Depleted Uranium's Fallout Comes Home
Iraqi kids suffer 'Gulf War Syndrome'
Robert Fisk / The Independent, London 11jan01
THEY SMILED as they were dying. One little girl in a Basra, Iraq, hospital even put on her party dress for my newspaper's portrait of her. She did not survive three months.
All of them either played with explosive fragments left behind from U.S. and British raids on Southern Iraq in 1991 or were the children -- unborn at the time -- of men and women caught in those raids. Even then, the words "depleted uranium" were on everyone's lips.
Readers of my newspaper, the Independent of London, cared so much that they contributed more than $114,000 for medicines for these dying children. Our British politicians cared so little that they made no inquiries about this tragedy -- and missed a vital clue to the suffering of their own soldiers in the Balkans eight years later.
In March 1998, Dr. Jawad Khadim al-Ali showed me his maps of cancer and leukemia clusters around the southern city of Basra and its farming hinterland,
the killing fields of the last days of the 1991 Gulf War that were drenched in depleted uranium dust from exploding U.S. shells. The maps showed a fourfold increase in cancers in those areas where the fighting took place.
And the people from those fields and suburbs where the ordnance were fired were clustered around Dr. Ali's cancer clinic in Basra. Old men, young women with terrible tumors, whole families with no history of cancer suffering from unexplained leukemias. They stood there, smiling at me, wanting to tell their stories. Their accounts, tragically, were the same.
They had been close to the battle or to aerial bombing. Or their children had been playing with pieces of shrapnel after air raids, or their children -- born two years after the war -- had suddenly begun to suffer internal bleeding.
Of course, it could have been one of Saddam's bombed chemical plants -- or the oil fires -- that were to blame. But a comparison of the location of cancer victims to air raids, right across Iraq from Basra and Kerbala to Baghdad, are too exact to leave much doubt. And tragic did not begin to describe the children's "wards of death" in Baghdad and Basra.
Ali Hillal was 8 when I met him -- he was to live less than two months more -- lived next to a television broadcasting transmitter and several factories at Diala, repeatedly bombed by Allied aircraft in February 1991. He was the fifth child of a family that had no history of cancer -- he now had a brain tumor. His mother, Fatima, recalled the bombings. "There was a strange smell, a burning, choking smell, something like insecticide," she told me.
Little Youssef Abdul Raouf Mohammed came from Kerbala, close to Iraqi military bases bombed in the war. He had gastrointestinal bleeding. Ahmed Fleah had already died in the children's ward, bleeding from his mouth, ears, nose and rectum. He took two weeks to bleed to death.
About the same time, the first British "Gulf War syndrome" victims were telling of their suffering. It was often identical to the stories -- told in Arabic -- that I listened to in Iraqi hospitals. Something terrible happened in southern Iraq at the end of the Gulf War, I reported. But the British government -- now so anxious to allay fears for the health of British soldiers who have been in contact with depleted uranium shells in the Gulf and in the Balkans -- put their collective nose in the air.
Doug Henderson, then a British defense minister, wrote in an extraordinary letter that "the government is aware of suggestions in the press that there has been an increase in ill-health -- including alleged (sic) deformities, cancers and birth defects -- in Southern Iraq, which some have attributed to the use of depleted uranium-based ammunition by U.K. and U.S. forces during the 1990-91 Gulf conflict.
"However, the government has not seen any peer-reviewed epidemiological research data on this population to support these claims and it would therefore be premature to comment on this matter."
Many of the other children in this purgatorial hospital were bald and suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. All came from heavily bombed areas of Iraq. A few knew they were dying; some told me they would recover. None did.
When, in 1998, I visited the killing fields outside Basra, the burned-out Iraqi tanks still lay where they had been attacked. Many of the local farmers had relatives dying of unexplained cancers. One of them, Hassan Salman, walked up to me through the long grass, a man with a distinguished face, brown from the sun. "My daughter-in-law died of cancer just 50 days ago," he said. "She was ill in the stomach. Her name was Amal Hassan Saleh. She was very young -- just 21 years old. A woman walked out of a tomato field and offered me an overly large pale green tomato, a poisoned fruit according to the Basra doctors, from a poisonous war, grown on a dangerous stem, bathed in fetid water.
Yes, of course, it made good propaganda for Saddam. Yes, of course, the Iraqis later laid on a propaganda showcase of statistics for their dying -- and mock funerals for the infant dead. But the children I met were dying -- and have died. One Baghdad doctor had just watched a child patient die when I went to visit him. He sat in his chair in his clinic with his head in his hands, the tears flowing down his face. This was not propaganda.
In Basra, in the poorest part of the city -- still, ironically, regularly attacked by the American and British air forces -- I asked a random group of women about the health of their families. "My husband has cancer," one said. Sundus Abdel-Kader, 33, said her aunt had just died suddenly of leukemia. Two other women interrupted to say that they had younger sisters suffering from cancer. And so it went on, in a society where merely to admit to cancer is regarded as a social stigma. Why had so many Iraqis -- especially children -- suddenly fallen victims, I asked myself, to an explosion of leukemia in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War? Of course, the victims were Iraqis. They were Muslims. They lived -- and died -- in a far-away country.
But I do wonder if I'm going to have to tour the children's wards of Bosnia and Serbia in the years to come, and see again the scenes I witnessed in Iraq. Or perhaps the military wards of European countries. That's why I asked NATO after the Kosovo bombing in 1999 for the locations of depleted uranium munition explosions. The details, I was told, were "not releasable."
Robert Fisk writes for the Independent of London