Halabja gas attack victims welcome Iraqis fleeing ISIL

A woman’s centre for Kurdish victims of the Iran-Iraq war has recently become a safe haven for those fleeing ISIL.

Sara listens to a Syrian refugee in the courtyard of the women's centre [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]
Sara listens to a Syrian refugee in the courtyard of the women's centre [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]

Halabja, Iraq – Khero Mohammad was still a teenager when the Iraqi air force, directed by Saddam Hussein, dropped sarin and mustard gas canisters on her hometown of Halabja on March 16, 1988.

The Halabja gas attack, part of Saddam’s campaign against Iraq’s Kurds near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people.

Mohammad remembers how she fled on foot to the caves in the mountains above Halabja with her family, and how after three months, they sought refuge among Kurdish communities in Iran.

It took another 26 years before she returned to Halabja.

The Halabja Women’s Centre was initially founded to support victims of domestic violence as well as vocational training for women [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]

Since last year, displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees fleeing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have begun arriving in Mohammad’s hometown – reminding her of the nightmare of being a refugee.

“I feel tremendous sympathy for the refugees that are coming [here] now,” Mohammad said in a shaded courtyard in Halabja. “They are in the same position I was years ago. Whatever I can do, I will do for them. Their situation reminds me of my own pain.”

Since the emergence of ISIL and the fall of Mosul last year, more than two million Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis have sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

While the majority of them are housed in UN camps and in the region’s urban hubs, some are drawn to rural areas such as Halabja because of the relatively low cost of living, the prospect of employment in the agricultural sector, and a prevalent conservative culture.

Saad Sharif, who has run a women’s centre in Halabja for more than a decade, said the Iraqi and Syrian women bear the same psychological scars of displacement and conflict that the residents of Halabja experienced decades ago.

“You see suffering when you look at their faces,” noted Sharif. “You can read everything in their faces. They are very damaged. You would need to sit down with them for one month to understand what’s happened in their lives.”

Both Mohammad and Sharif have been involved with the centre since 2004, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam.

In the leafy courtyard of the women’s centre, the team of workers and volunteers gather to socialise and drink tea with the newly arriving Syrian refugees [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]

The centre was founded by WADI, a German non-governmental organisation, to support victims of domestic violence and female genital mutilation while also providing literacy courses and vocational training, such as hairdressing and sewing, for women whose lives were disrupted by the Halabja chemical attacks.

But in recent weeks, the centre has also become a safe space for Iraqi and Syrian women to gather and socialise, to talk about home life, food, and their experience of war.

The victims of Saddam’s chemical attacks and ISIL sit together daily in the centre’s leafy courtyard to drink sweet tea and recount their stories.

Among these women is Suhad Abbas, 34, who fled Baghdad to Halabja with her husband and his family last year, “when ISIL militants came to the city”.

She was a maths teacher before the war and only learned of Halabja residents’ suffering upon coming to the women’s centre two weeks ago. 

When she heard Halabja women speak of the gas attacks, she told Al Jazeera she felt the pain of her own displacement twofold. “The women I spoke with here explained to me that years ago, they had run away too,” recounted Abbas.

“To be honest, it was very difficult for me to hear this. When I heard about how the people here suffered too, I cried and cried,” she added. “Because they were refugees, they welcomed us and shared their feelings. The people here have been supportive; they are sympathetic to what’s happened. They know what evil we escaped.”

Abbas’ attitude stands in contrast to the discrimination that refugees and internally displaced people have reportedly faced in other parts of the region, such as Erbil and Dohuk.

 A Syrian refugee practises sewing during one of the centre’s vocational classes taught in Arabic [Andrea DiCenzo/Al Jazeera]

In the courtyard of the women’s centre, where the walls are painted with bright murals, Kurdish women wearing the headscarf in the “Tehrani” or Iranian style say their culture is influenced more by Tehran and even New Delhi than by Baghdad.

Arabic music, films, and especially language, were largely foreign here, until Syrians and Iraqis from the south became a part of their community.

Because they were refugees, they welcomed us and shared their feelings. The people here have been supportive; they are sympathetic to what’s happened.

Suhad Abbas, displaced Iraqi woman

While the newly arrived displaced people and refugees are taking sewing, hairdressing, and beauty courses at the centre, the Kurdish women have decided to start learning Arabic.

Many of the women involved with the centre, including Mohammad, began working there as a result of their own experiences of displacement and tragedy.

Mohammad said she knows what it means to need help, but added that the memory of the Halabja attacks are still fresh.

“Most of the people in Halabja are still suffering from the attacks,” said Mohammad. “Many of them are injured. I have allergies, skin problems; there are things I can’t eat. Doctors have been doing tests for two, three years.

“Many women are having problems with fertility here,” she added. “Young couples are getting married and they want to have children, but the children are dying. The people here are still grieving.”

Khero Wakle, who survived the chemical attack on Halabja and was a refugee in Iran for six years, said that above all else, the Kurdish women at the centre can offer the displaced people and refugees hope and sympathy.

“I think every day that they come to the centre, they see us, and we give hope,” said Wakle, “the hope that one day they will be able to return to their homes just like we were able to”.

Source: Al Jazeera


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