It's one of the most beautiful places I've visited on Earth, but it's also the scene where one of the most sickening atrocities of the 20th century was carried out by an army acting against its own people.
The village of Halabja lies in a valley in Northeastern Iraq. It's enclosed by snow-capped mountains for most of the year. To the east is Iran. This was the front line during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's. And it's where Saddam Hussein decided to commit genocide against his own people, the Kurds, who lived in this small village.
His henchman for the job was his first cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid better known to the world now as “Chemical Ali.” It was the Kurds themselves who gave Majid his infamous name. And it wasn't just for the gas attack on Halabja but for the much wider Anfal campaign of genocide in Kurdistan in which “Chemical Ali” used various nerve agents and mustard gas against civilians. The final death toll is not known but it could be as high as 180,000.
I went to Halabja in 2003 to witness the official opening of a memorial for the people who perished there. Saddam had finally been captured in his spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit a few days before. As we arrived by U.S. military Blackhawk helicopters in Halabja, it became obvious that its citizens were in a state of euphoria because the man that was so despised there had finally been caught.
We filmed the people walking into the memorial building and somebody pointed out to me what was on the ground at the entrance a carpet of pictures of Saddam that people were walking over! If that wasn't enough to make clear what the Kurdish people thought of their former leader then the first interview I did made it crystal clear.
I asked the middle-aged woman who had lost many members of her family what she wanted to happen to Saddam now. I expected her to say she wanted justice for the dead or something like that. But instead she leaned forward and quietly told me she wanted Saddam brought here to Halabja in a cage, and she would happily cut a piece of flesh from his body every day! She then smiled.
The Kurds always wanted Saddam to be executed for his crimes against them, but because of the dominance of the Shia in the current Iraqi government it was always going to be the case that he would be tried for crimes against their people first. And that is why the Iraqi dictator was finally convicted and executed for the murder of over 140 Shia in the village of Dujail in 1982.
As we all know, the trial of Saddam over the Anfal military campaign did finally happen last year, and many Kurds were witnesses during the trial. But because of Saddam's execution, the Kurds never saw him go to the gallows for his crimes against them. That is why the conviction of “Chemical Ali” and his sentence of death by hanging to be carried out in Kurdistan is of particular importance to the Kurds. They will finally see 20 years later one of the highest members of Saddam's regime finally face justice for his crimes against their people.