key actors who made it happen. They also received a great deal of support from the All Party Parliamentary group on Kurdistan. There had also been local diaspora initiatives. For instance, Kurdish diaspora organizations and influential individuals organized a campaign and managed to convince the the Hague City Council to build a Halabja memorial to commemorate the victims.
These developments surely brought about the desired visibility to the Kurds of Iraq. However, recognition at the European parliament is just a verbal act. It does not bring any compensation and it has no imposition. And the most important question is whether recognition can really prevent genocides or massacres from occurring. Given Kurdish and global history, and observing the Middle East today, the answer has to be ‘no’: radio silence combined with lip service and a market place-like bargaining over bodies and body counts does not suggest progress to these ends. The smell of the apples embodied in feelings of disappointment lingers on…