ERBIL, IRAQ – At West Emergency Hospital in Erbil, five small children lie in beds, along with their mother, all wrapped in bandages, with chemical burns from a mortar attack that hit their house.
The family is from a neighborhood called Giraj al-Shimal, in eastern Mosul. They are among the 15 people who had been brought to Erbil hospitals in the past few days. On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] reported victims showing “clinical symptoms consistent with an exposure to a blistering chemical agent.” The symptoms included “blisters, redness in the eyes, irritation, vomiting and coughing.” Many victims are still being evaluated at field hospitals, and the ICRC couldn’t account for those who had not been able to reach a doctor.
The attacks come as thousands of people have fled Mosul in recent weeks amid some of the most intense fighting since the operation to recapture the city from the Islamic State began last October. According to the International Organization of Migration, more than 200,000 people had been displaced by March 5, up from an estimated 164,000 as of Feb. 26.
At the hospital, the ICRC representative, Dr. Johannes Schad, confirmed to Yahoo News that “from the smell and the signs and symptoms, it is most probably mustard gas.” He said the chemical “affects the skin primarily, but also [causes] itching eyes, breathing problems and signs of severe burns — first-, second- and third-degree burns.”
The room where the family was isolated, on the main level of the hospital, smelled of burnt sulfur. The victims had just had their bandages freshly changed. One of the boys in the room was asleep, the skin on his face peeled in patches around his cheeks and eyes. A toddler girl slept at her mother’s feet, her lips spotted with blisters. All the members of the family had dark black lines under their eyes from the smoke they inhaled.
Another of the boys, 10-year-old Thaier Nadm, was able to speak with Yahoo News. “I was on the rooftop and a mortar attacked my house. I didn’t see where it came from,“ he said. “I saw a dark light and I fell down on the stairs. My hand was black. I smelled a bad smell. I was with my little sister on the roof. I tried to rescue my sister, but I felt dizzy, so I couldn’t.”
Ikhlas Mishaal, Thaier’s mother, sat on the bed by the window in the hospital room. She didn’t want her photo taken; she was embarrassed about how she appeared. Under her left eye, on the skin, at the top of her cheekbone and next to her nose were dark brown specks that appeared to have been from small burns. She told Yahoo News, “I was in the garage of our house. We heard a loud sound. I was so scared, I was actually crying. I tried to rescue my children,” she recounted. “Our house was filled up with yellow smoke. When the mortar hit our house, there was black oil that spilled on our skin, and then the day after, we felt a burning [sensation], on our arms, and on the children’s legs. When we washed it, it was painful, and over time the burning [got worse.].”
She said her neighbors had a car and took them right away to a hospital in Gogali, a town farther east in northern Iraq. Once there, the family was examined and then transferred to Erbil. The children’s grandmothers were also in the room watching over them and said their hair still smelled like the smoke from the mortar.
Dr. Marwan Ghafuri, one of the doctors at West Emergency Hospital, has been treating the family since their arrival four days ago. He told Yahoo News, “First we washed all of them. We took off their clothes and washed their bodies. They felt terrible pain when they came in, but now their situation is improving.”
For now, toxicologists are conducting ongoing tests to determine if in fact mustard gas or other chemicals were used and are present in victims’ bodies. Meanwhile, patients are being treated with antibiotics, as well as sedatives for pain.
Schad said of those who have come to the hospital, “Some of them are in critical condition. If they are in life-threatening conditions, they most likely won’t make it here [to the hospital].”
He said the time it takes for people to get through security checkpoints on their way to the field hospitals could affect whether they will live to get treatment.
There is no hard evidence about who used the weapons. From the battlefield, Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Qathaq Hamdani spoke to Yahoo News by phone and blamed the Islamic State for the attack.
“The mortar came from the west side of Mosul,” Hamdani said. “It came from a hand rocket. ISIS is trying to terrify and scare the civilians. It’s not like they released [a] chemical weapon [by itself] — they’re putting sulfur gas and chemicals inside the weapons.” Hamdani said his brigade has not yet been able to reach where the mortars came from and is still in pursuit.
Even though the Iraqi Army officially liberated eastern Mosul after 100 days of fighting, it is still well within reach of ISIS militants, who still hold the western side of the city. ISIS has been accused of intensifying its use of drones, mortars and trip-wire improvised explosive devices.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has called for a thorough investigation. It released a statement saying, “If the alleged use of chemical weapons is confirmed, this is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime, regardless of who the targets or the victims of the attacks are. There is never justification — none whatsoever — for the use of chemical weapons.”
For a family whose neighborhood had only been recently liberated from ISIS, the attack and their injuries are a shattering experience. Thaier said the attack scared him. He was a boy just playing on his rooftop. His arms are stinging and blistered, but they’re getting better. As we left, he was able to muster a smile before digging into a full tray of hospital food.
Ash Gallagher is a journalist covering the Middle East for Yahoo News.
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