Sophia's Peace Work

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Lies and Fear in a free Iraq

There is a woman who is the Director of an important Iraqi scientific establishment focused on the control and prevention of radiological hazards for the entire country. She has a brand new facility rebuilt and equipped by an international health organization. Her staff is conducting surveys of the communities impacted by the Tuwaitha Nuclear Facility, the primary location of Saddam’s nuclear program, which was looted in the days after the war. They are looking for areas of depleted uranium contamination caused by U.S. bombardments from both the 1991 war and the latest conflict in 2003. According to this woman, there are no problems. Everything has been cleaned up and no one needs to worry. She is a very nice lady. She even took me on a tour.

The problem is that she appears to be lying through her teeth. Her statements don’t make sense. When I tell her of a building that is rumored to be contaminated by D.U., she says to me, “Oh really, we’ll have to check on that.” When I ask her later if her staff was able to do so, her shoulders touch her ears and she opens her hands.

“We can’t go there,” she says, almost apologetic, “We can’t get permission.”

When I check with the U.S. soldiers who staff the checkpoint next to the building in question, they shrug their shoulders too. “If they are part of a government ministry (they are),” they tell me, “They shouldn’t have any problem getting permission to go there.”

During our tour of the communities around Tuwaitha, where she assures me that everything has been cleaned up and there is no problem, we meet a doctor taking blood samples of children at a local school and he tells us that the there are likely to be big problems in the communities. On top of the grinding poverty they can expect to see a big rise in childhood leukemia in about two years.

When we alert our guide that this doesn’t really fit with her “no problem” refrain, she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, I’m a physicist, not a doctor.”

Then there was the little issue of the tank dump. I’d visited it twice already. A huge stretch of wasteland piled with wrecked and pulverized Iraqi military equipment. When we told her about the place and asked her if anyone from her staff had ever visited the site to look for depleted uranium, she acted like she had never heard of the place before (we actually gave her our directions to the site). But a week later, we talked to a staff person from the Center that told us that he had been to the site, and several others like it, several months before.

As nice and accommodating as the Director is, I knew that her story was incomplete. But I couldn’t really understand why she wanted to waste both her time and mine by telling me half-truths and lies. Why not just give me the brush off and say she can’t or doesn’t want to speak with me.

Then I tracked down Saif, an Iraqi man who had worked for the Center in the past and had been pushed out apparently for asking too many questions. He told me of an investigation of high-level radioactive materials found in Baghdad. The material was some metal contaminated with radiation. Proper containment wasn’t possible and the material was simply put into a steel container. A written report was handed into the Director, which she gave to the Coalition. Now both the report and the contaminated material have disappeared.

“This was only one of a number of cases,” Saif told me in his sparse and dingy Baghdad office, “When I tried to speak up about things like this, I was removed from my position. The Director has her Coalition-issued phone. They tell her what to do.”

“And this,” he said, pointing at the bare ceiling that didn’t even boast a fan to relieve the growing heat, “is all they give me now.”

But Saif is afraid of losing even this. I’m allowed no pictures and he won’t even give me his full name. “I’ve got family,” he says, “I’ve got children. I can’t risk it.”

I’m left wondering about what to do next, faced with lies on one said and a reluctance to talk on another. “What can someone like me do?” I ask him.

“Say the truth.”

But I don’t know if it’s possible to get to the truth past the all of the lies and fear in this free Iraq.


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