Marking the 36th anniversary of the chemical weapon attack on Sardasht, Iran

The Sardasht chemical attack is one of the most devastating uses of chemical weapons in the Middle East. On June 28, 1987, the Iraqi Air Force conducted an aerial bombardment on the town of Sardasht, located in northwest Iran. The attack involved the use of chemical weapons, specifically mustard gas and nerve agents. The attack was also one of the first instances of chemical weapons usage against civilians in an armed conflict. According to reports, thousands of people were exposed to the lethal gases and more than 134 people lost their lives.

This interview was conducted by Aayushi Sharma for the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO).

To mark the 36th anniversary of the attack and understand the effects, the implications of the event as well as the needs of the survivors in Sardasht, we spoke to Homeyra Karimivahed. Homeyra is a dedicated advocate for the rights of chemical weapons victims. As a second generation survivor of the attack, Homeyra has been working voluntarily with the Organisation for Defending Sardasht Victims of Chemical Weapons. She has also been appointed as the focal point for teaching about chemicals and human rights at the Chemical and Waste Youth Platform developed by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and has also been a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition (CWCC). As a significant figure advocating for the survivors of chemical weapons attacks, Homerya has also addressed the international community through the platform provided by the Organisation of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international organisation established by the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997.

METO: Could you walk us through the events of the Sardasht chemical attack?

Homeyra Karimivahed: The Sardasht chemical attack occurred on June 28, 1987, during the Iran-Iraq War. In a single day, four chemical bombs containing mustard gas were dropped on the city of Sardasht, located in northwest Iran near the border with Iraq. The attack targeted the civilian population, making Sardasht the first town to witness the massacre of unarmed and innocent civilians in the conflict.

In the haunting aftermath of the chemical bombardment in Sardasht, nearly 8000 people were exposed to the devastating catastrophe. To put it in context, this number amounts to nearly half of the population of the city.  In terms of casualties, the official statistics acknowledge the loss of 134 lives, but it is essential to note that unofficial sources suggest a significantly higher toll. About 30 people lost their lives due to the immediate exposure to toxic chemicals and the death toll kept rising in the weeks after the attack. The gravity of the situation was further exacerbated by the lack of adequate medical facilities within Sardasht itself, as well as the limitations of national medical treatment capabilities.

In a race against time, the victims of this horrific event were urgently transported to various hospitals across the country. It became a nationwide effort to provide the specialised care required for their complex conditions. Furthermore, a considerable number of individuals, grappling with chronic ailments resulting from chemical exposure, were compelled to seek medical assistance in foreign countries such as Belgium, Spain, and beyond.

METO: In terms of the humanitarian consequences of the attack, what has been the situation of the survivors?

HK: The survivors of the Sardasht chemical attack have endured profound and enduring humanitarian consequences. The physical toll on their health has been substantial, with many individuals experiencing ongoing medical complications. Respiratory problems, such as chronic coughing and breathing difficulties, are common among survivors. Additionally, they suffer from eye issues, including vision impairments and corneal burns, as well as skin burns and internal injuries resulting from exposure to chemical agents.

Equally significant are the psychological effects that the survivors grapple with on a daily basis. The trauma of the chemical attack has left a deep imprint on their mental well-being. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is prevalent among the survivors, manifesting as penetrating memories, difficulties in personal relationships, and an inability to control emotional responses. Chronic depression, anxiety, and a loss of confidence are also frequently reported, making it challenging for the survivors to lead normal lives.

Compounding their physical and psychological struggles is the social stigma attached to being a victim of chemical warfare. The survivors often face social isolation and are treated as outcasts within their own communities. This stigma is particularly pronounced for women and children, as they bear the weight of societal expectations and traditional gender roles in Iranian society. Women, who are typically expected to maintain the family unit and perform domestic duties, often lack the physical strength to fulfil these obligations due to their injuries. Consequently, they may feel inadequate and face difficulties in meeting societal expectations.

The impact on family dynamics is profound as well. The survivors often experience strained relationships with their families, who may struggle to comprehend or adequately support their physical and emotional needs. The constant reminder of their injuries, such as persistent coughing and visible skin discoloration, can make it challenging for survivors to participate in social gatherings and lead a normal life. This isolation and lack of support contribute to a sense of being alone and misunderstood.

METO: Chemical attacks such as the one in Sardasht have intergenerational effects as well, what are the needs of the victims and survivors of the attack?

HK: Chemical attacks like the one in Sardasht have not only inflicted immediate harm but also have intergenerational effects that persist to this day. As a result, the victims and survivors require specific support and assistance. In addressing their needs, it is essential to focus on the following:

Ensuring easier access to medicine: Facilitating the availability of necessary medications and medical supplies is a primary requirement for the victims and survivors. Efforts should be made to alleviate the scarcity caused by sanctions and ensure a consistent supply of high-quality medications.
Comprehensive medical care: Given the complexity of their medical conditions, the victims and survivors require comprehensive medical care that caters to their specific ailments. Specialized treatment plans, access to specialized physicians, and the provision of necessary medical equipment are crucial to address their ongoing healthcare needs effectively.
Psychosocial support: The psychological impact of the chemical attack has been profound and long-lasting. Victims and survivors often experience PTSD, depression, anxiety, and a loss of confidence. Psychosocial support programs, including counselling services, support groups, and trauma-focused therapies, are essential to assist them in overcoming these psychological challenges.
Rehabilitation and disability support: Many survivors of the Sardasht chemical attack face physical disabilities and limitations. Rehabilitation programs, physical therapy, and assistive devices can significantly improve their quality of life and help them regain independence.
Social reintegration: The stigma associated with being a victim of chemical warfare has led to social isolation and difficulties in reintegrating into society. Efforts should be made to promote social inclusion, raise awareness, and combat discrimination, allowing the survivors to regain their rightful place in the community.
Awareness programs to educate the public about the consequences of chemical warfare and the specific challenges faced by the victims are also required.

