TODAY, Hiroshima Day, is the tenth anniversary of the imposition of United Nations sanctions on Iraq.
The most draconian embargo ever imposed has resulted in a silent Hiroshima for Iraq's population, one third of whom are under 15 years old. When Martti Ahtisaari, then United Nations Special Rapporteur, visited Iraq immediately after the 1991 day Gulf war, he said: ``Nothing we had seen or heard could have prepared us for this particular devastation - a country reduced to a pre-industrial age for a considerable time to come.''
Since then, the country has slid from the impossible to the apocalyptic and over 6,000 children a month - the equivalent population of a small Irish town - die of embargo-related causes.
Seventy per cent of virtually everything was imported. With the imposition of the embargo, Iraq faced decimation.
Formerly a largely developed country, with free access to high quality health care, 93 per cent access to clean water and an exemplary free educational system (according to 1989 World Health Organisation figures), the infrastructure has collapsed. With it, health, education, and the right to life enshrined in the most signed-up-to UN Charter in history, guaranteeing protection and succour for the world's children. It lies in the dust. Iraq's children are in the UN front line.
Basra, Iraq's ancient southern city, where the biblical Tigris and Euphrates shimmeringly meet at the Shatt Al Arab, perhaps encapsulates Iraq's plight. At the paediatric and maternity hospital, former flagship institution, one of the finest centres in the Middle East, the air conditioning no longer works in temperatures of up to 140 Fahrenheit, there is not hot water, the elevators are broken and the smell of blood overwhelms disinfectant is vetoed by the UN Sanctions Committee. One third of all live births now are of premature weight, due to malnutrition. In the hospital, where lack of facilities include working incubators, no premature weight baby has survived since 1994.
Reality is stark, and shaming. In June last year, in the premature unit, lay 17 perfect, tiny mites, including twins. The doctor was deciding which would have the only working oxygen cylinder (central oxygen long collapsed.) A doctor asked frantically if I or the photographer with whom I work, had a certain blood type - a baby needed an exchange transfusion. The blood bank no longer existed, they could not locate a donor. ``Test us,'' we responded. But the laboratory facilities had collapsed.
Since Basra's electricity system died years ago such facilities would be meaningless anyway. Refrigeration is a memory in one of the hottest countries on earth.
When I returned in October, every child I had seen in June had died. Basra has a chilling legacy: a ten-fold cancer epidemic linked to the depleted uranium (DU) weapons used in the Gulf war. DU is a radioactive waste, given free by the nuclear industry to the arms industry.
As coating or core for bullets and missiles, it is an effective armour piercing aid. The residual dust, generated on impact, has been linked to Gulf war syndrome, and to Iraq's spiralling cancers and birth deformities.
In Iraq, the water table, flora, fauna, say experts, are DU contaminated. Basra's birth deformities mirror the Pacific islands after the nuclear tests of the 1950s. Babies are born with no eyes, no brain, no limbs, foreshortened limbs, heartbreakingly twisted little limbs, internal organs on the outside.
Professor Doug Rokke, a radiation expert who advises the Pentagon and devised the DU clean up for Kuwait, surveyed Basra for radiation. He told the Sunday Independent: ``I can sum up for you what I found there in three words: `Oh my God.'''
Iraq has repeatedly requested international expertise to assist in a clean up, but has been refused. Iraq is a poisoned land whose children are dying, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Meanwhile, the forgotten war continues. Almost daily, US and UK planes bomb the ``safe havens'' in and around Basra in the south, and Mosul in the north.
An exhausted physician remarked: ``I can now cope with operating without anaesthetic, with patients dying for want of medication. I cannot cope with the bombings. I swear to you I hear the cry of every child, in every house, in every street in the neighbourhood.''
CONTACTS: Action from Ireland: 01 4968594 and Ireland Campaign to end Sanctions: 087 6 8888 53
Journalist Felicity Arbuthnot has visited Iraq 22 times since the Gulf war, and was Iraq researcher for John Pilger's award nominated film, Paying the Price - Killing the Children of Iraq, shown earlier this year. She has been nominated for the Lorenzo Natali Award for Human Rights Journalism and the Millennium Peace Prize for Women.