The health effects of the Halabja genocide, 25 years on

This article was originally written for and published by Awat Newspaper.

16 March 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the Halabja massacre. A chemical gas attack as part of Saddam’s Al-Anfal campaign, on the city of Halabja instantly killed an estimated 5000 innocent civilians and wounded thousands more.  The city of Halabja was destroyed and its inhabitants and those of nearby villages were displaced, leaving nearly 70,000 homeless. Forget the countless acts of Saddam Hussein and his regime against the Kurds in South Kurdistan, the millions of Kurdish people he captured, tortured, slaughtered, massacred and killed. This incident alone, to this very day, still remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.

The after effects of the chemical gas attack are still painfully evident today, both metaphorically and literally. Survivors of the attack are left with lifelong scars on their health which is a constant reminder of that fatal day in 1988. 68% of the population in Halabja at the time of the attack whom were severely injured were said to be women and children. Thousands more have died since the attack and are still dying of complications, diseases and birth defects due to the chemical bombing.

The chemical bombs used in Halabja and throughout the Al-Anfal campaign were found to contain mustard gas and nerve agents such as Sarin gas. These chemical gasses on there own can cause severe physiological damage and death within minutes of exposure. The combination of them coupled with hours of bombing exposure can and did result in disastrous effects on victims exposed physically, mentally and emotionally. Mustard gas has severe vesicant (chemical compound that causes severe skin, eye and mucosal pain and irritation) effects on its victims, it is also a known mutagenic and carcinogenic compound (an agent which is directly involved in causing cancer). Usually mustard gas doesn’t have any immediate effects; the body exposed to the gas appear normal but will show irritation after 24hours of exposure. However, with very high dosages the gas can cause severe blistering and intense itching and irritation. Survivors described these symptoms in most of those who had become victims of the gas during the Halabja attack. Moderate dosses which show no short term effects have shown very high frequencies of cancer in the long term.

Sarin gas, unlike mustard gas, is a nerve agent and can be instantly deadly regardless of the amount of exposure. Even vapour concentrations immediately penetrate the skin. A person’s clothing can release sarin for about 30 minutes after it has come in contact with sarin vapour, which can lead to exposure of other people.Those who absorb a non-lethal dose but do not receive immediate appropriate medical treatment may suffer permanent neurological damage. Some units in the US army show trainees the symptoms of Sarin gas by showing them how it affects a live animal. A soldier who has seen the video described the effects as “brutal and semi-quick. Gas masks at the time (and probably still) are ineffective against this gas. One quick spurt of the gas via aerosol began to take hold of the goat within seconds. It started convulsing, bleeding from all orifices, and eventually collapsed. But it did not die then. The symptoms continued for several minutes until the goat finally lay still on the floor of the chamber. It was a slow, gruesome, and painful death.”

In 2002 the BBC conducted a report about the health effects of the Halabja chemical attack as Washington continued to assert its determination to overthrow Saddam.  The report, although biased,  demonstrated that the effects of the chemical gasses where effecting the residents on a genetic level meaning babies born 14 years after the attack were delivered with deformities as a direct result of the parents exposure to the chemicals used. Preliminary data has shown that affected areas show a distinct increase in infants born with deformities.

Dr Fatah, the director of the Halabja hospital at the time, stated that “one of the effects of the chemicals is the higher incidence of cancer [in the region].” Surveys conducted by the Halabja centre comparin the region of Halabja to a neighbouring region, Chamchamal, showed staggering evidence for the lasting effects of the chemical bombing. The rate of miscarriages is 14x higher in Halabja and Colon cancer found to be 10x higher than that of the Chamchamal region. The director of the Halabja Centre, Dr Fouad Baban stated that such defects may occur in any society however the incidence here and in other places affected by chemical attacks is abnormally high.

Many who were exposed to the chemicals but not affected at the time are now showing symptoms which have also been directly linked to the chemical attacks. It is known that the chemicals used can affect DNA so it is not surprising that there is an alarmingly high incidence of cancer and physiological defects seen in the next generation, however there are also other effects like congenital problems with people starting to progressively go blind years later due to the exposure of the chemicals. Cleft palates and harelip disorders are also shown to have a very high incidence in Halabja within subsequent generations. The long-lasting health effects of the chemical weapons are not just physical and physiological ones. Many victims and survivors suffer from severe mental and psychological effects from the chemical attacks.

Currently there are many centres in Kurdistan whom host projects to specifically help treat the Halabja chemical attack survivors. An example is the Zakho Emergency Hospital and Trauma Centre which was completed in 2009 and built with the Economic Support Funds (ESF) given by the United States. The trauma centre includes surgical wards, MRI and X-Ray facilities. The Kirkuk Centre for Torture Victims has a specialised survivor project called The Halabja Centre for Victims of Chemical Attacks which offers psychosocial and medical treatment for chemical weapons victims and their families. The KRG is also working with the World Health Organisation to set up psychological services centre, and a Child Protection Centre. Trauma assistance and the right therapy and medical treatment are crucial in the recovery of victims, even 25 years on.

An 18 month study conducted by the Human Rights Watch in 1990 concluded that Iraqi forces used chemical weapons on at least 60 villages in Kurdistan in addition to Halabja, though residents believe it was over 200 villages. Only last year, 24 years after the tragedy, many of the mass graves were dug up and bones of loved ones finally laid to rest.  As we commemorate the 25 years since that very dark period in history for all of humanity, we also remember those whom never stopped suffering.

This article was written in honour of all the victims of the Halabja Genocide and to commemorate it’s 25th year anniversary.