The Green City Halabja Campaign

‘Green Year Halabja’. A year long campaign of activities that will promote Green projects and bring environmental issues to the forefront while also actively commemorating the victims of the 1988 chemical attacks, and all other chemical attacks. The idea is to honour the victims from Halabja and all victims of chemical warfare: to create a beautiful memorial garden, build a local plastic bottle recycling and upcycling program, highlight the native plants of Halabja, and serve as a model for other places.  Residents feel that although they have suffered so much, they want to create a better future.

Locally made bins to collect plastic bottles

Halabja: Climate Change and Chemical Attacks

Climate change has become a hot button issue in Kurdistan, young people have connected to others through social media and global movements such as ‘Fridays for Future’. They look around and see looming environmental disaster: summer of 2021 had a devastating drought increasing desertification, threatening harvest, and putting millions of people’s access to water at risk . The latest UN Climate report has found that the Middle East and the Levant are one of the three global regions that are and will be hit hardest by climate change. People are already living through the first effects, and are very worried about their future and survival. 

Environmental alarm is finally happening all over the Middle East, and historically Iraq as a major oil producer was not a place where ‘green’ policies and ideas were popular for decades. But, the undeniable drastic effects that climate change is having on the area are too severe to be ignored. Even in a place where oil is cheap, citizens are realizing that it is extremely polluting and eventually those resources will run out. People are realizing the negative effect that plastic waste, non-recycled trash, trash burning, are having on their lives. Young people especially are keenly aware through the power of social media and the worldwide ‘Friday’s for Future’ protests that have been ongoing in 2019 and early 2020 (until Covid -19 became a global pandemic).

In Halabja, an agricultural area,  the potential devastating effects of climate change are on people’s minds. The area survives with the deadly scars of Saddam Hussiens chemical attacks. As part of his campaign against the Kurdish population during the Anfal campaign in 1988 the city was targeted by sarin and mustard gas attacks, between 3,200 and 5,000 were killed or otherwise sustained lifelong injuries and illnesses. The early 1990s through 2003 saw the city under the control of the Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, who imposed a punishingly harsh regime, terrorised the local villagers, and stripped women of their most basic rights. Over the past years the city has been dealing with an influx of Syrian refugees and Iraqi internally displaced persons (IDPs). The city also has a large number of women and girls who have escaped ISIL and are in a state of heightened vulnerability. 

Active Commemoration of Victims of Chemical Attacks:

The long term impact on the health of citizens by those attacks, and now the future health of the area are being brought together in ‘Green Year Halabja’.

Video: The Recycling Center built with the help of Wadi in Halabja

A year long campaign of activities that will actively commemorate the victims of those attacks, and all other chemical attacks. March 16 2023 will be the 35 year anniversary since the attacks, and the Green Year will be a build up to that.  Active commemoration is different from putting up a plaque or memorial for the victims, while those are certainly lovely gestures and have their place in history, active commemoration seeks to build on that by involving the community and bringing them together to create acts of memorial that are ongoing.

In this case a memorial garden: planted by the community, and tended by them. The idea is to honor the victims from Halabja and all victims of chemical warfare, and to provide a beautiful place for all to enjoy, to highlight the native plants of Halabja, and serve as a model for other places.  Residents feel that although they have suffered so much, they want to create a better future, they want to deal with the trauma of the past in a collective way, and to involve the young generation in a positive way, planting a better future together.

Building a Greener Future:

Wanting to improve your community, getting active, focusing on concrete actions that can be taken, the citizen to citizen project started in 2018. ‘Green City Halabja’ announced its intention to be the first city in Iraqi Kurdistan that is plastic bag free. This was an important first step in changing people’s attitudes to plastic, waste, recycling, and eventually ‘greening’ the city by planting hundreds of trees and establishing community groups to care for those new green spaces.

