The radioactive weapons used by foreign troops in Iraq over the last two decades will continue to take the lives of children for years to come. Deutsche Welle met with families that have lived on the frontline.
Sandwiched between the borders of Kuwait and Iran, Basra lies above Iraq's largest oil reserves. Accordingly, the population in the country's southernmost province has suffered war to a much larger degree than any other region: from the war with Iran in the 1980s to the Gulf War in 1991 and the US-led invasion in 2003.
Heading south across the desert, the only telling landmarks that Basra is approaching are the black smoke columns from Rumaila's oil refinery, or the war debris littering both sides of the road. Much of this junk was destroyed during both Gulf wars by uranium-impregnated shells. Military engineers say depleted uranium munitions significantly improve the destructive performance of weapons.
Years later, the radioactive particles still fill the air alongside the emissions from the oil refineries and break into the food chain through the rain, or the stubble that the cattle eat on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. Basra's air and water are poisoned. Even the few palm trees suffer from mysterious illnesses that make them lose their leaves.
Iraq's second-largest city lies on the shores of the Persian Gulf, where summer temperatures often reach 60 degrees Celsius with 90 percent air humidity. Still, people are advised to avoid showers "as much as possible."
A nightmare in figures
The possible link between radioactive metal and health problems has not been conclusively proven. Yet many babies in Basra are born with no brain, no eyes or the intestines out of their gut. Khulut and her daughter are two of the many victims of the ruined environment.
"I was expecting twins but, instead, I had a girl with two heads," Khulut told Deutsche Welle. "My father said it was punishment from Allah but the doctors put the blame on radioactivity." She lost her baby a few days later.
According to a 2005 study by the University of Baghdad, cases of birth defects increased tenfold in Basra between 1989 and 2001. The number of cancer cases among children under 15 grew by four.
A more recent joint study published last year by the University of Washington and the University of Basra concluded that Basra's childhood leukemia rates more than doubled over a 15-year period. They compared unfavorably to those of neighboring Kuwait and nearby Oman, as well as the US and the European Union.
"We observed 698 cases of childhood leukemia between 1993 and 2007, ranging between 15 cases in the first year and 56 in the final year, reaching a peak of 97 cases in 2006," stated the report published by the American Journal of Public Health. The study also noted that the incidence of cancer was significantly higher in Basra province than in other parts of Iraq.
In 2010, the Basra Children's Hospital, specializing in paediatric oncology, opened its doors. Built mostly by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the $166 million (126 million euros) facility was initiated by former First Lady Laura Bush and funded with US capital.
Khulut is at the hospital with her second child. Amir has leukemia but his recovery options are fading by the day. Bureaucratic problems add to his already advanced stage of the disease.
"This child needs urgent radiotherapy treatment but the equipment had been stuck for 16 months at the port due to an administrative dispute over who should pay port fees," a hospital oncologist, who preferred not to give his real name, told Deutsche Welle. "We finally got it last August but we haven't been able to operate it yet due to technical problems we cannot solve."
Despite the impressive state-of-the-art facility, the physician also complained of the lack of qualified staff, advanced equipment and medicines. When enquired on the issue, the hospital's head manager told Deutsche Welle that he could not make any comments "without Baghdad's approval."
"My name is Mahmoud and I'm 12 years old," said the youngest of Leyla al-Ugaily's five children. He speaks in the English he learned at school. At the foot of her bed, his mother hides a bashful smile of pride with the black cloth of her veil.
"This is the first time he speaks English with a foreigner," she told Deutsche Welle. Leyla is from al-Qurna, a small village northwest of Basra, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers merge into a single stream. Mahmud was diagnosed with bone cancer in June last year. The illness has had a brutal impact on his family. Today, his mother dedicates her full day to him after leaving her other children in the hands of relatives.
"We have no money to commute everyday from home so I have to sleep here, there's no other option," the 32-year-old said.
There are many other patients here who share Mahmud's same symptoms, but also children suffering from lymphoma, leukemia or brain cancer. These are also recurrent diagnoses among many of the thousands of sick American soldiers who took part in the two wars in Iraq.
The Pentagon still does not see any direct connection between the use of depleted uranium and cancer. But Britain, which controlled Basra province from 2003-2007, is starting to redirect its stance toward that of veterans and doctors. They are pointing to uranium as the main cause of what is known as the "Gulf War Syndrome" - chronic multi-symptom illnesses which cannot be medically explained.
Nasser Mutashar is another regular visitor to Basra Children's Hospital. The 29-year-old is here with his second sick child.
"After the death of my seven-year-old daughter to leukemia last year, I did not feel able to go through the same nightmare again," Nasser told Deutsche Welle. "I could not come back to the hospital to visit my child. He too has leukemia, and in an advanced stage. I had to quit my construction job to be with Muhammad during his last days."
He and his wife have a third child, who is younger than Muhammad. At the moment, everything seems fine. There are no symptoms causing alarm bells to ring. However, Nasser recognizes that he can hardly cope with the prospect looming.
"The Americans invaded Iraq using the excuse of weapons of mass destruction, but they had already used them against us before," he said. "They have ruined our lives."
Experts say that depleted uranium has a life of four billion years. Accordingly, Basra will remain poisoned until the end of times.
Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Basra, Iraq
Editor: Sabina Casagrande