Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan is now once again increasingly known because Saddam Hussein committed his worst crime against humanity there. His forces rained down mustard gas and nerve agents on the town, murdered 5,000 people in minutes and permanently maimed many thousands more in March 1988.
But Halabja could come to be associated with something much more positive – the health-enhancing pomegranate. For Halabja is the source of some of the best varieties of this prized fruit which can be eaten, drunk by itself or mixed with other drinks and reduce cholesterol.
It could be a massive symbol of change if Halabja were to become known worldwide for pomegranates rather than weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, the land wasn’t contaminated around Halabja.
It would also help to kick-start the renewal of agriculture in Kurdistan, originally the bread basket of Iraq and where agriculture was itself founded centuries ago.
Agriculture was a major victim of Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds. The countryside was turned into a free fire zone and all living things were shot on sight. Thousands of villages were destroyed, not partially but completely to the last brick. Wells were capped. Thousands were forced into concentration camps and men and boys of battle age were carted off to mass graves.
The damage was compounded by a badly mismanaged UN Oil-for-Food programme, which encouraged imports of cheap, low quality produce instead of supporting local production.
Decades later most Kurds have no farming skills. Over the last 40 years, the region has turned from being largely self-sufficient to one that imports around 90% of its food, although that is changing.
Kurdistan’s plentiful oil and gas will provide a decent living for most but such resources are finite while agriculture is permanent. The Kurdistan Regional Government believes that the economic and productive development of the agrifood industry is strategically important to its food security and part of diversifying the economy.
Kurdistan is maybe the fifth largest producer of pomegranates. They are not the only foods that the Region can produce. It is also endowed with over 80 varieties of grapes, fine mountain flower honey, apples, pears, okra and other fruits and vegetables. Few or no pesticides are used and only organic fertilizer is applied.
Some of this was displayed at successive World Fruit and Vegetable shows in London, where it was greeted with enthusiasm. The quality of its pomegranates sparked much interest and there have been efforts to create a viable supply chain.
It would do a power of good for Halabja itself which lags behind the rest of the Region in the development of its infrastructure. A booming pomegranate trade could also help revive its fine old agricultural college where, if the obvious enthusiasm of its staff and students were matched by decent funding, an agricultural renaissance could occur.
Kurdish pomegranates in our supermarkets and in our diet would do so much to rebrand Kurdistan as a coming place rather than one associated with barbarism.