The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on May 17, 1998 · Page 53
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 53

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Salina, Kansas
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Sunday, May 17, 1998
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Page 53
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WORLD AFFAIRS WORLD AFFAIRS "We've got to try to do something" Why should you care about stopping "weapons of mass destruction"? The horrible reasons are now becoming clear. By Dr. Christine Gosden // "weapons of mass destruction " had been used in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the devastation would have been even worse, and lasted much longer. Survivors would now be developing rare, grave ailments; their children would be bom with horrendous birth defects. For the first time in history, the world is seeing the effects of mass use of chemical weapons on civilians. Although Halabja, Iraq, seems far away, it offers a chilling view of a crisis that could happen here — and a threat the United Nations is seeking to address with Saddam Hussein. On March 16,1988, Saddam bombed Halabja's 85,000 Kurds with chemical weapons as punishment for their supposed sympathies with Iran. Ten years later, Dr. Christine Gosden, a British genetics expert, went into the area at great personal risk to see what had happened to the survivors. USA WEEKEND asked Dr. Gosden to share her wrenching findings — to put into human terms what we may dismiss as distant foreign policy. 16 USA WEEKEND • May 16-17,1898 W HAT I SAW in Halabja was horrendous — it left me with nightmares every night, while I was there and ever since I left. I've never seen so many people poisoned deliberately. The chemicals showered on Halabja a decade ago included mustard gas, a blistering agent that can affect skin, lungs and eyes; and sarin, tabun and VX, three agents that attack the nervous system. At least 5,000 people died immediately. Today, about 40,000 people live amid the shelled-out buildings and teeming cemeteries of Halabja. But in part because of the political turmoil hi the area, no medical teams or relief agencies ever have set up camp there to offer aid or study the consequences of the attack. As a medical geneticist, I conduct research on genes that give rise to fetal abnormalities, infertility and cancers. I had seen a film, The Winds of Death, that director Gwynne Roberts made about the 1988 attack and was tremendously moved. After Gwynne revisited Halabja in 1997 and found so many people desperately ill, he asked me to return with him and assess the situation. What I found was much worse than I had feared. The mustard gas caused terrible scarring of the skin, which hi many cases progresses to cancer. In people's eyes, the gas caused corneal scarring, impaired vision or blindness. Those who breathed the vapors suffered respiratory damage, the most severe forms of which might be treated only by lung transplant — an impossibility in a community where even basic medical care is scarce and unaffordable. "These weapons should never, ever be used again. And the people on whom they were used now desperately need our help." In the citizens of Halabja we found cancers, including breast, skin and childhood cancers, at three to four times the rate as in a neighboring city that was not gassed. The cancers are very aggressive, strike much younger than is typical, kill very quickly — and there is no chemotherapy or radiation therapy to impede them. On a day that I visited the hospital's gynecological ward, no woman had recently delivered a normal baby, but three had just miscarried. The staff spoke of frequent stillbirths and infant deaths; cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome and other mental disabilities; and fertility problems and miscarriages at quadruple the rate of a nearby city. Also at a far greater rate than anywhere else in the region, children are born with cleft palates, harelips, major heart defects and other malformations. In Halabja, they will die from heart defects that in Britain or the United States might well be surgically repaired; hi Halabja, they will remain disfigured and unable to speak intelligibly, because of lip and palate defects that pediatric VIDEO STILLS: ROBERTS & WYKEHAM FILMS LTD. surgeons in the West correct every day. Beyond the obvious physical injuries, the neurological and psychiatric consequences of the attack are severe and seen in different ways. A young man with neuromuscular damage will be walking upright only to abruptly collapse, unable to control his limbs. Depression is rampant, suicide attempts alarmingly common. Many people in Halabja suffer from more than one serious medical condition. The chemicals, particularly the mustard gas, have caused