In September 2003, six months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the autonomous government of Iraqi Kurdistan built a towering memorial on the outskirts of the farming town of Halabja, near the border with Iran. At its opening ceremony, cheering crowds greeted Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials. “What I can tell you is that what
happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again,” Powell said. But the sleek, modern museum and monument stood in stark contrast with the town it was built to honor. Halabja itself remains largely in rubble, and the HalabjaMonument is the only new building that the regional government has constructed in more than a decade. With a population of 80,000, the town has no paved roads, poor infrastructure, and scarce water and electricity supplies. Intended to serve as a symbol of civilian suffering under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the monument became a flash point for frustration about the lack of development in Halabja. The HalabjaMonument commemorates one of the worst atrocities of the Saddam Hussein era. On March 16, 1988, Hussein ordered army planes to drop mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent Sarin on the Kurdish farming town. About 5,000 men, women and children were killed in the attack. Another 10,000 were injured and many still suffer from respiratory illnesses, physical deformities, cancer, and other diseases. Over time, many Halabja residents came to view the memorial as a symbol of the government’s persistent inaction, incompetence, and corruption. On March 16, 2006, the 18th anniversary of the attacks, 150 demonstrators gathered in front of the memorial to block an official visit. Security forces fired shots into the crowd. A 17-year-old was killed in the resulting riot, and a dozen people were wounded. By the end of the day, between 3,000 and 5,000 town residents had joined the protest. In a seemingly spontaneous fashion, the demonstrators set the memorial on fire. At present the structure remains standing but is severely damaged. Ninety-five percent of the museum’s artifacts and art pieces were burned. Shortly after the riot, the Kurdish government pledged US$30 million to rehabilitate Halabja. Their efforts now focused on basic services such as water, roads, and health care. Lack of funds has indefinitely delayed any progress in refurbishing the damaged memorial. In June 2006, Sarkhel Ghafar Hama-Khan, a former teacher, was hired as the memorial’s new director. He said that engineers have assessed the amount of work needed to restore the monument, but that concrete steps have yet to be taken.