Dispatch From Halabja

“Chemical Ali” will swing, but survivors of the gassing are still waiting for their day in court.

Ali Hassan Al-Majid. Click image to expand.
Ali Hassan al-Majid

HALABJA, Iraq—The flowers that dot the mountains of Kurdistan in early summer make Fakhradin Haji Salim think of his three dead children. “We used to take picnics there every summer,” he reminisces. He teaches in the school where they used to study, and their old classrooms remind him of them, too. “Everything makes me think of them,” he says. “The trees, the stones, the rivers, the streets.” Everything, that is, except seeing the face of their murderer.

Ali Hassan al-Majid—along with two other former Baathists—was sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal Sunday for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. “Chemical Ali” was responsible for orchestrating the mass killing of Kurds in Northern Iraq under Saddam’s Anfal campaign, including the lethal gassing of 5,000 Kurds in 1988 in the town of Halabja—among them Salim’s three children.

But as Salim watched the trial from his living room in Halabja on Sunday—a room adorned with portraits of his murdered children—he felt no sense of justice being meted out. “This was not our case,” he says somberly.

Salim’s muted reaction to the verdict is mirrored across this poverty-stricken province in northeastern Iraq near the Iranian border. Though Majid was the most prominent mastermind of the Halabja gassing—in which almost every village resident lost family members—the incident was not part of this trial; instead it was postponed and will be dealt with at an unspecified later date. So, while Halabja’s residents will be happy to see him hanging from a noose, they feel robbed of their opportunity for revenge, justice, or even simple recognition. With this high-profile Baathist now slated for execution, Halabja’s residents wonder if they’ll ever have their day in court.

Across Iraqi Kurdistan, families gathered in restaurants, houses, and hotel lobbies to watch the trial’s conclusion—many erupting in wild applause after the verdict was read. Posters on every street declare, “The Martyrs Have Received Victory,” while cars on the region’s main thoroughfares honked their horns in celebration.

But at the Halabja Chemical Victims Association—a community advocacy center formed soon after the gassing—no celebrations were planned. A handful of victims and their families gravitated to the group’s modest headquarters to watch the proceedings on their television, followed by an impromptu march to the village’s cemetery to mourn the victims who were not represented in the trial’s verdict.

“We see ourselves as martyrs because we see ourselves as already dead,” says Mohamed Faraj, director of the victims group, who lost 35 members of his extended family in the gassing. “We are dead because the world does not recognize our suffering.”

To many of Halabja’s residents, having their experiences vindicated in court would be a crucial step in coming to terms with the past. The international validation such a ruling would bring is no meager prize for a population whose safety often relies on the whims of foreign countries. “We need their sympathy to ensure something like this will never happen again,” says Alwan Ali Mahmud, a Halabja resident who was 8 years old when most of her family was killed in the gassing and who now lives with her only surviving sister.

But Halabja’s victims also have more immediate concerns: Without a court ruling, they cannot pursue compensation claims against the Iraqi government nor initiate cases against foreign companies that provided Saddam with chemicals. The village has been particularly hard-hit by government corruption and is in desperate need of this money. The town’s residents—most of whom must pursue costly treatments to deal with the residual affects of the attack—navigate unpaved roads strewn with trash, have spotty access to water and electricity, and many live in ramshackle hovels made of concrete and scrap metal. A recent ceremony marking the anniversary of the gassing ended in an angry mob destroying a lavish monument to the atrocity—a clear message that Halabja’s victims are sick of vapid consolations.

Halabja’s residents feel particularly abandoned by the U.S. government, which frequently points to the gassing to justify the invasion of Iraq. “When Bremmer and Powell came to visit us in 2003, they promised us they would do whatever we needed,” Faraj says. “They talked to us enough to fulfill their responsibility, but afterward they don’t care about us.”

Many of the villagers have their own theories why Iraqi officials have been delaying their case. “Many international companies sold the chemicals used in Halabja to Saddam,” says Arsalam Eskander, a Halabja resident who lost his entire immediate family in the gassing. “Their countries are putting pressure on the Iraqi government to postpone the case so they can’t get involved.”

Others see these trials as yet another tool in Iraq’s convoluted mess of party politics, with politicians maneuvering to get their constituencies on the docket—thus pushing politically insignificant Halabja to the bottom of the list. “It is all about deals between the parties,” Faraj says. “Court decisions should be independent, but obviously they are not so.”

It is unlikely that the Halabja case will be heard any time soon. With more than 10 major cases waiting to be heard, in addition to Halabja, Iraq’s cash-strapped courts may not have the money to endure many more long and intensive trials—this recent trial lasted more than 10 months. The quickly deteriorating situation in Iraq has also shifted most people’s attention from the past to the present. And now that Saddam, Majid, and most of the other prominent war criminals in the Baathist regime are dead or sentenced, the international community’s appetite for retribution may be sated.

For Halabja’s victims, almost two decades of waiting for retribution may be just the beginning. “If we don’t get it now,” Faraj says, “I am sure we will get it on the Day of Judgment.”