Halabja: When the Turkish Witness Broke His Silence

SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region RUDAW – 20.3.2013 – Turkish photographer Ramazan Ozturk’s “Silent Witness,” the iconic photo of the poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, was anything but silent: It spoke in every language, and to all of humanity.

It is the dead infants – like the one in his now famous photo of a father who died with the baby he was trying to protect still in his arms – that Ozturk most remembers from that day he spent in Halabja, shooting pictures after Saddam Hussein’s henchmen had finished their murderous deed.

In March 16, 1988, as Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran was coming to an end, Iraqi army jets ordered by Saddam’s cousin and enforcer Ali Hassan al-Majid,  attacked Halabja with chemical weapons for nearly six hours. It killed more than 5,000 innocent men, women, children and infants.  Thousands more died from complications, diseases and birth defects in the following years. “I named them silent martyrs,” he says of the dead children, with grief welling in his eyes as the chilling memories flash through his mind.

He remembers walking through the streets and homes, taking pictures of dead families: sitting at a lunch table; infants in mothers’ arms; children with their small arms tightly wrapped around a mother or father. “What I saw that day can never be expressed in pictures, or in words,” he said as he passed over photographs of that day. Ozturt had long been familiar with the Kurdish struggle for freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan.  He had frequently made trips to the mountains of Kurdistan where the Kurdish freedom fighters persevered and fought the Iraqi dictator. In 1987, spending five days in the mountains with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, he met its leader, Jalal Talabani.

Talabani was surprised a Turkish journalist was willing to take risks to go to the mountains of Kurdistan, since the Turkish government was one of Saddam’s closest allies at the time.  “Talabani told me that I was gambling with my life,” he recalls.

  Every time I look at this photo I cry a lot, because it reminds me of the very moment I took it

The Kurdish Peshmarga helped him sneak into Iran for his journalism work, but he was later caught and deported back to Turkey. “I was in Istanbul when I heard the news about Halabja through the Reuters news agency.  I immediately decided to go to Halabja, and arrived there just two days after the attack.”

He says that in some ways the pictures of the Halabja massacre are similar to those of the Jewish Holocaust.  “The pictures from the Jewish Holocaust show that the victims who died in gas chambers desperately tried to climb on top of one another to reach fresh air.  I  saw that many in Halabja had died in groups, indicating they were trying to avoid breathing the poison,” he says. 

Asked why “Silent Witness” became the icon of the atrocity, he said: “The picture expresses a father’s love for his baby.  As he was falling to the ground, the father managed to enfold the infant, hoping that would protect him from breathing the poison.” “Every time I look at this photo I cry a lot, because it reminds me of the very moment I took it,” he said. “I saw infants who were still breastfeeding in their dead mother’s arm.  I saw children who had their arms wrapped around their dead father while they were still alive,” he said amid tears.

Ozturk said that he had longed to see justice prevail. And when it did, at an Iraqi court 21 years later where Ali Majid – or “Chemical Ali” as he was known – sat in the dock, Ozturk was there. “Twenty-one years later, after the 2003 US-led invasion, the mastermind of the crime faced justice and received multiple death penalties,” Ozturk recalled. When Ozturk was called as a witness, he pulled out his pictures and showed them one by one. On that day in court, “Silent Witness” became the cry of thousands of innocents who could speak no more.