Halabja Memorial: Adelaide Kurdish Youth Society

The Adelaide Kurdish Youth Society held a Memorial for the 25th Anniversary of the Halabja Genocide on the 15th of March 2013. This speech was written by Sima Rafaat and read out at the memorial by herself and Pasar Murad, both Members of the Adelaide Kurdish Youth Society. 

It was the fourteenth of that month;

On Goyja the wind abducted my pen.

When I found it and started to write,

My words flew like a flock of birds.

It was the fifteenth of that month;

Sirwan washed away my pen.

When I caught it and started to write,

My poems turned into fish.

It was the sixteenth of that month!

Oh, you sixteenth day!

When Sharazoor took my pen

And returned it that I may write,

My fingers were dried up,

Like Halabja. 

– Sherko Bekas

Halabja was a town of rich Kurdish culture and history. Within Halabja is an ancient cemetery, containing the tombs of some significant historical figures, which portrays the depth and richness of Halabja’s history. It is assumed that the town of Halabja was built by the Ottoman Empire in approximately 1850. In 2008, the tombs of historical figures such as Ahmed Mukhtar Jaf, a great and renowned Kurdish poet, Tayar Bag Jaf and Adela khanum, a strong Kurdish woman who is also titled ‘Princess of the brave’ was found.

Adela Kahnum was born in 1847 into a famous Kurdish family and was married to Osman Jaff, a Kurdish king. Jaff’s promotion to the Kaimakam of Sharazoor meant that he spent large periods of time away from their home in Halabja. Adela Kahnum, in his absence, took over her husband’s private concerns and ran Halabja alone. She was responsible for establishing a marketplace, prison and courts of law, managing them herself.  She was a great contributor, along with other Halabja women, to the development of rich Kurdish culture, heritage, art and poetry and also played a part in the social and political sphere in Halabja. Halabja was filled with spirited life. Adela Kahnum was titled ‘Princess of the Brave’ after saving the lives of many British soldiers who were present in Halabja during World War 1. The soldiers were fascinated by her, and bestowed her this title of bravery; brave, like many Kurdish men and women. 

Many years after Adela Khanum’s death, the town of Halabja and the country of Kurdistan was in a completely different state; Saddam’s anfal campaign had begun in 1987. Saddam Hussein, who was Iraqi president at the time, appointed his cousin, Ali Hassan Al-Majid as the Secretary General of the Northern Bureau of the Ba’ath Party Organization, allowing him to, in Al-Majid’s own words, “solve the Kurdish problem and slaughter the saboteurs”. The goal was to obliterate the Kurds and replace them with Arabs from the south of Iraq as they feared ‘defeat by attrition’. He saw the Kurds as a long-term threat to the survival of Iraq. Iraq was also after the oil-rich fields of the Kurdish city of Kirkuk and Hussein’s highest priority as president was their extermination. This ‘Arabisation’ or genocidal campaign is known as the Al-Anfal campaign and went from February 1987 to August 1988.

On 16th of April 1987 the Iraqi regime bombed two villages of Balisan and Shekh Wasan, which are only 10 km away from Hartal, the village that I belong to. The attack resulted in some 500 casualties; among them were five of my second cousins. This was the beginning of 40 documented chemical attacks on Kurdish targets in 18 months. The use of chemical weapons had been outlawed after WWI, and this was the first time they had been used since then.

In June 1987, al-Majid ordered two decrees that directed the conduct of the security forces of the Anfal campaign. Certain areas of Kurdish inheritance were prohibited and there was a ban on human existence in these areas, utilized through a shoot-to kill policy. The army commanders were ordered “to carry out random bombardments, using artillery, helicopters and aircraft…  in order to kill the largest number of persons present in these prohibited zones” and all people captured in these areas were “detained and interrogated by the security services and {were} executed.” 

Then, al-Majid’s forces were ready to commence their three-stage operation to clear the Kurdish villages. There were 3 incidents where over 700 villages were burned and bulldozed. The Anfal began after this. There were eight stages of Anfal, and each Anfal operated in the same way: it began with chemical attacks from the air on both civilian and peshmerga targets, accompanied by a military blitz against military bases.  Life in the countryside was abandoned; animals and people were killed if they stayed in the villages; entire villages were bombed with chemical and biological weapons; people were traumatized. Overall, over 182,000 Kurds died from these attacks. 

The surviving inhabitants of these villages discharged into Halabja. The population of this town swelled to around 110,000. A severe housing and employment shortage was caused by this large influx of people. Rice and bread was the basic food consumed and sold by shops; fruit, vegetables and meat were too expensive for many to afford. Possessions had to be sold in order to obtain basic supplies. And meanwhile there was talk; talk of the war, of the genocide; talk of the ploy to obliterate Halabja and talk of what was to be done about it.

But then, early on that sixteenth day of March, 1988, subsequent to the fourteenth and fifteenth days of that month filled with artillery and rockets around neighbouring mountains, up to 14 aircraft manoeuvres each containing seven to eight planes attacked the city of Halabja with mustard gas, nerve gas and cyanide. Witnesses describe clouds of white, black and yellow billowing 150 feet from the remains of the city. 5000 people were killed from this attack, and another 7000 were injured.

Innocent children dropped still instantly as cyanide gas entered their respiratory systems, their corpses piled over each other in the streets and alleys of Halabja. Their skin discoloured unnaturally, glassy eyes open and staring lifelessly where they have not disappeared into their eye sockets. A gray slime oozed from the mouths, with fingers and bodies grotesquely twisted.  John Simpson, World Affairs Officer, visited Halabja subsequent to the attacks, and reports seeing dreadful sights and described, in his own words, “I had seen the results of chemical warfare against soldiers, earlier in the Iran-Iraq War; that was terrible enough. But seeing what these insidious, cruel gases did to wholly unprotected men, women and children was worse…All were dead; but it had clearly happened within a second or so. One old man had died as he bit off a piece of bread. Another was smiling, and seemed to have been cut off in the middle of a joke. Other people had died slowly and in the most excruciating pain. I saw a woman whose body was twisted almost into a circle, the back of her head touching her feet. There was vomit and blood on her clothes, and her face was contorted in agony.” Photographs were taken of a mother who seems to clasp her children in a last embrace, and an old man who shields an infant fruitlessly. Even today, men and women are developing cancers from the chemical bombs utilized. These chemicals are mutagens and can cause mutations in the victims’ DNA, which can be passed on through generations of people.

In this act against humanity, everything was lost; the rich Kurdish history and culture developed over decades by the people of Halabja such as Adela Khanum, the innocence of children and pure souls and any bravery which uniformed men and authorities claim to have. All nobility was dispensed.  Halabja was demolished and here the innocent were destroyed, subjected to evil, branded and segregated as Kurds. And all that is natural and pure died in deepest strife. No life left but for the wailing men, women and children and countless victims for many generations to come. Quite simply, Halabja dried up.

Sima Rafaat reading her touching poem for Halabja written by Sherko Bekas
Sima Rafaat reading her touching poem for Halabja written by Sherko Bekas
Sima Rafaat & Pasar Murad speaking at the Halabja  Memorial in Adelaide.
Sima Rafaat & Pasar Murad speaking at the Halabja Memorial in Adelaide.