"Halabja" Halabja by maykal

Halabja Travel Guide: 4 reviews and 19 photos

Halabja could have ended up like so many other Kurdish towns...fairly ordinary, nondescript, forgotten. Indeed, the town is quite ordinary with no real attractions. Nondescript? Yes, that too. But one thing Halabja will never be is forgotten.

On the 16th March 1988, bombs were dropped on Halabja. Nothing unusual in that itself, as Iraq was at war with Iran at the time, and bombs had been dropping all over the place. But these bombs were dropped by the Iraqi Air Force, and they were not ordinary bombs. After the initial explosions which did not cause too much damage, an apple-smelling odour spread through town, and within minutes, thousands lay dead or dying in the streets.

They were chemical bombs, and the man responsible for the attacks has become known as Chemical Ali. I'm sure you've heard of him. But you might not have heard much about the attacks at the time. In the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq was the "good guy" in the eyes of most countries, so it wasn't convenient to dwell on atrocities like these. Some even blamed iran initially. Not much aid reached the survivors, and news didn't make much of an impression abroad. Not until later, anyway.

It has been 22 years since the attacks, but the affect can still be felt. Much of the land around Halabja was seriously contaminated by the chemicals, so farming has only just begun to recover. A new town, Halabja Taze (New Halabja), was built closer to Slemani for survivors, and the original Halabja (known as Halabja Shahid or Martyrs' Halabja) was left to decay. Today, things are beginning to look up, with a few signs of development around the bazar and modern houses and parks on the outskirts, but Halabja remains a very impoverished place compared to other cities in Kurdistan.

On the road into town, the first thing you see is a huge monument to the massacre (which has been classed as genocide). Three arms reach out of the ground to hold a globe with 16 fingers. (3 arms for the third month, 16 fingers for the 16th day...16th March). In front of the monument is a statue of an old man lying on the ground shielding a young child, one of the most famous images of the dead that shocked the world.

Halabja Today

Inside the monument, there is a hall of names, with whole families carved in white on black marble walls around a huge Kurdish flag. There is also a gallery of photos from the day of the attacks, a somewhat tacky re-enactment of the scene with shop mannequins in horrific twisted positions, and a very plush cafe. A lot of money has been spent here, something that has not gone unnoticed by the survivors who attacked the monument in 2006, setting it on fire, complaining that so much was being spent on the dead when the living have nothing. I can sort of see their point.

Elsewhere in Halabja, you can visit the cemetery, where the lucky victims are buried in family groups under row upon row of simple white tombstones. The unlucky ones were buried in mass graves dotted around the cemetery.


I made the trip out to Halabja with an Australian girl I met in Slemani. We went expecting to find it upsetting and emotional. I have to admit I had misgivings about visiting the site of genocide, especially such a recent one, but I think it is an essential part of a trip to Kurdistan...the rest of the region is such a positive place nowadays that it is very easy to forget that just a couple of decades ago, it was a very different place. It helped me to understand what I'd seen at the Amna Suraka museum in Slemani, and although it might seem a macarbre idea for a day trip, I would recommend it. The locals on the bus certainly seemed to be pleased we were taking an interest.

On arrival, we were dropped off outside the monument and went to enter. A guard at the gate told us we needed to go to "reception", a yellow portakabin by the side of the gate. We knocked and entered, and it seemed we disrupted some sort of meeting...three soldiers leapt to their feet, spilling their tea, welcomed us, and hastily waved us out the door on the other side. We emerged ten seconds later on the other side of the gate, where the original soldier nodded and said "yes yes". Despite the seriousness of the monuument and the gloom we were sure was to lie ahead, we exchanged glances and giggled at this absurdity. It set the tone for the entire visit.

Our Visit

Inside, we were adopted by a local guide, not old enough to have been born at the time of the attacks. He was alarmingly chirpy, and seemed to enjoy pointing out the dead ducks and cows in the mannequin display of the attacks. On to the photos of the dead, many of which we had already seen in Slemani. "This one is a dead. That one is a dead," the guide helpfully pointed out. "My Engliiish good, no? Hahahaha." We were a bit uncomfortable about that, a young guy from Halabja pointing out dead bodies, some of which he was related to, and laughing. The photos are truly horrific, with children lying open mouthed in the streets staring right at you, women dead in their homes with kitchen tools still in their hands, piles of bodies being loaded onto trucks...but the atmosphere in the gallery was anything but sombre.

A group of expats and Iraqi dignitaries suddenly burst in, accompanied by a photographer who worked for the monument. He insisted on taking 1001 photos of the guests looking at photos of the dead. We reached the end of the gallery, the guide still pointing out the dead with glee, and had to wait for the others to finish before the video could be played. We all stood round while the guides fiddled with buttons, laughing and joking, until the screen flickered and a young man appeared on screen, interviewed in Kurdish about the attacks. It was from the day of the atrocity, and dead bodies could be seen behind him. One of the guides paused the video, and pointed to another older guide. "It's him,", he announced, as the survivor stood next to his younger self on the screen and smiled. The dignitaries all lined up for photos with this man, arms round his shoulders and grinning, and the expats were encouraged to do the same...they looked about as uncomfortable as we did, but the survivor was loving it, as was the official photographer who clicked away at everyone and anyone. I did my best to stay out of shot, but he was determined to catch me on camera.

The final exhibits were kept in a glass cabinet. Chemical Ali's pen, one of Saddam's sandals, and the cameras donated by the journalists who took all these grisly photos. Odd.

The honoured guests were taken into the plush conference room for a discussion of some sort, so we had a few moments alone to take another look at some of the photos. But not for long...our guide invited us for tea in the cafe with the other guides. "You like Kurdistan? Is nice? You like 50 cent?" Ummm, what?! We're in a museum about attacks that nearly wiped out your whole town, and you ask me if I like an American rapper?

We were handed books and CD ROMS about the attacks, then after a final look round the Hall of Names, we set off into town to hunt out the cemetery. the Australian girl and I weren't at all sure what to feel after that farce, was it appropriate to laugh? We did, at the gleeful guides, the tacky mannequins, the annoying photographer, the absurdity of drinking tea out of the finest tea glasses in Kurdistan inside a monument to the victims of genocide in one of the poorest cities.

The cemetery, by contrast, was a moving place. We weren't alone, as there were a handful of locals taking shelter from the rain under trees, just sitting and staring at the graves. Afterwards, a young guy showed us where the mass graves were, another upsetting sight as one of them contained up to 1500 bodies. He then directed us towards a park with fine views over the mountains and beyond to Iran.

Our final stop was the bazar, where we bought some fresh bread from one of the bakers in town. I say bought, actually the baker was so surprised to have two foreigners asking for bread that he refused to take payment for it. Hot and chewy, we munched on the bread in the bus on the way back to Slemani, causing amusement among the other passengers...I guess it is not the usual thing to eat bread with nothing else on a bus!

  • Last visit to Halabja: Apr 2010
  • Intro Updated Nov 8, 2011
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