Erbil—Last April, a few days before Iraqi Kurds voted in elections for the Iraqi parliament—and two months before militants with the Islamic State (ISIS) would threaten their borders, changing everything—a group of Kurdish veterans gathered at the Monument of Halabja Martyrs, a squat rotunda in the spring-green fields of northern Iraq, crowned by a cage-like pillar meant to look like clasped hands. They called themselves the “Living Martyrs,” and together they tallied their war wounds.
One man lost a leg fighting Saddam Hussein’s troops in the 1980s, during the long Iran-Iraq War. Another lost both legs in the same war; he swung himself slowly on his fists toward the monument’s door. Another was shot alongside US troops in the American invasion of 2003, which he called a “liberation.”
The group’s leader would only say that he had “fought in the time of Saddam,” a vague description that I came to learn meant during the Kurdish civil war, a brutal fight in the mid-1990s between the two major Kurdish political parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—which most Kurds don’t like to talk about. Each “living martyr” had pinned to the army drab of their fresh-pressed peshmerga uniforms the red and yellow insignia of the ruling KDP, the party of KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) president Massoud Barzani. They were there to get the party votes.
Halabja, about eight miles from the Iranian border, is a poor area, remote and conservative, surviving in isolation, having once barely survived at all. In 1988, the Iraqi air force dropped chemical weapons on the city in retaliation for Kurdish rebellions against the state. Thousands of people died in one day, and gruesome images from the attacks are on display at the museum attached to the Halabja monument. In one life-size panorama, a truck laden with slumped bodies tries to escape across town lines. In another, a father dies shielding his young son from the gas. Nearby, behind glass, are the documents sentencing Saddam to death.
Halabja is at the heart of Kurdish nation-building, and the monument and nearby cemetery routinely attract Kurdish officials looking to evoke Kurdish resilience. After 2003, American officials, though they were slow to criticize Saddam for the 1988 attack when it happened, did the same. Halabja was evidence of Saddam’s brutality, and could help prove to a skeptical American public that, at least in part of Iraq, the US war was a good one. “I can’t tell you that Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant—you know that,” Colin Powell said, visiting the site in 2003. “What I can tell you is that what happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again.”
Over the past decade, against the backdrop of rapid economic growth, Halabja has solidified its role as a symbol not only of suffering, but of rebirth. In news articles and political speeches, mention of the 1988 attacks tends to precede that of a new shopping mall or hotel in Kurdistan’s capital city, Erbil. The juxtaposition—past horror, present wealth—is shorthand for Kurdistan’s progress and the unbridled optimism about a future nation that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (and more than one Kurdish official) has referred to as an “island of decency.”