It was 30 years ago on March 16, 1988, when Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, murdered thousands of Kurdish civilians in the Iraqi town of Halabja.
The Iraqi dictator used a lethal combination of mustard chemical gas and the nerve agent sarin to poison 5,000 people, mostly women and children, as part of a targeted ethnic cleansing campaign against Kurds. Some 10,000 people were injured in the attack.
Known as the Halabja Massacre or Bloody Friday, the incident marked the worst-ever chemical attack on a civilian population.
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Thirty years later, some say Kurds, along with Christians, Muslims and Yazidis, are facing a similar targeted campaign of ethnic cleansing by Syrian, Turkish and Russian forces this time in neighboring Syria.
In the crosshairs is the northern Syrian town of Afrin. Made up of mainly ethnic Kurds, the town as been under constant assault for nearly a month from the air and the ground by Turkish forces and Syrian rebels supported by the government of president Bashar al Assad.
Afrin is also home to 250 Christian families.
“Some families have managed to evacuate, the rest are in hiding,” said Majid Kurdi, a Kurdish Christian who maintains close contacts with believers in the beleaguered city.
“I spoke with the assistant pastor of a prominent evangelical church yesterday who said that he and his family were preparing to leave and said ‘please pray for us, the situation is overwhelming,'” Kurdi told CBN News.
Tens of thousands of terrified men, women and children are streaming out on foot and in pick-up trucks from Afrin.
“The pastor told me that he prefers to stay in Afrin with the church and other families to pray together and support the remaining families but the fighting was getting too close,” Kurdi told CBN News.
This morning, in a suburb of Afrin, Turkish shelling and air strikes reportedly killed 18 civilians.
“This horror is reminiscent of the initial actions of ISIS in Iraq,” Nadia Murad, a Yazidi genocide survivor and UN Goodwill Ambassador, said in a statement about the situation unfolding in Afrin.
Graphic video has emerged showing bodies of men, women and children strewn along a street in Afrin following today’s attack.
“Make no mistake about it, the worst is to come,” Francios Delattre, a top French official, warned at the United Nations.
Delattre called on Turkey, Russia and Syria to halt all further military action and allow civilians to leave the conflict zone.
“I would remind everybody that forced evacuations are against international humanitarian law,” Delattre said. “All civilians whether they choose to stay or whether they leave must be protected from bombardment.”
Some 30,000 people have fled Afrin in the last few days, but the UN says hundreds of thousands of civilians are still at risk and the situation is getting worse.
“Reports from inside Afrin indicate that dozens of children have been killed and many more injured,” Marixie Mercado, a UN official said during a press conference in Geneva.
“For the last 10 days children, families have suffered severe water shortages as a source of water for Afrin city has reportedly been cut off,” said Mercado. “Families are relying on untreated water and boreholes which potentially increases the risk of water-borne disease for about 250,000 people.”
Turkey, which says it has nearly captured Afrin, has targeted the town because it was under the control of a group called the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it considers a terrorist outfit. YPG rebels have been a key US ally in defeating ISIS terrorists.
Despite calls by the European Parliament to withdraw from Afrin, Turkey’s president has vowed to continue the assault until he says the mission is finished.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Erdogan said in a speech Thursday. “We will only leave Afrin once our work is done.”
Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” into Afrin on January 20 to clear the town of YPG soldiers. Erdogan’s spokesman said his country has no plans to return Afrin to the Syrian regime.
Some reports claim Turkey is using former ISIS and other radical Islamic fighters to attack Kurdish Syrian towns like Afrin.
“Most of those who are fighting in Afrin against the YPG are ISIS, though Turkey has trained them to change their assault tactics,” Faraj, an ex-ISIS fighter told UK’s The Independent.
“Turkey at the beginning of its operation tried to delude people by saying that it is fighting Isis, but actually they are training ISIS members and sending them to Afrin,” Faraj reportedly told the newspaper.
Many worry that if these fighters are allowed to control Afrin, it could spell danger for Afrin’s Christians and other minority faith groups.
“It is an extremely dire situation because we have heard the militias that the Turks are using are Al Qaeda, ISIS and al-Nursa fighters and they have just changed uniforms,” said Per Ove Berg, a pastor who travels extensively across the Middle East. “If they get the chance, they will massacre everyone who they perceive as non-Muslims.”
Thousands of civilians have also poured out of Eastern Ghouta, a key town that Syrian government forces have been trying to recapture for months. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based human rights group, claims Syrian troops now control 70 percent of the town.