Of all the crimes against humanity committed by former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, the one that many still remember is the poison gas attack on the town of Halabja, in the northern state of Iraqi Kurdistan, in 1988. It resulted in the deaths of an estimated 5,000 civilians and injury to thousands more. And despite the time that has passed since, residents in the town today are still suffering from the ongoing effects of the gas attacks, whether physical, psychological or environmental.
The victims in Halabja were buried in mass graves shortly after the chemical gas attack, during which substances such as mustard gas and the chemical weapons, sarin and tabun, were used.
The chemicals killed Halabja’s residents indiscriminately and the mass burial that took place afterwards, happened without the decontamination of the victims’ bodies.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are buried in mass graves around the country and the process of exhumation and identification is an ongoing one. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, crowds actually descended on some well known mass graves, looking for their missing loved ones. Emotion took over as people were desperate to know what had happened to their loved ones. This resulted in many graves being dug up and thousands of bodies being discovered; however the process was messy and unscientific.
The Halabja mass graves present an altogether different problem. “The last time we tried to dig the mass graves in Halabja a year ago, two of the workers died as a result and others were hospitalised due to their exposure to the mustard gas within the graves,” Dr Yasin Kareem Amin, the director of the Forensic Laboratories in Erbil, said.
"The people in the mass graves were buried soon after the chemical attack and due to this there is a high risk of residual contamination. Therefore it is extremely dangerous to exhume these bodies without military standard chemical protection gear, equipment, expertise and training,” explained Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the CEO of British company SecureBio, which sent a delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan late last year to assess the situation with Halabja’s mass graves. "If our project goes ahead, we will ensure that nobody else is killed or injured as a result of the Halabja genocide.”
At a conference held in London last week - The International Exhibition and Conference on Mass Graves organized by the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights to discuss and highlight human rights violations committed by the previous Iraqi government, led by Saddam Hussein - it was announced that SecureBio had submitted a plan for further exhumation and decontamination of the Halabja sites. The plan is due to go to Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliament for approval shortly.
De Bretton-Gordon said that when he visited Halabja in November 2011, tests that SecureBio, a company specialising in what is known as CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) training and consultancy, had carried out indicated there were still “traces of mustard gas" present.
"SecureBio has already forwarded plans to the Kurdish government on how to safely exhume bodies from Halabja mass graves,” de Bretton-Gordon continued, “as well as a comprehensive plan on how to identify the bodies by taking DNA samples on the scene, without spreading contamination wider.”
SecureBio’s proposals have been forwarded to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs, an authority founded to look into ongoing issues of the genocidal Anfal campaign, during which close to 200,000 were killed and of which the Halabja gas attacks were a part. According to the plans, the project will be made up of four stages and will include the training of local experts in de-contamination and body identification.
After the safe exhumation of the mass graves in Halabja, the following phases of the planned project in Halabja would involve collecting DNA samples from the relatives of the missing in order to help identify victims’ remains. Then there would be a survey of the Halabja area, followed by decontamination of cellars and buildings.
As yet the SecureBio plan has not yet been approved but it already has the support it needs. As Aram Ahmed Mohammed, the state’s Minister for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs, told NIQASH, “we are supporting the project fully and we will make sure that the residents of Halabja get the maximum benefit from it. The project will be presented to Cabinet and Parliament and at the appropriate time, a budget will be allocated for it when we are satisfied with the plans.”
“We want this project to go ahead because we want to bring closure to the families who are still waiting to find out about their missing relatives, and we want to give the bodies a dignified burial in Halabja – this will serve as a reminder for next generation and the world about the crimes committed against our people,” Mohammed concluded.
The mass graves are far from the only issue that the people of Halabja are still living with. People here are still suffering from emotional trauma and living with the consequences of the historical attacks. As building begins on many new projects in the town, some of the projects have been delayed because of ongoing issues with contamination.
A source inside the Ministry told NIQASH that a local newspaper had recently reported on builders taken ill while digging foundations. Many basements are also still contaminated and when locals are exposed, they have suffered burns and other health problems, some of them fatal.
Another aspect of the new Halabja project is chemical attribution; that is, finding out where the chemicals that Saddam Hussein used against the town came from originally.
"Once we start exhuming the bodies, we will certainly find traces of the chemicals that were used,” de Bretton-Gordon said. “And theoretically speaking, we can trace the chemicals back to the factory that produced it, by looking into the chemical signature of the substance and the manufacturing process used.”
Previously companies in several countries in both Europe and further afield have been accused of selling the ingredients and equipment to Iraq that allowed the manufacture of the poison gases used against Halabja’s civilians. Some court cases have been brought but with relatively minor results. So although the SecureBio project will help to clean up Halabja and to bring emotional closure to local families, it may also provide evidence that is needed to finally bring those companies that knowingly sold chemicals to the former Iraqi dictator, to account.
It would be hard to predict the outcome of any court cases that result from the latter. Nevertheless the one thing that is guaranteed, if chemicals can be traced back to their suppliers, is that at least those companies responsible can be named and shamed.