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Chemical Warfare

The term chemical warfare comprises a variety of chemical substances, such as irritating agents, lethal gases, chemical warfare agents, blister gases, nerve gases, and toxins, the latter designating both biological and chemical agents. Used massively, any of these substances can incapacitate and even kill thousands of people. Since World War I the subject of chemical warfare has caused fear and horror. The international community outlawed it. The 1925 Geneva Protocol, one of the oldest arms control agreements still in force, forbade the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. The 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention prohibited the possession of toxic weapons. The question at issue here is what kinds of these substances the Soviets used in Afghanistan.

The Soviets used chemical agents in inaccessible areas so that others might not know about it. For this reason, the Soviets and the regime wreaked havoc by helicopter gunships on areas where the presence of foreigners was suspected. Apart from other considerations, the Soviets feared the foreigners would inform the world about their use of chemical agents in Afghanistan. They bombed a few health centers set up in certain areas by French and other physicians. The symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross was anathema to the Soviets. Although in the spring of 1982 they allowed a team of the Red Cross to visit Kabul in connection with the exchange of prisoners of war, they soon obliged the team to leave the city. The Soviets were unwilling to allow other international bodies to visit the suspected areas about which certain countries, particularly the United States, voiced concern. The Afghans were inexperienced in rushing their victims of chemical warfare or items contaminated by chemical agents to international bodies in Pakistan. Hence, it is difficult to verify the use of chemical substances in Afghanistan during the period covered by this study. Nevertheless, an unspecified number of people in a number of places did fall victim to substances other than conventional weapons. A manifestation of these substances was the peculiar decomposition of bodies.

I have noted two cases of peculiar decomposition. On 7 February 1982 the Soviets disposed of thirty-one elders in a pit somewhere between the villages of Ayamak and Rabat in the province of Ghazni. The Soviets had taken the elders to present them to the governor of the province in Ghazni to cooperate on matters relating to the Fatherland Front. A few days afterwards, the people of the area found their bodies, already decomposed despite the short time. The elders were killed because the Soviets were met sourly by the people of a village where the Soviets had shot dead a small boy after he had protested to them for their burning the fuel of the village mosque. In autumn 1980 some people were killed by chemical substances after they had entered an underground canal in the district of Shilgir in Ghazni. Their bodies had also been decomposed, apparently by injection of some chemical substance. A Panjsheri from the Malekat village of Kapisa Province describes such rapid decomposition thus: “The injured Afghans were injected with chemicals and within 20 minutes [their bodies were] practically decomposed.” He adds, “When they [the Soviets] use gas bombs the victims’ bodies decompose quickly.”[26]

A Norwegian narrator of a film shot in Afghanistan comments on the subject of chemical warfare near the village of Charpur in Paktia in June 1980:

In the morning we were woken up by helicopters [which] were flying around. Hurriedly we left the village, but left one man behind us; he was wounded and we could not carry him out. The helicopters dropped a couple of what we thought at that moment were bombs. The only thing which we saw was a kind of explosion and a yellow cloud. Then, the second wave of helicopters came in and bombed with chemical rockets. So, everything in the village was bombed. Then a [villager?] told me that the first wave was a gas tank. Well, at that moment I did not believe it, because it [was] rather unbelievable that they [the Soviets] were doing [this] and a lot of Afghans [had] been claiming it before and I never saw any evidence of it. We came [back to] the village a couple of hours later. We found the man we [had] left behind dead. His face was swollen. We took him out and brought him to another place and came back the next morning and then the face was completely swollen, physically like what would have been dead for three or four weeks. It was really strange, and everybody in the group who was in the village was having blisters on his head, his face, [while] the face was swollen. Seemingly, a wide variety of emical] agen[ts] have been used from the old classic, if you will, nerve agents to a number of agents we do not fully understand yet. Mycotoxins which have been found in south-east Asia, apparently are also being used in Afghanistan. That is a new kind of agent, rather hideous and extremely lethal. Riot control agents are apparently also being used, and there aresome agents that have been reported and which have symptoms that arenot fully understood which cause sudden onset of death without any prior symptoms.[27]

Mycotoxins such as yellow rain, sleeping death, and Blue X seem to have been used in Afghanistan. Yellow rain causes burning sensations, vomiting, headaches, spasms, and convulsions. Internal bleeding follows, followed by the destruction of the bone marrow. The skin then turns black as necrosis sets in. The time from exposure to physical decomposition may be a matter of hours. Sleeping death kills the victim instantly. Victims have been found in fighting position, holding their rifles, eyes open, fingers on their triggers, with no apparent cause of death. Blue X, a nonlethal agent dispensed in aerosol form and dropped from aircraft, renders the victim unconscious for eight to twelve hours.[28]

George Shultz, the former American secretary of state, has dealt with the subject of chemical warfare in Afghanistan in detail. According to Shultz, “Reports of chemical attacks from February through October 1982 indicate that the Soviet forces continue their selective use of chemicals and toxins against the resistance in Afghanistan.” In twelve provinces yellow, black, red, and white substances, along with nerve gas, were released from aircraft and assault helicopters as well as pumped from armored vehicles. The chemicals were stored at Kandahar Airport, which was an important staging area for Soviet military operations. Until late 1982 many observers suspected the Soviets of using chemical substances, which were said to have been deployed as early as 1979. Shultz comments, “Our suspicions that mycotoxins have been used in Afghanistan have now been confirmed.” He also states that “reports during 1980 and 1981 described a yellow-brown mist being delivered in attacks which caused blistering, vomiting and other symptoms similar to those described by ‘yellow rain’ victims in Southeast Asia.” He then goes on to state that “new evidence collected in 1982 on Soviet and Afghan Government forces’ use of chemical weapons from 1979 through 1981 reinforces the previous judgement that lethal chemical agents were used on the Afghan resistance.”[29]

