Pomegranates, not oil, the star of Iraqi Kurdistan’s rebirth

Kurds in the town of Halabja aspire to export a delicious fruit decades after becoming the targets of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons, writes Hugh Naylor.

HALABJA, IRAQ // For Shakhawan Mohammed the future of Iraqi Kurdistan lies not in oil but in pomegranates.

Mr Mohammed cultivates a dozen varieties of the fruit in his orchards in Halabja, a town better known for being bombarded by Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons during the 1980s than agriculture production.

Nearly three decades after the attacks, many Kurds, including Mr Mohammed, 40, a father of five, believe the pomegranates that he and other farmers in Halabja cultivate are the best in the world – and he wants to export them to the health food-obsessed markets of Europe and beyond.

“There are no pomegranates with the taste and quality of those from Halabja,” said Mr Mohammed.

Following the 2003 United States invasion that toppled Saddam’s regime, Kurds became known for the vast deposits of oil and natural gas in their autonomous region.

Those are the resources the Kurds are focused on protecting as ISIL militants in northern Iraq try to expand their area of control.

But it is the pomegranate that they see as something of a national symbol, similar to the olive in Palestine or Lebanon’s cedar trees.

They have farmed the ruby red, tangy fruit for generations and many residents have a tree or two in their backyards.

“It is our fruit, the Kurdish fruit. It grows everywhere here,” said Kamal Mohammed, 40, a grocer in Halabja.

It almost was not so. Saddam’s forces carried out their most notorious chemical weapons attack on March 16, 1988, with fighter jets dropping nerve agents and mustard gas on Halabja.

As many as 5,000 were killed, thousands more suffered health issues following the attacks. Witnesses recall victims vomiting violently or having uncontrolled laughing fits before dying.

Mr Mohammed remembers the plumes of gas smelled like apples. Following the attacks, he was blind for three months. The devastation was then compounded after local farming was almost completely shut down by imports of produce under the now-defunct United Nations oil-for-food programme imposed on Saddam’s regime in 1995 as part of international sanctions.

Today, the cases of miscarriages, birth defects and cancer among Halabja’s Kurds are still abnormally high. Yet, agriculture is recovering.

While some experts contend that chemical agents in the soil around Halabja have dissipated, others say more testing needs to be carried out.

“I expect for peace of mind, farmers and vendors would want the soil thoroughly tested as Halabja is synonymous with chemical weapons and it might put people off to buy the pomegranates without hard and fast assurances”, said Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a security consultant and former officer in Britain’s joint chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear regiment.

Yet pomegranate farming, in particular, has experienced something of a local boom in recent years. After the chemical attack in 1988, Mr Mohammed went to Iran for medical treatment and spent three years in refugee camps. When he and other residents returned to Halabja in 1991, the Iraqi military had torched many of the trees.

But he has planted 20,000 new trees on his 15 hectares of land and they are thriving.

The semi-arid climate is perfect for the fruit, labelled a “superfood” because of its high vitamin and mineral content, and their success stands as a symbol of Iraqi Kurdistan’s rebirth.

Mr Mohammed and agricultural officials in the area hope to capitalise on this by selling Kurdish pomegranates to a variety of foreign customers.

“We’re producing 25,000 tonnes of pomegranates from Halabja alone, using about 2,000 hectares of farmland,” said Star Mahmoud, who heads the agricultural section at the offices of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s interior ministry.

He said that number far exceeds peak levels of the 1970s, when relative stability in Iraq allowed a bustling trade in Halabja pomegranates with cities as distant as Basra, Mosul and Baghdad.

“It’s a huge increase and there is much potential abroad.”

Residents of other Kurdish cities already travel to Halabja for the fruit. Local farmers are now talking to foreign companies about exporting to the UAE and Britain. But they need financial backing to build storage facilities and organise international transportation.

“The key right now is getting foreign investment,” said Blund Khasraw, director of horticulture at the ministry of agriculture’s office in Halabja.

But the potential is certainly there. Slicing through a fruit he had pulled from a tree on a recent afternoon, Mr Mohammed boasted that any newcomer would be instantly hooked on Halabja’s pomegranates.

“If we’re able to show the world our pomegranates, people will not think of Kurds as an oil-producing people,” said Mr Mohammed, cutting into a freshly-picked pomegranate.

“We will be famous for pomegranates.”