Dark plumes of smoke cover the skyline. Alongside the road, abandoned factories, rubbish, plastics and metal are piled up. Plastic deserts and scorched skies. Welcome to southern Iraq, where I’ m hoping to find out more about the concerns have been raised about the effects of depleted uranium used in the Gulf wars.
[By Wim Zwijnenburg]
Years of armed conflict, sanctions, a fragile economy and environmental pollution as a result of warfare left a deep scar on the Iraqi society. So far, only little information has been released on the use and impact of depleted uranium and the efforts to clean it up.
After arriving early Monday morning in Basra, we check in our hotel and try to get some rest. Basra, though it’s already October, is still very warm, with temperatures leading up to 40 degrees. It takes a toll on body and mind. First thing I do is try to set up meetings with local and international organizations. From experience I know it works better to call people on arrival instead of trying to make appointments in advance by email. Late afternoon, my local contactperson and ‘fixer’ Rajaa arrives. Without him, it would be so much more difficult to get in touch with the right people, so I’m very grateful for his work. Because of the flexibility of the people working here, I’m able to have two meetings the next day with the Danish Demining Group (DDG) and the International Red Cross.
The next day, a local driver picks me up and gives me a ride to Al Zubayr, a town south of Basra where the DDG is clearing battlefields from unexploded ordnance (UXO’s) and raise awareness on the dangers of mines and UXO’s. While driving along the desert highway, the horizon reflects the Iraqi resources: smoking chimney’s that blacken the horizon by burning oil. Dark plumes of smoke cover the skyline. Alongside the road, abandoned factories, rubbish, plastics and metal are piled up. Plastic deserts and scorched skies. Welcome to southern Iraq.
The compound of DDG is heavily guarded because they work with explosives, and might be prone to attacks. After getting in, I meet with their country manager and operation manager, both former military guys with years of experience. I’m keen to learn if they have come across DU in their work, and what they know about the concerns. They tell me that they’ve heard of the concerns, but haven’t come across in their own work area. Which isn’t much of a surprise since their focus is on clearing battlefields, and hardly deal directly with tanks of armored vehicles. We know from our data that DU has been fired in Al Zubayr, but never heard of someone who came across it. But reports from NGOs in this area mentioned concerns about elevated levels of cancers and made the link with DU. During our conversation, they point out that scrap metal collectors are most vulnerable if there is contamination, and hardly any work is done on analyzing scrap metal places for contamination. But they also mention how difficult it is to make the link with DU and increased health concerns, considering decades of pollution by the oil industries, releasing hydrocarbons into the air, many of those factories near populated area’s. I can only concur the difficulties in making a good assessment of who’s responsible for what. But lacking the precise information on where DU has been fired, how much and against which targets also is an obstacle of making a good assessment.
I have a quick lunch with the partner organization of my colleague, and head off to the office of the International Red Cross Society (ICRC). They tell me that the ICRC received numerous reports from tribal leaders in the rural areas who want DU to be cleaned up and request for medical care. Apparently, they have huge concerns about the potential contamination. And although it’s not clear if DU was found there, their concerns should be taken serious.
Later that evening I meet a French journalist who is making a documentary about DU in Iraq. We decide to do some work together and visit the hospitals the day after to talk with Iraqi doctors. We end the evening with a meeting with an Iraqi journalist who wrote an extensive article on the problems with DU in the Basra region, and was very helpful during my last trip in providing contacts. That’s an important lesson that I’ve learned in Iraq: you can’t really plan ahead, just go there, and things will pop up naturally. It’s about meeting the right people and having a lot of patience. By 10 PM we’re really hungry and decide to get some food from the hotel restaurant, which luckily is quite delicious. While smoking shisha and sipping our dark, strong Iraqi cardamom tea, we can look back on a long, exhausting and fruitful day.