Iraqi cancer children receive aid from `Independent' readers

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IT WAS only a refrigerated truck, backing into the broken loading bay of a Baghdad hospital, a squad of sweating Iraqis heaving the boxes from the tailboard and hauling them into the building atop old refuse carts. Across town at the Mansour hospital, we had to use a stretcher to transport the 5,815kg of medicines, stuffing the painfully expensive vinchristine into the director's personal fridge. A bit of an anti-climax, you might say - until you saw the army of children in the wards upstairs.

Weeping with pain, or smiling in innocence of their fate, the cancer children of Iraq - in Mosul, Basra and Baghdad - have, at last, received the almost pounds 100,000 worth of medicines contributed by readers of The Independent after the paper's coverage of their plight last March.

"Have you brought something for me?" a little girl asked as Dr Selma al-Haddad told her quietly that all drugs must be shared equally among the children. In one corner of the cancer ward, Hebba Mortaba lay in a blue dress, a hideous tumour distorting her tiny figure, her mother watching helplessly.

Given United Nations sanctions and Saddam Hussein's own ban on medicine imports, it was, in truth, something of a miracle that our truck made it across the Iraqi desert, finally shepherded around the country's hospitals by the charity, CARE's, two indomitable Iraqi representatives, Margaret Hassan and Judy Morgan. The UN had given us clearance on 15 June and the office of the Iraqi president finally agreed with CARE last month to allow our shipment through, almost certainly after the personal approval of Saddam Hussein.

"The members of the (Security Council) Committee have no objection to the sending of the specified items," the UN's letter concluded. The British documentation at the UN referred to the medical payment as "readers donations from (the) Independent newspaper".

The 58 cartons and boxes of drugs flown from Heathrow to Amman by Royal Jordanian airlines, and then trucked the 500-miles to Baghdad, have been equally distributed to children's hospitals across Iraq.

But were we in time? The truth should be told. Most of the children whose suffering we recounted last February are dead - even the little boy whose portrait became the symbol for The Independent's appeal - and most of the tiny children I have seen in Iraq will die too.

Dr Jawad Ali told me in Basra. "But you must understand what your people have done, they have helped to prolong these small lives, and to improve the quality of life of these children. They are going to die in one month, two months, two years ... yes, perhaps a few will live ... believe me, it is worth bringing your drugs here."

Touring the children's cancer wards, I listened to the same awful stories I heard in February, of families untouched by leukemia until the 1991 Gulf War, of children who brought home pieces of American and British shells and bombs that were almost certainly contaminated with uranium, of parents caught in Allied bombing whose children - born, in some cases, long after the war - have developed tumours. For all of them, Independent readers have brought relief.

It would have been satisfying to report that Independent contributions had saved dozens. perhaps hundreds. of lives. But that would be myth. Yet, our drugs are full courses, two years' treatment that can provide a cure, and they will prolong the lives of the innocent. For, perhaps, just a handful, they will also provide the gift of life.

Khalil's hope, page 3