Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 8)

December 30, 2010 - Continued

We arrived at the garage where we found dozens of taxis and buses heading in various directions. As all the signs were in Arabic, we asked some people for help. I was armed with the Lonely Planet, which had the name of Halabja written in Arabic, which I assumed would be of some help. It wasn’t. The Arabic guys didn’t seem to understand. It turns out there are two towns with almost the same name. Finally we got it sorted and were soon smashed inside the minibus and on our way. A few little security stops and soon we were at the base of the mountains that separate Iraq from Iran. I am sure Preston was thinking the same thing I was, wondering when we would ever get across those mountains in into Iran, a plan we both have.
We stepped off the bus with a plan to take in the local sights. There was nothing that gave away the horrors from 1988. I tried to imagine it in my head, what it must of have been like, but it is so far beyond anything I can conjure up. Within two minutes, we were stopped by armed guards. They asked for our passports and within seconds we were being escorted somewhere. We weren’t sure as nobody spoke English. I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. Had we done something wrong? Did we need a special permit to be there? There was nothing to do but go along with what we were told and hope it would sort itself out in a few minutes. We are crossing the border back to Turkey in two days, so as long as we make that, everything is fine.

We were led to a building now serving as an office of sorts for the military. We were escorted in and asked to sit while they found someone who could speak English. Four soldiers came in, all very friendly. They asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Halabja. We told them we were there to see the monument. They asked us if we had any plans to go into the mountains. We assured them we didn’t. They asked us again. It seems that three American tourists wandered into the mountains just a short walk away and accidentally wandered into Iran and, well, you know the rest if you follow the news at all. From what we can make out from the information we got from the soldiers is that they left either from Halabja or an area close by.

We assured them we were just there to see the monument and we would be on our way to Sulaymaniya. One of the soldiers looked through all the pictures of my camera, which at that moment only had photos of Amna Suraka and the drive to Halabja. We were told that we would have a soldier to escort us around town. I thought it was quite unnecessary and I think the other soldiers thought so as well, and within minutes we shook hands with everyone and were released. We were followed from a distance, but I am sure they had no problem keeping tabs on us as we were the only tourists in town.

We walked towards the monument and stopped for some tea and bread on the streets. Like everywhere else, the people were super friendly. Again, I tried to imagine the chaos and terror of 1988 and again it escaped me. It was the middle of the day in the center of the town and it was almost deserted. The life seemed almost vacuumed out of the place. No children played, vegetable stands stood full of vegetables but no customers. Men congregated at tea stalls and women were once again almost non-existent. After tea, we made our was slowly down the main street towards the edge of town and to the memorial.

Halabja is a little town snuggled at the base of the mountains. It is the kind of place people would probably never visit or even hear about. It might have been one of those places where things go on the way that had gone on for centuries. A place where families had known each other for longer then they could remember. And that was probably the case for Halabja until March 16, 1988, the day when Saddam’s regime dropped canisters of gas and chemical weapons on the town. Within thirty minutes, over 5,000 men, women and children were dead. We had come to this town to see the memorial and pay respect to the people that died there. Many of them dropped where they were standing. Mothers still holding their babies. Children holding hands. People in the streets, in their homes, in the garden. These are all captured in pictures by journalists who visited the area a day or two after the attack to document what remained. Many of the images are on display in the memorial. It was hard to look at them and even more difficult to imagine what they must have gone through. In the center, which is round, are names of people who were killed that day. Preston and I walked around in silence. What do say in a place like this? I wasn’t even sure what to think.

I read that there was a local couple that always wanted a son, but had only girls. After years of trying, they finally had a son. During the attack, the father tried to protect him but they both died. The picture of the father and son was turned into a sculpture. It is that sculpture which everyone passes when entering or exiting the memorial.

We decide to visit the graveyard where many of the victims are buried and a local Iraqi woman, who we met at the memorial and is studying the massacre for a university helped us arrange a taxi to take us not only to the graveyard, but back to Sulaymaniya. We arrived at the graveyard and were met by a sign that reads “Baath’s Members Are Not Allowed To Enter.”

The bodies are buried in mass graves in white marble blocks. Each one bearing almost the following inscription (misspellings not corrected): “A prayer for the 1500 bodise in this grave. These are some of the victims of that ruthless attack by chemical weapon on the city of Halabja by Saddam’s regime on 16 March 1988. May God bless them.” There are many others that are not in graves, people who survived but are still suffering from the effects of the attack. I have read that problems have also been passed to children born after the attack to parents who survived. I wish I could have talked to some of the people, but I would not have known what to ask. If I ever go back, I will stay longer and learn more.

We walked around the graveyard for about fifteen minutes before getting in the taxi for the almost silent journey back to Sulaymaniya. It was a heavy day and my mind and heart were quite overwhelmed. 

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. We will head to Erbil and ring in 2011. I have made a friend on the Internet via our blogs and hopefully we can meet tomorrow. He is Iraqi and I am full of questions…

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