Day 5 Halabja
We left early but after 2 hours realised that the driver was lost and had no idea how to get to Halabja because we were suddenly a stone’s throw from the Iranian border at Darband i-Khan! As the road wasn’t signposted, our driver asked a local lad for directions and the young man immediately offered to come with us to make sure that we didn’t get lost. This turned out to be fortuitous because we’d have never found it without him and it took us another 3 hours to get there. The area has changed so dramatically that G and D&F failed to recognise any landmarks.
The Halabja memorial was built commemorate the massacre of 5,000 people (mainly women and children) gassed by Saddam’s cousin, Chemical Ali but we were denied access because of renovation work. The memorial depicts stylised hands reaching to heaven, surrounded by some very fake rocks. It’s really odd. After a great deal of patient negotiation we were allowed to walk up the path to take a few photos from afar and after even more negotiation were allowed to use the toilets in their admin block ( 5 hours on a bus without a loo, so things were desperate).
We then went to the cemetery. The actual bodies are buried in 5 mass graves outside the village and have never been disinterred to be identified, so the grave markers are there just to identify the family names of those that they knew had perished in the gas attack. Many still lie unknown. It’s laid out in lovely gardens and is very peaceful but heart breakingly sad. Birds sang and butterflies darted amongst the flowers. Our driver and the local lad had never been here before and were obviously upset.
The remaining population (mainly men) had moved out of the town after the attack because they believed it was now haunted but many have now moved back to the new, vibrant active town. The new roads, schools and shops were gaily decorated with endless pennants for the elections which would take place in two weeks. Blue, yellow, green, red, orange – I couldn’t work out which party was which, except for the obvious red & yellow of the PKK.
We drove back to Sulaymaniyah on the new, fast highway. I’ve never seen so many petrol tankers before. Hundreds passed us (yes, that’s how fast they were going) in the two hours it took to get back. The area is exploding with new investment. At least 3 new towns and one large Syrian refugee camp along the way. Japanese company signs foretold massive new building projects yet to come.
In town we started to walk to the rarely open city museum but gave up in the 38 degree heat. It was far too dusty and hot to make the 1.5 k walk worthwhile; especially as it was odds on that it was closed. Instead we went in a shining new fast food restaurant and had chai before finding a local family restaurant for dinner. The food was fantastic. We had baked rice with stuffed vine leaves dish and a stuffed courgette dish that was topped with chunks of mutton. Soup, salads, bread and a wonderful home- made pickled apricot chutney (I have never been able to find the recipe and I’d love to be able to make it). The whole meal for 4 people, including extra rice and roast chicken came to 24,000 dinar- the equivalent of about $5 per head. Amazing value.