By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 02/03/07):
Even the most terrible memories fade. New worries intrude, covering the pain of the past. Generations that only know at second hand tire quickly. “Stop going on about the war, Daddy. It’s boring,” they think – and sometimes dare to say.The passage of history has never struck me so forcefully as on a recent visit to Halabja. The site of one of the grimmest atrocities of modern times, this small town in eastern Kurdistan lost 5,000 people to a gas attack ordered by Saddam Hussein. He can no longer answer for it, but his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid – the so-called Chemical Ali – who was in direct charge, will have to do so shortly. On trial in Baghdad for other crimes against the Kurds, he will face the Halabja case next.
An impressive memorial to the victims was opened by Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, in 2003. Shaped like hands wringing in agony, its pinnacle still towers over the impoverished town. But the lower half is in ruins, its roof gutted by fire. Victims’ names used to line the central rotunda, bearing testimony to a community, including hundreds of women and children, that met a slow and appalling death. Now the names are blackened by smoke, rendering most unreadable.
Astonishingly, the fire that ruined the monument last year was lit deliberately – by survivors of the very families shattered by the gas attack. For victims to destroy their own monument is almost unprecedented. This was iconoclasm on a tragic scale, a kind of collective self-mutilation, as though Jews were to destroy the Auschwitz museum.
Image-conscious officials of the Kurdistan regional government initially blamed Kurdish Islamists or infiltrators from Iran. They confiscated video footage and briefly detained journalists. Now it is recognised that the arson was the unplanned climax of a student-led protest at Halabja’s years of neglect. The monument was targeted because people felt officials were exploiting the stream of high-profile visitors who came to lay wreaths. They complained donations disappeared into unknown pockets; a place for reflection and mourning had become a cash machine for the corrupt.
Local students had warned the authorities not to invite foreign dignitaries this time. They wanted to hold their own commemoration and demand faster reconstruction for the ruined town. Things went badly wrong when security forces fired over the heads of the oncoming crowd – a panicky move that only enraged people – and fled as furious protesters approached the monument before setting it ablaze. A student was found dead of a gunshot wound.
“We didn’t use weapons against the demonstrators. If we fired, we did it over their heads so they would disperse. The man who died was a long way off,” Colonel Wahib Aziz, Halabja’s security chief, told me. He was on duty on the fateful day last March, the 18th anniversary of the Iraqi gas attack. No inquiry was held, and the soldiers who fired were questioned but not punished.
In the only visible sign of progress, workers have laid concrete slabs along Halabja’s muddy main street to create pavements; other roads are due for asphalting. Saddam’s forces demolished Halabja after the attack, and it still has no running water supply or sewerage.
Since the protest the Kurdistan government has allocated £18m to Halabja. Khadar Karim Mohammed, the council chairman, denies the charge that foreign help went missing. “Even the Kurdish community in Europe thought a lot of money was coming because of the monument, but it isn’t true. We got lots of empty promises from visitors. The only money we got was to build two schools,” he says.
Ibrahim Howramani, the museum’s former director, has mixed feelings about the arson, which he watched helplessly. “I resigned. I felt the museum had been desecrated,” he says. But he agrees with the frustration of local people who kept being summoned to welcome foreign delegations but saw no results. Ministers from Baghdad and Kurdistan itself were equally guilty of making empty promises, he says.
The Halabja authorities are not yet repairing the monument. Anger is still too high. “If they rebuild it a thousand times, I will burn it down a million times,” said one young man, who lost half his family in the 1988 atrocity.
Halabja’s outburst of rage was not Kurdistan’s only recent example of protest with a heavy-handed response. Marchers in several cities last summer denounced low pay, shortages of electricity and water, joblessness and corruption. Several leaders were arrested, and on at least one occasion police used firearms. “2006 was the year of protest,” says Asos Hardi, the editor of the independent weekly Awene.
Compared with the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan is a relative success story. The region is stable and secure. It is beginning to develop its own oil. But impatience is rising against the two big parties that ran it as fiefdoms, in the east and west. In spite of a nominally united government, critics say nepotism is strong. “Until Saddam Hussein’s collapse in 2003 the authorities used the excuse that, although we had autonomy, we were under sanctions. Now the borders are open. Foreign investors are coming in. Where are the results?” asks Hardi.
‘We have to compare ourselves with other countries, not with Saddam’s time. Why don’t they build power stations here, so we don’t have constant cuts? No one denies there is corruption, not even the politicians, yet we have never seen charges brought. We have security, so why no progress?”
The Halabja atrocity was the worst single episode in Saddam’s brutal tyranny. Western governments rarely recall the blind eye they turned at the time. Saddam was their ally against Iran, and some of the gas came from western companies. But if the new generation in Halabja puts most blame on the government of Kurdistan for its problems, there’s a powerful lesson for all rulers.
From a moral standpoint no one can equate the destruction of a town and the murder of 5,000 people with a town’s economic neglect. But just as Bush and Blair cannot take credit for removing Saddam and then wash their hands of the bloodshed that has ensued, Kurdistan’s authorities have to do more to share the fruits of the post-Saddam era fairly. The time for dumping every complaint on the old regime is over.