At The El Cajon Community Center
San Diego, California
On the Occasion of Twelfth Annual Memorial of the Massacre of Halapja
March 18, 2000
I want to start by thanking the members of the Kurdish Community Center for organizing this solemn observance in memory of those who were gassed in Halapja twelve years ago, this month. I also want to acknowledge two individuals, Ramazan Aziz and Saeed Salih for their work and dedication in making this gathering happen tonight. You are truly your brothers’ keepers. I thank you for that and I am honored to be included in your program.
On March 16, 1988, the people of Halapja rose to a beautiful spring morning. It was five days before Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. Kurds of all ages and both sexes were getting ready for the festive celebration. The women were donning their colorful and beautiful clothes. The men were anxiously waiting to take part in the ritual to honor a time of freedom and liberty in the past.
But 1988 also marked the eighth year of war between Iraq and Iran. Most Kurds had stayed away from the conflict. Some had hoped that the adversaries of the Kurds, the Arabs and the Persians, would weaken each other and offer the Kurds the opportunity of peace, freedom and liberty, at long last. The war cost almost a million lives, but it also hunted the Kurds in sinister and persistent ways, continuing to this day.
Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad, accused the Kurds of aiding and abetting the pasdarans, the Iranian soldiers. The punishment for such an act was total and unequivocal. The Kurds must die. Their homes and villages must be destroyed. The dictator of Baghdad conceived the idea of Al-Anfal. His governor, Ali Hasan Al-Majeed, the all-powerful ruler of Iraqi Kurdistan, executed his plan.
The Kurds who have survived the ordeal of Al-Anfal describe it to mean “genocide”. Their experience, if scrutinized closely, resembles that of survivors of The Holocaust. Ali Hasan Al-Majeed, known to Kurds as Chemical Ali, went about his business with the precision of a scientist and the hatred of a wounded beast. Some Kurds were gassed or exposed to nerve agents. Others were collected into concentration camps, machine gunned en masse and buried with bulldozers.
As though it was to be made an example of the raw power of Saddam and of his ability to inflict total annihilation on a people with impunity, the entire city of Halapja fell victim to Chemical Ali’s assault in Iraqi Kurdistan. On that March day in 1988, he ordered the Iraqi Air Force to drop mustard gas and nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX over the city that some of you used to call home. In a matter of seconds, 5,000 of your compatriots fell down like dry leaves. Thousands of others who inhaled the gas were crippled for life and still, today, are unable to find treatment or comfort.
Two years ago, a British geneticist, Dr. Christine Gosden, paid a visit to the city of Halapja ten years after the deadly attack. What she saw and reported in an article in the Washington Post shocked readers and compounds your pain. The survivors were reported to envy the lot of the dead. Their limbs were distorted, their bodies ached relentlessly, they were unable to work or care for themselves and the women were not able to bear children. Saddam Hussein’s wish that all Kurds must die is being realized in Halapja even now, in slow and torturous agony.
The story of Halapja is encapsulated in the murder of Omar and his family. He and his wife had eight daughters and a ninth, their son. On March 16, 1988, when the fighter planes of Chemical Ali dropped their deadly fumes, Omar grabbed his infant son and a daughter and rushed to a shelter to save a part of his family. They all dropped dead before they could reach the shelter. Unbeknown to him, all the other members of his family would perish as well.
Today, the residents of Halapja have commemorated the slaughter of March 16 with a statue of Omar face down over his dead children at the entrance of the city. It is not a proud statue. Unlike others around the world extolling the triumph of good over evil, this one bears witness to your pain and to the indifference of the world.
We are gathered here for another year of paying our respects to the dead and dying people of Halapja. As we reflect on this somber moment, Saddam Hussein rules in Iraq and continues to threaten the Kurds. The United States, the United Nations and the European Union, the only bodies that can seek the prosecution of those who committed these atrocities with any hope of success have turned away from the task. The Kurds are still the hapless pawns of geopolitics and of powers beyond their reach.
Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical and biological weapons against a civilian population is a crime against humanity. Those who claim to speak for the world owe it to you and to all of us to press for his prosecution now. You, your loved ones and a world committed to fundamental human rights, must demand that the butcher of Baghdad and his eager adherents be brought before tribunals of justice. Only then, can we begin to find some vindication for the suffering of your brethren in Halapja.
Her biji Kurd u Kurdistan!