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Saeid Sadeghi

TPM Interviews War Correspondent from Halabja Gas Attacks

S-SadeghiSaeid Sadeghi, an Iranian photojournalist and war correspondent, was covering events from the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), when he witnessed the heinous chemical gas attacks by Iraqi fighter jets on Halabja on 16th March, 1988. On the 28th anniversary of the attacks, Mr. Sadeghi, in an interview with the Tehran Peace Museum, shares his reflections on life as a war correspondent and his experiences during the attacks on Halabja.

What motivated you to become a war correspondent and photojournalist?

Before the war with Iraq started in 1980, I was a journalist with a newspaper called the Jomhuri Islami. When Iraqi jets dropped bombs on the Mehrabad airport in Tehran, I became so emotional and fired up with passionate nationalism, that I just had to go to the front line and record what was going on.

Some colleagues and I found our way by car down to Khorrramshahr and I spent the war taking photographs and recording the events. When the war started, I believe I was the first photographer at the front.

Can you describe what it is like to be a war correspondent?

For most war correspondents, they go to a war zone, write an article, come back to the paper and get it published. For me, it was a little bit different. I stayed at the front line the whole year round. Only when fighting stopped and there were no major operations did I return to Tehran.

I recorded fighting in all the war zones from the western front up in the North West and right down to the southern sector of the war.

For me, I felt like I was part of the war and I was shooting with my camera. I was a soldier with my camera. My camera was part of my body. I didn’t join the Basij or the Pasdaran, and I had no formal training in fighting, but I did carry a gun. I would turn up at the front line with my camera and my gun.

Before Halabja, had you ever witnessed any gas attacks?

Yes I did. It was in February-March1984 during Operation Kheibar, which is widely known as the Battle of the Marshes, which is located in the Hawizeh Marshes in Iraq, to the north-east of Basra.

Iran eventually won this battle but it was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory for us. We succeeded in removing the Iraqis from the territory, but we lost over 200,000 men in the operation while Iraq lost only 10,000 soldiers.

But, you see, what started to happen after the Iraqis were defeated in an operation, was for them to immediately retaliate by dropping mustard gas bombs on our troops. From 1984 onwards, this became their modus operandi. The prospect of these gas attacks really terrified the Iranian troops. You could see the fear in their eyes.

And that was what I witnessed during Operation Kheibar. I was not personally injured as I was far away from the attack but about 300 Iranian troops were badly exposed. Some of the bombs landed in the watery marshland and did not explode, so I took photographs of them.

But, at that time, I saw for myself what chemical weapons could do: the blisters, the burning skin just peeling off the soldiers’ bodies and I watched some soldiers die a slow and agonizing death.

Can you explain why you were in Halabja in March 1988?

Iranian soldiers had been fighting up in Iraq near Halabja, so a few journalist colleagues and I were up there to record the events. The Iranian soldiers had actually taken control of Halabja the day before the attacks, on the 15th of March.

So, that morning, of 16th March, we were actually in Halabja to take photos of the people of the city. It wasn’t an easy job as the local residents were afraid of the Iranian troops and had locked their doors.

Around lunch time of that day, we went to the outskirts of the city and were taking a break to have something to eat when the gas attacks took place.

Can you describe what happened when the chemical bombs were dropped?

Well, we were about 1 km away from the city centre and trying to eat. There had been quite a bit of bombing in Halabja that day anyway. The Iraqis dropped what we called “noise bombs.” The noise and vibrations from these bombs would shake the city and the Iraqis had been dropping these bombs that same day, before the chemical attack.

So, when the Iraqi airplanes flew over again, we thought it was just another set of noise bombs and really didn’t pay it much attention. But this time, after the bombs were dropped, we saw an enormous white cloud appear. Then the cloud died down and lay low over the city.

Almost everyone in the city was exposed to chemical weapons from these bombs.

How did you react to this chemical attack?

To be honest, we really didn’t understand at the time that it was a chemical attack. It was about an hour later, by the time we had walked into the centre of the city, that we saw what had happened.

As we approached the centre of Halabja, the streets and alleyways were littered with people just lying around. We saw people gasping for air. Some of them were bleeding from their ears, their noses and their mouths.

Then, we saw people – dead – lying where they were at the time of the attack. Women, children, men, old people.

It was horrible.

We tried to help as best we could. We tried to move people around to make them more comfortable. We held them up to help them to breathe and wiped the blood from their mouths and their noses.

I can never forget some victims, staring into our eyes - unable to talk their eyes begged us to help them.

But we didn’t know what to do.

We did move some people into cars. And we did try our best, but during the first hours of the attack there was no help from anyone outside the city.

Later that afternoon, around 4pm, Iranian soldiers came to help. The Iranian military brought helicopters to evacuate the survivors to places like Khorramshahr. We also were transferred there later that day.

As a journalist, how did you record these events?

At first, I didn’t think of taking photographs. I forgot my camera and all I wanted to do was to help these poor people. But, after a while, I felt totally helpless. There was nothing I could do to save them.

It was then that I realized that what I could do was to take photographs and to record this for history - for people to see the truth about what happened in Halabja.

