March 16, 2017

29th anniversary of Halabja genocide held in US Capitol Visitor’s Center

Washington, DC, USA ( – US Government officials, members of Congress, diplomats, journalists, experts, and Kurdish community members, gathered in the US Capitol Visitors Center on March 16 to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the Halabja genocide.

On March 16, 1988, Iraqi Mirage jets dropped bombs containing a sarin, VX, and other deadly poisons and nerve agents on innocent civilians in the town of Halabja and surrounding villages. In a matter of minutes, more than 5,000 lay dead, mostly women and children. Some 10,000 were seriously injured, many of whom still suffer today. The attack was only the latest in a decades-long campaign of genocide by the Iraqi regime against the people of Kurdistan.

‘Not only did the people of Kurdistan survive Halabja and many other genocides, we have thrived,’ said Kurdistan Regional Government Representative to the United States Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman. She added that although today commemorates the attack on Halabja, it is an opportunity to honor all victims of genocide including the Failys, Barzanis, victims of the Anfal Campaign, and today’s genocide against religious minorities by ISIS.

The audience heard stories from two survivors of Halabja: Zmnako Ali, who survived the attack as a baby and was only reunited with his Kurdish mother after 22 years; and Mariwan Naqshbandi, who as a young man witnessed the attack first-hand, and now serves as the Director for Government Relations at the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. Mr. Naqshbandi said, ‘In Halabja, we all have our own tragedies. I saw my friends being killed in front of my eyes.’

The event featured a film by RWF World about Mr Ali’s experience and his return to Halabja to find his biological mother. Mr Ali later joined the commemoration by video from Slemani where he lives today.

Iraq’s Ambassador to the US Fareed Yasseen, a long-time champion of human rights who was involved in documenting the crimes of Saddam Hussein, delivered his condolences on the occasion. He also tied the crimes of the past to the current genocide, saying, ‘The Anfal Campaign was the precursor to the ISIS organization. Their ideology is an outgrowth of Saddam’s Baathist ideology.’

US Senator Chris Van Hollen said, ‘We must call out atrocities in Halabja and the atrocities of Anfal for what they are: genocide.’ As a young Congressional staffer, Senator Van Hollen had visited Halabja shortly after the attack and helped author genocide prevention legislation.

US Representative Jared Polis, who co-chairs the Kurdish American Congressional Caucus, said that he was proud to stand in solidarity with the people of Kurdistan on Halabja Memorial Day, and every day.

Representatives from the Yezidi and Christian communities spoke about the genocide of their communities by ISIS in 2014: Loay Mikhael, the Head of Foreign Relations for the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council, a Christian political party in Iraq, and Kamal Shingali, a Yezidi activist who recently returned from Shingal.

Mr. Mikhael said, ‘Sadly, Iraq is not remembered as the cradle of civilization or for its diversity, but as a place of repeated genocides’. He added that earlier that day, Christians had gathered in front of St. Joseph’s Church, the largest in Erbil, in solidarity with the victims of the Halabja genocide.

Mr. Shingali said, ‘Shingal is utterly destroyed. We need help to rebuild our homes and our lives.’

Naomi Kikoler, the Deputy Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke about her work documenting the Yezidi and Christian genocide by ISIS, and the need for justice. She said, ‘There needs to be an immediate investigation and formal record of ISIS crimes,’ adding that if such measures were not undertaken, ‘In 20 years we will be here again marking a future genocide.’

A lawyer specializing in the genocide crimes, Professor Michael Newton, urged for expediency and prudence in prosecution, highlighting his expert opinion that a system of tribunals based in Erbil, rather than trials in the International Criminal Court, would be the best way to seek justice for ISIS crimes. Previously, Professor Newton was involved in prosecuting Ba’athists as well as Slobodan Milosevic and other war criminals around the world. He said, ‘We owe it to the victims of genocide to get justice right. We cannot compound personal suffering with a legal failing.’

Dr David Phillips said that it was ‘Tragic that the US had not recognized the Halabja chemical attacks as genocide.’ He also called on the United Nations Development Program to set up a trust fund for KRG to directly provide aid and support to refugees and internally displaced Iraqis.

See a photo album of the event here.
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