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Article by Felicity Arbuthnot



Haunting images from Iraq
By Felicity Arbuthnot

BAGHDAD: Iraq, embargoed since August 1990, has been called by many
commentators a vast concentration camp. A vast death camp seems more
appropriate. Images of Baghdad today haunt for all time. "We have a new
phenomenon," remarked one doctor. "People are just dying. They are not
ill. They just give up - especially young men between the ages of about
30 to 35. "Their youth has been sacrificed to the embargo and they see
middle age approaching with no hope, no dreams, no aspirations or
ability to provide for those they love."

>From Jordan, I telephoned Mustafa, an old friend and gentle academic,
whose childlike joy of life illuminated every experience. During the
December bombing his voice had broken as he described the destruction of
some of the most ancient buildings - World Heritage sites - in his
beloved Baghdad. Mustafa always celebrated my arrival with an aubergine
dish to dream of. Surprisingly the call connected immediately: "I'm on
my way, get the aubergine ready..." There was a silence, then his
daughter Doha said: "We have had a catastrophe, Mustafa is dead."

He had died five minutes earlier. A month before he had undergone a full
medical and had been told he had "the heart of a lion. He was haunted by
the thought we would be bombed again after Ramazan and he had no way to
protect us," said Nasra, his wife. He died on January 17, the
anniversary of the start of the Gulf War.I travelled to Baghdad for the
mourning, a four-day grieving of an intensity defying description. When
Nasra - feisty, gutsy, witty, beautiful and beloved friend - entered,
she was unrecognizable, bent double, unable to walk without support,
wracked by the unimaginable; the weight of grief encapsulated. "It is
killing us all, one by one," she gasped. "We lost five friends this
year." All were under 40, all had "just died".

I heard haunting human tales of the bombing. "We had seven children in
our house during the bombing, the youngest six months, the oldest seven
years," said Jameel. "Their terror was such that when the bombs stopped,
we were left in the dark (the electricity sub-station was reportedly hit
again) with great pools of urine and faeces."

At the Saddam Paediatric Hospital, three-year-old Sahara was dying. She
had acute myeloid leukaemia and was bleeding internally from the nose
and gums. She needed 10 to 15 units of platelets a day - the doctors
could obtain just one. "In the UK and US leukaemia is a treatable
disease, yet due to lack of chemotherapy we have not achieved one cure -
only some remissions - in the last eight years," said Dr Rad Aljanabi,
chief resident. "In 1994 and 1996, we had no treatment at all, so every
single patient died." Iraq's cancer, leukaemia and malignancy rates have
risen by as much as 70 per cent since the Gulf War. The increase is
associated with the depleted uranium weapons, used primarily by the US
and the UK, which left a residue of radioactive dust throughout the
country.

According to studies - including work by Johns Hopkins University in the
US - the residue has entered the food chain via the water table and
soil. Leukaemia was a rarity before 1991. "This is my first residency
and I saw 39 new cases in three months," said one doctor. "I admitted
eight last month, I remember all their names. We are suffering - I cry
so often." There were other horrors. Five-year-old Heider Latif,
weighing just 13 kg. Starvation, multiple congenital abnormalities,
cancers, heart defects, leprosy, waterborne diseases. Death stalks
Iraq's children from the moment of birth.

In the beautiful, relentlessly bombarded southern city of Basra where
the biblical Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, the state of health takes
on another dimension. One doctor has completed a thesis comparing the
congenital abnormalities, cancers and malignancies since the Gulf War
with Hiroshima. Dr Jenan Ali, a world-renowned surgeon trained in
Glasgow, has been keeping a record of "mysterious" congenital
abnormalities. Her photographs for 1998 are chilling: full-terms babies
undeveloped, babies reminiscent of those born in the nuclear testing
areas of the South Pacific, a baby with no face, another with no eyes,
twisted limbs, or no limbs, tiny mite with huge head and no brain. Page
after page of tragedy. "All young parents with no history of
abnormalities in the family as far as we can tell, since we have few
laboratory facilities now."

Jenan said she believes many of the cases are "not recorded in
textbooks, but we cannot be sure since we haven't had textbooks since
1990". Textbooks and medical journals are vetoed by the UN sanctions
committee. "I can show you a baby born one hour ago if you are strong
and not prone to fainting," said Jenan. A nurse brought in a small
bundle in sterile wrappings (baby clothing is just a memory in this
formerly internationally renowned hospital).The tiny being making little
bleating noises had no eyes, no nose, a sweet little mouth, but no
tongue or oesophagus, no hands or genitalia. Hopelessly twisted small
legs were joined together from the knees upwards by a thick "web" of
flesh. "We see many similar," commented Jenan. "My colleague delivered
the baby you saw," said midwife Bushra Nasser in the maternity unit. "I
am frightened of what I may deliver." With no ultrasound or scanning
facilities - also banned under sanctions - nothing is known until birth.
When mothers ask: "Is it all right?" there is terror in the question.
Some soil samples in areas of Basra show 84 times background radiation
from uranium elements.

One in four babies is born prematurely and underweight, due to
malnutrition or environmental factors. No oxygen incubators work at
optimum capacity, there is no rehydration, no gastro-nasal nutrition. As
we stood in the premature unit, containing 17 babies, the doctor
remarked: "We have not had one premature weight birth survive since
1994." I looked round the ward at each small life, at twins sharing an
incubator, noted each face and tiny form. Each is by now almost
certainly another statistic in embargo-related deaths. The baby we
watched born was a healthy eight pounds, but the odds were stacked
against him. Cockroaches crawled over the metal of the delivery bed.
Electricity and hot water is off 18 hours a day. Disinfectant is vetoed
by sanctions.

A doctor ran to us, saying: "Do any of you have O-negative blood?" A
newly-born baby, bright yellow, with acute jaundice would die without an
exchange transfusion. There was no blood. I thought I might have the
right blood type, but was unsure. "Test me," I said. There were no
laboratory facilities to do so. A 23-day old baby died two minutes
before we reached the ward. His mother had run, inconsolable, screaming
from the hospital. The grandmother, upright, proud, in her black abaya,
stood by his cot, tears streaming down her face, as I vainly stroked his
small perfect head and face, so warm, feeling somehow he could be
brought back. All he had needed was oxygen. There was none.

"You have seen the state of our hospitals, what will we do if they bomb
again?" asked Jenan. I said it was impossible to believe it could
happen. We left Basra and returned to Baghdad. The following morning
Basra was bombed.-Dawn/Gemini News Service (c) News-Scan International.

 The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 1999

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