Remembering the chemical atttacks against the Kurds

ADVERTISEMENT
Iraqi planes launched a devastating chemical weapons attack on the people of Halabja on March 16, 1988. Thousands of men, women, and children died over the next five hours. The pictures are unforgettable. There are accounts of nursing mothers who died with babies suckling because they hoped that a suckling infant might survive. Horribly mistaken, but those mothers were helpless against the onslaught of planes and the combinations of toxic poison that rained down from the sky.
 
No living thing was safe: not the livestock, nor the pets, nor the birds. Kurdish families still suffer from cancers, birth defects, and deep trauma. During the genocide trial in Baghdad after the end of Saddam’s tyranny, the satellite imagery showed what had been Kurdish villages until regime bulldozers turned them into scarred remnants of torn earth. Some ‘lucky’ inhabitants survived the attacks only to end up in regime camps. They endured challenges similar to the victims of the Nazi atrocities or the Muslims that were detained during the Balkan Wars.  Even if we were somehow able to contort our minds to marginalize the slaughter, the mass graves across Iraq mark the definitive punctuation to the suffering of so many Kurds.
 
Now, some 25 years later, the lessons of Halabja cannot be forgotten. After the first Gulf War, thousands of Kurds fled Saddam’s wrath into the mountains of northern Iraq as their men stood toe to toe against Saddam’s tanks. NATO intervened in Operation Provide Comfort to prevent more massacres. Under the umbrella of the no-fly zone, the resilient and resourceful people of Kurdistan rose from the ashes of the Anfal genocide to restore their land and lay the foundations of democracy and prosperity. When U.S. forces deployed to the Kurdistan Region in 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi freedom, Kurdish forces joined with the coalition to defeat 13 Iraqi Army divisions in the Northern area of operations.   
 
The ghosts of Halabja cry out on this grim anniversary to remind the world that it must rally to the aid of those who suffer from brutal regimes. In Kurdistan today, the people have returned to create an economic and cultural miracle where human rights are protected under democratic stability. An old Kurdish saying promises that “only the mountains are our friends.” But Halabja commands us to rededicate ourselves to the principles of equal and exact justice. We stand on the side of those who fight for their families and cannot again allow chemical weapons to again destroy a way of life.    

Newton is a professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Newton is the co-author of “Enemy of the State: The Trial and Execution of Saddam Hussein,” and is currently in charge of establishing the largest Anfal Genocide center in the U.S., located at Vanderbilt.