Currently dispatching from Iraqi Kurdistan

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Halabja's Pain

"Suffering" is a commonly used word in Kurdistan. Halabja is a symbol of that: In March 1988, Iraqi forces dropped chemical weapons on the town, killing as many as 5,000 civilians.

In March 2006, the monument commemorating the attack was burned during a protest against the Kurdish government. Kurdish forces opened fire and killed a teenage boy.

As the symbol of Kurdish victimization under Saddam, Kurdish authorities have made a lot of promises to help Halabja. Yet almost nothing has been done. People were sick and tired of being the symbol of Kurdish pain for one day out of the year and ignored the rest. (The government gives another version of the story, arguing that Islamists backed by Iran burned the monument and led the protests. No protester, including protest organizers, has backed this claim.) Young men, who tend to flee Halabja anyway, left in droves following the March 2006 protests.

The monument is the first thing you see when you pass the checkpoint into Halabja. It's actually on the outskirts of town, where the roads are still paved and the buildings still look new. Halabja itself has a backdrop of beautiful mountains and is surrounded by miles of agricultural land. It's also home to the best pomegranates in the world.

I once recommended some American businessmen drive to Halabja because it was spring and the area is gorgeous at that time of year. They never made it past the monument; the guards there advised them not to go into the town because they might be threatened by Islamists. It's true that Islamists once controlled Halabja, but most, if not all, were forced out by the US military and Peshmarga (Kurdish) forces in 2003.

The guards probably didn't want the businessmen to see Halabja's reality: crumbling houses, dirt roads, no sewage system. The government is now tearing up the streets to put in a sewage and water system. There's little urban planning, so the project is actually a muddy mess with no routes to divert cars or signs indicating how long the project will last.

I've visited Halabja three or four times in the past year and have never seen projects like this. Yet Halabja residents are angrier than ever: They have totally lost faith that their living conditions will improve, or that anyone will stand up for them. I could feel only negativity pumping through the town, and pain.

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