Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Dirk Dons

Courtesy of Dirk Dons

As Syria Crisis Mounts, Scientist Looks Back 25 Years After Investigating the Halabja Gas Massacre

Before last week’s alleged nerve gassing in Syria, which the United States today said killed 1429 people, the worst such chemical weapons attack against civilians in history was the March 1988 bombing of Kurds in the village of Halabja in northern Iraq by Saddam Hussein. At least 3200 people are thought to have died from a combination of nerve agents and mustard gas. Because Iraq did not ask the United Nations to investigate, Iran and the Kurds invited the nonprofit organization Doctors Without Borders to send a team. They arrived a week after the attacks and stayed for 5 days.

The investigators included Dirk Dons, a young assistant in a toxicology laboratory at the State University of Ghent in Belgium (now Ghent University). Dons spoke with ScienceInsider about his experiences, which may shed some light on the work of the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors now in Syria. (Although Dons now works for the Belgium military, he spoke as a private citizen.) The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What was the mission of your team?

D.D.: The people of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the state of Iran wanted Medecins Sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders] to do a kind of reconnaissance mission to see what was needed to give medical support to the victims. But at a certain moment they mentioned that a very important thing during this operation was the toxicology, especially the probable use of chemical weapons. They asked for assistance from the lab of toxicology of the State University of Ghent. At that moment, that lab was rather famous for chemical warfare analysis.

Q: Can you describe your visit to Halabja?

D.D.: I went with two doctors to Halabja. That was the 25th of March, so only 8 days later.

We saw a lot of dead bodies. We did an estimation of the dead. We counted the streets, we counted bodies in some area, and then you made a calculation. We had a good estimation of the area because with a chopper [helicopter] we went over the area. This is not a scientific estimation. We calculated 5000. Iran said 5500, Human Rights Watch estimated 3500.

We took samples from soil, vegetation, we took little dead animals, we took a lot of pictures. We took blank samples, too. Because we were following our own [Ghent] lab’s standard operating procedures. At that moment there were no procedures from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW] or from United Nations. There was no accepted chain of custody protocol.

The only thing that we took as detection equipment was a chemical agent monitor, a handheld ion mobility spectrometer. It was one of the first developed by [the company] Graseby Ionics. We could make a distinction between vesicants [blistering agents such as mustard gas] and neurotoxins [such as sarin]. We could detect the difference between G agents [such as tabun, sarin, and soman] and V agents [a class of nerve agents that includes VX], but we couldn’t tell the difference between the different G agents.

Q: The bodies had not been moved yet?

D.D.: It was not possible. It was a fighting area. When we were there, jets were flying over. We had a time slot of 2 hours and during this 2 hours we had to do everything on that spot. It’s very difficult to do the job as an inspector. You don’t know the place and you’ve got to get a quick impression and start.

Q: Did you also visit survivors?

D.D.: We took blood and urine samples from survivors in refugee camps and from people in the region who were in hospitals. Another part of the investigation was interviews. We went to hospitals where we could interview some victims if they were able to answer our questions. It was always with interpreters. You lose a lot of things during these interviews.

We also talked to first responders and especially first responders with a lot of experience. They had a good triage system. During an attack, the doctors at the front knew very well what the symptoms were and they made classifications of patients. In Tehran we spoke with [toxicologists and physicians who] treated patients. They had a lot of experience with the treatment. At that moment in Iran it was very sophisticated. They used atropine, which is very normal, but they also used two oximes. Atropine acts against the symptoms, but oximes, they work as enzyme reactivators, the medical counter measure against acetylcholinesterase inhibition, the cause of the intoxication.

Q: What was it like seeing victims of the attacks?

D.D.: I was rather young, I was in my 20s. It was shocking. It was one of the most awful things that I have seen in my life. But I was accompanied by Dr. Reginald Moreels, president of Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium, who was a surgeon with a lot of experience in war regions. He calmed me down. He said, "You’ve got to think, 'You’ve got a job to do.' " At that moment you try to become rational. The empathy for the things you see stops. Then you only think, I’ve got to do this job collecting samples, make an estimation of the dead people. You stop looking at the children and the women who are the victims.

Q: What happened after your visit?

D.D.: I went back to Belgium and gave the samples to the people at the toxicology lab and they started to do the identification of the agents. We could give a direction due to the symptoms, the things that we had seen. Then you’ve got to find metabolites or residues or the real agent.

Mustard gas is very easy. You see the blisters. A lot of the people who are affected by blistering agents, they survive if it is not too severe.

The people with neurotoxicity, a lot died immediately. You could see it because people were sitting at the table, they were eating, and they fell down. People were walking in the street and maybe then went a few meters and they fell down.

In the beginning we thought that it was cyanide because cyanide in high concentrations gives very fast in situ death. We always thought with neurotoxins, the first time it is used, you see the symptoms, pinpoint eyes, hypersalivations, convulsions, [then death]. But after the investigation we saw that it wasn’t cyanide but sarin [that killed immediately] due to the high concentration of the sarin bombardment. That is something we saw for the first time.

We made our report from the visit. We tried to keep to the facts. That’s one thing I learned during that mission. You can’t say who is responsible when you only do interviews and you only take samples.

Q: What happened with your report?

D.D.: The report was sent to the U.N. secretary general, at that moment Perez de Cuellar. But there were no strikes against Iraq. The reaction of the Western world wasn’t so heavy as it is now.

But there is a third part, the paperwork. A lot of papers came to the surface and then you could see using these papers that there was someone who sold a lot of precursor [chemicals] to Saddam. That was a Dutch engineer, Frans van Anraat. In 2007, he was convicted for crimes against humanity by the tribune of The Hague and jailed for 17 years.

Q: How will the investigation in Syria compare to yours?

D.D.: In the years since, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention developed a kind of verification regime. The inspectors will send their evidence to OPCW reference labs. Ake Sellstrom, the chief investigator, he will give his report of this mission to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. There will be a preliminary report 72 hours after the mission. It will only be a report of the facts that they collected, interviews, the kinds of symptoms, the kinds of samples. That will be the first step. [Editor’s note: Because Syria has not signed the convention, the investigators have been sent by the United Nations, not OCPW. This means that the team is not obligated to follow OPCW procedures even though it includes OPCW experts.]

They can make the distinction between an attack with chemical weapons or an accident. That’s a possibility, too, because when a rocket is smashing down on a depot with a lot of chemical agents in it, that can be the case, too. They can see where the impact of the rocket was, was it a rocket loaded with a chemical or a rocket loaded with TNT. But at that moment they still can’t say it is the Syrian army who is using these agents or the rebels.