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I thought I had a strong stomach–toughened by the minefields and foul frontline hospitals of Angola, by the handiwork of the death squads in Haiti and by the wholesale butchery of Rwanda. But I nearly lost my breakfast last week at the Basrah Maternity and Children’s Hospital in southern Iraq.
Dr Amer, the hospital’s director, had invited me into a room in which were displayed colour photographs of what, in cold medical language, are called “congenital anomalies”, but what you and I would better understand as horrific birth deformities. The images of these babies were head-spinningly grotesque–and thank God they didn’t bring out the real thing, pickled in formaldehyde. At one point I had to grab hold of the back of a chair to support my legs.
I won’t spare you the details. You should know because–according to the Iraqis and in all likelihood the World Health Organisation, which is soon to publish its findings on the spiralling birth defects in southern Iraq–we are responsible for these obscenities.
During the Gulf war, Britain and the United States pounded the city and its surroundings with 96,000 depleted-uranium shells. The wretched creatures in the photographs–for they were scarcely human–are the result, Dr Amer said.
He guided me past pictures of children born without eyes, without brains. Another had arrived in the world with only half a head, nothing above the eyes. Then there was a head with legs, babies without genitalia, a little girl born with her brain outside her skull and the whatever-it-was whose eyes were below the level of its nose.
Then the chair-grabbing moment–a photograph of what I can only describe (inadequately) as a pair of buttocks with a face and two amphibian arms. Mercifully, none of these babies survived for long.
Depleted uranium has an incubation period in humans of five years. In the four years from 1991 (the end of the Gulf war) until 1994, the Basrah Maternity Hospital saw 11 congenital anomalies. Last year there were 221.
Then there is the alarming increase in cases of leukaemia among Basrah babies lucky enough to have been born with the full complement of limbs and features in the right place. The hospital treated 15 children with leukemia in 1993. In 2000 it was 60. By the end of this year that figure again will be topped. And so it will go on. Forever.
(Depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.1 billion years. Total disintegration occurs after 25 billion years, the age of the earth.)
In any other country, in which the vital drugs are available, 95 per cent of these infant leukaemia cases would be treated successfully. In Basrah, the figure is 20 per cent. Most heartbreakingly, many children on the road to recovery go into relapse part way through treatment when the sporadic and meagre supply of drugs runs out. And then they die.
By the United Nations’ own admission 5,000 Iraqi children die every month because of a shortage of medicines created by sanctions imposed by … the United Nations.
Tony Blair, on numerous occasions, has misled Parliament and the country (perhaps unwittingly) by saying that Saddam Hussein is free to buy all the medicines Iraq needs under the oil-for-food programme. This is not true. Oil for food amounts to just 60 cents (40p) per Iraqi per day and everything–food, education, health care and rebuilding of infrastructure–has to come out of that. There simply is not enough to go around.
And has Mr Blair heard of the UN Security Council 661 Committee? If he has, then he keeps quiet about it. The committee was certainly unknown to me until I toured the shabby hospitals of Basrah.
This committee, which meets in secret in New York and does not publish minutes, supervises sanctions on Iraq. President Saddam is not free to buy Iraq’s non-military needs on the world market. The country’s requirements have to be submitted to 661 and, often after bureaucratic delay, a judgement is handed down on what Iraq can and cannot buy. I have obtained a copy of recent 661 rulings and some of the decisions seem daft if not peevish. “Dual use” is the most common reason to refuse a purchase, meaning the item requested could be put to military use.
So how does the 661 committee expect Saddam Hussein to wage war with “beef extract powder and broth”? Does 661 expect him to turn on the Kurds again by spraying them with “malt extract”? Or to send his presidential guard back into Kuwait armed to the teeth with “pencils”? Pencils, you see, according to 661, contain graphite and therefore could be put to military use. (Tough on the eager schoolchildren of Basrah who have little with which to write).
Across town at the Basrah Teaching Hospital, the whimsical rulings of 661 are not so comical. Dr Jawad Al-Ali, the director of oncology, trained in the UK and a member of the Royal College of Physicians, talked of an “epidemic” of cancers in southern Iraq. “The number of cancer cases is doubling every year. So is the severity of the cancers, and there has been a big increase in cancer among the young,” he said.
Last week he was struggling to treat 20 cancer patients with “a huge shortage of chemotherapy drugs” and just two days supply of morphine. “We are crippled,” he said, “by Committee 661.” The doctor applied for, but was denied, life-saving machinery–deep X-ray equipment, blood component separators, even needles for biopsies. All, said 661, could have military use.
Tell that to Mofidah Sabah, the mother of four-year-old Yahia. The little boy has both leukaemia in relapse and neuroblastoma, a cancer behind the eye that has bulged and twisted his left eyeball in its socket. Ms Sabah travels miles every day to sit and cuddle her son on his grubby bed. If Yahia lived in Birmingham, his chances of survival would not be in much doubt. But not in Basrah. “I’m afraid he will not live very long,” Dr Amer whispered.
Ms Sabah said: “I will leave everything to God, but I want God to revenge those who attacked us.” Yahia’s illness is not her first brush with tragedy. She lost 12 members of her family during an Allied bombing in 1991. Her husband, a soldier, fought in the Gulf war. He is still in the Iraqi army and has just been reposted, to Qurna, 50 miles north of Basra and among the contaminated former battlefields. Qurna, according to legend, was the site of the Garden of Eden.