Twenty-seven years ago on Monday, an estimated 5,000 Kurds perished in one of the world's worst chemical attacks. In 1988, the Kurdish town of Halabja in Iraq, close to the border of Iran, was near the front lines during the final throes of the fighting in the protracted eight-year war between Iraq and Iran. Halabja's residents supported the Peshmerga fighters – the militia formed to fight for an independent Kurdistan which had had allied with Iran. Iraq's Saddam Hussain wished to punish the Kurds for the help they had provided to the enemy, and to provide a final solution to what he called "the Kurdish question".
On 16 March 1988, Iraqi war planes bombarded the city. The bombs, which blew out the doors and windows of houses, were followed by a strong smell of apples, and then by white and yellow plumes of smoke. The planes had just dropped mustard gas and nerve agents. Shortly after, many of the city's residents started to cough up green vomit and their skin began to blister.- It wasn't long before their twisted and disfigured bodies littered the streets.
The attack on Halabja took place amidst the infamous Anfal campaign, a campaign of military actions intent on the extermination of the Kurds of northern Iraq. Although there is evidence that Saddam Hussein's forces had used chemical agents before this date, the attack on Halabja is thought to be the first documented assault using chemicals.
Nearly three decades on and the chemical attack is not yet part of history. Victims of the attack continue to suffer from long term illnesse,s including chronic respiratory problems, eyesight issues – which can often lead to complete blindness – and skin conditions. Many are still dying as a result of the effects of the attack, and deaths still occur when residents encounter undetected traces of mustard gas in cellars.
Local doctor Dr Azad Mustafa, who works with the Jiyan Foundation, an NGO assisting victims of persecution in Iraq, says that: "The health services are too little if you compare it with the needs. I am a doctor working in Halabja hospital; we have so many different patients with so many different diseases and a limited number of drugs." He stressed that the greatest damage of the attack was, however, psychological, with a high number of cases of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder still being diagnosed. In 2010, with support from the German Foreign Office, the Jiyan Foundation and the Berlin Center for Torture Victims established the first rehabilitation centre and outreach service for victims of chemical attacks in Halabja. Since its foundation, the Halabja Centre has treated 1,850 patients.
The Jiyan Foundation fills a desperately-needed gap for residents of Halabja – the Iraqi government did not assist with the city's recovery, and the Kurdish government is financially unable to. There has been no compensation, financial or otherwise, from those responsible for the attacks. Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti – Saddam's cousin better known as "Chemical Ali", the nickname he earned from his role in directing the genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds that included the Halabja attack – received five death sentences for his involvement in the campaign and was executed in 2010. On the other hand, international companies (including ones in Europe and the US) that assisted Saddam to acquire chemical weapons have evaded justice in any form – many of them are not even publicly known.
Gavriel Mairone, the founder and managing partner of international human rights law firm MM-Law and a lawyer representing the victims, says that companies profited in the tens of millions of euros by assisting Saddam's regime. "They left behind thousands of Kurds who have been killed, horribly disfigured, enduring lifelong suffering…. They should be made to pay for those damages."
"We want the people to be financially secure and compensated for this. We want funds to build a hospital or clinic in Halabja, we want the funds to be used to clean up the environment….The funds are necessary to give people some comfort for the remainder of their lives," says Mairone.
The attack on Halabja gave a huge impetus to talks on a chemical weapons treaty that were underway in Geneva at the time. Not long after, the latest and most comprehensive in a series of international agreements banning the use of chemical weapons, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, came into effect. The Halabja attack showed all too clearly that chemical weapons could be used with devastating effect on civilians.
But has the world learned the lessons of Halabja? In August 2013, Syrian civilians and soldiers opposed to the Assad regime were attacked with a nerve agent in Gouta on the outskirts of Damascus; the agent used was subsequently shown to be sarin gas. Approximately 1,000 people died as a result. Alistair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds who has worked on this issue for some 30 years, including in Iraq, commented that the "international response was fast and furious. Syria was forced to join the CWC and dismantle its chemical arsenal." However, he added, "No one has yet been penalised for this attack and no investigations have been done to assess what the long term effects are on those who were injured. So, it is a better response than after Halabja, but still inadequate in many ways."
The anniversary of the Halabja attack was marked with allegations of other chemical attacks. Opposition activists in Syria published fresh allegations that Bashar Al-Assad's regime has used chlorine gas in attacks on Idlib in the north-west of the country. This latest allegation of chemical weapons use in the region comes a few days after Kurdish officials accused Islamic State of using chlorine gas in neighbouring Iraq. As Halabja has learned the hard way, the legacy of these attacks will last long after the war has ended.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.