Christmas Day In Occupied Iraq
Jo Wilding sent back this report on the mysterious illnesses and subdued Christmas celebrations amongst those living near Baghdad airport.
25th December 2003
At the clinic in Abu Ghraib Dr Jinan says there are patients coming in with illnesses that she and her colleagues can't diagnose. Patients are referred to the main hospital complex at Baghdad Medical City but they return with still no diagnosis and having had no treatment. In particular, there have been patients with bubbles on their skin. They "become hot, like burning coals, get hard and spread". She said they don't understand it.
There's been an enormous increase in allergenic respiratory and skin problems with no apparent trigger. In particular there has been a rise in three conditions - alopecia (hair loss), psoriasis and viteligo (skin problems). These are not infections spreading through the community but auto-immune reactions caused by the body attacking itself. They are related to nerves, so fear and stress could be a factor in the increase, but environmental factors are also believed to be important.
In the row of houses closest to the airport fence every single household reported some kind of skin or breathing problem. Probably the most common was white patches on the skin, which started, for most people, between April and July. Or spots on the skin which turn black and then the skin peels off. Or the blisters or bubbles on the skin that Dr Jinan mentioned, with or without fluid.
Women brought us inside, away from the men, took off their hijabs and showed us bald patches on their heads. The water is contaminated and, to combat that, it's filled with chemicals. It means you can drink it without spending the rest of the week in the toilet but it wrecks your skin. One of the women brought us to her small son whose scalp was like a toadstool of red skin and white pustules under the hair, insanely itchy but too painful to touch.
Immediately after the bombing of the airport, people said, thousands of trucks started removing the soil from the complex. No one can tell us where it was dumped. Other trucks brought fresh soil from elsewhere to replace it and tarmac trucks came in to cover it over. About a month after the bombing, the trucks started leaving their loads closer to the fence, tipping rubble, metal, broken crockery and general debris in the 1st June sector. Kids play and men forage in the heaps between the houses.
One said: "There are no jobs. Sometimes useful things are dumped and we come and find them and sell them." Some of the kids told us about sweets, food and mineral water being thrown out. They go and eat the sweets and bring home the water and military ration MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). "No you don't," scolded one of the mothers. "I do," the child said with a gleeful grin. She went red and said "Well, sometimes."
The November 2003 study by the Uranium Medical Research Committee (UMRC) said: "Witnesses living next to the airport report 3,000 civilians were incinerated by one morning's attack from aerial bursts of thermobaric and fuel air bombs. Since the cessation of the main phase of battle, several of the Baghdad area battlefields... [were] landscaped by the US forces and Iraqi contractors, thus preventing a thorough examination."
One family living near the fence told us that all their chickens died on the day of the bombing. "There was no harm to their bodies, they were still complete, but they were dead." The grandmother's eye ruptured during the bombing. A thermobaric weapon - stop eating before you read this - is essentially a fireball which sucks out all the oxygen in the area. Among other things it sucks out eyeballs and suffocates victims.
"On the day of the bombing the smoke went in his eye and it ran for a week and then stopped and the doctor said he can't operate because the nerves are already destroyed." The five-year-old boy watched us with his other eye and his 22-year-old sister stood in silence as their mother told us she was already deaf and mute from birth. She had her first fit during the bombing at the airport and has had them regularly, every week or ten days, since then. The mother is one of the women who have had several miscarriages in recent years.
The dairy buildings on the other side of the airport are a little further from the fence, the dairy provided a buffer. Less illness was reported there; the same conditions but less concentrated. In the 1st June sector as well, the frequency of problems seemed to decrease in the second and third rows of houses as you move back from the fence.
Health statistics are few and basic. We could get the rate per year of cancers, all types and all ages, for inpatients at the hospital (one or none each year from 1991 to 1996, 7 in 1997, 3 in 1998 and then 11, 16, 15, 19 and 20 respectively for each of the last five years). We could get the monthly incidence of skin and breathing problems for inpatients at the hospital.
We could get nothing about out-patients treated in the clinic, nothing to compare the monthly data for this year with previous years, nothing about the geographical distribution of sufferers, let alone any details of the majority who never go for diagnosis or treatment because they can't afford it, which is why we were chatting about health with the women of the community in the first place.
Because of the threats made, we weren't able to test water, soil and air to map the environmental contaminants which might be responsible and to work out a clean up scheme, but I didn't come here to whine about the nigh-impossibility of doing any research so I'll give it a rest there. What we did achieve was a general picture of health conditions and some of the environmental clean up work that might be needed.
Zakia asked us: "Why don't you tell them to tarmac the road?" That would be an improvement over the mud slide in front of her home, but they need decent drainage as well to get rid of the pools of manky water. They need the piles of rubble taken away so the kids can play somewhere safe and clean.
And they need and they need and they need. A tiny child called Melaak (Angel) was carried by her mum and her brothers and sisters, too weak to walk, suffering from a failure to thrive. She needs vitamins. Her mum's pregnant again with the ninth child, the oldest being 17, out of school and working in a shop so now they've got a heater, after eight years without even that.
Christmas day has been quiet after a night of low flying planes, rather than the usual helicopters and frequent explosions. At the shop last night Ali said the Sheraton Hotel had been hit. This morning our neighbours told us it was hit again about 6am. In the Dora area there was bombing from the air and fire from an anti aircraft gun.
Baghdad's Christians are mostly having a quiet one. Clusters of people by the churches on a Thursday and longer-than-usual queues in the international telephone centres are the only real clue. Firas celebrated last night with basturma. It's meat, mixed with garlic, stuffed in socks to make it the right shape. He says they use women's socks. Somehow this is supposed to make it sound better. The full sock is hung on a line to dry out and then the mixture is sliced and fried with eggs. He says it's the best thing. The sock thing is putting me off. Maybe I'm just too squeamish.
We celebrated Reema's 18th birthday instead. Parties happen in the daytime because it's too difficult and dangerous to go out at night, so we went to a restaurant and ate cake. It was great. It was normal.