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Nuclear testing in Balochistan: a local physician's testimony

Interview by Karlos Zurutuza

This is testimony taken at an undisclosed location in Pakistani-controlled Balochistan. Originally meant to be a “question-answer” interview, I've preferred to type it directly in first person following the recorded version.

“People used to go to Raspoh Mountain for a picnic day. It was a beautiful place where wildlife was a spectacle in itself. But in the mid-70´s they sent away the people living in the area and, of course, they restricted the access to everyone else. Then they started drilling galleries and tunnels. They were supposed to be used for the exploitation of copper and gold in the newly opened mines of Saindak. During the dictatorship of General Zia nobody really knew what was going on over there.

But in the late 80's we knew that the works in Raspoh had nothing to do with any sort of mining. We started to suspect that there was something very obscure under all those muddy earthworks. Journalists came from all over but the government argued that it was an arsenal. The explanation seemed to satisfy almost everybody as Raspoh is located on the border with Afghanistan. It was the perfect excuse.

Finally we knew that the area was being reshaped to carry out nuclear tests. The BNP (Baluch National Party) and the rest of the coalitions protested and there was a great reaction at all levels. But General Zia was supported by the West because the Russians were in Afghanistan. No one paid any attention to the denunciations by Baloch and humanitarian organizations.

General Zia died in 1988, a year before the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan. By then, we all knew what was happening on mountain Raspoh and the West finally began to worry about the issue. The Japanese even offered money to Islamabad in return to suspend the tests.

The blasts took place on May 28, 1998, just after India´s own nuclear tests on her territory. But Pakistan was still denying everything so Akhtar Mengal, the then Chief Minister of the Balochistan provincial government, came in person to the place to ask for explanations. The police in the area told him that three people had been killed “by heat stroke." It could be as Chagai region is an area where temperatures are often extreme. But what confirmed the worst suspicions was the death of several camels that day. Could a camel possibly die because of the heat?

It was outrageous. Despite being condemned to the most egregious underdevelopment, Islamabad was “rewarding” us with five nuclear detonations whose effects would survive to generations.

Now we suspect that they are preparing more tests in Gadain region, 25 kilometers from Khuzdar. It is a place where two closely spaced mountains offer a perfect place, reasonably far away from any satellite surveillance. People are being evacuated and access is already fully restricted. We assume that they´re waiting for India to detonate their warheads.

Nobody knows the exact extent of radiation among the inhabitants in the Chagai region. The government has banned access to the area and it is impossible to carry out any study on the local population. In any case, physicians like myself who have treated patients from the region have come across large numbers of cases of skin cancer and eye cancer in particular. The radiation probably reached the underground water reservoirs. People rely on those as we hardly get any rain here. A patient from Dalbandin who had visited Raspoh told me that the black granite had acquired a yellowish color, the same as the water. We need someone to take a water sample and analyze it abroad. No laboratory in Pakistan dares to do so for fear of reprisals. I myself do not dare to give my real name because, quite possibly, the ISI (Pakistani intelligence) would kill me by the time this interview was published.”

This interview was conducted in Summer 2009.

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance journalist covering off-the-radar conflict regions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. He was awarded the Nawab Bugti Reporting Award 2009 for his reporting on the Baloch areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

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Kids of "the Iraqi Hiroshima"

By Bruno Bayley

We don't usually start articles with warnings, but some of the pictures in the gallery are incredibly distressing. We omitted some on the grounds that they were just too upsetting, but the ones that we do run, we do so with full permission, and because we feel that this is an important story.

You might remember Karlos Zurutuza from his photos of Baloch insurgents, his guide to warzone hotels or maybe, if you like reading news and knowing what’s going on in the world, you will have seen his work elsewhere. During recent trips to Iraq, Karlos waded into a story that even in the quagmire of depressing awfulness that is Iraqi news, stands out as brutally distressing. We had a chat with him about the medical fallout of the Iraq War and specifically its effects on children in Fallujah. You can read his original report on this here.

VICE: Hi Karlos. Thanks for sending me these photos, I guess. Where were you when you first came across this story?

