The Link Between Cancer and a Century-Old Spanish War - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Link Between Cancer and a Century-Old Spanish War

The Link Between Cancer and a Century-Old Spanish War

By Andrés Cala


Because the past is haunting a nation in the most sinister way.

By Andrés Cala

“You can’t find a single family here that doesn’t have a cancer victim,” says Rachid Rakha, referring to the Er Rif region of northern Morocco. Spain hasn’t admitted it, but its use of mustard gas against Riffs between 1921 and 1926 is well-documented, and many believe it explains the area’s alarming cancer rate. Rakha has lost his father, three uncles and two cousins to the disease, and the gas is “the only explanation we can find,” he says.

The Rif War nearly a century ago killed thousands, but there are no exact figures for how many died from chemical warfare. “It’s extremely difficult to calculate,” says the London School of Economics’ Professor Emeritus Sebastian Balfour, one of a handful of researchers to investigate Spain’s “stained” past. Whether the cancer rate is related to the mustard gas — which mutates genomes in animals — remains unproven, because the cancer pervasiveness in the region has never been formally tested. But a whopping half of the National Institute of Oncology’s patients in Rabat are Riffs — a figure that’s all the more startling considering how sparsely populated the region is.

The firewall starts with Spain’s reluctance to own up to its past, but Morocco and France are also complicit in the cover-up. The use of chemical weapons was a secret until witness accounts from Spanish pilots began trickling in, starting in the 1960s. More details came to light in the 1990s, when journalists and researchers broke coded military secrets. One of them was Balfour, who says “a massive deployment” of chemicals was revealed.

Several Moroccan organizations are calling attention to the alleged cover-up. Rakha, in fact, is president of the World Amazigh Assembly, a Moroccan nongovernmental organization that sent letters to King Felipe of Spain and French President François Hollande in February, demanding official investigations and reparations, as well as condemnation of the attacks. Both countries responded in May with promises to investigate, and Spain’s monarchy forwarded the request to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which did not reply to OZY’s request for comment. Still, Rakha remains hopeful, noting that “it’s a good sign they replied,” even if few expect the state to come clean.


In 2005, Joan Tardà, a member of Spain’s parliament, was the first to propose a bill to acknowledge the attacks, facilitate investigations and compensate victims. At the time, hardly anyone knew about the use of chemical weapons, and the bill was roundly defeated, as were subsequent efforts. And according to Balfour and Tardà, the greatest fear of officials isn’t identifying a link between chemical weapons and spiking cancer rates, but admitting to having used chemical weapons at all. Spain has refused to revisit crimes committed during its bloody civil war in the 1930s, and Balfour and Tardà believe unraveling the Rif War could set a legal precedent for investigating decades of other crimes. 

It may have just been a question of timing. After all, the use of wartime chemicals dates back centuries, and they were deployed en masse during World War I. The Treaty of Versailles prohibited their use, but that lasted only until 1928, when the Geneva Protocol came into effect. For Spain, it started earlier, in 1912, after the besieged Moroccan Sultan Abd al-Hafid invited France to establish a protectorate to save his reign. Paris then ceded the northern part of the country to Spain, including the Er Rif region, to establish a protectorate. Berber rebels managed to keep Spanish colonial aspirations in check, and in 1920, guerrilla leader Abd el-Krim launched a war of independence against French and Spanish occupiers. This led to the 1921 Disaster of Annual, when more than 10,000 Spanish troops and civilians were slaughtered, and most of the protectorate lost. Calls for vengeance were sounded, with Spanish leaders — and much of the public — openly calling for the use of chemical weapons.

The first gas-filled shells dropped in November 1921, and in 1923, Spain, with Germany’s help, began using airplanes for carpet bombings. Germany sold to Spain the initial weapons and helped it set up two chemical production shops. King Alfonso XIII, King Felipe’s great-grandfather, not only knew about the chemicals weapons, but strongly supported their use to “exterminate” the enemy, according to Tardà’s bill. Spanish military telegrams from the time refer to hundreds being killed in single attacks, and hundreds more being blinded. The documents mention X bombs, or “special bombs,” used to target souks and civilian centers as a means of collective punishment.

The most puzzling piece, though, is Morocco’s hesitation to bring the matter to light. Both Balfour and Tardà believe the North African nation is worried about the domestic political fallout, which could reignite Berber aspirations of independence while also ripping the lid off Morocco’s own ruthless campaign against Riffs, in which they used napalm in 1958.

Nobody knows how long it will take for the truth to come out, but Rakha says the World Amazigh Assembly stands ready to pursue it through legal channels — all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. But if one country comes cleans, the others will be forced to follow, providing Riffs with uncomfortable answers about the cancers that are killing them.

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