Iraq Appeal: Life-saving drugs arrive in children's cancer wards

Robert Fisk revisits hospitals in Baghdad and Basra where young leukaemia sufferers now have some hope, thanks to the generosity of our readers
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The Independent Online
NOUR SHEHAB and Hala Saleh are aged 10, Haitham Ahmed and Moustapha Jaber are eight; Dhamia Qassem is 13, Tiba Favel only 18 months. All have acute leukaemia, except for Moustapha, who has lymphoma.

Their names, and those of dozens of others in Iraq's child cancer wards, will be unfamiliar to readers of the Independent on Sunday who, through their generosity, have given these children a new chance of life. A few will live to be adults because, last February, our stories and photographs from Iraq's hospitals moved so many who read of their plight.

None of these children saw the two women from CARE International deliver the almost pounds 100,000- worth of drugs - paid for by readers of the Independent and Independent on Sunday - to the hospitals in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. The only change they noticed was the sudden presence of the bespectacled Western reporter with his old-fashioned Nikon camera, introduced to their parents as the mourasil (correspondent) from the gerida inglisi (English newspaper).

But the doctors understood. In Basra, Dr Akram Hammoudi, director of the children's hospital, held out his arms in thanks after reading the list of drugs delivered to his hospital. The names - metoclopromide, cloxacillin, vincristine (the most expensive, refrigerated from Heathrow to Amman and across the Iraqi desert to Baghdad), and dextrose and vancomycin - were those they had pleaded for last February, when we revealed the tragedy of Iraq's child cancer victims.

Most of the children whose stories we told, and whose photographs we printed, have since died. Yet if tragedy seems to lie behind every story of hope in the Middle East, the story of those now-dead children has helped to prolong or save the lives of the sick girls and boys who have taken their place in the beds of Iraq's cancer wards.

One little boy whose photograph I took last February, Ali Haidar, suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, is still alive and able to benefit from our readers' contributions. Some of those I saw on this trip will not survive; they lay, curled up on their beds, crying in pain. Others, smiling wistfully, even mischievously, have a life in front of them.

But if our drugs come as a message of hope for some of them, the question remains: why have so many children in Iraq - especially in the southern provinces - been found to have cancer in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war?

Western medical officials and doctors have, since our first investigation, sent us mountains of evidence suggesting that US and British use of depleted uranium shells may have contaminated the ground in southern Iraq. Some parents talked to us in Baghdad and Basra of harsh smells following Allied attacks on Iraqi factories; one spoke of the destruction of a pesticide plant which might, of course, have been a biological warfare facility. Many more told of how their families brought home bright, shining metal fragments of bombs and shells - most of them inevitably contaminated with radiation. Children born to these families after the war have been found to have leukaemia.

Amid this catastrophe, our readers' generosity may seem irrelevant. But that is not how it appeared in the cancer wards where children whose innocence is uncontaminated by the politics of the Middle East have now been given a new opportunity to survive.

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