Halabja Genocide Commemorated in Washington D.C.

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Co-authored by Mariette Hägglund, Visiting Scholar, Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS

On March 16, 1988, Iraqi mirage jets dropped bombs containing a sarin gas, VX, and other deadly poisons and nerve agents on innocent civilians in the town of Halabja and surrounding villages in Kurdistan region. In a matter of minutes, more than 5,000 lay dead, mostly women and children. Some 10,000 were seriously injured, many of which still suffer today. The attack was only the latest in a decades-long campaign of genocide by the Saddam’s regime against the people of Kurdistan but also against the people of Iran. World turned the blind eye to Saddam’s cruelty and crimes against humanity he committed over Kurdish and Iranian population. He killed tens of thousands Iranians with mustard gas.

In the 1980s the Baathist regime, fearing opposition, deported and detained Feily Kurds (Shia Muslim Kurds) without any trials or legal procedures. Between 13,000 and 30,000 of them were estimated to have died in captivity or due to systematic murders. In just one year, in 1983, over 8000 Kurdish men and boys of Barzani tribe in military service age or younger, were killed by the very same regime fulfilling an act of gendercide. Less than five years after these atrocities Saddam launched the Anfal campaign, targeting civilians in its bombardments, destruction of villages, chemical warfare, and killing up to 180,000 according to Iraqi and Kurdish officials.

People in both Kurdistan and Iran are still haunted and traumatized over chemical attacks they’ve endured.

On March 16, on the very day Halabja Genocide happened 28 years ago, the U.S. government representatives, diplomats, scholars, academics, and Kurdish community members gathered at the SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University to pay respect to Halabja Genocide victims. At the panel discussion co-organized by the Kurdistan Regional Government office in Washington D.C., Halabja survivor Yerevan Saeed gave an emotional recount of his memories 28 years ago: “From the mountain we could see what was going on in Halabja, we could hear the sounds of the bombs and we could see smoke in the town. But we did not realized smoke could be chemical gas. After few hours we saw people coming towards us, into to the mountains. They were blind, some with severe burns, some in total distress”.

Naomi Kikoler, (Deputy Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of the Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), Luis Moreno Ocampo, (First Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague), and Gavriel Mairone, (Human Rights attorney working to prosecute companies who sold chemicals to the Ba’athist regime) took part in discussion, moderated by Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative in the U.S.

sais photo Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, KRG representative in the U.S. and Yerevan Saeed, Halabja Genocide Survivor in a silent moment after Saeed’s recount of Halabja chemical attack. “Halabja has come to symbolize the genocide in Iraq and Kurdistan. But it also symbolizes peace. And the people of Halabja have always tried to appeal to the better part of human nature, to overcome evil and to believe in good” Bayan said.


In 2014, Kurdistan region experienced yet another genocide this time committed by ISIS, against Yezidis, Christians, and other religious and ethnic minorities.

House Unanimously Passes Congressman Fortenberry ISIS Genocide Resolution

On Tuesday, March 15, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s genocide resolution with a vote of 393-0. Fortenberry stated that “the genocide resolution elevates international consciousness and confronts the scandal of silence and indifference about ISIS’ targeted and systematic destruction of these endangered communities”. Congressman Fortenberry’s initiative on the ISIS genocide resolution was a cornerstone in making the U.S. take a step further in condemning the atrocities as genocide along with the international community. Similar resolution was passed by the EU Parliament on February 4 this year.

The rise of Daesh has forced many of Iraq’s religious minorities, including Christians, and members of almost all ethno-religious minorities; Shabaks, Kakais, Turkmen, Sabaean Mandaeans, Yezidis and Feilys, to flee from their homes and take refuge in the Kurdistan region. Despite the mass-flight, many have been unable to flee from the territories controlled by Daesh and have become subject to brutal acts of repression and violence. Ever since the terrorist group conquered the city of Sinjar (Shingal), approximately 5,000 Yezidis have been murdered and thousands of Yezidi women and children have been raped, kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. Yezidi mass graves still continue to be uncovered.

Female-warriors-fighting-ISIS (3) (PHOTO – PESHMERGA) It is thanks to brave men and women of Peshmerga forces, backed by the U.S. and its allies air strikes, that ISIS attacks are repelled daily and that even bigger tragedy didn’t occur. We should continue to grow our support and partnership with the people of Kurdistan region, and help them rebound and re-energize from daunting problems they are facing. This is an obligation of us all, that we can make sure all innocent lives lost in the past decades were not lost in vain.

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