The horrific gas attacks on the Iraqi town of Halabja happened over two decades ago. Yet survivors still suffer many health problems. And although the government has made promises to help, survivors say they’ve been abandoned by their state.
Kamel was only 15 when he lost his family in the poison gas attacks carried out by the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on the town of Halabja in 1988. The gas attacks resulted in the deaths of an estimated 5,000 civilians and injury to thousands more.
Kamel lost his whole family – his parents and six brothers and sisters – on March 16 1988 but his suffering was far from over on that day. After the attack, Kamel ended up in a hospital over the border in Iran; Halabja is very near the border.
“I fainted after the bombing but I was told that a member of the Kurdish military carried me to the Iranian troops. From there I was taken to hospital,” Kamel recalls.
The man, who is now 38 and a father himself, spent two months in intensive care in hospital. He was seriously burned, had problems breathing and was blind; he was unconscious for a week and couldn’t see for 20 days. “I remember that I lost all the hair on my body,” he says.
After two months in hospital, Kamel left without getting a doctor’s permission, desperate to look for his family. “And I was told they had all died,” he says. “The last time I saw them was during the shelling, before the blindness.”
If that was not enough, Kamel has also spent the past two decades suffering the after affects of the poison gas attacks. He still has vision problems and his lungs hardly function at all. And he is not alone. Despite the time that has passed since the attacks, residents in the town today are still suffering from the ongoing effects of the gas attacks, whether physical, psychological or environmental.
According to statistics at the Ministry of Health in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, of which Halabja is a part, there are around 500 people still ill as a result of the chemical attacks, 245 of them seriously. There are also others who have died as a result of the attacks over the past few years.
“Every year, a number of victims die,” Luqman Abdul-Qader, head of the Gathering of Chemical Shelling Victims in Halabja, an NGO created by Halabja victims’ families, told NIQASH. “In 2004, 73 people passed away as a result of the 1988 chemical attack.”
One of the most recent deaths was that of Alia Faraj, a woman in her 50s. “She spent her life suffering, her life was full of pain and agony,” Abdul-Qader said. “Victims suffer when there’s a change in the weather because many of them have respiratory problems. The change in temperature may cause them to have trouble breathing and in many cases, they’ll lose consciousness.”
A number of chemical weapons were used in the attack but the worst affected are those locals who were gassed with mustard gas. They’re often in bad health with severe respiratory and visual issues as well as allergies and skin problems.
Additionally, there are more individuals suffering as a result of the gas attacks than previously thought. Some of them are easy to see. For example in September last year, an unexploded chemical bomb was found and during an attempt to remove it, five locals were affected by the toxic gas; US military forces eventually intervened and removed the bomb. Several more similar unexploded munitions were found a few weeks later and a special committee has been formed to seek further examples out.
But the ongoing effect of the toxic gas attacks can also be less explicit. Parts of the land and local buildings remain affected and in some cases, contamination has halted building projects. There is no doubt that lingering contamination must have affected locals living on and around it too.
According to the Gathering of Chemical Shelling Victims in Halabja, 69 victims of the chemical attacks were sent out of Iraq for medical treatment over the past few years.
“Most of these people were only able to travel because of assistance provided by charitable individuals or associations,” Abdul-Qader explained. “The government didn’t really do anything to help these victims and it has not kept up its responsibilities to these people.”
Civil society organisations such as his own had done their best to put pressure on the authorities involved and Abdul-Qader said the local Ministry of Health would have done nothing, had it not been under such pressure.
The mayor of Halabja, Goran Adham, denied this. “The region’s government is very concerned about the victims and it has formed special committees to follow up their cases, which includes sending them abroad to receive needed medical care,” he said. In fact, he explained the local authorities decided to pay regular compensation to victims – although as yet, they were still waiting on the final go-ahead from the Ministry of Finance to see how the payouts would be administered.
Adham blamed the central government in Baghdad for the lack of assistance to victims. “Under international law, the central government is responsible for any act committed by the former government and the former regime,” he noted.
Meanwhile Abdul-Qader thinks that elected officials from the Kurdish region, in power in Baghdad, should be putting more pressure on their Iraqi counterparts in government to fulfil those obligations to the victims of the gas attacks.
Gas attack victim Kamel knows only too well how much, or how little, the government has done. In the past he travelled overseas, to Austria and Italy, to get medical treatment. The government of Iraqi Kurdistan promised to pay his hospital expenses and along with a group of seven others, he underwent tests, remaining in hospital for 12 days. Doctors then told him he would need to undergo at least a year worth of treatment in order to have a chance at full recovery. At this stage, the government balked. “So I returned home without getting any medical treatment,” Kamel says.
Kamel now has three young children and his greatest fear is not necessarily for himself but for his family. “I was young when I lost my parents,” he tells, “and I do not want my children to have to face the same thing. I really wish the government would help me.”