HALABJA, Iraq (Reuters) - When poison gas killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja in 1988, its residents never imagined they would ever escape Saddam Hussein’s grip, let alone vote one day in a referendum on secession from Iraq.
The long-oppressed Kurds across northern Iraq are expected to get the chance to vote on Monday despite fierce opposition from the Baghdad government and regional powers who feel threatened by the referendum.
It will be a bittersweet moment for the people of Halabja, a rundown city of around 75,000 people still facing the after-effects of the attack by Iraqi government forces.
At a memorial to honor the victims is a statue of Omar Khawar, whose image holding his two dead twin babies which appeared in photographs around the world has come to symbolize the tragedy in Halabja.
Halabja residents interviewed by Reuters said they would vote “Yes”. But they were only cautiously optimistic.
They wonder whether feuding Kurdish political parties can deliver on promises of a viable independent state when basic needs such as specialized medical care, jobs and infrastructure have not been met.
“He would rest peacefully knowing that we will vote Yes,” said Khawar’s nephew Borhan Gharib.
“We think freedom is better than anything. There is no country that gets independence without a price.”
The referendum will be the culmination of a century-long struggle for self-determination for the Kurds. When the Middle was carved up by the West in a deal in 1916 after the fall of the Ottoman empire, the Kurds were the largest ethnic group without a state.
The region’s roughly 30 million ethnic Kurds were left scattered across four countries – Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Though they were widely mistreated, the Kurds suffered a particularly brutal fate in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein gassed them, buried them in mass graves and gave their land to Arabs.
Halabja marked the peak of his campaign against the Kurds.
Saddam accused the Halabja Kurds of siding with Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The gas attack was a turning point, winning the Iraqi Kurds worldwide sympathy.
Five thousand people, mostly women and children, were killed and thousands more wounded starting at 1153 a.m. on March 16, 1988 and more are still suffering from cancer and other diseases related to poison gas.
Yet, near the memorial is a hospital built for victims of the tragedy — construction has been completed but the facility was never opened.
“I am very, very angry,” said Lukman Abdel Qadir Mohammed, whose organization represents the families of the victims.
“We still send more than 1,000 people every month to Iran for treatment.”
Mohammed was speaking to Reuters in the house of Omar Khawar, donated by Borhan to the Halabja Chemical Attack Victims’ Society.
On the pavement outside is the spot where Khawar died, face down on the ground, trying to protect his sons. Gas crept into homes and along streets. His wife and eight daughters perished.
Years later, the Kurds enjoyed unprecedented protection when Western powers set up a no-fly zone to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s air force in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.
The U.S.-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 enabled the Kurds to eventually set up a semi-autonomous region.
But neighboring countries worried that Iraqi Kurdish ambitions would embolden their own restive Kurdish populations to agitate for change.
Despite those concerns, stronger than ever because of the referendum, jubilant Kurds waved flags in the streets in the run-up to the vote.
Halabja seemed less enthusiastic, unlike other cities where banners drawing attention to the referendum hang on buildings.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has resisted pressure from Turkey and Iran, as well as Western powers, to postpone the vote for fears it could trigger regional chaos.
Kashwar Mawloud spends works as a tour guide at the museum. Like others, she says she suffers from cancer from the attack and has to travel to a major city to get treatment every month.
She never wants anyone to forget about the massacre. First she walks visitors through a room illustrating Halabja’s rich political history and culture.
Then there are re-creations of iconic images of the day of the attack and reminders of who orchestrated the suffering.
They include the rope that museum officials say was used to hang Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who earned the nickname “chemical Ali” for directing a series of chemical attacks on Kurds, including Halabja.
Nearby is the death certificate issued after Saddam Hussein was executed following his trial.
But when it comes to the future, Halabja Kurds wonder whether anything will change.
“No one has invested anything in Halabja except for this museum,” said Mawloud.
The region has long been plagued by political disunity between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and decades-old rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani. It was most recently exacerbated by the extension of Barzani’s term.
The KDP controls the western part of the region while the PUK runs the east, where Halabja is located. The two fought a civil war during the 1990s.
Kurdish officials were not immediately available for comment on allegations that Halabja has been neglected.
Galawish Kareem, 70, lives across the street from Omar Khawar’s former home. She has not relied on any Kurdish political leaders for help since the attack destroyed her neighborhood and killed 70 relatives, including her son.
“Barzani, Talabani have done nothing for us,” she said. “We rebuilt our houses ourselves.” She laughed when asked if the central government in Baghdad had helped.
For some, like Gibrael Omar, Halabja’s dark past, not the path to independence, is still the overriding issue.
Omar and his mother take turns visiting the mass grave where 33 members of their family were buried in the days following the attack.
“I will vote for neither Yes or No,” he said at a cemetery.
Some residents worry that the vote will only bring more bloodshed to the region, with fierce opposition from Turkey and Iran. The Baghdad government has called the vote unconstitutional.
Tensions are running high between Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and Kurdish fighters — who cooperated in the fight against Islamic State — over the prospect of an independent Kurdistan.
Despite the uncertainty, Mohammed, the head of the victims’ organization, says sacrifices must be made for the sake of liberty. He lost his siblings, mother and wife and is still suffering from medical issues.
“Conflict (between Kurds and Shi’ite militias) will happen maybe not today or tomorrow. But it has to,” he said.
“But ultimately we will be fine. One hundred fighters from Halabja died fighting Daesh (Islamic State). We can send one hundred more to fight the militias.”
Created by Michael Georgy; Editing by Keith Weir