Sophia's Peace Work

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

All things Radioactive

Visiting the local tank dump

Just after my arrival in Iraq several weeks ago, I located the new Iraqi Ministry of Environment and talked to Dr. Ali Azziz, the Ministry Advisor. I spoke to him about my interest in looking at the issues of Depleted Uranium and radiation exposure at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility just south of Baghdad (this facility was looted after the war because the U.S. Military failed to secure it. Many barrels of yellow cake uranium and other materials were dumped at the site and the barrels removed to be used by community members for things like water and food storage).

Dr. Azziz told me that if I was interested in Radiation issues and Tuwaitha, I should talk to Dr. Bushra at the Radiation Center in Jadryia neighborhood of Baghdad. I have since visited Dr. Bushra and her facility about a half a dozen times and each visit opens up completely new questions.

Imagine, if you will, the upscale neighborhood of Jadryia filled with large, comfortable homes of brick and stone, here you will find the Radiation Center located right next to a small community hospital. When you walk into the facility there is a sign in Arabic that includes the English letters, "W.H.O." The World Health Organization is funding the rebuilding of the Center. As you pass the sign you walk into a construction site filled with bricks, cement, and paint spattered workers.

"This is the Radiation Center?" I ask.

Apparently so. We are ushered into a small, unfinished room for a search of our belongings and a quick pat down (my translator calls this her daily "massage"), then we are led through the unfinished building, dodging workers carrying fresh cement, up some stairs covered in dirt and brick dust to the roof. There is a roof-top structure that contain a few rooms with desks, a computer and several men and woman professionally-dressed. These are the staff of the Radiation Center.

We are introduced to Dr. Bushra, a plumb, pleasant looking woman wearing hijab (head scarf) who speaks reasonably good English.

And so begin the odyssey of pleasant discussions on the unpleasant topic of radiation and Depleted Uranium that stretched over the course of the next six weeks. The Radiation Center was started in 1971 and is in charge of all sources of radioactivity in the country of Iraq. This includes any radioactive materials in hospitals, universities and industry as well as all radioactive waste. They are responsible for routine and emergency environmental monitoring for radiation.

Dr. Bushra, like many on the staff, is a physicist and has been with the Center for many years. She was on the original World Health Organization survey team that did an assessment of the community around the Tuwaitha Nuclear Facility after the war and the looting. This original survey lasted three months (May - June) and included sampling of soil, food, vegetation and water. It also included, Bushra says, a health assessment for 4,000 community members.

And I'm in luck, she tells me, they are just about to start a follow-up survey and I'm more than welcome to tag along. I can't believe my luck or how open Dr. Bushra is to talking to me. But it turns out that it is not quite that simple. The promised survey trip invite takes several weeks to materialize and when it finally occurs it is more like a guided tour than an actual survey.

"And here on your right we have the earthen walls of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility. Oh, on on your left is the impoverished village of Jeser-Diyala."

We stop at a small school where a Ministry of Health team is taking blood samples from the children. We ask one of the team members if they are seeing any health effects from the radiation that this community was exposed to. We are told that there are a lot of health problems in the community made only more complicated by the problems of poverty, poor nutrient, hygiene and sanitation. But with radiation exposure there are more long-term effects. Within two years, we are told, we can expect to see a rise in Leukemia in these villages.

But Dr. Bushra's rhetoric is always positive. "There is no problem," she assures us, "It's all taken care of." So persistent is this line of Dr. Bushra's I try to ask her more detailed questions on the issue of Depleted Uranium.

Here is a typical conversation:

Sophia: "I understand that the Coalition Forces used Depleted Uranium-tipped munitions in Baghdad. Have you found evidence of this?"

Bushra: "No, no evidence. There is no problem."

Sophia: "But I have a report here that the former Ministry of Planning was struck by Depleted Uranium."

Bushra: "Oh, well, I guess we'll have to take a look at that."

Several weeks later, when I ask her this question again, her response is, "Oh, we can not go there. Security. We can not get permission to enter."

Sophia: "But you should be able to get permission. Who do you need to go to to get this permission?"

Bushra: "Hmmm. I don't know."

You don't know?! This is the person who says that she is in charge of investigating Depleted Uranium contamination in all of Iraq and she doesn't know where to go to get permission to enter a site potentially loaded with this material?

Sophia: "Well, I do know of one place that you can go without permission. I've been there twice. It's a huge dump yard on the outskirts of Baghdad where they put lots of Iraqi military equipment after the war. There are a lot of tanks there and many were potentially struck with Depleted Uranium. It's very easy to find. Lots of people know about it. It's right off the highway."

Bushra: "Oh? Really? Where is it?"

So we gave her directions and were left wondering what this Radiation Center really does. I've spoken to many people here in Iraq about this apparent openness that masks an apparent deeper reluctance to speak the truth. Dr. Bushra seems to be a master of nodding her head 'Yes,' when what she is really saying is 'No." In many way, I'm amazed she is willing to talk to me at all. There are a lot of tight lips on the issue of radiation at Tuwaitha and Depleted Uranium. She could always have said, "I can't speak to you. You'll have to leave." But she remains as ever, always polite and accommodating.

One man working with an Iraqi environmental non-governmental organization explained to me, "It was dangerous to share information under the former regime. Iraqis have been living with this oppression for so many years, it has become a part of our bones."

On April 10th, the construction of the Radiation Center will be complete and there will be a grand opening ceremony. I plan to attend but I feel that it will take more than a ribbon cutting ceremony to begin a more open era of looking at the difficult questions of radiation in Iraq. Unfortunately for the Iraqis, with a radioactive half-life numbering in the millions of years, they will have plenty of time to grapple with these issues.


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