“Spey” – Assisting victims of the chemical attacks on Halabja

Citizen activism is a requisit for a democratic society. Building civil society structures and assisting groups to form associations are part of WADI’s democratization programm. In November 2009, WADI assisted a first meeting between representatives from villages and towns which had been the target of poison gas attacks at the end of the 1980s. The delegates decided to found a non-governmental organization. Their aim was to enhance the development of the completely destroyed and depopulate region and to deal with the consequences of the chemical attacks. Yet, the government delayed the NGO’s registration. On December 29th, the activists took it upon themselves and declared to be an NGO according to Iraqi-Kurdish law.

Twenty-five years after the gas attacks on Halabja, the population still suffers the consequences. During and immediately after the attacks of 1988 several thousands of civilians were poisoned and killed by chemical bombs. Survivors fled for long years of exile and life in refugee camps in Iran and the Eastern provinces of Iraqi-Kurdistan. In 1991, Iraqi-Kurdistan became de facto autonomous, and thus many of Halabja’s refugees were able to return to their town. However, the area soon came under the control of Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group that imposed a rule by force and fear.

Very little has been done for the inhabitants of Halabja during the two decades since the attacks on the city. The harm caused by the chemical bombs is long-lasting. Cancer, eye, skin, bone and blood diseases, still-birth and infertility are commonplace among those who survived the attacks.

Today, the younger generation in Halabja takes initiative to improve the situation in their town by studying, petitioning, taking part in local democratization projects and getting media attention for the difficulties their community is constantly facing. Halabja has become an official symbol for the persecution of the Kurds. Yet, the town and its population have been neglected even by the regional authorities. Only in 2006, after local demonstrations and clashes with the security forces, the regional government launched some infrastructure and water projects, but there are still no projects for better medical supply and special medical and psychological treatments.

The 20th anniversary of the attack, in March 2008, was marked by conferences in Switzerland and Germany, with the participation of people from Halabja. Now, the 25th anniversary is coming up on March 16th. Preparations are in full process. One of the organizers is the newly founded NGO “Spey”. In Winter 2009/10 representatives of different areas formerly attacked by chemical bombs founded the organisation. The name means “white” and stands for the color of the gas but also symbolizes hope. The new organisation demands a thourough inquiry of the impact of poison gas on human beings and the environment. »Spey« wants to coordinate regional activities and strenhgthen citizens rights and demands by networking with other groups in the region. Another aim is to document the history of the attacks and to develop a culture of commemoration.

Yet, the first obstacle the new organsation had to overcome was registration. Even though any group is entitled by law to form an NGO and get registered as such, “Spey” waited for three years in vain for the registration to take place. On December 29th 2012, they took it upon themselves and declared Spey an NGO on the occasion of the first conference they had organized. “Spey” is now WADIs partner organisation in implementing and developing new projects for the villages and places still haunted by the gas.

In cooperation with Radio Dange Nwe and the Halabja women centre, Spey recently organised a public event about mass graves in Halabja and health issues as part of the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the gas attacks.

Also in preparation to the 25th anniversary, Spey and Radio Dange Nwe conducted an opinion survey about living conditions in Halabja and the services provided. 2500 questionnaires were handed to people asking them also how the government and non-government-organisations are dealing with the tragedy and the recognition of the bombing as an international crime against humanity. Opinions were given on ways to improve assistance to the citizens of Halabja in their daily life’s. The results show, that citizens are tired of empty promises by politicians. The study was presented to the public and government on March 13th. On the same day Spey paid a visit to the German consulate in Erbil handing over a letter to the German foreign minister which demands German assistance and recognition of Germany’s responsibility concerning Saddam Hussein’s poison gas production.

WADI supports Halabja´s community by several different projects:

• Radio Dange Nwe (2004)
• Halabja Women Center (2004)
• Halabja Women´s Café (2007)
• Legal Aid Programme (2007)
• Women-led Mobile Teams (2003)
• FGM Awareness Teams (2005)

Thanks to funding from Green Cross, a special programme for the victims of the gas attacks started in Halabja.