Iraq: Slow death of the war children

Are the air raids of the Gulf war still claiming victims? Robert Fisk reports from the cancer ward of a Basra hospital
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The Independent Online
MATAR ABBAS is dying. In the corner of the cancer ward at the Basra teaching hospital, the wreckage of his emaciated body seems to mock the broad, pale blue Shatt al-Arab river outside the window. He has already lost an eye and is hawking mucus into a handkerchief, his scarf slipping from his head to reveal the baldness of chemotherapy treatment, part of his face horribly deformed by the cancer that is now eating into his brain. He comes from Nasiriyah, the city whose outskirts were shelled and bombed by the Allied forces in the last days of the 1991 Gulf war, the conflict that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

His wife, Ghaniyeh, wears an elaborate black chador. She is a peasant woman with tattoos on her face, and stayed throughout the war with Matar - a 60-year-old former taxi-driver with nine children - on the road between Amara and Misan. "We saw the flashes of the bombs but nothing was bombed near us," she recalled, speaking carefully as if her memory might somehow save her doomed husband. "We were safe." But Dr Jawad Khadim al-Alia begs to disagree. "We rarely saw these types of tumours before the war," he said, gently touching Matar's right ear.

Dr al-Ali smiles a lot, although - from time to time - you notice tears in his eyes and realise that he might also be a spiritually broken man. He looks a little like Peter Sellers, physically small with thinning hair and a drooping moustache. But there is nothing funny about his commentary.

"Because of the tumour in his ear, Matar Abbas is now unable to talk or take food and is deaf," he said matter-of-factly. "He came for his first treatment only on January 16th, with a swelling and an inability to talk or drink. The biopsy showed cancer. I am giving him cytotoxic chemotherapy - but later on, the cancer will go to his brain and his lungs. He will probably live one year - not more."

The doctor led me across the room to where Zubeida Mohamed Ali lay, chadored, on her bed. She comes from Zubayr - close to the Iraqi air base that was saturated with allied bombs in a series of raids that started on the night of 13 February, 1998. "She has tumours of the lymph nodes and they have infiltrated her chest," Dr al-Ali said. "She is suffering shortness of breath." Zubeida is 70.

Opposite lay 55-year old Jawad Hassan, diagnosed with cancer of the stomach two years ago. He lived almost next to the Basra television station that was the target of Allied bombing. "He was exposed to fumes and bombs at his home," Dr al-Ali continued. "He was also close to the river bridges that were bombed. He is losing weight despite our treatment, which makes his prognosis very bad."

The man, prematurely aged, looked at me with a blank expression. "Ever since I was exposed to the fumes of the bombings, I complained about pains in my abdomen," he said. The implications of what these cancer victims were saying was so terrible that I almost wished my visit had been a feeble attempt to set up a visiting journalist with an easy-to-expose lie, a crude attempt by Saddam's regime to raise a grave moral question over the entire Gulf war.

But Dr al-Ali had no idea that we were visiting him until the moment we walked into his office. His patients did not expect visitors. And if some of them were - like so many cancer victims elsewhere in the world - elderly, what was to be made of the flock of men and women, young and old, who were waiting outside Dr l-Ali's oncology department?

"It's a tragedy for me," Dr al-Ali said, pointing to a tall, handsome youth standing amid a group of women. "I'm losing friends every day - this boy has Hodgkin's lymphoma. This girl is suffering lung cancer." She was small, petite, with a big, smiling, moon-like face.

Another, Fawzia Abdul-Nabi al Bader, was a 51-year-old English teacher who walked into the department office and pulled her collar down to show a suture on her neck and then opened her blouse to show the scar where her right breast should have been. "Why should this have happened to me?" she asked. "My first operation was in 1993. Until that, my health was very good."

In his office, Dr al-Ali's maps tell their own story. "Number of cancer patients of all kinds in the Basra area," it says over a map of the Basra governorate, sliced up into yellow, red and green segments. The yellow, mainly to the west of the city, represents the rural and desert areas from which few cancer patients come. A green area to the north indicates an average incidence of cancer. But a large blood-red rectangle in the centre stands for the almost 400 cancer patients whom Dr al-Ali had to treat last year alone. It is his thesis that the battlefields in the yellow area to the west contaminated the water, the fields, even the fish with depleted uranium and nitrite, contaminating the land not only for survivors of the war but for those still to be born.

Back in the last days of the conflict, United States strategists were debating whether the damage to Iraq's infrastructure - the bombing of water pipes, power plants and oil refineries - would take the lives of Iraqis in the months or years to come. But never did they suggest that a policy of bomb-now, kill-later would ever involve cancer.

In Baghdad, hundreds of children - most of them from the south - have died of leukaemia and stomach cancer since the war. Many were sent there by Dr al-Ali. "Everyone of us is in despair," he said in his Basra cancer ward. "It is a great burden on me - I am losing many of these patients every day. They need bone-marrow transplants but we cannot give them to them. I cannot sleep at night for thinking about them."

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