Half a million people killed (that’s a conservative estimate. Many people believe in reality it was nearly a million), and 1.5 million people made refugees in their own country.
I want to talk to you tonight about an episode in the
war that has hardly been reported in the west, or even for that matter, in Iran.
Chemical weapons were used for the first time on a mass scale since the First
World War in this war against Iran by Saddam Hussein’s regime. In total 360
chemical bombs were dropped on Iran against both military and civilian targets
resulting in 100,000 casualties. There are now still some 45-52,000 people in
Iran suffering severely from these attacks, many of them civilians who were not
involved in the war but were just trying to live their lives.
Chiman, one of the victims
What’s important to say at this point is that Iran is the only country in recent history that has had weapons of mass destruction used against it, and this by Iraq in full view of the international community which did nothing to help.
Saddam’s chemical attacks against Iranian civilians, all Kurds living along the border in Iranian Kurdistan, started in the spring of 1987, when the villages in the Baneh region of Kurdistan were attacked with bombs containing mustard gas.
Then on 28th June 1987, the mountain town of Sardasht, also near the border with Iraq was attacked with four bombs containing 250 kilos of mustard gas. These bombs were dropped in the densely populated town centre, in places calculated to do the most damage.
Sardasht is the first town in the world to be gassed and out of a population of 20,000, 5,000 people are still suffering severe illnesses from the attacks. That’s a quarter of the population of this town.
Iraq’s chemical bombardment of Iranian civilians continued with repeated attacks around the town of Marivan in March 1988 with many villages attacked time and time again in the space of that month. The attacks continued throughout the region until June of that year.
In fact, Iraq had been using chemical warfare against the Iranian army since the early days of the war and Iran made repeated complaints to the UN as this was in direct contravention of the 1925 Geneva Protocol which bans the use of such weapons. The UN sent inspectors to the country to examine the evidence and issued two resolutions that mentioned the chemical bombs. These resolutions one issued in 1987 and the second around the time of the ceasefire in 1988, were so weakly worded and failed to actually mention that it was Iraq that was using chemical weapons.
So you can see that the international community’s failure to in any way put a stop to Iraq’s breaking of international law has led to a deep suspicion in Iran. What’s more, since it was the western powers that were equipping Iraq with weaponry and in fact providing the chemical weapons technology that Iraq needed to construct these bombs, Iran’s conclusion was – perhaps quite reasonably – that the world was not interested in upholding international law when it meant defending a country it didn’t particularly like.
As Iran’s then speaker of parliament Rafsanjani stated two months after the ceasefire: ‘The war taught us that international laws are nothing but ink on paper.’
The international community’s indifference at the time had other tragic consequences too, the devastating chemical attacks on the Kurds of Iraq specifically at Halabja which, for three days in March 1988, was bombed with mustard gas and nerve agents, killing almost instantly 5,000 people and 12,000 people in total.
However, while the Kurds of Iraq are now seeing some recognition of their suffering and bearing witness at Saddam’s trial, the chemical victims of Iran have had no such recognition. Time and again, the victims that I met and spoke to complained to me that being ignored by the world, not having Saddam be prosecuted for what he did to them, made bearing their fate much harder.
And unlike Halabja’s anniversary events, the anniversary of Sardasht’s chemical bombardment is not attended by the great and the good. Nearly 20 years after the bombs were dropped on Sardasht, the Kurds of Iran are still suffering in silence.
For a few days I accompanied an Iranian NGO called the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support on a trip to Marivan and the affected villages around it, Baneh and Sardasht to interview other victims. The intense welcome we received in these villages made it very clear how little notice anyone has taken of them. In Ghale-ji in particular, our experience was very intense, with people crowding around to show their injuries, puckered bits of burnt skin, showing pictures of their injuries at the time, pressing on us letters testifying to their suffering. What they kept saying to me, as they held my arms and refused to let me go, was that they were not recognised as victims by the world. ‘Why does the world think that we are the aggressors?’ they asked me, ‘when we in fact have been the victims?’
These chemicals were used for the first time ever in Iran and there are some that have still not been identified. Even mustard gas, which had been used during the First World War, was used in a quite different form by Iraq, a much more complex and deadly form. These civilian victims were an experiment for these chemicals, and since there is no precedent, it is very hard to predict how, over time, the victims will be affected.
The figure of 45,000 is an inaccurate one since there is no way of telling how many more people, over time, will develop illnesses related to exposure to the chemicals.
Iran spends an estimated $67million a year treating its chemical victims but there are many more indirect costs, including the psychosocial damage to the victims themselves and their offspring. Generations born since the war to these people are also suffering from severe deformities and disabilities, though there are as yet no studies done on this and the evidence is anecdotal – mustard gas can alter DNA chain. There have also been no studies done on the effect on the environment but there is again plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people living in the affected areas have greater occurrences of diseases such as cancer.
Even those who receive help have very hard lives. Mustard gas is unlikely to be immediately fatal but it burns the eyes, skin, lung and throat within an hour of being inhaled, and induces vomiting, and it stays in the body and circulates, progressively disabling every organ in turn.
People pleaded with me to write down their names, to bring their stories to the west and let people here know of their suffering, to stop there being such suffering in the future.
I want to sum up in the words of Parvin Vahedi who was 19 at the time of the attack on Sardasht and lost 11 members of her close family including her mother and father, two brothers, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. 85% of her skin was burnt raw and chemical blisters still form on her skin periodically. She has severe asthma and only one lung, the gas is disabling her major organs in turn and she has had hundreds of operations. She spends two months out of three in hospital and cannot sleep at night as she cannot catch her breath. She says that her teenage sons are psychologically damaged by her depression and she can only live on a cocktail of drugs. She said to me:
‘Go and tell everyone that you can because it’s too late for us, but let this not happen again so we don’t have to watch these flowers – our children – die in front of our eyes.’