Today the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) remembers what happened in Halabja 24 years ago today.
Halabja is a Kurdish town on the very northeastern edge of Iraq 8 to 10 miles from the border with Iran. It stands at the base of the mountainous Hewraman region which stretches across the Iran-Iraq border.
Last fall I joined a couple expat and local friends of Metrography‘s Kamaran Najm for an unforgettable day trip to Halabja and the neighboring village of Hawar. It is a truly beautiful area rich in culture, folklore, and natural heritage. Sharing a full spread of lunch with a family, walking through the walnut and pomegranate groves of Hawar, napping along a babbling mountain stream, and enjoying songs and drinks with men on the roadside, it is truly hard to imagine that such an idyllic place could be the setting of such a terrible crime. Yet what occurred in Halabja 24 years ago today remains the largest scale chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.
It happened in the final months of the Iran-Iraq war when Iranian forces held the town and followed two days of conventional artillery attacks by Iraqi forces. What came next was no ordinary military maneuver, but rather an operation that sought to annihilate the entire population.
In the early evening of Friday, March 16, 1988, the attack began with indiscriminate bombs and napalm. Then the munitions changed. Eyewitnesses reported 14 bombings in sorties of 7-8 planes and columns of “white, black and then yellow” smoke billowing 150 feet upward. The smoke was a toxic mix of nerve agents Tabun, Sarin, VX, and mustard gas, and it seeped into homes and bomb cellars.
As many as 5,000 people were killed and many thousands more died from related injuries, toxic exposures, and birth defects.
We must never forget the victims and surviving families of Halabja, and ensure that such weapons are never used again. In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, we must also work to consolidate lasting peace and a future where no government can ever again commit genocide and crimes against humanity.
Terry Lloyd of Britain’s ITN was among the first reporters to witness the terrible aftermath. Lloyd was later killed in 2003 when he and his team got caught in crossfire between the Iraqi Republican Guard and U.S. forces. You’ll have to disregard the two mistakes made by the narrator at the beginning of this broadcast.
Erik K. Gustafson
EPIC's founder and executive director. Erik is a U.S. Army veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, an Iraq specialist, and a passionate advocate for human rights, peace, and development.