occurrences of cancer and genetic mutation comparable to those a kilometer away from ground zero of the atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the armed guards of warring factions everywhere, we weren't able fully to assess the situation. But by every parameter we looked at, the medical conditions of Halabja's people were absolutely horrifying — and we know that everything we have is an underestimate. "In innocent men, women and children, these weapons have planted genetic time bombs." T remember standing in a town junkyard where chil- -L dren were playing near the spent shells that carried the chemicals and thinking, "Nobody in this town is going to be immune." Even if they got only a small amount of the chemicals, even if they now appear healthy, you don't know when anybody of reproductive age will have an abnormal child. You don't know when anybody will have a cancer. From our January trip, Gwynne made a second movie, Saddam's Secret Time-Bomb. One of the saddest cases I encountered wasn't in the film because when I met the woman, I was crying almost as much as she was. This woman was about 15 during the gas attack and had watched her parents die in front of her. She later married and had lost one baby. Now she was falling to pieces so badly that her husband had left her with two other children to raise. She felt so ill and desperate that she had shot herself but hadn't succeeded in killing herself; as the doctors do with a growing number of failed suicides, they dug the bullets out and sent her on her way. She just sat in front of the hospital and wept, unable to grasp why things were so cruel. Gwynne's film crew and I were all in tears, too. But immediately afterward we said, "We've got to try to do something." I've recently been talking to international aid agencies, some of which had tried to help but had been stymied by the complex political situation. We're trying to find ways for donations from compassionate people to get to those in need, for medical treatment and the basics: heat, light, clean water. We want to guarantee that the money won't be used for other things, like weapons. Once, the world may have believed that chemical weapons were relatively "humane" weapons of war — that some people would fall dead on the battlefield, but that others would pick themselves up and go on. The people of Hal- abja have shown us that is utterly false. Saddam Hussein has experimented to see what different "cocktails" of chemicals in weapons would do, the way a painter dabbles with different colors and techniques. But with his different palettes of chemicals he is painting out and obliterating whole landscapes. In innocent men, women and children, these chemical weapons have planted genetic time bombs. Their effects go on and on, ruining lives long after the shells have gone off and destroying future generations. We owe it to the people of Halabja — and to ourselves — to ensure that such weapons never are used again, ca Chemical weapons: |hat^lteymali||S^ have done , *"Jo^prevent another Halabja.^i,. ^ ^ y> world's best hope'may bp the^ *, ^ ' ** \Chemical Weapons ConventK>'n,^ *" % ^ Ratified by the U.S. Senate fait year, -' trie'Convention calls for a ban.pnV "" <., J trje use, production, stockpiling and-,, storage of chemicals weapons, and'"' '" requires mandatory inspections. / •* At least 165 countries have signed -" the pact, though several believed to " hold chemical weapons - Iraq.'Egypt, * North Korea - have not signed. < ~ -' Nonetheless, the Convention "wlir make it more difficult for the few '' rogue nations that refuse to sign to get a hold of the necessary chemicals and equipment," former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. John -** ' Shalikashvili tells USA WEEKEND,^ t ,-f In Washington, the issue i^ gaining momentum. During a'recent Visit, '' Gosden testified before a'Sen'ate;'"-r . • panel and met with,White"]iquse, ' - r. Pentagon and State bepa'rfment^ v; ' .officials and House Speaker Newt '-Gingrich.'The resnpnse frprr^' -/^> ^ government In theljnited States > has been incredible," she says. - What you can do to help Unfortunately, political turmoil in Iraq continues to block aid agencies' efforts to deliver help to Halabja, medical or otherwise. Dr. Gosden is working with the New York-based : International Rescue Committee to find a way through the red tape. The IRC has set up a Halabja Fund to hold donations until aid can get through. For more information, contact the IRC by mail at 122 E. 42nd SI, 12th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10168-1289; by phone ar212-551-3000; or online at " ' www.intrescQm.org. Or write to Dr. Gosden at Liverpool Women's - " Hospital, Crown Street, Liverpool, ' '' U.K.L87SS. USA WEEKEND • May 15-17,18B8 17

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