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‘We have suffered at hands of system’

This article is over 23 years, 5 months old
Gulf war veteran Andy McConnell spoke to Socialist Worker about the scandal of depleted uranium weapons.
Issue 1731

‘I was in the Gulf as a medic from October 1990, right through the bombing, and left in April 1991. I was in one of the major field hospitals dealing with casualties. We were told absolutely nothing about depleted uranium at all. We had daily briefings and it was never even mentioned once. The first I knew that it had been used at all was on the news a few years later. Yet soldiers have been knowingly exposed to it and nothing has been done. We got injections against what we were told was the threat of ‘biological weapons’ such as bubonic plague and anthrax. Doctors since have warned that the effect of a cocktail of such injections could cause health problems.

Every eight hours we were made to take tablets against nerve gas which hadn’t even undergone clinical trials. Once we got back there were no follow-up tests, even though you began to hear about people getting ill. The papers began talking of ‘Gulf War syndrome’. One guy I served with is confined to a wheelchair with a mysterious muscle-wasting illness. We have been fobbed off by the Ministry of Defence over the drugs and Gulf War syndrome, and now depleted uranium increases all the fears and worries.

There is a huge contrast between what we were told when they sent us out there, telling us we were fighting for democracy and serving the country, and what has happened since. The majority of us came back not having suffered at the hands of the Iraqis, but having suffered at the hands of our own government. What makes me most angry, though, is that we only hear in most of the media about the Allied troops. There is hardly a report about the health of the Iraqi people, or people in Kosovo. These people have been exposed to depleted uranium on a far greater scale. There is well documented evidence from the World Health Organisation, and from journalists like John Pilger, about the awful effects, of cancers and deformities in babies in Iraq. Why don’t they talk about that?

I left the army in 1994 and haven’t so much as been contacted by the army or the government once or offered any support, not even somewhere to go if I have health concerns. On a personal level, each time you see the news it puts the fear of god into you. Each time I fall ill I worry if this is a legacy of the Gulf or if it is the start of something more sinister.

The politicians and media whip up jingoistic propaganda to launch their wars, and once it’s over soldiers are just pawns who have served their purpose and are dispensable. And in Iraq now, on top of the devastation of the bombing and the legacy of depleted uranium, you still have the disgrace of sanctions inflicting barbarity on ordinary Iraqi people. The politicians don’t give a damn about people in Iraq or Kosovo, and they don’t give a damn about the troops they sent there either.’

Risk covered up

Western Governments have known about the risk of depleted uranium for years but covered it up. George Robertson was the New Labour defence secretary at the time of the Balkan War. He is now the secretary general of NATO.

He said last week, ‘I want to reassure our troops, our civilians and their families that there is nothing to fear from this particular type of munitions.’ That is false. Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority warned of the dangers of depleted uranium ammunition as far back as 1991.

Four years ago a British army report explicitly warned of the dangers of depleted uranium. ‘All personnel should have a medical history taken and be counselled appropriately. They should be aware that uranium dust inhalation carries a long term risk to health,’ it said of troops who had served in the Gulf.

When the report was leaked to the press last week the government tried to discredit it as the work of an ‘inexperienced’ scientist. But it then had to admit that it was written by an experienced official and endorsed by senior army officers.

Iraq, Balkans

Effects are still killing

One journalist who has investigated the terrible legacy of depleted uranium weapons on people in Iraq and the Balkans is Robert Fisk, who wrote a series of brilliant reports in the Independent last week. Fisk visited Basra in southern Iraq, the area which saw the heaviest use of depleted uranium weapons during the Gulf War.

‘In March 1998 Dr Jawad Khadim Ali- trained in Britain and a member of the Royal College of Physicians-showed me his maps of cancer and leukemia clusters around the southern city of Basra and its farming hinterland. The maps showed a fourfold increase in cancers in those areas where the fighting took place.

A comparison of the location of cancer victims to air raids is too exact to leave much doubt. Old men, young women with terrible tumours, whole families with no history of cancer suffering from unexplained leukemia. In the poorest part of the city-still, ironically, regularly attacked by the USAF and RAF-I asked a random group of women about the health of their families. ‘My husband has cancer,’ one said… Two other women interrupted to say they had younger sisters suffering from cancer. And so it went on.’

Fisk also visited the town of Bratunac in Bosnia. The town is home to Serb refugees ‘ethnically cleansed’ from their former home of Hadjici, a suburb of Sarajevo, after NATO forces bombed it with depleted uranium weapons in 1995. ‘Up to 300 out of 5,000 Serb refugees whose suburb of Sarajevo was heavily bombed by NATO jets in the late summer of 1995 have died of cancer,’ Fisk wrote in the Independent.


Tuesday 23 January, 7.30pm Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London (opposite Euston station)

Speakers Tony Benn MP ; Paul Foot ; Elfi Pallis ; Dr Ghada Karmi


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