The Halabja Project: Uncovering the truth 25 years later

Originally published by the BBC, 3 December 2012

First published 11th Dec 2012

In March 1988 Saddam Hussein unleashed the worst chemical weapons attack perpetrated on civilians in Halabja, a Kurdish town on the Iraq-Iran boarder. Mustard gas, nerve gas and other chemical weapons were used indiscriminately against the people of Halabja causing the instant death of thousands. Known as the Anfal Campaign, the attacks were purportedly launched as retribution against the Kurds who welcomed Iranian troops towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war. 

It is estimated that 5000 men, women and children died in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but this remains an estimate as many of them were buried in mass graves that remain contaminated by mustard gas. Mustard gas is deadly and its effects still linger, with many people being hospitalised or even dying when coming into contact with it years later. Identifying victims and  or even getting a sense of how many and who was killed in the chemical weapons attacks is extremely difficult because of the fear of contamination by residual chemicals. 25 years later, the families of many victims still don't know exactly what happened to their loved ones nor have had the opportunity to provide them with a proper burial. 

The memory of the attacks is ever present in the town and last week, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) along with a British company, specialising in chemical, biological, radiological and DNA analysis have launched the Halabja Project which intends to identify and facilitate personal burial of the victims of the attack, as well as decontaminate cellars and sites in the town. The British-based company, SecureBio is still in discussions with the KRG about details of the project, particularly the exhumation of bodies found in mass graves, which the government has yet to approve, although decontamination of cellars and other sites have begun. 

Along with forensic identification of human remains, the company’s CEO and ex-UK military commander Hamish Bretton-Gordon, is also planning to identify the origins of the chemicals that were sold to the Saddam Hussein's regime and were used in the deadly attacks.

According to Mr. Bretton-Gordon;

"We expect to find samples of mustard gas in the mass graves, as we have done in the cellars, and if we can break it down to its base molecule components, we will be able to see what its signature is, and then we can match it against a sample.”

He believes that it is technically possible to work out which country, even which factory, supplied the original chemicals for the mustard gas. Although many of the shells found in Halabja were of Soviet origin, according to some experts it’s believe that the original chemicals had been sold by western companies. Particularly West German chemical companies, that had been supposedly exempt from the extensive international agreements that prohibited the sale of chemical weapons and certain chemicals. French, British and US suppliers have also been implicated. 

There is a sense, even though small, that international justice is possible even 25 years. 

"I think we owe it to ourselves, to the victims, to really take a more in-depth look at what happened, how it happened." said Qubad Talabani, a Senior Minister in the KRG.

This reinforces the importance of such detailed forensic identification work not only for victims and their families but as a way to find out exactly what happen and to learn from the past. 

And it seems we have yet to learn as an international community,as news of the Syrian regime threats to use their own chemical weapons make headlines.  Although according to US intelligence the threat from chemical weapons from Syria has leveled-of, according to many experts the regime seems to have a formidable supply of chemical weapons.