Halabja Things to Do
Halabja is quite a dreary town, understandable given its history, but it is a living place with a small market area and a couple of parks on the outskirts. People are very friendly, but we got the feeling that they are a bit sick of visitors who come just to see the graves and the monument and don't spend any time in the town itself. Some of the children are keen to practice their English, and the shopkeepers in the market seemed really pleased to have foreign customers, even though we were only buying bread.
At the far end of Halabja is a large park, slightly overgrown and dilapidated, but with good views over town and the surrounding hills. Iran is not far away from here, and this is the area where the three American hikers accidentally strayed across the border to be arrested as potential spies, so it is probably best not to wander too far out of town...
The other "sight" in Halabja is the town cemetery, where row upon row of white tombstones commemorate the victims who died at the scene of the attacks. Many of the wounded were taken to Iran where some later died, so there is another Halabja Cemetery in Tehran. Others are still "missing". Two mass graves are also marked, each containing more than a thousand victims. It was a peaceful place, and empty apart from a few locals who had come to pray under a nearby tree, despite the drizzle.
To find it, ask around as it isn't obvious. The booklet handed out at the Halabja Monument has a photo, which helped us get directions.
Just before entering the town, you'll see a concrete monument under a Kurdistani flag. It depicts one of the most harrowing images of the chemical attacks, an old man cradling a young child in his arms, both lying dead in a street. Behind it, you pass through a checkpoint of sorts, and then enter the Halabja Museum. The building itself is odd, 3 arms (representing the third month) with 16 fingers (representing the 16th day) hold a globe up to the sky, although from a distance it looks like some sort of concrete circus tent or even a water tower.
Inside, you'll be adopted by a local volunteer and shown round the three rooms. The first is the terrible day of the attacks, recreated with shop mannequins and stuffed ducks, and it is hard to know what to think when the volunteer finds it all quite funny. The second room contains all the shocking photos taken by an Iranian journalist, the first to reach the town after the attacks. The volunteer pointed out his own relatives among the victims and survivors, but again kept making jokes with the other volunteers and asking us questions about American popular culture. A cabinet contains the museum's odd collection of prize possessions...Chemical Ali's pen, the Iranian journalist's camera, and some of Saddam's slippers. We were also shown a video of footage from the day after, with survivors being interviewed. The final room is the hall of names, all the victims arranged in family groups carved into black marble covering every wall, with Kurdish flags all over the place.
We were then taken into the cafe, a very plush area of leather sofas and thick carpets, where we were served tea and given souvenir booklets and CDs by some other volunteers.
It was a strange experience, not the sombre one we were expecting at all. In this tip, I've just tried to explain what there is in the museum, and to find out how I felt, please read the page introduction as I have gone into more detail.
Entry is free, although you might be asked for your passport to at the checkpoint.
Slemani is the obvious starting point for a visit to Halabja, and the distance isn't huge so you can easily make it there and back in a day, provided you start early enough. Ask your hotel owners how to get to Halabja, as buses don't leave from the main karaj, but from a smaller one some distance from the centre...we took a taxi, but found our way back on foot. The journey took about an hour and a half, and the driver guessed we were heading to the monument so dropped us off just outside, about ten minutes' walk from the centre of Halabja. To get back to Slemani, the bus station is just before the market area in the town centre.
Note that there are two towns called Halabja, the other one being a new village built some kilometres away to house survivors...you want old Halabja, known as Halabja Shahid (something like Martyrs' Halabja?), and not Halabja Taza (New Halabja). Passengers on the buses will no doubt ask a lot of questions and find out if you're on the right bus or not!