Mystery in Iraq: Are US Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects?
Part 2: Searching for the Truth
The "plausible risk factors" for childhood leukemia, says Hoffmann, "undoubtedly include the contaminated environment, but also the lack of prevention, the trauma suffered by parents and the devastated medical infrastructure." The statistical increase in the number of children with leukemia since 1993 is also a function of cases not having been fully documented before 2003.
Janan Hassan, an oncologist with the Basra Children's Hospital, participated in a study that was just published in the Medical Journal of the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. It states that although the rate of childhood leukemia in Basra remained stable between 2004 and 2009, compared with other countries in the region, there is a trend toward very young children contracting the disease.
Sabria Salman named her son Muslim, but it didn't protect him. Muslim, now 10, recently underwent surgery to remove a 500-gram tumor on his upper arm. He doesn't scream in pain anymore. Instead, the boy has a permanent grin on his face, as if he no longer had the strength to change his expression. He perspires heavily and has trouble breathing. There is a drain tube protruding from his left arm, and the right arm is wrapped in a dressing that's stained red along the edges.
Salman calls it "cancer in the muscles." The boy broke his shoulder two years ago, and since then his body has made little progress towards healing.
'Bombs in Our Neighborhood'
The hospital pays for the chemotherapy, although radiation therapy would be more effective for his tumor. But radiation is only available abroad or in Baghdad, where there is a five-month waiting list -- and the family doesn't have that much time anymore. The mother prays to Allah, and when the interpreter asks her who is to blame for her son's affliction, she says: "The war is to blame. The pollution. There were many bombs in our neighborhood."
Uranium may be a factor, but other substances used in the production of ammunition and bombs are also implicated, toxic heavy metals like lead and mercury. "The bombardment of Basra and Fallujah may have increased the population's exposure to metals, possibly resulting in the current increase in birth defects," states the Heidelberg study.
Furthermore, when the Rumaila oil field near Basra was set on fire in 2003, a cloud of soot full of carcinogenic particles drifted across the city. And another factor could also be at play. Since Saddam was overthrown, Iraq's neighbors, Iran, Syria and Turkey, have diverted substantially more water from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The current in the Shatt-al-Arab, formed by the confluence of the two rivers, is now so weak that salt water penetrates inland from the Persian Gulf all the way to Basra.
This means that wastewater from industrial facilities downstream from Basra, like the Iranian oil refinery in Abadan, are no longer being adequately diluted, increasing the concentration of heavy metals in groundwater.
Abu Ammar lives with his family on the grounds of Saddam's former navy command center. The quarters are cramped, with 10 people in a room, and the situation of several other families on the grounds is no better. It is yet another impoverished Basra neighborhood -- the riches of the Basra oil wells, omnipresent in the neighborhood in the shape of stinking fumes, have yet to trickle down to the people.
Three Eyes for Three Children
Ammar has spread out a plastic rug on the floor and placed a can of 7-Up and a pastry for each of his visitors on the rug. The family -- or what is left of it -- squats around the rug. Saddam's thugs executed two of Ammar's brothers. The cousin sitting next to him still has a piece of shrapnel from an attack wedged behind his eye, the mother died of grief, his wife no longer goes outside -- "and these are our children ," he says.
He points to a 21-year-old woman, a seven-year-old girl and a little boy, sitting next to each other. They don't have the same parents, but all three have the same narrow faces, and together they have only three eyes.
The sockets of their missing eyes look like the inside of an oyster, milky and shapeless. The young woman, Madia, attends the local college. She doesn't like going there, she says, even though she covers half of her face with her veil. "What caused this? I think my mother inhaled something chemical when I was inside of her," says Madia.
It's easy to assign the blame for these eerie birth defects to something called "DU ammunition," made in the USA. It's easier than thinking about the deleterious effects of lead and mercury in the soil and the tomatoes, or of the soot in the air and the toxic materials in the water. But that doesn't relieve those involved in the war from responsibility. It isn't enough to declare a war to be over. Even though Iraq now has elections and the tyrant has been hanged, the war is still in the soil, in the air and in the children.
Omran Habib heads the Basra Cancer Research Group. He earned his Ph.D. in London and now works as an epidemiologist at the University of Basra Hospital. "The war did an enormous amount of damage here," he says. "DU is certainly not good for our health. Nevertheless, even the presence of uranium in the urine of patients doesn't imply causation."
A Bundle in White
The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently assembling a report on DU ammunition. It will reflect the current state of research on the issue, but it will hardly provide any new insights. With the help of the University of Greifswald, a cancer registry has been developed for the Basra region and will serve as the basis for all future study. Still, even as further research is needed, if only for the children's sake, it will come too late for many.
It's certainly too late for the body lying inside a little white bundle of material, tied together at both ends like a piece of candy, lying on a pile of dirt along the edge of the children's cemetery in Basra. It was supposed to be his first son, says the father, standing next to the body. Yesterday the child was still moving inside the mother's stomach. Today the father was simply handed a bundle.
Afterwards the men smoke. The father is given a piece of cardboard and writes down the name of his son, copying it from the combined birth and death certificate they gave him at the hospital. The gravedigger will scratch the name into the cement. The boy was going to be named Hussein Ali. The father writes the name of his dead child for the first and last time.
The man remains motionless. Who wonders about blame at such a moment? He seems empty, completely at a loss and robbed of a tiny life.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Are US Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects?
- Part 2: Searching for the Truth
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