Karlos Zurutuza: I covered it for the first time in Basra—the place that has been most affected by war in the last 30 years, because it's between the borders of Iran and Kuwait. We’re talking about the Iran-Iraq war too, here. It’s a fucking mess. I had been to Fallujah before, but I didn’t have any access to the hospital then. The last time I went, I did. Fallujah is particularly interesting because it is being called "the Iraqi Hiroshima"—the town was obliterated in 2004, in the Battle of Fallujah. There were two battles. The second one was the biggest. It all started when they found those four bodies.

Were those the bodies of the security contractors?

Yeah, the security men hanging from the bridge. After that happened somebody decided that Fallujah was an al-Qaeda stronghold and so they used all kinds of weapons. At first the coalition denied that they had used white phosphorus in Fallujah. Or at least they claimed it was only used to "illuminate targets." White phosphorus is meant to melt metal, so you can imagine what kind of effect it has on the human body. There’s also the issue of depleted uranium, but the US has denied using it. There is a well-known relationship between the increase in cancer cases and the use of depleted uranium.

How was it in terms of getting access? Did the doctors want people to know about what has been happening?

Well, you get all sorts of reactions. All of them want to show you what is going on, what is happening, but several of them are afraid that they may lose their jobs. So you have to go through a bureaucratic process, ask for permission, that kind of thing. Fallujah is mostly a Sunni town, in a Sunni neighborhood, in a Sunni district, and a Sunni region: Anbar. The Sunnis are actually somewhat neglected today by the Shias in power in Iraq and a part of their plight is the effect of the war in Fallujah among the kids.

This is the first generation of Iraqis to be born since the most recent allied invasion, right? What sorts of health issues are they seeing there?

Cancer, leukemia, and congenital birth defects and deformities. It seems that the number of cases have grown dramatically, and are on the rise.

And presumably even for those that were taken to hospital, the level of care is quite limited due to the situation?

Yes, for example in Basra, George Bush’s wife, Laura Bush, built a brand new hospital. So, they build this hospital, and it looks wonderful from the inside, I mean I haven’t even seen any hospitals that nice back home. But, it turns out that there is no radiotherapy equipment and they end up waiting for the equipment for over a year, as they couldn’t agree who would pay the storage fee.

So the essential equipment was sitting in storage?

Yeah, for a year, while people were dying. So this year they told me that they had to wait 16 months before they got the equipment. Once it was in the hospital they didn’t have the tools to set it up, so it’s still not working. It’s now been two years.

I guess without that equipment, the doctors don’t have a lot they can do for the children.

There's this NGO called the Children’s Cancer Organization, set up by a man who was trying to finance trips for the children to Iran and Jordan and Syria. Iran is the cheapest option for treatment, the only other place you can get therapy in Iraq is Baghdad, but the waiting list is enormous and people can't wait. He's got children who were born with cancer.

Is that what made him start the NGO?

Yeah, that spurred him on. The problem here is that many parents take their children to the hospital, but a lot of them are from rural areas and they can’t commute back and forth. The women often stay at the hospital, but the men have to keep on working. The women spend months in the hospital, and so a lot of the time it leads the families to break up because of the pressure. Many of these people can’t afford even a half hour bus journey, it is a tragedy. It is not only about health, it's the whole society that is breaking up because of this, because they have no resources. Not only that, many of these parents are ashamed of their children's conditions, too.

And does the US government deny that they used the weapons, the health effects of those weapons or both?

They deny both. They won't admit that they are using depleted uranium. Even Nato has requested an investigation into the use of these weapons, but there has been no response. When I was in Libya and went to places obliterated by bombs I was very aware of this. I wouldn’t touch anything there, and there were people jumping on tanks to get a picture and so on, but I was thinking, "that might be poisoned."

To learn more about the impact of war on children across the world, visit ChildVictimsOfWar.org.uk.

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance journalist covering off-the-radar conflict regions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. He was awarded the Nawab Bugti Reporting Award 2009 for his reporting on the Baloch areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.


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