Iraq: A Depleted Generation
By: Photographs and text by J.B. Russell
After several hours of waiting and nearly $100 of obligatory baksheesh at the desolate Iraqi-Jordanian border I climbed back into my GMC Suburban, one of a fleet that regularly ply the desert between Amman and Baghdad, happy to continue on my voyage. I felt content to have managed to avoid the normally mandatory AIDS test at the frontier. It was January 17th, ten years to the day since the beginning of the Gulf War. After more than a decade under an embargo which has caused widespread hardships and shortages in Iraq, I was more than a bit apprehensive at the prospect of having someone stick a needle in me at a remote border post. As my driver began to pull away, the Iraqi border official that had orchestrated the distribution of all my $10 bills, including a large percentage for himself, came running out of the dusty building and stopped our vehicle. What now, I thought? AIDS test after all? More cash? No, he had finished his two week shift of money extraction and with a friendly smile asked for a ride back to Baghdad.
For several hours we drove across the vast, western Iraqi desert on a virtually empty six lane highway toward the Mesopotamian valley that stretches between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, on the banks of which lies Baghdad. My new friend talked incessantly about the injustice of the sanctions.
He described the suffering of the Iraqi people, how the western media portrays all Iraqis as evil and how virtually everything is interpreted by the UN to have a double usage, that is both civilian and military, and thus prohibited under the embargo. He condemned the regular bombing of Iraqi territory by US and British warplanes ten years after the Iraqi military had retreated from Kuwait and how Iraqis are being punished by illnesses and death caused by the massive use of depleted uranium weapons against Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. He of course never mentioned Saddam Hussein or his role in the situation.
I was in Iraq to photograph the effects of the embargo, but more importantly to investigate and photograph the effects of depleted uranium on the Iraqi people ten years after the Gulf War. Depleted uranium is a mildly radioactive byproduct of enriched nuclear fuel production. Its high density makes it particularly effective for use in weapons designed to pierce armored vehicles and military installations in a theater of war.
When DU weapons explode however they become super heated, vaporizing into microscopic particles that can be inhaled, absorbed into the skin and dispersed in the environment. In this state they are believed to be highly toxic. There have been many reports of sharp increases in cancers, birth defects and mysterious illnesses amongst the Iraqi people since the war.
There is the well known enigma of Gulf War Syndrome among American soldiers that served in the liberation of Kuwait. And now similar cases were beginning to appear in European soldiers that had served in Bosnia and Kosovo where DU warheads were also employed; the Balkan Syndrome. However, the
United States government as well as European Union officials continue to claim that exhaustive testing has been conducted and that
there is virtually no health risks associated with depleted uranium.
As the desert gave way to date palm groves and cultivated fields which in turn transformed into the urban sprawl of Baghdad, I was wondering how freely I would be able to work and how objective I would be able to be. Upon arrival in Baghdad I would have to check in with the foreign press office at the Ministry of Information. I would be assigned a "guide" who would "help" me and be with me at all times while I was working. For this privilege I would pay $50 for every day I was in Iraq. My opinionated passenger realized his monologue was coming to an end as we approached the city. He wished me luck with my work and a pleasant stay in Iraq. With a wry smile he said, "In Iraq we say that there are four fingers between reality and falsehood." Placing his hand on the side of his head, his four fingers lying on his temple between his ear and his eye, he continued, "the distance between what one hears from others and what one sees for himself."
The first days in Baghdad were filled with information gathering from UN officials, Iraqi authorities and doctors who specialized in treating and researching the effects of depleted uranium on their patients.
I also visited a few of the standard stops on the tour that nearly all foreign journalists must take: the Saddam Hussein Children’s Hospital; the Hotel Rachid with its famous entrance mosaic of George Bush Sr.’s face which everyone who enters or exits the hotel must walk over; the Amiriya bomb shelter, now a memorial to the 400 civilians who were incinerated when two American missiles seeking Saddam Hussein penetrated the shelter’s reinforced roof; and the Baghdad flea market which has boomed since the Gulf War as Iraqis sell household items for extra income and buy items they can no longer find or afford to buy new.
Everyone I spoke to, including the foreign head of the WHO in Iraq as well as Iraqi doctors and health ministers, cited studies and statistics and seemed genuinely convinced that depleted uranium was linked to the very real augmentation of cancers and congenital anomalies in Iraq.
Dr. Selma al-Taha, who did her medical studies at Edinburgh University in Scotland and is director of Iraq’s only genetic laboratory at Baghdad University Medical Hospital, told me that beside the numbers, US soldiers, European soldiers in the Balkans, Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi civilians in the south are all being stricken by many of the same ailments. She said, "they come from different cultures, they live in different places, they eat different food. The only thing they all have in common is exposure to these weapons. Iraq was at war with Iran for eight years and we never had this problem because we didn’t have depleted uranium weapons. These illnesses must be connected to depleted uranium."
Next I went to the heart of the problem, Basrah, Iraq’s southern most city near the Kuwait border and at the head of the Persian Gulf. This region was heavily bombed during the war and is therefore hardest hit by the effects of depleted uranium contamination. I visited Basrah’s hospitals.
Like most institutions in Iraq, they are all named after Saddam Hussein. At Basrah’s Saddam Hussein Medical College Hospital, Dr. Jawad al-Ali described the difficulty the staff had in obtaining everything from consistent supplies of chemotherapy to simple antibiotics. He explained that they had a very good blood donation system, but they didn’t have the proper storage bags to keep the blood, so the hospital was nevertheless in constant shortage of blood for transfusions.
