Cancer is growing in Iraq. Doubling, trebling, perhaps even more – but nobody really knows because there are no reliable statistics. The cause is unknown, for hardly any research has been done. And there is no policy, partly because the problem cannot be mapped out.
The world was shocked by the reports about Falluja, where research by European experts showed a 38-fold increase in leukemia, a tenfold increase in breast cancer and a considerable increase in brain tumors and other cancers. On top of that, many children were born malformed.
The story of Falluja reminded me of Basra, where I reported in 2003 about the increase in cancer and malformed babies. The doctors there sought the cause in the American weapons used in the war of 1991 and again in 2003. The American bombs and explosives were hardened with depleted uranium (DU), and cancer was especially apparent in the area’s which were bombed extensively.
The Americans have always denied the effect of DU, saying that the radiation was too low to be able to cause this. Even when I published my article on Basra in my Dutch newspaper in 2003, the editors of the science desk told me there was no prove that DU caused cancer.
On the other hand, even on the internet one can find warnings to American soldiers to stay out of areas that were bombed with DU explosives, and complaints by American soldiers who left Iraq about an increase of cancer cases amongst them.
The high cancer rate is not only apparent in the south of Iraq: also Kurdistan suffers from it. ,,It is like an infection’’, a medical doctor in Duhok told me recently. In the past, he saw a new case every month, now one or more daily. Since 2003 the amount of cancer cases in the Azadi Hospital in Duhok has doubled, he guesses. But, he complained, there are no statistics, there is not enough equipment, not the right medication.
In search for statistics I went to the head of the health department in Erbil. He did not have them, although he confirmed the increase. Part of it is due to the influx of patients from the South, in search for better treatment and safety, he said. But even without them, the increase of cancer is quite noticeable.
My conclusion was that in the whole of Iraq cancer now is a threat because of the wars that were fought in the past years. Even though better food, cigarettes and more welfare play a role, they do not explain the enormous increase.
I am not a researcher. But I do use my journalists’ eyes, and I remembered the convoys that since 2003 are driven through Kurdistan with scrap metal from the South. The metal from bombed out tanks, houses, buildings – it all travels through Kurdistan to be sold abroad or to be recycled. I visited the scrap yard near Zakho. It is not as big as it was, but I could still find an old tank there.
The Americans came with their geiger counters, so I was told, and took out their own material. They buried it. On top of it now a farmer has grown his crop, and the rainwater will take the radioactivity to the Tigris nearby. When I asked an expert from the University of Duhok about it, he was surprised and went to see. The government answered him that they would have to buy a geiger counter to count the radioactivity.
It does not have to be the scrap metal. It can be the fish from the contaminated Shatt al Arab, it can be the tomatoes grown on land that has been bombed which were transported all over Iraq. But it is clear Iraq has a problem that needs to be researched. How much is the increase in cancer? Where is it the highest? What are the causes? The time bomb needs to be defused.
And if research is not available, we need journalists to do their job. To collect as much information as possible, to combine it and take conclusions, so the government will have to react. Because cancer is a problem that will stay, and will bring even more pain and sadness to this country that has already been hit so hard.
(This article was published in the Kurdish weekly Haftana)