They say art can be cathartic, that it can help heal wounds. That it can allow for – using that most modern of words – closure. But art can also keep memories alive and commemorate an event.
I can’t take my eyes off this canvas, this art.
The swirling strokes of paint on canvas form clouds of bright colour over a woman clutching her baby. The woman’s eyes are closed and a wisps of white smoke surround her.
This piece is one of the first images that greet you as you enter the Halabja memorial.
Halabja, a city tucked away in the northeastern hills of Iraq-Kurdistan on the border with Iran. Before 1988, you would have been hard pushed to find anyone who had heard of it. But on March 16 of that year, its place was sealed in history for the grimmest of reasons.
As I stand at the memorial, a man comes up and shakes my hand. He begins to speak, with the assured confidence of someone who has told his story before. He speaks in Kurdish and, through a translator, I listen. What follows is not an exact quote as he spoke for 20 minutes, but this is the essence of his and his city’s story.
“Saddam Hussein’s forces are fighting the tail-end of a brutal war with Iran that Saddam started eight years earlier. The Iranian military has crossed the border and take the town.
“For Saddam, this is a big defeat. The regime is desperate to win and suspects us Halabja Kurds of collaboration with the Iranian army.
“Baghdad’s wrath is as brutal as it is vengeful.
“Warplanes fly and bombs drop all over the city. The noise is deafening.
“Then the smell of gas begins to permeate the air. What happened next no one could have predicted.”
Mohammed is the man telling me this story. In his late 30s now, he was a child when it happened. His words are made all the more powerful by the images that surround us: Photographs of dead, blistered children, adult bodies pressed against each other. The date of the massacre is everywhere in English.
We talk for a while as he continues his sad and intensely personal history. As he grew older, he says, he saw many more die from the effects of chemical weapons. Family members, friends, people he barely knew.
I ask him about Syria and the alleged chemical weapons attack there. Tears well in his eyes and his soft voice breaks as he begins to speak. “No one should have to go through what we went through. No one! Chemical weapons do not just kill in minutes. They kill and keep killing silently, over hours, days, weeks. They keep killing over years. And then our children are affected. They are weak. No one should see this brutality. Our eyes were enough. We have seen enough for the whole world.”
Mohammed is not the only one. The talk is of Syria everywhere I go, and the reaction is the same: one of sadness and of solidarity, that one day the Syrian people will find peace. But beyond that the other refrain, I hear, is that action must be taken now. That another alleged chemical weapons attack must not take place.
In a way it is the same language that western politicians are using. Condemnation of the attack, and a cry that something should be done.
But when the words come from the mouth of a survivor, when the survivor is surrounded by pictures of the attack, the words are not hollow.
They mean something to Mohammed and he wants the world to prevent another attack. Later on, at the cemetery, I see a man place a wreath at a memorial statue there. I can’t help but wonder if in 25 years’ time I will witness the same sight in Syria, not for one attack but for multiple?