Ramazan Öztürk who documented the Halabja Massacre: “The weapons used in Halabja has also wiped out the continuity of the lineage”

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In 16th March of 1988, in the chemical weapon attacks by the warplanes and helicopters of Iraq’s Baas Regime that were lead by Saddam Hussein five thousand Kurds, mostly children, women and old people, were killed and from 7 to 10 thousands of them were wounded. Ramazan Öztürk was the person who, with his photo named “Silent Witness”,  made known the massacre that was ignored by the world. Öztürk told us about the period and his experiences.

Rabia Çetin

31 years have passed since the Halabja Massacre that is labeled as “the Hiroshima of the Kurds”. During the Iran-Iraq War, in March 16, 1988, in the chemical weapon attacks by the warplanes and helicopters of Iraq’s Baas Regime that were lead by Saddam Hussein five thousand Kurds, mostly children, women and old people, were killed and from 7 to 10 thousands of them were wounded. The effects of the massacre continue to emerge as the skin and lungs diseases and infertility.

Stating that the effects of the chemical weapons are still being seen, journalist and documentary producer Ramazan Öztürk, who documented the Halabja Massacre with his photos, says that “Most of people of a region were killed altogether; at the same time, with the wiping out whole families, the lineages were ended.”

We had a conversation with Öztürk about the Halabja Massacre and the post-massacre period.

It should have been hard to take the photos of a big disaster such the Halabja Massacre. What did you experience after you returned back there, how did you rehabilitate yourself?

I had seen mass dead bodies during my correspondence missions in the Iran-Iraq War, especially in the Basra Front and in the wars at the different conflict regions of the world. Most of them were bodies of the soldiers fighting at the lines of fire. But Halabja was totally different. There was no warrior among the killed people. They were old people, children, and babies. They were killed by poisonous gases at their houses, feeding their babies, at their dining tables, at streets playing games. Corpses of thousands of people were at the streets. You were ashamed of your humanity at that time and were asking yourself: “why, what is the reason for this hatred, why such an unbelievable hate”.

It has no answer. Okay, I am a journalist, my profession made me go there, but in the end I am a human being too. Is it possible not to be affected? The faces of those babies, the corpses of those young girls, the way those children playing games died was so awful. Children were lying alongside a young man. I thought they had been killed. Years after the massacre, when I went to Halabja, I ran into one of these children. Wounded but, he was able to survive. He said “The man lying there was our uncle. We had run close to him. But we were influenced too, fell there. We were able to hear you, but not able to move. You saved us.” But it was not me, the aid teams of Iran, who came there after us, rescued them. I have been identified with the photo Silent Witness, in which the father Ömer Hawar was trying to protect his child and they died together. I have the feeling that it was as if Ömer Hawar was me and the child on his arms was mine. I see the photo as a part of me. I have been crying when I heard a child voice or a timbre or when I saw an old woman somewhere I went, and sat next to her, was being badly affected and broke into tears.

Thousands were killed in the Halabja Massacre. But Western world has ignored it for a long time. What do you think about this situation?

Iran-Iraq War was going on, when the Halabja Massacre took place. The Western World and the US were against the new-founded Islamic regime in Iran. For this reason they supported and encouraged Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein in many respects. The Western world found the very recent Islamic revolution weak. Because the followers of Khomeini who had taken the power imprisoned or executed the Shah partisans or the other members of opposition. A war upon such a weak Iran could have brought down the Islamic regime. The war had been started for this reason, but the results were quite unexpected. The war that was “declared out of water” (the official reason for the Iran-Iraq war was the conflict about Shatt al-Arab waterway) indeed cause the Islamic regime of Iran strike root and have a long life up until now. We can say that one of the results of Western world’s unconditional support to Saddam was the Halabja Massacre. Behaving as the naughty child of the West, Saddam Hussein did not hesitate to use chemical weapons in Halabja. Iraq, even in the very first years of war used chemical weapons both at the lines and civic regions. The Western world has always ignored this. Saddam was sure that this silence would be continued in Halabja too. As a matter of fact, so was the case. In March 16, 1988, when Iraq warplanes threw the chemical bombs to Halabja, the masters of the naughty kid played three monkeys: “We did not see, we did not hear, we did not know”. When more than 5 thousand people were killed in Halabja, Duceyde and Inap, the world ignored it. Kurdish people struggled for making the world know the massacre, but Saddam was hardly condemned by any country.

How did the media see the massacre?

