Mariam Hamza's tragedy highlights plight of poisoned Muslims worldwide

By Mahamoud A Shaikh in London

From Bangladesh through Central Asia to Iraq, tens of millions of Muslims have been poisoned, many terminally, as a result of pollution from nuclear dust, pesticides and arsenic in water wells - all at the hands of western governments, international aid agencies and Russia, as the dominant power in the former Soviet Union. And the tragedy of Mariam Hamza, the Iraqi infant flown to Britain for treatment for leukemia, while properly highlighting the plight of Iraqi children, should serve to focus attention on similar afflictions suffered by millions of Muslim children - and adults - elsewhere. The seriously ill four-year-old Mariam was flown to London on April 15 and transferred to a special hospital for childhood cancer in Glasgow, Scotland, the following day. She was accompanied by her 88-year-old grandmother, Umm Hadi Attia Burhan, and Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin, George Galloway, who had arranged her visit to spotlight the plight of sick children in Iraq - a mission accomplished, judging from the publicity generated by the occasion. The visit was only made possible after the MP secured the support of the British government, which speeded up the visa process having first persuaded the United Nations Sanctions Committee temporarily to lift its no-fly ban to allow the girls' air ambulance to leave Iraqi air space.

The fact that an infant dying of cancer needs UN permission to leave her own country by air underlines how draconian the sanctions against Iraq are. Britain and the US are the only members of the UN security council which are opposed to the lifting of sanctions. Again, Britain and the US bear the brunt of responsibility for the cancer wracking Iraqi children and, indeed, adults because the nuclear dust causing them was deposited by the weapons fired by their armies during the 1991 Gulf War.

London cannot, therefore, claim any credit for making Mariam's visit possible. Indeed, the only reason why the British government acted as it had done was to avoid criticism for callousness and for opposing the lifting of sanctions. According to a government spokesman, as quoted in a BBC Radio interview on April 15, 'our government issued the visa (to Mariam) because it would otherwise have been pilloried and this would have given succor to those Arabs who say the deaths of Iraqi children are due to western action.' Childhood cancers are estimated to have risen six-fold since the Gulf War - a rise which many experts attribute to depleted uranium weapons used primarily by British and American forces during the war. The birth of malformed children has accelerated since then. Leukemia, the cancer wracking little Mariam's body, is hugely on the increase. In three months alone, for instance, 300 cases of leukemia have come to light, and this is only the tip of the ice-berg.

Far from apologizing, and seeking to make amends, for this murderous poisoning of the Iraqi people, London and Washington are adamant that the sanctions will stay in place - effectively blocking any medical or other assistance to the victims of their war crimes. The sanctions are also giving rise to other diseases to which children, the elderly and the sick are particularly vulnerable. They also impoverish a cross-section of the people, making their resistance to disease and poverty much weaker. More than an estimated 1,200,000 children are believed to have died since sanctions were first put into place. And the mortality rate among children under five has increased five-fold - according to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study. At present, 6,500 children die every month. Incidentally, Mariam Hamza's tragedy has not only spotlighted the plight of Iraqi children and the west's fiendish cruelty, but it has also exposed Iraqi opposition circles outside the country. Iraqi opposition leaders in London attacked the British government for granting Mariam a visa, claiming that this would enable Saddam Husain to exploit her plight. They also called on London and Washington not to relax their opposition to the lifting of the sanctions, arguing that Saddam would use the money from the sale of oil to buy arms.

But while sick children are in the news, there are many more afflicted Muslim children, similarly poisoned and abandoned, without even the dubious advantage of hitting international headlines. An old case of poisoning - poisoning by pesticides in Uzbekistan, and nuclear pollution in Kazakhstan, both Muslim member States of the former Soviet Union - has recently briefly figured in the news.

Uzbekistan was the main cotton-growing region of the Soviet Union, producing 60 per cent of Soviet cotton. To maximize harvests, the Russian masters of the communist union, used pesticides indiscriminately. It is the Uzbek Muslims who are now the recipients of the evil harvest of that policy - with tens of thousands of people falling victim to cancer and other terminal diseases. More and more cases are coming to light as time goes on. Similarly, Kazakhstan is harvesting the results of Soviet policy, which treated the region as testing and dumping grounds for Soviet nuclear weapons and waste.

However, most bizarre of all is the case of Bangladesh, where international aid agencies professing to improve the hygienic standards of drinking water have poisoned millions of people in what has been described as one of the biggest outbreaks of mass poisoning this century. According to recent reports, water from wells dug by western engineers is contaminated with arsenic, and 30 million people risk developing fatal cancers. For the past two decades, water from a million or more wells dug by aid agencies such as UNICEF, the World Bank and Britain's Overseas Development Administration, has been gradually poisoning Bangladeshi villages with naturally occurring arsenic.

A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that within a few years one in 10 adult deaths across southern Bangladesh could be from cancers triggered by arsenic. And according to Pierre Mills, the World Bank local chief, tens of millions of people are at risk.

The most damning aspect of this, apart from cover-up on the part of the agencies and Bangladeshi authorities, is the fact that there were no record of tests for arsenic until five years ago. Yet, there are today 3 million tubewells in the country providing 95 per cent of the drinking water. The injustice of it all is that before the western engineers and aid agencies arrived with the idea of sinking deep tubewells, villagers were drinking water from shallow wells free from arsenic poisoning. It is true that they suffered diseases like diarrhea as a result but they were not at risk of cancer or sudden death.

It is monstrous that all these Muslims are suffering in virtual anonymity with no-one accepting guilt for their fate.

Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1998

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