- 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
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 ñ 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 ñ for they were scarcely human ñ 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
leukaemia 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
ñ 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
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 ñ 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.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd