It’s the same old story. Know nothing. See nothing. Say nothing. When children died in a plague of cancers in southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, the Americans and the Brits didn’t want to know about it. Nor, of course, did Saddam Hussein. If children had been poisoned by our depleted uranium munitions, then Saddam would lose face, wouldn’t he? Independent readers contributed $250,000 for medicines for the children we met in Iraq who were suffering from cancers and leukaemia after that war.
Margaret Hassan of Care – later murdered by unknown killers months after her kidnapping, following the “liberation” of Iraq – helped us distribute the medicines from our readers across the country. No thanks from Saddam, of course. And all the children died. And not a word from our masters, armaments manufacturers and jolly generals.
It’s the same again in Fallujah today. The doctors talk of a massive increase in child birth deformities. The Americans used phosphorous munitions – possibly also depleted uranium (DU) – in the 2004 battles of Fallujah. Everyone in Fallujah knows about these deformities. Reporters have seen these children and reported on them. But it’s know nothing, see nothing, say nothing. Neither the Iraqi government nor the US government nor the British will utter a squeak about Fallujah. Even when I found in the Balkans a 12-year-old Serb girl with internal bleeding, constant vomiting and nails that repeatedly fell out of her hands and feet – she had handled the shrapnel of depleted uranium munitions after a Nato air strike near Sarajevo in 1995 – Nato refused to respond to my offer to take a military doctor to see her.
Already, I had discovered that up to 300 Serb men, women and children who had lived close to the Nato target in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadjici, had died of cancers and leukaemias over the five years that followed the bombing. As for southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, the less said, the better.
I met Ali Hillal in 1998, when he was just eight, in Baghdad’s Mansour hospital. He lived next to factories and a television station in Diyala, the repeated targets of US and British aircraft in 1991, the fifth child in a family with no history of cancer. Now he had a brain tumour. Latif Abdul Sattar had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Youssef Abdul Raouf Mohamed from Kerbala had gastro-intestinal bleeding. There was Cherou Jassem in her party dress – she wanted her picture taken – who had acute myloblastic leukaemia.
And so it went on as I met each child 14 years ago. Dhamia Qassem, 13, suffered heart failure during treatment for acute leukaemia. Ahmed Walid, a baby during the 1991 Iraq bombings, developed chronic myeloid leukaemia in 1995. Many of the parents were with their children during the raids and some spoke of strange smells, of insecticide and flowers. Western diplomats – who otherwise chose to remain silent – wondered if the children might have been stricken by the smoke from Saddam’s bombed chemical warfare factories.
In Basra, I found Dr Jawad Khadim al-Ali who had drawn maps of the clusters of the new child and adult cancer cases across southern Iraq, some of the children from the very battlefields in which US tanks fired DU munitions at Saddam’s armoured forces. Even when I visited these sites I found farming families with new cancers. This, the doctors attributed to DU, of course, not phosphorous, although some researchers have suggested DU was also used at Fallujah in 2004.
What was astonishing, however, was the response. While The Independent’s readers gave generously for medicines for the children, the British government’s reaction was pitiful. Lord Gilbert at the Ministry of Defence, in a letter dripping with sarcasm, said that my account of a possible link between DU ammunition and children’s cancer – “coming from anyone other than Robert Fisk” – would be “a wilful perversion of reality”. Particles from DU warheads became difficult to detect, he wrote, “even with the most sophisticated monitoring equipment”.
Yet when an Atomic Energy Agency official wrote to the Royal Ordnance in London in 1998, he said that the spread of radioactivity and toxic contamination would be “a risk to both the military and the civilian population” if not dealt with in peacetime.
In December 1998, Doug Henderson, then the British minister for the armed forces, wrote – in a letter that may soon have to be repeated over Fallujah – that while the government was aware of reports linking DU with “alleged [sic] deformities, cancers and birth defects, 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”.
And so it went on. The authorities had nothing to say since there had been no “peer-reviewed epidemiological data” – which there would not be, because no such research would be carried out. Now, too, the same is happening in Fallujah where DU ammunition may also have been used in 2004, and where white phosphorous certainly was used. But there has been no “peer-reviewed epidemiological data”. So goodbye to the children of Fallujah, their brave parents and any chance of finding out the truth.
Unless, of course, some worthy NGO steps forward with the money and resources and training to do what neither the Iraqi government nor the Americans have shown any interest in doing: cataloguing the increase in birth deformities in a city where US forces fought their toughest battles since the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Phosphorous can be used to identify targets – but if used as a weapon in civilian areas, it would breach the 1980 Convention on conventional weapons. Which is probably why no one outside Iraq wants to hear the name of Fallujah.
© THE INDEPENDENT