#Breathless: Chemical Warfare from Ypres to al-Ghouta

23 April 2015

On this day, 100 years ago, the fields of Ypres, Belgium, witnessed the first use of chemical weapons in modern times. A mutation in the nature of war into terrible new lows of barbarity and gruesomeness. Today, as the world commemorates the victims of chemical weapons, Syrians ring a reminder that these silent mass murders are hardly behind us. Indeed, only last month, Syrian towns in the Idlib governorate were subjected to this horror.

Survivors from al-Ghouta’s chemical attacks, along with their comrades in Halabja, Iraq, spoke in one voice about their suffocating experiences. The #Breathless campaign was launched with an open letter signed by those who had witnessed first-hand the horrors of chemical weapons at the hands of the Syrian and Iraqi regimes:

We, survivors of chemical attacks from different countries, ethnicity and belief, know with whom the responsibility lies for the chemical attacks we have witnessed. It primarily lies with the ruthless regimes that drop these bombs on us; the same regimes that taught us for decades that we were enemies. Now we — Arabs and Kurds, people from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Kurdistan — sign this letter together knowing that our only enemies are those who do not hesitate to gas us.

The campaign delivered a strong call to action on governments around the world, and especially in Europe, to curb the use of these weapons in warfare, and to provide medical and psychological support to the survivors. European governments in particular were criticised for the role their companies played, and still do, in the manufacture and supply of these weapons in both Iraq and Syria.

“German companies helped to set up the so called State Enterprise for Pesticide Production in Iraq, provided goods, material, technical infrastructure and knowledge, companies from France and Austria were involved on a smaller level, while Italian and Spanish companies delivered bomb containers and warheads suitable for the use with chemical agents. Only recently it became known that companies from Britain and — again — Germany supplied the Syrian regime with material and goods for the production of chemical warfare. Europe is an accomplice in the crime committed against us.”

Through its social media pages, and blog, the campaign called for simultaneous demonstrations in Ghouta, Halabja and Ypres, where an international conference and a memorial for the victims of chemical warfare was taking place.

The campaigners also collaborated with several media outlets in Europe, as well as in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan to deliver their message to the widest possible audience. Syrian radio SouriaLi produced a special program covering the campaign and speaking to several of the organisers, and survivors from Ghouta and Halabja.

“It takes a second to drop a bomb, but it takes decades to overcome its impacts.” And the survivors from Ghouta, Halabja and Ypres can attest to that.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad