Iraq: Dusty farm ditches and disused trenches - the tomato plantations are still killing fields

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The Independent Online
AT FIRST glance, the Adwan family's tomato plantation doesn't look like a killing field. The polythene covers reflect the high, bright winter sun. And when I ask 16-year-old Imad Adwan what happened here during the Gulf war, he glances at the man from the Ministry of Information beside me and says he cannot remember. It pays, you see, to have a short memory in Iraq - and to lie.

As water trickles through the ditches between the rows of pale green bushes, a sharp wind blows out of the desert to the west, just as it did in February 1991, when Major General Tom Rhame's US First Infantry Division - the "Big Red One" - swept up the highway to Safwan, shelling the retreating columns of the Iraqi Republican Guard. Imad Adwan is watching me to see if I have understood his amnesia.

Don't worry, the ministry man tells him, and produces an identity card. The boy grins. "The battles were all around us here - we didn't even stay in the house because we knew it would not give us cover. But we didn't leave. The wrecked tanks are over there." Far beyond the barbed wire surrounding the farm, beyond a stand of trees and another plantation, the rusting victims of General Rhame's attack moulder in the damp earth. Imad's mother has appeared beside us, a scarf around her head, a black dress tugged by the breeze.

She is holding a pale green tomato in her hand. "Please," she says. "It is for you." The tomato is small, plucked from the bush in front of us, a poisoned fruit - according to the Basra doctors down the road - from a poisonous war, grown on a dangerous stem, bathed in fetid water. "The soldiers died on this road," she says, pointing to the highway behind us which leads south-west towards Safwan and the Kuwaiti frontier. "The battles went on for hours. People still get killed - two boys were blown up by mines over there last July." The outline of a collapsed trench shows the fatal spot.

But it is other deaths that we have come about. Are the Adwans worried about their land? Do they know what the doctors say about it? That it could have been "infected" with radiation, contaminated by the depleted uranium anti-tank shells which Imad refused to remember when we arrived? She has heard of cancer cases in the farmlands but none in her family, thanks be to God.

It is then that Hassan Salman walks up to us. He grows tomatoes and onions on the other side of the road. He has a distinguished face, brown from the sun, and is wearing a gold-fringed robe. When we mention cancer, he frowns. "Yes, we have had many cancer cases here," he says. "I think it happened because of the fires and what happened during the battles. The tanks were just down the road." He pauses. "My daughter-in-law died of cancer around 50 days ago. She was ill in the stomach. Her name was Amal Hassan Saleh. She was very young - she was just 21 years old."

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