x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrian chemical attacks stir haunting memories of Halabja

The human dimensions of tyrants using chemical weapons on civilians brings home the extent of the horror

When news filtered through about the deaths of hundreds of Syrians in a suspected chemical weapons attack last month, I didn't need to use much imagination to envisage what happened. I just needed to think of my Kurdish friend Kosar sweeping his toddler into his arms.

We met a few years ago in Halabja, which if not for the events of March 16, 1988, would be just another mundane provincial town in northern Iraq near the Iranian border.

Now Halabja is known as the place where the world's worst chemical weapons attack on a civilian population in living memory took place. For all the horrors that occurred in Damascus, they came nowhere close to what Saddam Hussein did 25 years ago, even though the theme - a tyrant ordering the indiscriminate murder of his own citizens in retribution for some of them rising up against him - was the same.

I knew nobody in the town when I visited three years ago but was drawn to it through the philosophy that examples of the darker sides of human history are often as instructive as the uplifting ones.

I started, as most outsiders would, at the combined memorial and museum on the outskirts of the town, centred around a room with black granite walls inscribed with the names of the estimated 5,000 Halabjis who died immediately. The rest fled, instantly turning the town of 30,000 into a ghost town. The museum section included depictions of the happy ordinariness of Halabja in the decades before 1988 but also the aftermath of the chemical weapon attack, which was captured by international journalists a few days afterwards.

Variations on sudden death were repeated in photograph after photograph but the most chillingly evocative image from the scenes of devastation was of a man in traditional Kurdish dress still cradling a baby in his arms where he fell, face down and anonymous.

Within a few minutes, those associated with the museum handed me a DVD of the journalists' footage and English-language versions of brochures describing what happened. The inescapable impression was that they wanted this to be known as far and wide as possible.

In the midst of this, I heard a broad Australian accent. Kosar had been a 13-year-old living in Halabja on the day of the attacks but fled to Iran and then on to Turkey, where he was accepted as a refugee by Australia. He now lived in Brisbane.

He was back in Halabja for just the second time since 1988, introducing his 20-month-old son to relatives who returned to the town. He had been summoned to the museum by others purely because I was there.

We chatted for a while about that day, which followed 48 hours of conventional shelling by Iraqi artillery and from which his family had sheltered in their basement.

When chemical weapons were used, his father had gone outside but came back inside with blood streaming from his nose. They all sat with damp cloths over their mouths until dark, when they fled into the mountains towards Iran, about 8km away.

That proved to be no safe haven. Because of his family's involvement with the Kurdish secessionist movement, his two older brothers were arrested there and executed.

In keeping with the Kurdish spirit of generosity and hospitality, which is at least on a par with the Arabian equivalent, I was invited to dinner with Kosar's family.

Arriving at the house, his mother kissed my shoulders as an honoured guest then we had a lavish dinner followed by more general talk and games of lightning-fast backgammon late into the night.

The home was full of children and I was immediately impressed by how physically demonstrative the Kurds were, frequently sweeping them up in their arms for hugs and kisses.

And that's when the true horrors of what had happened here felt real to me on an emotional level. Whenever Kosar swept his toddler into his arms, all I could think of was him in the position of the anonymous Kurdish man depicted at the memorial who had died cradling his child.

When the terrible news came through from Syria, I saw in my mind people like Kosar, who care little for politics and just want to get on with their lives, and who would have used their final breaths desperately trying to save their children.

jhenzell@thenational.ae