The pain endured by the survivors over the past three decades remains unhealed, and medical science has been unable to provide them with appropriate care. Therefore, it is crucial to prioritize the accessibility of medicine and medical equipment for these victims. Given their current conditions, the availability of medicine is of utmost importance to address their needs effectively.

METO: Have the survivors faced any challenges in getting their physical and psychological needs met?

HK: They have encountered numerous challenges in meeting their physical and psychological needs. The impact of economic sanctions against the Iranian government on the availability of necessary medications has been a major hurdle for them. With limited access to international markets and restrictions on importing specific medications, the survivors have been forced to substitute their prescribed medications with lower-quality alternatives. This substitution not only raises concerns about the effectiveness of the treatments but also contributes to the re-emergence of old symptoms, causing renewed suffering for these victims.

Moreover, the lack of access to adequate healthcare, including specialized treatments and equipment, has further compounded the difficulties faced by the survivors. Sardasht, the city where the chemical attack occurred, lacks a specialized hospital equipped to handle the long-term medical needs of the victims. As a result, these individuals are compelled to travel long distances, often about 12 hours, to reach larger cities or the capital in order to receive the necessary medical treatment. Such extensive travel imposes a significant physical and emotional burden on the survivors who may already be dealing with ongoing health complications. The arduous journey and the associated costs of transportation, accommodation, and medical expenses add to their challenges and exacerbate their overall well-being.

In addition to the physical challenges, the survivors also grapple with psychological disorders resulting from the traumatic experience of the chemical attack. The psychological impact, coupled with the social stigma attached to being a victim of chemical warfare, further complicates their ability to lead normal lives and receive the necessary support. The stigma surrounding chemical warfare victims can lead to social isolation, strained family relationships, and a lack of understanding and empathy from their communities. These factors hinder their access to emotional and psychological support systems, exacerbating their mental health struggles and impeding their path to healing and recovery.

METO: In your opinion, do you think it is important for affected communities to have an international stage to share their experiences?

HK: Yes, it is of utmost importance for the communities directly impacted by unconventional weapons attacks to have an international stage to share their experiences. By providing a platform for these communities to share their stories, we can raise public awareness about the devastating consequences of chemical warfare and shed light on the long-term effects that individuals, the environment, animals, and communities endure. Sharing their experiences on an international stage serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it helps in creating a broader understanding among the global community about the profound and lasting impact of chemical attacks. By hearing the personal accounts of survivors, the public can gain a deeper comprehension of the physical, psychological, and societal toll that such attacks inflict. This understanding is crucial in generating empathy and compassion towards the survivors and their families, as well as in fostering a sense of urgency to address their needs and seek justice.

Furthermore, providing a platform for communities affected by chemical attacks to share their stories can act as a catalyst for change. When the international community becomes aware of the horrors endured by these individuals, it often leads to increased support, solidarity, and advocacy efforts. The shared narratives can mobilize individuals, organizations, and governments to take action, pushing for policies that prioritize the well-being of survivors and the prevention of future atrocities. By amplifying the voices of survivors on an international stage, we empower them and give them agency. It allows them to reclaim their narratives and contribute to the discourse surrounding chemical warfare. Their stories become powerful tools in educating the world about the dire consequences of such attacks and serve as a call to action for collective responsibility.

METO: What has been the role of international organisations such as the OPCW in highlighting the lived experiences of the communities directly impacted by such attacks?

HK: International organizations, such as the OPCW, play a crucial role in highlighting the lived experiences of communities directly impacted by chemical attacks. The OPCW, as a leading authority on chemical weapons, holds the responsibility to advocate for the rights and health of chemical weapon victims worldwide.

The OPCW’s involvement extends beyond the prohibition of chemical weapons; it also recognizes the importance of addressing the needs of survivors and raising awareness about their experiences. One of the significant contributions of the OPCW is its encouragement of state parties, individuals, and organizations to support victim assistance programs. By actively promoting these programs, the OPCW helps ensure that survivors have access to the necessary medical treatment and psychological support they require.

Moreover, the OPCW serves as a platform for facilitating cooperation and information exchange among affected countries. By fostering dialogue and collaboration, the organization enables the sharing of best practices, lessons learned, and resources, ultimately contributing to the improvement of victim assistance programs and the well-being of survivors. This collaboration is essential in addressing the diverse needs of communities impacted by chemical attacks and finding collective solutions.

In the case of the Organization for Defending Sardasht Victims of Chemical Weapons, our NGO has actively participated in numerous annual and review conferences of the OPCW. These conferences have provided us with a valuable opportunity to raise awareness about the atrocities suffered by the people of Sardasht. By sharing our first-hand accounts and experiences, we have been able to shed light on the consequences of the chemical attack and the urgent needs of the survivors.

Through engagements with various State Parties, NGOs, and INGOs, we have shared the pain and struggles of the victims, effectively drawing the international community’s attention to the Sardasht Chemical attack. It is our firm belief that if the world had not remained silent in the face of such a brutal action, and if the consequences of using chemical weapons had been widely known, tragedies like the one in Halabja might have been prevented.

The OPCW has consistently demonstrated its commitment to supporting victims of chemical attacks, including those in Sardasht. Their assistance and collaboration have been instrumental in addressing the medical and psychological needs of the survivors. We value the ongoing cooperation with the OPCW and its member states and NGOs, as we believe that collective collaboration is crucial in providing further help and support to the victims.

Middle East Treaty Organization