Kurdish community remembers Halabja massacre

Many Kurds living in South Leeds were amongst those gathered on Monday (16 March 2020) for a sombre inaugural event featuring the planting of a memorial tree in Park Square Leeds – to mark the anniversary of the Halabja massacre in Kurdistan (in north east Iraq) in March 1988.

The 1988 massacre saw then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein conduct a major attack (unprecedented in the modern world) featuring chemical and biological weapons, on a civilian population, in an attempt to quash dissent. Over 5,000 people were killed, thousands more suffered life-changing injuries and medical conditions, and the community and countryside there continue to suffer the ill effects of the attack. You can find more information about the massacre here.

The Kurdish people are a Middle Eastern ethnic minority community made up of about 28 million people, spread between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria (with a diaspora numbering a further 7 million across the world – with an estimated 45,000 in the UK, and 5,000 in Leeds). They remain a stateless – and in many cases, oppressed – community in the Middle East (although they have now been given some political autonomy in Iraq). They won considerable acclaim for leading the front-line fight against ISIL/Daesh during the Syrian civil war.

Attendees at Monday’s event included the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Cllr Eileen Taylor. She commented in her speech:

“We’re lucky to live in a city with so much diversity, a city of many different voices, whose great strength lives in this richness and variety. Today, our thoughts are with the Kurdish community, as we remember this terrible tragedy – and more than ever, it’s important that all the communities in Leeds live together in peace. When we stand together in unity, we can do anything.”

Kashan Kamal, who co-runs Beeston-based Kurdish House Leeds (the community association behind the tree planting, who have also won considerable plaudits for their prolific litter picking and community action in Leeds), commented:

“Thanks to all those who have joined us to mark this tragic anniversary, and especially all those who helped us make it happen. And also, many thanks for all the support and solidarity we’ve been shown here in our beautiful new hometown of Leeds. We – Kurdish House Leeds – are keen to do all it takes to play our part in making Leeds the very best it can be, and we look forward to continuing to work with a wide range of people to achieve that.”

Ed Carlisle of the Green Party, who supported the group to organise the tree planting and event, commented:

“Kurdish House exemplify the idea of an intercultural city, where everyone pulls together, and creates a shared culture. For that, we need to learn one another’s stories – so it’s important that we’re now recognising the Halabja tragedy. And that event is partly our story: we need to recognise that British colonialism and meddling created divisions and ugly legacies in the Middle East and elsewhere, and work with others to undo that.”

The tree and plaque are planted at the southern entrance to Park Square – a ceremonial green space in Leeds City Centre (LS1 2ND). The park hosts a series of memorial trees and plaques – including one to remember all those killed in world conflict, previously unveiled by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.