The focus of the ‘Green City Halabja’ campaign has been the improvement of the green spaces and public parks, planting of trees and flowers, the recycling of trash and the end of plastic bag use. Activists in Halabja worked to make their city the first “plastic bag free” city in Iraq, single use plastic bags were replaced completely by reusable tote bags made of cotton.  Cotton bags were sewed and labeled with the logo of the campaign, then activists visited the marketplace and local shops of Halabja to distribute the bags among the people there. The goal was to encourage the residents of the city to use reusable bags instead of single use plastic ones for their daily purchasing. This project is supported by Wadi and NWE organization. Today it is hard to find a plastic bag in Halabja, and the campaign has been a great success with hundreds of cotton tote bags replacing the once ubiquitous single use plastic ones.

Planting trees and creating public parks is probably the most visible way to convince people that their environment has a direct impact on their happiness. In March 2018 NWE Organization initiated a park in memorial of the victims of the chemical attacks in Halabja, and the victims of the chemical attacks in the Ghouta in Syria. Under the banner of ‘Plant for Peace’ the act of commemoration was to plant ‘a tree for Halabja and a tree for Ghouta’. The intention was not to create a plaque, but a living place where people can come to reflect. The planting of trees symbolizes life, hope and a commitment to peace in response to violence. This park is the first piece of land that is for the people and by the people. Such a project shows the power of self organization, and has far reaching impacts on local understanding of community organization and local democracy. Now the municipality has given their support for the continuation of this project. 

This project also ties in with Wadi’s ‘No to Violence’ campaign which is working to end violence against children in schools and at home. Talking about violence against people and violence against our environment and how to change the culture and societies understanding of what violence is and how it affects individuals and communities is a big part of effecting change in the long-term. 

Looking Forward: Building a recycling program

In the years since the campaign began, we have learned so much. For instance there is a lot of advice on social media on how to have a more ‘green’ lifestyle and community, but unfortunately a lot of it depends on you living in a place with existing institutional support.

Recommending people not to use single use plastic water bottles, but have a flask instead, depends on you having access to clean tap water. Collecting single use plastic is great, but if there is no recycling plant to process them, it’s not super helpful for you. Planting trees can be wonderful, but in a country with water issues, you need to make sure you plant native species in the correct way. Being green means adapting to your local situation, working with local experts, and being flexible and creative.

One of these creative new local approaches is building a recycling facility, in cooperation with NGO Shred Up. Plastic bottle collection points have been set up in schools and other local areas, those bottles are collected regularly and then taken to this facility where they are shredded. The shredded plastic is then used to create new products, currently outdoor furniture (chair and table set) and tables and benches for schools. The products all have the logo of the campaign and signage explaining that they are made from recycled plastic bottles. Restaurants and coffee shops are also cooperating with this new project and will soon be buying the furniture to support local recycling. The energy surrounding this project is incredible, and it has already been featured multiple times on local media. 

Green Year Activities: 

As part of the ‘Green Year’ activities local partner NWE organization has been working to set up hiking and nature walks in the area. There is so much natural beauty in the region, and encouraging everyone to enjoy, and care for it, is essential in helping people feel connected to their environment, and why we must protect it. The trails are being marked, and signage is being produced from the local recycled plastic. The signs will encourage people not to litter, as well to highlight local plants, and the area’s famous honeybees, and other wildlife that is essential and in need of protection. The trails are being advertised by a local all women hiking group, that brings together local Halabja women with Syrian refugees and IDPs from central and southern Iraq. 

Wadi’s project ‘Keep Kurdistan Green’ engages directly with school students and teachers in Halabja, Garmyan, Ranya and Erbil through a combination of seminars and small projects that are student-led. The different student groups will also be encouraged to share ideas and work together. The student groups also put on small theater plays for their schools, organize trash clean up, and encourage entire communities to participate in more eco-friendly practices.  This project continues Wadi’s vision of supporting people to work together creatively to solve their own problems, come together as citizens and take ownership of communal spaces, by providing both short term boosts and long term technical support on how to reach those goals.

This project is a cooperation of Wadi, NWE Organisation, ADWI and Shred Up

This project is currently funded by private donations , if you would like to support this project please donate here.