After the bombing, many people thought that it was the Iranians who had attacked Halabja with chemical bombs. People in the West did not believe that Saddam Hussein had attacked his own people with chemical weapons. Tariq Aziz even went on Iraqi television and blamed the Iranians for the gas attacks.

My photographs and the work of my colleagues showed that this was not true.
I felt that I had to focus on the kind of death the people of Halabja suffered. It was a humanitarian disaster and I needed to capture it for the world to see.

I remember being horrified at the sight of women holding their babies in their arms and mothers nursing their infants. Dead. I had to photograph this. People outside of Iran and Iraq needed to see these horrors.

What comes to your mind today when you reflect on the attacks at Halabja?

I regret that I didn’t take more photos of the dying people. I couldn’t help them anyway - they were not going to live. I could have done more for humanity by taking more photos of what actually happened that day.

Some people managed to escape into the mountains, and I did take photographs of those survivors.

But, witnessing these terrible things, I have a different perspective on war. War is the best means to put humans down. You can find nothing but darkness and evil in the world from war. There is no light or good in war.

My aim through my photographs was to show the human side of war, the darkness - the real story.

I believe that at the core of all we do should be to help humanity through kindness and morality. That is the only way to change the world.

Saeid Sadeghi, born in Tabriz in 1955, is an Iranian journalist and photographer. His photographs have been published in a number of books and exhibited widely. He is currently working on a project to find the subjects he photographed during the Iran-Iraq War and incorporate new photographs with the old.

Halabja Photographs taken by Saeid Sadeghi: War Correspondent

March 1986



The young boy at the side of the truck was alive but had climbed into the truck carrying the corpses to the outskirts of the city for mass burial. The Iranians had in the preceding days, captured Halabja and the residents were afraid of them and what they may do to them. In the immediate aftermath of the chemical attack, no one was entirely sure who had perpetrated the crime. The townspeople of Halabja did not know at the time that it was their own government, under orders from Saddam Hussein, who had gassed his own people.


This young boy’s entire family perished in the chemical attack. This young boy had been told by an aunt: “If the Iranians find you, they will kill you.” She instructed the boy to hide in the back of the truck with the corpses.




The lady in this photo is the aunt of the boy in photo #1.  There was a great deal of fear amongst the people of Halabja as Iranian soldiers had taken control of the area.



Photographs of the truck which carried the dead bodies away for burial.



Photo of the same truck with the corpses taken from above.


The people of Halabja ran to find water after the attack. These bodies were people trying to reach the water to drink. People died in the street as they were running away.





People of Halabja trying to reach water.




People of Halabja leaving when they heard the noise bombs, which were dropped before the chemical weapons.




People of Halabja who fled from the noise bombs dropped in the morning.  They fled into the surrounding area and hid in caves. Mr. Sadeghi found the small boy in the picture recently when he went to Halabja for Now Ruz 2015.  He has taken photographs of the man holding this photograph.




This photo was taken in Now Ruz 2015 in Halabja.  This man is pointing to himself as a young boy.




Iranian soldiers who came by helicopter to help people in Halabja.  The soldier who is holding the baby was later killed in action in the war.  Mr. Sadeghi found this soldier’s mother after the war, and she told Saeid that her son had been killed.






 The rescue of people at Halabja by Iranian helicopter corps.  The survivors were sent to cities in and around Kermanshah, such as Sangol. 




Local people running away from the attack.  There were two different groups of people: one group fled over the border into Iran and the other group fled further into the interior of Iraq.  The people in this photograph were heading to Iraq.  The man in the photo had a radio to listen to the Iraqi news. 




A child and an adult found in the street.  One of Mr. Sadeghi’s colleagues placed a blanket on top of the corpse to respect the dignity of the dead person.





This photo as taken around 9 or 10 am when Mr. Sadeghi was exploring the city with his colleagues.  This was before the chemical attack, which took place around midday.




The photo is of a family who died in place, getting on with their ordinary daily routine.




Darbandeh River – a rescue operation.




Iranians are helping people of Halabja outside the city after the attack. The Iranian helicopters helped to ferry people about.




Mr. Sadeghi’s colleague, the journalist Mr. Nateghi, was checking to see if this girl was still alive. She was still breathing at that time.




Woman from Halabja.




A shop that was abandoned during the earlier bombing of the town, before the chemical attack happened.



Children who had died after the chemical attack.



An Iranian soldier and the driver of the truck were loading corpses on to the back of the truck. They took the bodies to be buried. The corpses were piled outside the town and later they were buried in mass graves. There was no time to dig individual graves. Approximately 5000 people died in Halabja that day.




The ones who got away. Many people escaped to either Iran or into Iraq. They did not return to Halabja.




Soldiers are picking up a dead child.




Children of Halabja are waiting for the helicopters from Iran. The Iranian soldiers gave the children balloons to play with. 



A photograph taken before the chemical attack.



Iranian helicopters and soldiers rescuing the people of Halabja.



The memorial cemetery in Halabja today.



The truck that took the corpses away today in the museum at Halabja.



A father and his child who had only just died of asphyxiation.




Interview with Mr SaeidSadeghi at the Tehran Peace Museum (June 2015)
Author: Elizabeth Lewis
Translator: Elaheh Pooyandeh

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