'A painful experience for children'

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

Child, born out of premature delivery, in an old-generation incubator. - PICTURES BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Child, born out of premature delivery, in an old-generation incubator. - PICTURES BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Dr. P.V. Unnikrishnan, a medical doctor with the People's Health Movement, visited Iraq with his colleague S. Parasuraman in February as part of a humanitarian assessment mission facilitated by ActionAid. The purpose of their visit was to study the impact of sanctions on the health status of the population, children in particular, and to understand the preparedness of the people to face the impending war. They were in Baghdad for six days and spent most of their time visiting hospitals, especially paediatric and cancer hospitals. They spent a great deal of time in the Saddam Paediatric and Teaching hospital where a large number of children affected by leukaemia are being treated. They met academicians and social scientists, officials from the Ministry of Health and doctors in the hospital. They also spoke to ordinary citizens from different areas, including Saddam City, a lower middle class slum of around 3 million in Baghdad.

The overwhelming impression that Unnikrishnan and his colleague - they are now trying to organise a humanitarian team of doctors for Iraq - came away with is of a people weakened by sanctions yet determined to fight what they consider brutal foreign aggression.

Excerpts from Dr. Unnikrishnan's conversation with Parvathi Menon:

What were your impressions of the situation in Iraq, the mood and sentiments of a people who faced the certainty of military aggression?

Well, things looked calm on the outside. But people were clearly very worried about the war. You could feel the tension on the day that Hans Blix was presenting his report to the Security Council. I was in the hospital that day. People knew that this man would be deciding their future, but they did not know what he was going to say as he was giving such mixed signals. You could almost hear the sigh of relief once he presented his report.

I talked to several people about the impending war, and there were several reactions. The more optimistic ones said0 that war had been going on for several years, and that they would deal with it. Others said that this was no war, as war is between two parties. This would just be bombing. You can feel the special warmth they have towards people who are in solidarity with them.

With all their difficulties, they are very generous in sharing what they have with visitors and guests.

Some people spoke of the possibility of a civil war between Shias and Sunnis on the issue of support to Saddam Hussein. In times of scarcity and survival, which war brings on, such divisions often arise. This is what happened in Kosovo and Rwanda.

In Baghdad, people appeared to be preparing themselves for war in small ways. Everyone has at least one fire weapon in his or her home. They feel very confident that they will be able to deal with American forces on land.

But the ground war they know will not happen till the Americans flatten Baghdad. "What can we do?" you hear people asking. They cannot leave the city because there is already an informal government order that no one should leave the city. And many of them don't want to. They want to stay back and defend themselves. Saddam Hussein goes on national television every day telling them how they should defend themselves and why it is important to fight the U.S.

So underlying the calm is the worry about the war. The Iraqis are already facing untold hardships since economic sanctions were imposed in 1991.

Have the people of Baghdad been told to take any precautions against the impact of war?

The only precaution that has been taken to protect ordinary Iraqis is a six-month ration that the government has given in advance. At least 80 to 90 per cent of the population is covered by a three-week ration every month. But this alone cannot ensure that they will survive. Many people have been selling their rations to procure other basic needs.

It is believed that the water supply and electricity systems will be the first targets of war. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been maintaining the water supply system in Baghdad, has warned of disastrous health consequences if this happens as over 70 per cent of the people are dependent on it.

We have read of the very harsh impact of economic sanctions on children. What were your impressions of the situation for children from your visits to hospitals, and your meetings with families in Iraq?

We met two groups of children and their families in the hospital wards. The cancer wards had between 25 and 40 children packed in each room, some even sleeping on the floor. They come for ten days, go back home again and then return. They and their parents know that their days are numbered.

At least 88,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped over six weeks in Iraq and Kuwait by the U.S. and its allies in 1991. Many of them were laced with depleted uranium. Today depleted uranium is increasingly being supplied by the American defence establishment to defence equipment manufacturers. Lead and tungsten are being replaced by depleted uranium in bullets and bombs. Even a trace of depleted uranium, a millionth of a gram, can be fatal once it enters the human system. Medical experts have noticed a sharp increase in leukaemia in those pockets that were the theatres of war in 1991. Recent medical studies suggest that national Iraqi average of the incidence of leukaemia has increased 1.7 times between 1990 and 1997, a rate much higher than the global average. In Basra, the average increased 2.8 times, in Misan 5.7 times and Degar 4.3 times in the same period. Dr. Mohammed Alam, a paediatrician from the Saddam hospital in Baghdad told us that before the war the hospital used to get around two new cases of leukaemia every three months.

After the war, they started getting at least two new cases every week. Medicines are in short supply and so treatment, even to reduce the suffering and agony that small children are going through, is limited. It is a very painful experience for the affected children.

The other group of children hit by war and sanctions are in the neo-natal ward. Here there are full-term but underweight babies. Then there are premature babies kept in old generation incubators. It is very clear why this is happening. Mothers do not get enough food and are themselves severely undernourished. If you visit schools, or go around and talk to ordinary people and see what they are eating and how they live, it is very evident, there is a great deal of malnourishment. For example, a family with a child with leukaemia told us that they eat meat only once a month, whereas before the war they ate meat every day. So you can imagine how their nutritional status has changed. The infant mortality rate in Iraq was among the lowest in the world in 1990. By 2000 it was among the highest.

According to Unicef, 32 per cent of children under five are chronically malnourished, a rise of 72 per cent since 1991.

There may be a hundred reasons advanced by the U.S. and its allies to justify war on Iraq. But the plight of the children is one reason why they should not do that.

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