It was reported to the foreign agencies and the quarters of newspapers of the regions as a tiny news such that “Chemical had been thrown to Halabja region, there were deaths”. Unfortunately the world did not react in the way expected. The massacre was given importance neither by the politicians not by the media institutions. Even though the journalists from different countries of the world saw the massacre with their own eyes, it was slurred over as a trivial news.

What about the media of Turkey?

The photos that I took and were the most important documents of the massacre were  used in headlines only by Sabah Newspaper that then I worked for. It appeared in other newspapers as one- or two-column news. And in most of them there were no photos. It was as if there did not occur such an event just one step away from us. It was as if the people who were cruelly killed in Halabja were not the relatives and kin of millions of Kurds who lived in Turkey. It was as if Turkey had nothing to do with this massacre. If there is a favorable climate for the Kurdish problem in Turkey, all the media institutions interest in the Halabja massacre and bring it to the country’s agenda. But if it is not favorable, there is hardly a noise. During the massacre I was working for Sabah Newspaper (owned by Dinç Bilgin), the newspapers other than us reported the massacre only with a column. I wrote about Halabja for days, but nobody asked about it, nobody saw it. Nobody cited my reports, they were not allowed to do so. On the very same days, the photos I took were distributed to the world by Sipa Press centered at Paris.

After a long silence what did bring the Halabja Massacre on agenda again?

Just after the Western countries’ naughty boy Saddam began to disobey them, just after he challenged the UK and the US, everything turned the other way around. It was begun to tell that Saddam was a cruel dictator who killed his own people. The most obvious evidence was the Halabja Massacre. It was talked about by the politicians and used in the headlines then. The photos that I took in Halabja were immediately begun to use in the world media, as if the massacre have taken place recently.

While these all happened, in 1990 when Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Halabja Massacre came to quite fore. The articles and news were written about it as if it had occurred recently. My photos were used in the world media almost everyday. They were used in the cover pages on the most famous magazines. It was told about ‘what a dictator was Saddam, how many people he killed in Anfal. There appeared news in the newspapers such that Saddam had built a “doomsday cannon”. It was written that Saddam, by the cannon, targeted both the countries of region and the remote countries. The massacre that took place in March 16, 1988 was brought on agenda in real terms in 1990. This was the hypocrisy of the Western world, that of the countries of the region at the same time. They ignored the massacre for two years.

I was in the region from the beginning of the First Gulf War to end of it. During the invasion of the Kuwait, the headquarters of the war on Iraq was determined as the Dahran city of Saudi Arabia. When it was noticed that I was the journalist who reported the Halabja Massacre, the eyes of Arab media turned on me. Arabs began to interest in Halabja after that. That is to say, after they had concerns about their lives, they recalled Halabja.

When you went to the region after the massacre, what was the Kurdish politicians’ opinion about that silence?

I made an interview with Jalal Talabani at that time. He mostly criticized Palestine. Talabani said that “We supported Palestine’s struggle for independence in every respect. Many Kurdish volunteers went to support their struggle. They did never embrace our struggle and did not say anything about it. The Palestinian authorities did not make any declaration after the Halabja Massacre.” It was because that Saddam supported Palestine, provided them with camp places, made them monetary aid. Therefore the Palestinians stayed silent.

Is Halabja, where more than 5 thousand people were killed, being acknowledged enough, what do you think?

The dominant country always used the Halabja Massacre as tool for the regional balance of power. Nobody cares about the Saddam Regime’s and the other oppressive regimes’ cruelty to Kurds, their killing Kurds. Because they are not frank, because even after so many years, the Halabja Massacre has not been recognized as“genocide”. When the use of chemical weapons in Syrian civil war comes on agenda, the photos of the Halabja Massacre are used, but Halabja is not acknowledged.

In fact, if enough reaction had been revealed then, Milosevic could not have dared to bury thousands of people in mass graves in Bosnia and Kosovo. And nobody could have dared to use chemical weapons in Syria.

We should have the following conclusion from all of these: The massacres that are ignored are pillars of the next ones. When the Baas Regime lead by Saddam carried out a genocide in Halabja, the countries of region stayed silent, since “the killed people were Kurds”. Because most of them have a Kurdish problem. And most of others have fear that “If Kurds become independent, some of people in our country could want independence too.” But the next step for any silence could be the reason for a strong scream.

How have the Halabja’s photos, which have been ignored by the media, become “the photos of last 150 years”?

