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We don’t usually start articles with warnings, but some of the pictures in the gallery are incredibly distressing. We omitted some on the grounds that they were just too upsetting, but the ones that we do run, we do so with full permission, and because we feel that this is an important story.
You might remember Karlos Zurutuza from his photos of Baloch insurgents, his guide to warzone hotels or maybe, if you like reading news and knowing what’s going on in the world, you will have seen his work elsewhere. During recent trips to Iraq, Karlos waded into a story that even in the quagmire of depressing awfulness that is Iraqi news, stands out as brutally distressing. We had a chat with him about the medical fallout of the Iraq War and specifically its effects on children in Fallujah. You can read his original report on this here.
VICE: Hi Karlos. Thanks for sending me these photos, I guess. Where were you when you first came across this story?
Karlos Zurutuza: I covered it for the first time in Basra—the place that has been most affected by war in the last 30 years, because it’s between the borders of Iran and Kuwait. We’re talking about the Iran-Iraq war too, here. It’s a fucking mess. I had been to Fallujah before, but I didn’t have any access to the hospital then. The last time I went, I did. Fallujah is particularly interesting because it is being called “the Iraqi Hiroshima”—the town was obliterated in 2004, in the Battle of Fallujah. There were two battles. The second one was the biggest. It all started when they found those four bodies.
Were those the bodies of the security contractors?
Yeah, the security men hanging from the bridge. After that happened somebody decided that Fallujah was an al-Qaeda stronghold and so they used all kinds of weapons. At first the coalition denied that they had used white phosphorus in Fallujah. Or at least they claimed it was only used to “illuminate targets.” White phosphorus is meant to melt metal, so you can imagine what kind of effect it has on the human body. There’s also the issue of depleted uranium, but the US has denied using it. There is a well-known relationship between the increase in cancer cases and the use of depleted uranium.
How was it in terms of getting access? Did the doctors want people to know about what has been happening?
Well, you get all sorts of reactions. All of them want to show you what is going on, what is happening, but several of them are afraid that they may lose their jobs. So you have to go through a bureaucratic process, ask for permission, that kind of thing. Fallujah is mostly a Sunni town, in a Sunni neighborhood, in a Sunni district, and a Sunni region: Anbar. The Sunnis are actually somewhat neglected today by the Shias in power in Iraq and a part of their plight is the effect of the war in Fallujah among the kids.
This is the first generation of Iraqis to be born since the most recent allied invasion, right? What sorts of health issues are they seeing there?
Cancer, leukemia, and congenital birth defects and deformities. It seems that the number of cases have grown dramatically, and are on the rise.
And presumably even for those that were taken to hospital, the level of care is quite limited due to the situation?
Yes, for example in Basra, George Bush’s wife, Laura Bush, built a brand new hospital. So, they build this hospital, and it looks wonderful from the inside, I mean I haven’t even seen any hospitals that nice back home. But, it turns out that there is no radiotherapy equipment and they end up waiting for the equipment for over a year, as they couldn’t agree who would pay the storage fee.
So the essential equipment was sitting in storage?
Yeah, for a year, while people were dying. So this year they told me that they had to wait 16 months before they got the equipment. Once it was in the hospital they didn’t have the tools to set it up, so it’s still not working. It’s now been two years.
I guess without that equipment, the doctors don’t have a lot they can do for the children.
There’s this NGO called the Children’s Cancer Organization, set up by a man who was trying to finance trips for the children to Iran and Jordan and Syria. Iran is the cheapest option for treatment, the only other place you can get therapy in Iraq is Baghdad, but the waiting list is enormous and people can’t wait. He’s got children who were born with cancer.
Is that what made him start the NGO?
Yeah, that spurred him on. The problem here is that many parents take their children to the hospital, but a lot of them are from rural areas and they can’t commute back and forth. The women often stay at the hospital, but the men have to keep on working. The women spend months in the hospital, and so a lot of the time it leads the families to break up because of the pressure. Many of these people can’t afford even a half hour bus journey, it is a tragedy. It is not only about health, it’s the whole society that is breaking up because of this, because they have no resources. Not only that, many of these parents are ashamed of their children’s conditions, too.
And does the US government deny that they used the weapons, the health effects of those weapons or both?
They deny both. They won’t admit that they are using depleted uranium. Even Nato has requested an investigation into the use of these weapons, but there has been no response. When I was in Libya and went to places obliterated by bombs I was very aware of this. I wouldn’t touch anything there, and there were people jumping on tanks to get a picture and so on, but I was thinking, “that might be poisoned.”
To learn more about the impact of war on children across the world, visit ChildVictimsOfWar.org.uk.