Ricardo Fraile, a French legal expert on chemical warfare, visited Logar for a week in December 1982. Unlike the narrator of the film mentioned above, he did not see the use of chemical agents. He collected information about chemical warfare from sources in Afghanistan and also from diplomatic sources abroad. Being cautious by profession and by nature, and being well aware of the implications of his professional views on such a matter, he took the stance of a scholar-philosopher in his statement to the Oslo hearings on Afghanistan. In this statement he says:

I personally can not say, “Yes, I can with great certainty say that there is chemical warfare [going on in Afghanistan],” but for some years now, since south-east Asia and since Afghanistan, I can say that there is an ever-growing bulk of evidence which is growing every time, and which is becoming clear. We have been shown masks, we have been shown protective clothing, we hear witnesses—people who have come from different parts of the country. Thus we create a composite of a mosaic. How can Afghan witnesses who describe something—they could never have been in contact with people in south-east Asia or in Eritrea and describe the same fact?[30]

In fact, Fraile was too cautious, at least at this phase, to express a view on the subject, despite the “evidence,” which he described as “fairly well supported.” For he said, “On one hand we have an ever-growing number of facts and evidence which are fairly well supported, and we are far closer to being convinced that chemical warfare is in fact taking place [in Afghanistan]. And then we have the attitude of the incriminated countries, which do nothing to prove their good faith or to actually remove suspicion.”[31]

Although the scholar-philosopher summed up the “well-supported evidence” as “indications,” “clues,” and “elements,” and although in his views “the Russians [were] using the Asians as…guineapigs for…[testing] military hardware and…chemical weapons,” he was still unwilling to take a position until he was asked to do so. Then in categorical terms he said, “In the past I was not necessarily convinced that chemical warfare was being carried out in Afghanistan. Today I am convinced that such chemical weapons are being used.”[32]

A United Nations Commission of Enquiry set up in December 1980 had concluded, in Fraile’s words, that “at least for one case in Afghanistan it would seem that it is almost certain that chemical agents, very specially of the irritant type, had been used.” This was in the early stage of the war. Besides, the commission had not visited Afghanistan, where these agents had allegedly been used as early as 1979. Dr. Fraile writes, “The first alleged use of chemical warfare [is] from the summer of1979, when it was suspected that the Afghan army with the help ofSoviet advisers was using chemical warfare in Badakhshan and in Parwan…and in Bamiyan, the center of the country.” By the time the hearing was held, the number of cases of the use of chemical agents had increased, according to Dr. Fraile, to approximately one hundred instances, resulting in the deaths of about three thousand people.[33] But in Afghanistan the Soviets caused more destruction through conventional warfare than through chemical warfare. Edward Girardet, who visited a number of areas in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1982, holds that “there is a form of chemical warfare carried out at least on a sporadic basis.” But in his view conventional bombing had been more destructive, a subject that has not been made the focus of attention. He says, “I think the conventional bombing has taken such a toll on civilian lives in Afghanistan, that I think it is really an academic question to pursue the so-called issue of chemical warfare.”[34] The “sporadic basis” and the relatively small number of victims—three thousand—as a result of about a hundred cases of the use of chemical agents in the period under discussion tend to support Fraile’s suggestion that the Soviet Union had used Afghanistan as a guinea pig for its experiments with chemical warfare.

The mining of certain areas and the spread of booby traps also led, and will continue to lead, to the indiscriminate killing of people.[35] I have already commented on the fact that areas surrounding military garrisons and military posts had been mined. Also mined were certain routes in the frontier areas leading to Pakistan. Both sides of the war mined their opponents’ routes. This mining was limited to war zones, but areas in the countryside with no military significance were also mined with plastic mines. In mid-March 1982 large numbers of plastic bombs were dropped from helicopters along the Shonkaray road and the surrounding areas in Kunar Province.[36] In spring 1981, while dropping “heavy bombs” from air on villages, the Soviets also dropped plastic bombs and antipersonnel bombs on fields and pathways in Dehshaykh in the district of Baraki Barak.[37] The Soviets also used poisonous bullets in many places. One foreign observer described plastic bombs “camouflaged to look like stones or leaves”:

Soviet helicopters scatter them by the thousands in the fields and on mountain pass[es]. They are desired to maim not kill and these tiny booby traps have been responsible for the maiming of hundreds of men, women and children. The use of camouflaged mines in civilian areas was outlawed by an international convention signed by the Soviet Union in April 1981. At the time of the signing Russian helicopters were dropping the mines. They are still [1983] dropping them. For those [who] opposed the Soviets there is little medical care. The International Red Cross is not allowed to work in Afghanistan. Since the invasion a handful of French [medical] doctors make secret trips to Afghanistan and provide medical care to the people. This hospital was marked with a cross, but the Soviets still strafed it. It is estimated that half a million civilians have died, and no one knows how many have been wounded. But still, the Afghans resist.[38]

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