THE atrocities of a chemical massacre that claimed the lives of at least 15,000 people was remembered in a poignant ceremony in Southsea.
Around 150 people gathered at the Garden of Hope in Clarence Esplanade to pay their respects to the victims of the Halabja poison gas attack of March 16, 1988.
It is now 25 years since chemical weapons at the hands of dictator Saddam Hussein destroyed the lives of thousands of families in Kurdistan.
Since then many families have settled in Portsmouth, which has a 2,000-strong Kurdish community.
People travelled from as far as Germany and Los Angeles to be at the service, which was held around the Halabja memorial tree in the gardens.
On a windswept, rainy day, survivors stood up and delivered moving speeches, demonstrating both the good and evil that can be found in humanity.
Among the audience were the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr Frank Jonas, civic leaders and Portsmouth North MP, Penny Mordaunt.
Harem Karem, speaking on behalf of Portsmouth’s Kurdish community, said: ‘I think it’s imperative that we as a community gather at least once a year to reflect on this tragic event.
‘It is also equally important that we make sure we have a planet that is free of weapons of mass destruction.
‘The sad fact is that almost three decades later we are still facing chemical threats, this time at the hands of the Syrian regime.’
In an emotional speech, survivor Koyar Raoof spoke of his family hiding in a basement as chemical bombs rained down over their town.
They managed to escape to the mountains and eventually Iran.
But many of his friends he never saw again as they were taken to the deserts.
When he eventually found his dad after the bombings, he was blind.
He said: ‘Many people have aggressive tumours.
‘People from Halabja still need help and are still suffering.
‘People are still dying because of the Halabja gas attack.’
Survivor Hasiba Amen travelled from Germany.
She told the crowds: ‘I lost 16 of my family.
‘It’s a relief to me to see so many good people sharing with us our grief.’
She said she remembered the first 14 years of her life in Halabja with great joy – remembering the vibrant colours, smells and images.
But since the chemical attack a dark cloud of despair has hung over the area.
She said: ‘Twenty five years after the massacre the people of Halabja still suffer from the effects of this barbaric attack – cancer, birth defects, neurological problems, miscarriage, infertility and irreparable damage to the environment.’
Esther Lombardi, from Los Angeles, a long-term supporter of the Kurdish community, read out a love song which included the words ‘Rise up my love and come away’.
She implored the survivors to embrace life.
The audience dipped their heads for a minutes silence.
Dozens of people laid flowers at the memorial tree, pausing for a few seconds as they did so to reflect on the heavy price paid by the victims of the massacre.
Cllr Jonas said: ‘We must never forget the atrocities that were carried out in the name of Saddam Hussein and the people of Portsmouth certainly will not.’
Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of Portsmouth City Council, explained the significance of The Garden of Hope.
He said: ‘The reason why we are here in this place is that this is part of the community where we remember not just the atrocity of Halabja but other crimes against humanity where people were attacked and killed not because of what they had done but because of who they were.’
The memorial service has been going since 2007 and is organised every year by Judith Kerby and Brian Futcher, of the City Life Church, in Tangier Road, Baffins.
The final speech was given by Kamaran Haider, a dad-of-two who has been living in Portsmouth since 2003.
He was only 11 years old when he lost his family in the bombings.
Now 36 and studying biomedical sciences at Portsmouth University, he is campaigning for the UK government, the EU and the UN to formally recognise the poison gas attack as genocide.
He told The News: ‘Killing 5,000 people in two hours is genocide.
‘Please support us and don’t forget us.’