March 16, 1988. The Iran-Iraq war was in its eighth deadly year. On the front lines of that conflict was the Iraqi city of Halabja, near the border with Iran. An intense air and artillery bombardment shook this city of 50,000, driving the inhabitants underground. As evening fell, Iraqi helicopters and fighter bombers dropped chemical weapons. Nouri Hama Ali, a survivor, recalled the horror that followed.
"Many of the women and children began to die. The chemical clouds were on the ground. They were heavy. Many children were left on the ground, by the side of the road. Old people as well. They were running, then they would stop breathing and die."
Some 5,000 Iraqi Kurdish men, women, and children were killed in the attack by the Saddam Hussein regime. Some 10,000 others were maimed, blinded, disfigured or badly injured. The chemical attacks contaminated food and water supplies. Medical experts have documented that the survivors of Halabja suffer from increased levels of colon cancer and respiratory diseases, and high rates of miscarriages and infertility among women.
The attack on Halabja was neither an aberration nor a desperate act of a regime caught in a stalemated war. Instead, it was part of a deliberate campaign called Al-Anfal, intended by Saddam Hussein to kill and displace the predominately Kurdish inhabitants of northern Iraq.
A study published in 1994 by Human Rights Watch concluded that the Al-Anfal campaign resulted in at least 50,000 deaths and perhaps as many as 100,000 deaths. Halabja and Al-Anfal are deadly reminders of the horror that hate and despotic power can inflict. The world must never forget.