As he led me to the cancer wards, we stood in front of a bank of six elevators. Everyone was crowded in front of one door on the far end. Dr. Jawad noticed the curious look on my face and explained that they had to use the parts from five elevators to make one work because they couldn’t get elevator spare parts. All of this was blamed on the embargo. He said that even when items are approved by the UN, it is often months and years before suppliers are contracted and orders are delivered.
Further south, along the infamous "highway of death" where columns of retreating Iraqi tanks and military vehicles were destroyed by allied warplanes lie the villages of Zubair and Safwan. The desert around these hamlets are still littered with the remains of tanks, many of which are still radioactive. In the village of Safwan I met Nathum Mehsen and his family.
Nathum suffers from a horrible skin cancer most likely caused by the destruction of one of these tanks.
During the war Nathum was an infant.
Close to the family’s house a tank was struck by a missile and lay burning for several days, covering the area in thick black smoke. Several months later Nathum began having skin problems on his face and chest which progressed to a full-blown cancer that has disfigured the boy.
It has been estimated that there is over 300 tons of depleted uranium that has seeped into Iraq’s ecosystem. This region also produces most of Iraq’s tomatoes and cucumbers. No one knows what the long term effects of DU will be on the environment and food chain.
My guide Samir was always present while I was working. However, except for a few exceptions, I was permitted to photograph and work as I wished.
Saddam’s palaces, which are ubiquitous in Iraq, were strictly off limits
as were military bases which were surprisingly less apparent than I expected. Paradoxically, back in Baghdad when I wanted to photograph a poor neighborhood and some beggars, I was not allowed. I explained that I was merely trying to show how the sanctions were hurting the Iraqi economy and Iraqi citizens.
I would have thought that this would fit right into Saddam’s propaganda scheme, however my guide said that I wasn’t to take photos that offend the dignity of the Iraqi people. It seems Iraqi pride is stronger than the will to manipulate information.
In light of the many unanswered questions about depleted uranium and the perception that anything that comes out of Iraq is fabricated propaganda, I didn’t want the validity of this story to rely on statistics that could be put into doubt. I had also had my fill of hospitals. I began to look for unusual cases or cancer clustering that would clearly point to something out of the ordinary and might visually link these maladies to depleted uranium.
Among others, I found the extended family of Mohammed Yasin Essa. This was the only time during my stay in Iraq that I was threatened.
Mr. Essa is the eldest of a clan of seven brothers, all with many children. Mr Essa and one of his brothers live in a village near a military target that was repeatedly bombed during the war. He has four children that were born blind from cataracts and eye deformations after the war. His brother who lives near by has two children, one of which was also born with the same problem. There is no history of blindness in the family and the other brothers who live in other villages have children with normal sight. The day I visited, several of the brothers and their children were at Mr. Essa’s house. There were more than twenty children, all cousins, running around in the yard. Five of them blind.
After spending several hours with the family, I was preparing to leave. Mr. Essa invited me to stay for lunch. I politely declined saying truthfully that we had another family to try and find that afternoon in a distant village. The brothers gathered around and Mr. Essa spoke sternly to my guide.
Translating, my guide said that they were from the desert Jubur tribe and that if I refused their lunch invitation they would have to kill me. "What do you say?" said my guide. I replied that I hadn’t planned on dying that day. They all laughed and I was escorted into the house for a sumptuous meal set out on the floor surrounded by pillows to lay back on.
The effects of depleted uranium are not limited to the south of the country. After the war thousands of soldiers that had been exposed to DU contamination returned to their homes throughout the country. In the tiny village of al-Abbara, two hours north of Baghdad, there are three families that have children born blind from cataracts.
This village was not targeted during the war and the village has no other history of blindness. All three of the fathers though were soldiers who fought in the trenches of the Kuwait desert.
Even more extraordinary, among these three families is the case of Ataalla Mohammed. He served in an artillery post that was repeatedly bombed during the war. He has four children. His eldest son, born before the war, is 12 years old and is perfectly healthy. All three of his subsequent children born after the war are blind. Mr. Mohammed also insisted on feeding me, though he didn’t threaten to kill me. While we ate the hastily prepared, delicious lunch he continuously apologized for serving me such a simple meal. He said that even when people came from the next village to visit they slaughtered a lamb. I had come all the way from Europe and he only offered me copious amounts of chicken, rice, vegetables, breads, yogurt and never ending supplies of chai. Despite being an American journalist, this was typical of the genuine hospitality that I found throughout Iraq.
As my finances began to dwindle, so too did my stay in Iraq. Once again I headed across the desert toward Jordan. Back at the border I saw my old, talkative friend working his baksheesh magic on another group of journalists. While one of his colleagues was rifling through my bags I thought about the four fingers and what I had seen through my camera’s lens. I thought about the haunting images of human suffering that I hadn’t bothered to photograph but remained in my mind’s eye. Despite all the conflicting things I had heard about depleted uranium, I had seen enough to believe that these weapons likely pose serious risk to human health.
To the health of the soldiers that use them, quite obviously to the health of the soldiers against whom they are used, but also long term hazards to civilian populations and to children who were not even born when the conflict took place. I had seen enough to be convinced that at the very least a comprehensive and independent study, like the one that has been called for by the WHO, should be conducted.
At the very best a moratorium on depleted uranium weapons should be put into place until we know for certain the real effects on people and the environment.
The border guard began insisting that I take the AIDS test. "But I’m leaving the country" I said. "And I have an exemption written on my visa in my passport". "Everyone must take the test", he said but..." I understood that he merely wanted the $50 charge that one must pay for taking the obligatory test, but I was out of money and I was tired of doling out baksheesh for everything. Just then a desert storm whipped up and without warning dust enveloped everything. The border guard turned and ran toward the building a few meters away which was no longer visible. My driver and I quickly jumped in the GMC suburban and hurredly drove off toward Amman.
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