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04/30/2013

How the world heard about the Halabja massacre

Halabja

Grave sites of the Halabja massacre victims in northern Iraq. (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

If there was a major chemical weapon attack on a Syrian town or city how quickly, if at all, would the world hear about it?

With access to Syria heavily restricted for journalists, particularly in areas out of rebel control, it may be very difficult for independent news organizations and relief agencies to bear witness and record for history such a massacre.

Syrians are heroically recording footage of casualties of their war and there are clips circulating on YouTube which clearly show civilians suffering from some sort of chemical: foaming mouths, unfocused eyes, rasping breath. But what exactly it all adds up to no one is yet certain.

The U.S., Britain, France and Israel have said they have some evidence of chemical weapon attacks. The Americans mentioned the nerve agent sarin. The UN is waiting for the Syrian regime to give permission to its team of investigators to enter the country so it can conduct its own field research.

It is worth looking back to how the world found out about the Halabja massacre, which marked its 25th anniversary last month. Iran played a big part although its reasons were probably not all altruistic.

On March 16 1988, approximately 5,000 ethnic Kurds in the northeastern town of Halabja were killed by Saddam Hussein when fighter planes dropped a cocktail of nerve gases sarin, tabun and VX plus the chemical agent mustard gas. 

Saddam was at war with Iran. With the help of Kurdish rebels, the town had fallen into Iranian hands.

The first reports of the horrors emerged within a couple of days in Iran when the official news agency accused the Iraqis of killing 5,000 Kurds using poison gas. The Iranian interior minister invited the head of the UN High Commission for Refugees to see the victims.

Within a week, the first independent journalists arrived to document the carnage – flown in by an Iranian army helicopter.

Reuters reported: “Bodies lay on the streets, and others in the rubble of smashed buildings. Others sprawled half out of cars. Dead women clutched lifeless children.”

Survivors told journalists the chemicals smelled like apples or onions. The BBC broadcast footage shot by an amateur Iranian cameraman of clouds of gas emerging from the town. Thirty victims were flown to London, Geneva, Frankfurt and New York for medical treatment, the nature of the injuries confirmed by medical professionals. The Iranian authorities also gave journalists access to victims in Tehran who were suffering from peeling, raw skin, struggling to breathe.

Iraq denied all the accusations.

The United States, which was backing Iraq in its war with Iran, at the time said Iran was partly to blame for the massacre.

As a final note, observers of the UN Security Council’s vacillating role in the Syrian civil war may be interested to hear of its lukewarm condemnation of Halabja.

Halabja was the worst chemical attack since World War I, but a UN security resolution 1988 simply condemned the “continued use of chemical weapons in the conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq,” and called on "both sides to refrain from the future use of chemical weapons." 

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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Just out of interest, that isn't a photo of a grave-site in Halabja, it is a symbolic grave-site - no one is actually buried there. Strange but true.

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