A Nuclear Nightmare in Baghdad
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"The United States has conducted two nuclear wars. The first against Japan in 1943, the second in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991." -- Dr. Helen Caldicott.
Takashi Morizumi wasn't sure he'd be allowed into the United States because his passport was stamped with so many entry marks from the Iraqi customs agents. Fortunately, this courageous Japanese photojournalist was allowed to visit the U.S. in late October and, at a packed meeting at the Asia Resource Center in Oakland, California, he hosted a slideshow that gave his audience a stunning -- and oft-times harrowing -- view of life inside Iraq.
But the shock of Morizumi's photos does not lie in revelations of domestic persecution or social privation at the hands of elected Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. The evil force that fills the most unsettling frames of Morizumi's photos has its roots in America. That evil finds form in a legacy of twisted bodies, cancer-blistered faces and the silent screams of dying children -- children who have come in contact with the residue of depleted uranium that U.S. forces rained on Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf War, 11 years ago.
Morizumi's photos of downtown Baghdad capture scenes that look surprising like the core of any large metropolis. Tall buildings festooned with commercial advertising and brand-names tower over crowds of shoppers and commuters shuffling between busy lanes of traffic. There are a few telling differences, however. The distinct dome of a mosque rises between the skyscrapers, signaling that the city lies in the Middle East. And the huge portraits of Saddam Hussein stretched across the facades of downtown high-rises testify that the city is, most definitely, Baghdad.
Morizumi noted with amusement that the portraits of Saddam are not deployed merely for self-aggrandizement. They are also functional.
"They tell you something about what goes on inside the building," Morizumi discovered. If the building served the needs of farmers, there would be a huge picture showing Hussein working in the fields. If the high-rise hosted an office of the state telephone company, the portrait would show Hussein cradling a phone to his ear.
Asked his impression of the average citizen's feeling toward Saddam (who is seldom seen in public), Morizumi stated that the Iraqi leader appears to be thought of as something like "a national "mascot."
A Land of Buried Terror
Despite his nonpartisan role as an independent photojournalist, Morizumi was not completely free to wander about and take photos. Outside the cities he frequently had to deal with security officers assigned to escort him or military personnel who tried to discourage his efforts.
He recalled one occasion when he spotted a Bedouin family off the side of the road. He bolted from his official car and began running into the desert to capture a photo. As he approached the family, the man suddenly pulled a sword from his side and began to brandish it in a threatening manner. At the same time, the Iraqi guards who had been escorting Morizumi's vehicle began firing rifle shots over his head.
It was a good thing he reflexively froze in his tracks. As the Bedoins and guards soon explained, he had just run out into the middle of a minefield.
Despite this close brush with death, Morizumi continued to seek out people in poor villages and was overcome with their generosity as they welcomed him into their homes and treated him to meals of grain, small portions of meat and home-baked breads.
And a Land of Buried Children
But it was the memory of the children whose wide eyes and bright smiles surrounded him in cities and villages that stayed with him. And it was the memory of the other children that has haunted him -- children confined to hospital beds with swollen limbs and distended bellies who looked out at the world through sunken eyes as the hair died and fell from their heads. These were the children dying from radiation poisoning -- dying in extended agony in hospitals that had no pain-killing medicines because of U.S.-imposed economic sanctions.
Every day outside the city's children's hospital, Morizumi watched as small wooden coffins were strapped to the roofs of vehicles that carried the small withered bodies away for burial. There are so many Iraqi children dying from cancer now that a special children's cemetery had to be created to accommodate their remains.
In 1983, childhood cancers were virtually unknown in Iraq. Immediately after the end of the Gulf War, however, Iraq's children started to die from cancers in the hundreds. Last year the toll topped 600 and the numbers have been rising steadily each year since the war ended. For the children of Iraq and the parents who grieve for them, the 1991 war has never ended.
Morizumi has made numerous return trips to Iraq to document the tragic toll of the U.S. resort to nuclear warfare. Perhaps his saddest observation is the following: "Whenever I return, I am surprised on those rare occasions when I meet a sick child I met before who is still alive." Sadly, most of the youngsters in Morizumi's photos have since died.
The faces of these children -- and the frozen-in-time record of their suffering -- should be studied by every saber-rattling member of the White House and Pentagon and Senate and Congress.
Gar Smith is the editor of The-Edge and former editor of Earth Island Journal. Takashi Morizumi's photos are now on exhibit across the U.S., thanks to an organizing effort by Japanese anti-nuclear activist Yumi Kuchki. Morizumi's extraordinarily wrenching collection of images and recollections are also available in a 36-page booklet called "A Different Nuclear War: Children of the Gulf War."