In July we will publish Valley Of The Peacock Angel by Martin Malone, a heart breaking novel of immense beauty set on the Iran/Iraq border in the late 1980s. in this moving contribution, the first of our Writers’ Corner series, Martin explores his experiences in Iraq with the UN, the experiences that led directly to the writing of this novel
In March 1988 the Iraqi army, fearful of an Iranian advance into their territory, used chemical weapons to slaughter 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children, injuring 10,000 more in Halabja. Less than seven months later, and two into a UN brokered truce between the warring neighbours, I drew a short straw to enter that desolated town.
The eight year war between these neighbouring countries culminated in at least a million fatalities, innumerable wounded, as well as incurring massive financial losses, which within a couple of years would lead to Iraq’s disastrous decision to invade Kuwait because of a stressed war debt with that nation.
The United Nations dispatched over 300 military observers from all regions of the world to oversee the truce. They also requested the deployment of an Irish Military Police platoon, as the MPs or red caps were hugely respected for their years of work in the Israeli-Lebanese cauldron. I happened to be one of the MP’s selected.
Pre-mission training saw the platoon drilled in clearing land mines, speed dressing in NBC suits, holding breath and fitting of and using a respirator in a gas clouded room.
What did we know? We knew that the Iranians used child soldiers called the ‘Pasdaran’ as front-line fodder, that these children were issued with a plastic key to wear around their neck and told it was the key to heaven. That the Iraqis used chemical weapons indiscriminately against a civilian population, chemicals manufactured with ingredients supplied by the West. That in the case of Halabja, a major population centre, the CIA initially held the Iranians responsible for the chemical weapon attack. Iran rushed TV crews to the town in the aftermath of the massacre. Satellite images portrayed a people caught in the throes of death. Mustard gas, nerve gas, and another type, supposedly cyanide, were dropped from warplanes. Initially, the Iraqis remained tight-lipped or denied that the atrocities happened. Later assuming the stance that internal security was solely an Iraqi Government matter.
After about a fortnight in Baghdad I was posted to the Abu Sanu Hotel (commandeered by the Iraqi army) on the outskirts of Suleimaniya in northern Iraq. UNMO’s, a sobriquet derived from the mission name UNIIMOG (United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group), journeyed on long-range patrols to various Iraqi army positions in remote mountain regions to investigate breaches of the ceasefire as reported by the Iranians to the UN. UNMO’s in Iran acted vice-versa. It was very much a fragile peace.
One evening a Danish officer arrived into the operations room for the daily de-briefing and the schedule of patrols for the following day. A patrol had to pass through Halabja and because it was still considered a risk area, he said we should draw straws. They were wine coloured and mine was very short…Our job was to investigate a reported sighting of Mujaheddin refugees crossing into Iraq and determine if they needed humanitarian assistance.
At five the next morning we set off. Two hours later, we pass through flat lands littered with burnt out tanks and land mines that resemble giant coat buttons. We drive into a deep trench with high earthen embankments. Tyres squelch in the mud that runs for a mile before finally tapering upward to asphalt. We’re not far from the town. An eagle stretches its wings across the sullen and barren landscape, flying low. Retains a noble and somewhat spiritual aura, I think, in a landscape otherwise shorn of it.
On the outskirts of the town some of the buildings are perforated with bullet holes. The barks of trees are blackened by shell-fire. Easing along what looks to be a main street I see through the opened doors a blue and striped mattress, some children’s toys: a doll, plastic bucket and a blue spade.
The wind whistles down this deserted street with its tattered wall posters of Middle Eastern pop stars. Whistles after us as we pass the long mounds of lime-covered graves – the whistle is then no longer such: it has become a crying wind.
We don’t find our Mujaheddin. The foothill dirt road runs into treacherous ice and we have to turn back, our eyes on the blue skies above the deserted town. And I think of the survivors…a shepherd boy watching the scene unfold, how he comes to envy the dead – a boy who features in my novel. Then my thoughts turn to the Iranian photographer, Kaveh Golestan (who was later killed when he stood on a land mine in Iraq in 2003) who saw Iraqi fighter jets deliver their deadly cargo and later photographed the effects wreaked by their payload.
‘It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl’s mouth and she died in my arms.’
There is silence as we drive through Halabja. It’s as if the wind is unable to cry.