Iraq's children: Paying Washington's price with their lives

Albright says it's "worth it".

by Felicity Arbuthnot, UK

February 1998


TO reflect on seven years of visits to Iraq since the Gulf War is to reflect on decline from the impossible to the apocalyptic.

When Martti Ahtisaari, then special raporteur to the United Nations visited the country just after the Gulf War, he wrote that: "Nothing we had seen or read could have prepared us for this particular devastation, a country reduced to a pre-industrial age for a considerable time to come."

In the forty-five days of the Gulf War 56,133.32 tonnes of ordinance was dropped on Iraq-exceeding the 47,777.78 tonnes dropped in the forty five months of the Second World War.

Unknown to the public or the allied troops at the time, much of the ordnance was coated with depleted uranium (DU) comprising a new and deadly generation of weapons whose effects linger long after the bombs and the guns are silent.

DU, waste from the nuclear industry, has replaced titanium as armour piercing coating. When a bullet or missile makes contact with a target, it bums and produces a fine dust. It is both toxic and radioactive. Inhaled, according to experts, it can cause cancers and can settle in the kidneys and lead to nephritus (kidney death).

In 1990, the UK Atomic Energy Authority sent a report to the government estimating that if 50 tonnes of residual dust was left in the area as a result of hostilities, there could be half a million extra cancer deaths by the end of the century. Some experts now estimate that up to 700 tonnes remains. DU remains radioactive for four thousand five hundred million years.

Whilst the Pentagon and Whitehall state that it is "only very very mildly radioactive", when Professor Siegwart-Horst Guenther, founder of the Austrian Yellow Cross, took a DU bullet-correctly encased in a lead-lined box-back to Germany from Iraq for analysis in 1993, he was arrested at Berlin airport, the bullet had activated all the radiation sensors.

When I went to Iraq in early 1992, doctors were already remarking in bewilderment on the increase in birth deformities-some so grotesque and unusual that they expected to see them only in text books, or perhaps once or twice in a lifetime.

They were, ironically, comparing them to the birth defects seen in Bikini and the Pacific islands after nuclear testing, yet it was not until the following year that it was realised that radioactive weapons had been used. They were also noting a dramatic rise in cancers, especially in children.

Not with a bang, but with a whimper indeed.

Ironically, treatments for cancers are vetoed by the Sanctions Committee, since they contain minute traces of radiation, so little that Iraqis, in their irradiated land, cannot avail themselves of- the therapeutic value of radiation, only suffer its most deadly consequences.

According to a US Army study: "If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological ." (U S Army Environment Policy Institute: Health and Environment Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the US Army, June 1995).

Almost any household one enters in Iraq has a sort of "black souvenir" of the Gulf War-sitting on a shelf somewhere is a piece of a missile or a spent bullet, silently emitting radiation. On a visit to a centre set up to counsel severely psychologically damaged children-in what psychologists refer to as one of the "most traumatised child population on earth" as a result of the Gulf War-I saw a chilling sight.

The centre was a far cry from the schools, devoid of the most basic of items-even pencils and exercise books have been vetoed by the Sanctions Committee-light, bright and airy, it was normality in a land reduced to absolute abnormality.

Toy and book companies in Scandinavia had donated colourful building blocks, mobiles which hung gaily from the ceiling, doves of peace decorated pastel walls. Fluffy toys sat on rows of shelves-and between them, small pieces of cold, hard metal-pieces of radioactive missiles.

"The children pick them up and bring them in," a psychotherapist remarked, "it is their way of coming to terms with their fear, their way of healing themselves..." The irony and tragedy left me, unusually. lost for words.

When, later, I expressed my concern to an eminent physician, who had worked in Britain and saved many British lives, he fell silent, then looked at me and said very quietly: "We are afraid, we are all very afraid..."

In one hospital ward there was the manifestation of this fear. Two children, one aged three, Ali Lazam (his name translated as "the vital one") and the other aged five, lay, in terrible pain, bleeding internally, covered in bruises from leaking capillaries, bloated with oedema, damp with perspiration.

Ali Lazam was making tiny mewing noises, his eyes full of unshed tears. He had learned not to cry, sobs wracking his small frame further, intensifing his agony. The older one was in the same condition, but when I bent to stroke his puffy little face, his small hand came up and grabbed mine and squeezed it with all his might, a gesture of trust, pleading and spontaneity.

I left the ward, leaned against a wall and prayed for the ground to open and swallow me up. For the people of Iraq, for the children of Iraq, from the radiation to the embargo, the war has never ended. There is no escape into normality and as we threaten to bomb again, there is no hiding place.

"This is worst: than the war" a doctor told me in 1992, "we knew that the war must end, but we do not know whether this will ever end." He had spent the war treating patients and operating on them, by candlelight, often without anaesthetic, often without sleep for three nights.

He recounted undertaking a painful peritoneal dialysis operation, in the dark, in an operating theatre whose windows had been broken in the blast from a missile which had hit an adjoining building: "When I move forward, the hot wax drips on to the patient's stomach, when I stand back, you can't see," his colleague, who was holding the candle, remarked. Yet the embargo "was worse...".

In late 1993, psychologists whose concern is for children in war zones, were reporting what they described as a unique phenomenon. Many children in Iraq no longer played games-they reminded them of the dead friends that used to play with them.

"Children are surprisingly resillent" Professor Magne Raundalen, who heads the Centre for Crisis Studies in Bergen, Norway, told me. "But the children of Iraq are not progressing as I would expect, they are regressing." But they had heard the bombs fall again in 1993 -- and in some psychological surveys up to 80 per cent of children thought they would not live to grow up.

I went back to the trauma centre that year and met a small boy who became physically sick at the sight of blue jeans. He had been wearing a precious pair his uncle had sent him from America, when the bombs fell. His best friend was killed. I met little Naira who could not drink-in the searing heat of Baghdad. She used to offer her special friend, from whom she was inseparable, water from her little container before she drank herself-a traditional Iraqi gesture. Her friend was killed in the bombing.

On a later visit I met Ali, whose father was killed in the Gulf War. His body was returned home-unlike many in General Norman Schwartzkopf's "turkey shoot"-and Ali went to the funeral, he was three years old. The graveyard was near his home. Every day for three years, Ali ran repeatedly to t-e grave: and dug at it with his small hands, saying: "It's alright Daddy, you can come out now, the men who put you there have gone away...".

Whilst trauma at this level was there for anyone who cared to see, UN personnel could frequently be observed, in their leisure time, sporting T-shirts with "Air Power" emblazzoned on the front.

Bv 1994 Dieter Hannusch of the Rome based World Food Programme was writing that this formerly largely developed country-with, prior to the Gulf War, 92 per cent access to clean water and 93 per cent access to high quality, free health care and similar education and nutrition had, for the most part, a lower calorific intake than Mali.

In 1995 Hannusch wrote that: "...time is running out for the children of Iraq." Time ran out for seven year-old Yasmin that year. Named after the sweet scented yellow flowers, she had developed a minor heart defect just after the Gulf War. "When the embargo is over, we will operate and her health should be perfect," her parents were told. In five years a minor defect became a major one and her damaged little heart could no longer sustain her frail body.

I was in the ward at the El Baladi Hospital, formerly a flagship institution, as her fledgling life flickered and went out. I can still hear the screams of her mother and grandmother as they rushed front the ward and across a busy road, oblivious to all but their agony. "Yasmin, Yasmin, Yasmin..." they cried -and her name floated back through the open windows and over her small, cooling body.

In 1996 one third of surviving children-one third of Iraq's population is under 15 -- were estimated to be suffering stunted growth or impaired intelligence resulting from malnutrition.

The inexcusable and draconian nature of the embargo was reinforced for me in December 1997. Although the temperature was relatively cool, there was an epidemic of flies. Stagnant water or sewage lay in many streets due to a lack of parts for pipes which were fractured or bombed seven years ago this month. Water is still unsafe in many areas, thus fly and water-borne diseases are endemic.

Invited to homes for a meal to which everyone in the neighbourhood has contributed something, in dire straits but still extending the overwhelming Iraqi hospitality, one person stands on "fly drill". Literally standing over the table waving hands or fly swatter.

Not one to be enthusiastic about chemicals in the home, even I was driven to suggest that this was desperate and fly spray was essential. Fly spray, it transpired, has been vetoed by the Sanctions Committee. Ironically, Iraq is being accused of having the capability for biological and chemical warfare. Now this may or may not be correct, but like the silent radiation pervading the countty, lack of ability to guarantee clean water or eradicate flies, are equally silent and deadly chemical and biological dangers.

An illustration of this came two days later. In the Unicef building in Baghdad, a woman ran through the door near demented and barely coherent in grief. It was a Thursday. The story, sobbed out, was of nightmares. She had five children. On the Monday, the youngest had become very sick with diarrhoea: waxen, dehydrated, cold. With no transport, she had run with him in her arms, to the hospital. The hospital had re-hydratiori fluid, but no gastro-nasal high protein food or necessary tubing and no anti-biotics. Her baby died.

She carried him home to arrange burial (Islamic tradition is that burial is within 12 hours) to find another child equally sick. She returned to the hospital to relive the same scenario, the same anguish. This was repeated with a third child. She had come to Unicef to beg for medicines for her two remaining children, who too had developed the same symptoms. Unicef Baghdad writes reports and undertakes surveys on the health effects of the embargo and the effects of malnutrition and was unable to assist.

Displayed large in the foyer of the Unicef building is the UN Convention on Human Rights of the Child, the most signed-up-to international Convention in history, with 187 nations agreed to adhere to its principles.

They include the right to life, protection, lack of racial discrimination, education... "keeping the promise to children" is the vow on Unicefs compliment slip.

"We must ensure that there is a place at the table for all the world's children", said President Clinton, in his address to the 50th UN General Assembly. Not if the child is from Iraq, Cuba, north Korea, Somalia or any other embargoed country. The UN itself has broken "the promise to children" and as Britain and the US prepare again to bomb the children of Iraq, who shiver uncontrollably in thunderstorms, thinking the bombers are about to return, the promise is again broken.

Asked on the US television programme "60 Minutes" on 12 May 1996 whether the cost of the lives of over half a million children "was worth it" in order to get rid of Iraq's President, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (then US Ambassador to the UN) replied that it is a hard choice, but the price-we think the price is worth it."

I am sorry Ali, I am sorry Ali Lazam, I am sorry Yasmin, I am sorry Naira, I am sorry to you all, whose small faces look at me from so many photographs, You were just "a hard choice...a price that was worth it".




I, Vampire
Read Chapter 1
Reviews on

Passing for Human
Read Chapter 1
Malzberg Review of Passing for Human


An Orientation
Censorship in Our Time?
I See Dead People
The Elements of Disaster
Dog Park Incident
Florence of Arabia
The Silence of the Hacks
A Nutshell in India
Sleep Tight, Ya Morons!
Spin Control
When This War is Over
Iraqi Children

Designed and Hosted by CyberSpyder Web Services