Halabja Project should help galvanise world leaders to eradicate weapons of mass murder’ / A VOICE FROM UK

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is Chief Operating Officer of SecureBio, which is developing the Halabja Project with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He spoke to The Kurdistan Tribune on the eve of the 24th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s fiendish chemical attack on Halabja and surrounding areas.

Kurdistan Tribune – 18.3.2013 –  When did you last go to Halabja and what did you find there? Have you established what gases were used and can you still find traces of the chemicals used?

HBG: I was last in Halabja in December 2011, developing the plan for the Halabja Project for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).  I surveyed the mass graves in Halabja Town and investigated some of the cellars in the town. Though it was a cursory search, I found traces of mustard gas in a cellar. Mustard gas is a persistent gas in certain conditions, especially in the cool and damp it can remain for a number of years.  We know from our research with the Sussex Harvard programme, from Joost Hilterman, who wrote the highly acclaimed book ‘A Poisonous Affair’ about Halabja, and from other sources that Saddam Hussein used sarin, tabun and sulphur mustard (mustard gas).

KT: How many bodies you expect to exhume, decontaminate and identify? And what is the size of the area that you will be decontaminating?

HBG: We understand there are up to 5,000 contaminated bodies in the Halabja mass graves and we intend to take DNA samples from all in order to identify them.  We understand that there are up to 74 other contaminated mass graves in Kurdistan and we will be training teams from the Ministry Of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs to safely deal with these sites in future.  Those cellars which are found to be contaminated will be decontaminated.  Where other contamination is found, particularly where new foundations are dug, we will aid the decontamination and train local people, ideally from the fire service or police, to do it themselves.

KT: What are the core plans of the Halabja Project and how long will it last?

The project will begin with a proof of concept phase that will take nine months and the full project will take three to four years.

Our main objectives are:

•    Identification, origin and attribution of chemical weapon component substances.

•    Identify the Martyrs in the contaminated mass graves and facilitate individual re-burial.

•    Provide evidence of the Genocide to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for the International Criminal Court.

•    Clear contamination from Halabja and surrounding environs and prevent any further casualties from contamination.

•    Train Ministry Of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs personnel to the highest levels in Chemical and DNA Team operations and get them certified in association with Kurdish and British Universities.

•    Train the local fire service in decontamination procedures.

•    The KRG will have highly competent Chemical and DNA Teams to carry on the work across Kurdistan.  This could include forensic police and military work.  This legacy capability can be developed and provide many years of service to the KRG.

•    The KRG will take ownership of all scientific technical equipment used on the project.

•    SecureBio will supply enduring Subject Matter Expert advice to KRG.

•    The legacy of the project is of importance to SecureBio Ltd and the British Government, and will promote sustainable local employment, use local companies and support reconstruction and development in Halabja.

•    At least 100 local people will be employed in support of the project per annum under direction of the Ministry Of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs.

KT: What are the risks to local residents now, during the project and afterwards?

HBG: This is a unique project which has never been done before so at the moment it is based on experience and scientific judgement.

The risks for the residents now is coming across pockets of mustard gas which are still around in cellars and soil, and these have proved fatal in the past.  In December 2011 I suggested that people in Halabja should not use their cellars until we have checked them.  There should also be great care taken when digging new foundations because of the danger of mustard gas pockets and unexploded munitions.

During the project there should be no risk as we will monitor the grave sites with the latest technology, and people working there will wear protective clothing.  Some areas of the Town cemetery may have to be closed off as we work on some of the graves.  Locals involved in the project will be given full training and equipment to prevent injuries.  Our aim is that nobody else is injured or killed as a result of the Halabja genocide.

KT: What would be the risks for the personnel and the residents of Halabja if the project was not carried out by experts?

HBG: The risks would be very high and I understand people who were not experts have died in the past trying to exhume contaminated bodies.

KT: Can you identify all the victims and reunite the bodies with the families?

HBG: Hopefully – that is certainly the plan.  We will require a DNA database from the families which we can then use to reunite the bodies to them.

Halabja memorial

KT: Can you trace the chemicals to the companies who made them and would the evidence be admissible in a court of law?

HBG: It is technically possible to trace the precursor chemicals used to make the chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein during the Halabja Genocide.  It is likely that we will only find suitable samples of Mustard gas to test.  But every manufacturing process has a ‘signature’ and the challenge is to match that signature to a manufacturer.  There is a good deal of circumstantial evidence of the origin of the chemicals and, matched with our technical work in Halabja, should provide very compelling and useable evidence in a court of law.

KT: Please tell us a little about your company, SecureBio.

HBG: SecureBio delivers in-the-field Chemical Biological and Radiological (CBR) and DNA analysis solutions at the point of need.  SecureBio Mobile Deployable Teams (MDT) can cover the complete range of CBR requirements across Detection, Identification, Monitoring and Analysis (DIMA) and DNA analysis.

SecureBio employees are the foremost experts in the world in CBR monitoring, forensics and DNA analysis, having been trained and deployed with the elite CBRN forces of the UK military and Police. They are unique specialist practitioners that provide expert chemical and DNA analysis and decontamination in austere and challenging conditions.

Additionally, our teams are experts in training, enabling efficient and effective transfer of knowledge to their hosts, imparting critical skills and enabling them to continue and lead similar efforts – leaving a knowledge legacy.

SecureBio’s offers a unique breadth and depth of knowledge in this field in addition to their ability to deploy quickly in all types of environments particularly in hazardous conditions such as Halabja dealing with chemical and biological weapons and toxic industrial hazards.

KT: I understand you are supporting the e-petition for the recognition of Anfal and Halabja as genocide by the international community, including the UK government and the UN?

HBG: Yes, all personnel at SecureBio very strongly support the Kurdish people right to recognition of this genocide.  Many of us were part of the Iraq Survey Group which looked for the WMD in Iraq and we all feel a deep moral obligation to support the Kurdish Nation and the KRG.  We intend to provide evidence of the genocide to the KRG which can be delivered to the International Criminal Court.

KT: Do you have support from the British government? And the Kurdish government?

HBG: The British Government has given strong support to this project and Foreign Secretary William Hague has written in support.  The Consul General in Erbil, Chris Bowers, has worked tirelessly to ensure all members of the KRG have a good understanding of the project.  There appears to be wide cross Government support for the project in the KRG.  SecureBio has worked very closely with Aram Mohammad, Minister for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs, over the last five months to bring this project to fruition. We await endorsement and funding approval by the KRG which, not surprisingly, has been delayed by the appointment of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet.

KT: What do you want the legacy of the project to be?

HBG: The legacy of the project is very important to SecureBio, the British Government, the KRG and everybody involved in it.  The repatriation of the missing bodies to the families for appropriate burial is crucial for closure to those families.  Identification of those who enabled Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons manufacturer is crucial to the families and the Kurdish people and will send a signal to all that complicity in genocide, in whatever way, will eventually lead to the day of reckoning.  This will reinforce the knowledge that there is always evidence of genocide, which will come to light eventually, and evil deeds will be paid for.  Providing evidence to the ICC and world recognition of the genocide will bring some closure to the Kurdish people.  For the people of Halabja we hope to encourage considerable outside investment to build infrastructure and sustainable employment.  And, finally, the publicity associated with this project should provide a vehicle to highlight the horrors of chemical weapons and galvanise world leaders to ensure the eradication of these dreadful weapons of mass murder.

KT: Thank you.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, SecureBio Chief Operating Officer: After 23 years in the UK military serving in Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, Hamish retired as a senior military and Commanding Officer of the British Army CBRN Regiment in order to set up SecureBio.  He is a visiting lecturer at Bournemouth University in Forensic Archaeology and Disaster Management. Hamish has extensive CBRN and DNA experience, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with chemical and biological weapons and toxic industrial hazards. More recently, Hamish developed a mobile DNA capability for UK Forces. He was awarded an OBE in 2005 for exceptional performance.