In 1989, I won the grand prize for “Headline News Photo” Award from the American Society of Journalists with my photo named by the media world as “the Silence Witness”, which is the symbol of the Halabja Massacre. I went to the US to participate the award ceremony. I was the first journalist who won that award from the Middle East, but this was even not reported in our newspapers. In 1989 Newsweek and Time journals chose the Halabja photos as the photos of the year, Life magazine chose the photo as the photo of 150 years. I was awarded by famous journals and media institutions such as World Press Photo and Stern. These too were not reported as news in Turkey. In the same year, I applied with my Silence Witness to the contest organized by the Association of the Photo Reporters centered at Ankara, I was not granted any award. The photo that was not granted an award by them received many awards from the most important institutions of the world that I told about above.

After years you went to Halabja, what were the effects of chemical weapons in your opinion?

When the chemical weapons are used, if you are too close to them, you will die, if you are in a distance, the effects can emerge after 5-10 years. 5 kinds of chemical weapons were used in Halabja. People who were exposed the chemicals when they were child cannot have children today, they are infertile. There are ones who cannot see well enough and have lung diseases. The wounded people may have been treated in the hospital, but they are dying as the time passes. In Iran there are 100 thousand people who have been affected by the chemical attacks according to official records and they are dying in time.

Genocide is the appropriate term for Halabja. Most people of a region were killed all together. At the same time, with the wiping out whole families, the lineages were ended. For instance the nephew of Ömer Hawar is now infertile, he cannot have children. Even today, in Halabja there is not a proper hospital that treats this. Let alone the treatment, even there is not a proper remembrance of the Halabja Massacre.

Because of the photos you took, to Baghdad you were invited as witness for the trials of Iraq Army’s North Front Commander Ali Hassan El Mecit El Tikrit, who were also known as “Chemical Ali” due to the weapons he used in Halabja and Anfal. Did your testimony influence the court?

After the US war on Iraq, Saddam was executed. But he was not trialed for his crimes in Halabja. He was trialed for other crimes. At that time Jalal Talabani was the President of Iraq. But he did not sign the law that approved Saddam’s execution, since he thought that Saddam’s trials should have been continued. But they executed him hastily; if Saddam had spoken out, he would have told about the countries that supported him at that time. After Saddam, in 2009 Iraq Army’s North Front Commander Ali Hassan El Mecit’s, i.e. Chemical Ali’s trials in Baghdad began. I was called for testimony by the court. I delivered 40 photos that I had taken in Halabja to the court. The court members and the defendants saw some of the photos for the first time. The judges and attorneys cried. But Chemical Ali looked at with frozen eyes. Then he asked me whether I had been there or not. And I showed him the photos that proved my being there and the camera I took the photos. Until my testimony, Chemical Ali had denied the massacre and blamed Iran. I told about what I did see. One hearing after my testimony, Chemical Ali was convicted both for the Halabja Massacre and for his crimes in other places, and executed.

There were upheavals in Turkey in the period that the Halabja Massacre took place. What was your experience of that period?

As a journalist I witnessed the Maraş Massacre. I was working as a reporter in Günaydın Newspaper (owned by Haldun Simavi). The photos that I took at that time are now circulating in the net. I visited the prisons of September 12 Coup. Just the slogans on the walls of the Diyarbakır, Metris and Bayrampaşa prisons, in which were imprisoned the political prisoners, were enough to tell about the period we were passing through and the conditions in which those people lived.

Who is Ramazan Öztürk?

Borned in Malatya in 1956, Ramazan Öztürk began active journalism in 1975. He worked as reporter in the newspapers Günaydın, Sabah, Star, Yeni Binyıl. He prepared and anchored the news documentary Kırılma Noktası (Breaking Point) in the TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) between the years 2004-2010. 108 documentaries of him about the people that were deeply wounded by wars in 108 countries were broadcasted. Having reported the Kosovo, the Bosnia, the Gulf, the Iran-Iraq, the Russian-Chechen wars, the incidences in Pakistan, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Öztürk made interviews with IRA and its leaders in Ireland. Reporting many incidences in Turkey, taking photos of the Maraş Massacre, the prisons of September 12 Coup, Öztürk documented the Halabja Massacre. The photo of Ömer Hawar embracing his baby was awarded many times at worldwide level. He named the photo the Silent Witness’. His book bearing the same name was published in 1995. He continues to do journalism. There is the sculpture of Ramazan Öztürk and Ömer Hawar in the garden of the Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons. The Halabja Museum has also the sculpture of Ömer Hawar and Ramazan Öztürk.

Translation: Aydın Ördek