Sunday, November 28, 2004

The man behind Gulf War Syndrome

Asaf Durakovic is frail. His voice carries a subtle quiver and so do his steps. But all that belies the man in him who has successfully withstood, at least so far, the joint might and even wrath of the US, British and Canadian governments. Durakovic served as a Lieutenant Colonel in a medical unit of the US Army in Gulf War I and has since then become synonymous with the still-controversial term, Gulf War Syndrome, which refers to the impact of depleted uranium on soldiers.

Having brought it to the world’s notice as the first case of “radioactive warfare”, he is now analysing soldiers who fought in the two Gulf Wars. Durakovic claims that they have shown a high ratio of depleted uranium that was used in the tank shells for higher penetration power. Independent studies, some as late as this month in UK, have testified that inhaling depleted uranium dust caused severe illnesses amongst the soldiers. “But the government still keeps the issue open,” he says.

Felicitated with the Nuclear-Free Future Award on Sunday, he even had to give up his job as the Head of the Department of Nuclear Medicine at Wilmington Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “It had to be either one of them,” Durakovic recollects. Now he heads the Washington-based Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC), the only of its kind in the world, that seeks to ascertain how and at what exact level of contamination does depleted uranium cause cancer and genetic change, among other things, in the body.

“We are working on various mathematical models but we are still really very far away,” he adds. The odds are stacked heavily against him as the “malicious” opposition to his work continues. A Canadian, he did not specify on whose behalf, had incognito moved in to UMRC to sabotage the research.

In his latest finding, he claims that civilians in various Afghan cities such as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharief have reported alarmingly high levels of non-depleted uranium because the bombs that were used to strafe Afghanistan after 9/11 came packaged with it. The levels hover around 2,500 nanograms per litre of urine sample, whereas the normal level would be around 10.

“Critics claim that it is natural uranium deposits that mixed with the dust because of the bombing. But geological studies show that the country has no such high-level of uranium deposit,” he says. Moreover, the uranium that showed up in the samples was an isotope that is enriched and not available naturally, Durakovic adds.

Someone at a press conference on Saturday described him as a “whistleblower”. Outside, in privacy, he denies that he is one. “I am just a doctor, a scientist who did not compromise his dignity, honour and integrity for a few dollars. I cannot be bought and my honour is not for sale,” Durakovic says.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times


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