Memorial to Gas Attack Victims Spurs Controversy
By Amy Rubin
In 2003, a memorial opened in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja to honor the thousands of people killed in 1988 when Saddam Hussein's army infamously attacked the town with chemical weapons. The Monument of Halabja Martyrs, a 100-foot-tall modern structure with a museum inside, stood as a symbol of civilian suffering under Saddam's regime.
Opening just six months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Halabja Monument received international media attention. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. dignitaries traveled to the Kurdish town for the opening ceremony and were received by cheering crowds in the streets.
With photographs, artifacts, poems expressing grief, and a list of the victims' names, the memorial gave Halabja residents a solemn place to honor family members they lost in the March 1988 attack. About 5,000 men, women and children were killed when Iraqi planes dropped mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin on this farming town near the Iranian border. Another 10,000 people were injured in the attack, and many still suffer from respiratory illnesses, physical deformities, cancer and other diseases.
But soon after its opening, the memorial became controversial, explained Iraqi journalist Mariwan Hama-Saeed.
"The memorial was built on the outskirts of town," Hama-Saeed said, "so whenever an international delegation or [Kurdish government] official was coming to pay a visit to the memorial, they would not see the actual destruction of the town. They would only see the memorial, which is a very modern and nice building."
Eighteen years after the gas attack, much of Halabja remains dilapidated. The roads are not paved, and buildings destroyed by Saddam's army in 1988 still lie in rubble. Many residents in this town of 80,000 complain that the region's semi-autonomous government has done little to improve infrastructure, including electricity and water supplies. They point to the Halabja Monument as the only new building to have been constructed by the regional government in more than a decade.
"Every year officials come [to the memorial] and they promise to rebuild the town and they promise to take care of the sick people," Hama-Saeed said, "but they never keep their promises."
About 150 residents decided to show their frustrations by staging a demonstration on March 16, 2006 — the anniversary of the gas attack — when officials usually attend a ceremony at the Halabja Monument. What began as an effort by demonstrators to block the entry of officials into the ceremony ended with security forces firing shots into the crowd and demonstrators storming the monument and setting it on fire. Kurda Ahmed, 17 years old, was killed in the shooting. A dozen other demonstrators were wounded. By the end of the day, between 3,000 and 5,000 residents of the town — mostly young people — had joined the protest, which left the three-year-old Halabja Monument a scorched ruin.
Hama-Saeed, who works with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, covered the protest. A native of Halabja, he believes the near-total destruction of the memorial was a spontaneous act of rage, the result of escalating tensions between demonstrators and security forces that day.
Kurdistan regional authorities said Islamic militants were to blame for the violence, but Hama-Saeed saw no evidence of this.
"I had talked to many people," Hama-Saeed said, "and they were very vocal in expressing their anger and hatred toward the monument."
Townspeople had come to perceive the Halabja Monument as a symbol of government inaction, complacency and corruption. "Many delegations went to that monument. They were paying a visit to the dead people, but neglecting the living," Hama-Saeed said.
Shortly after this spring's protest, the Kurdish government pledged $30 million to rehabilitate Halabja, focusing on basic services such as water, roads and health care. But a conference to discuss the town's rehabilitation has been delayed indefinitely due to lack of funds, according to a conference organizer.
Meanwhile, the Halabja Monument's future remains uncertain.
In June, Sarkhel Ghafar Hama-Khan, a former teacher, was hired as the memorial's new director. He said the Ministry of Culture has sent engineers twice to estimate the work needed to restore the monument. "But no serious steps have been taken so far," Hama-Khan said.
For now, visitors can come to see the burnt-out building, but no items remain on display in the museum. Items that survived the destruction have been removed for safekeeping.
Hama-Saeed has been living in a different city in Iraq for the past six years, but when he visits his family in Halabja, the state of the monument reminds him of the desperate living conditions for many residents.
Peshwaz Faizulla contributed reporting to this article.