December 11, 2008
A special issue in the field of war crimes committed by occupation forces in Afghanistan are so-called uranium weapons (1). Uranium is a heavy metal – and, as a consequence, has an extremely strong armour piercing effect. Since dirt-poor Afghanistan clearly cannot afford the luxury of any special armour-plating, the question has to be asked: what purpose does the use of such specialised weaponry serve when the military necessity is questionable?
Weapons grade uranium is, for the most part, extracted from burnt down fuel rods and contains roughly 60% of the radioactivity of elemental uranium. In addition, it can also contain traces of plutionum-239. This uranium rates as slightly radioactive and its disposal or storage is costly. In this respect, military usage is a very economical solution. When such weaponry is put to use two effects manifest themselves: one radioactive and one chemotoxic. Both effects endanger, alongside enemy forces, not only one’s own soldiers, but also the local population as well.
The following is a description of the way uranium weapons work: the uranium munition hits its target and heat is produced by the energy created on impact. This causes the highly flammable uranium metal to burn at an extremely high temperature. The uranium is thereby vaporised. This process intensifies the destructive potential of the projectile, which, being a heavy metal, pierces the armour literally like a hot knife through butter. The uranium ignites and tiny uranium and uranium oxide particles are formed depositing themselves in the environment and contaminating the air with dust and airborne particles. These particles, in their minuteness (down to nanoscale), can get into the body as an aerosol through inhalation (in a similar way to cigarette smoke), through the skin or by penetrating cell walls. Nanoscale, by the way, means that no gas mask in the world can protect one from it since the particles are so tiny that they pass through every filter. Depending on the size of the particles, the uranium dust can get into the lungs and remain detectable there for many years. Additionally, it can penetrate lung tissue and enter the bloodstream – depending on the solubility of the particle. As many of Prof. Randall Parish’s examinations demonstrate, it can take up to twenty years for uranium to exit the body (2). Lungs and kidneys are the areas most affected, however, alongside cancers, genetic damage can also occur which, in turn, can cause damaged genetic structure and deformities in the progeny of the victim.
It cannot be denied that depleted uranium is only mildly radioactive, but when the above is countered by this argument, then it is a diversion from the underlying issue. The radiation from a chunk of uranium metal or an unexploded shell does not go far and can easily be isolated. But if the uranium gets into the body in the form of a fine dust, where it deposits itself in cells, then the radiation bombards the genetic make-up of the cells continuously and can lead to chromosomal fractures. The carcinogenic effect is additionally intensified by the extreme toxicity of the uranium dust. Inhaled, ingested in drinking water or in food; or absorbed through the skin, it gives rise to massive health problems which could lead to multiple cancers in the same person.
The indignation provoked in the Afghan people by the application of such weaponry is cited from Afghan Professor Daud Miraki’s painstaking research:
"After the Americans destroyed our village and killed many of us, we also lost our houses and had nothing to eat. However, we would have endured these miseries and even accepted them, if the Americans had not sentenced us all to death. When I saw my deformed grandson, I realized that my hopes of the future had vanished for good, different from the hopelessness of the Russian barbarism, even though at that time I lost my older son Shafiqullah. This time, however, I know we were part of the invisible genocide brought on us by America, a silent death from which I know we will not escape." (Jooma Khan of Laghman province, March 2003) (3)
The side effects of such weapons, subsequent complications and the toll that such damage exacts in the long run are well-known, however many side aspects of the application of such weapons, after 40 years in use, have not been exhaustively researched.
The following 3 conclusions of paramount importance must be drawn
1. All known facts indicate that uranium weapons:
a)Can make no distinction in their effects between combatants and non-combatants.
b)Cannot in their effects be limited to the battlefield,
c)Do not cease to work after the armed conflict has ended,
d)Have unnecessarily cruel repercussions,
The uranium dust that inevitably results from the usage of uranium weapons fulfills all four of these conditions, inevitably and in every way. For these reasons the use of uranium weapons is for example, already according to the Hague Conventions on Laws and Customs on War and Land, the Geneva Conventions and the Dictate of Humanity (Martens Clause) clearly in breach of international law.
At the beginning of 2001 the then Federal Minister of Defence Scharping stated in an interview with German (nationwide, public) Radio (Deutschlandfunk) the following (4):
"Back then (1999 – CRH) I drew attention to the fact that the question of radiation risk was not one that needed to be scrutinised with any particular diligence. One should not ignore this, but a far more serious risk could end up being that uranium, as a heavy metal, is concentrated in certain parts of Kosovo, for example, and also in Bosnia. When one inhales this into the lungs, this concentration can lead to malicious illnesses. This is a risk that we need to monitor…"
Nothing decisive has happened up until now and the USA and others continue to use their weaponry, poisoning whole peoples (mostly muslims) in the process.
Politicians should therefore see to it that the use, production and proliferation of these weapons is prohibited – but this, however, does not happen. No explicit mention is made to the outlawing of uranium weapons under international law, in the main because the countries which use these weapons thwart any attempts to pass an appropriate resolution on this matter. Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that any use of uranium weapons – as detailed above – contravenes human rights. In this way it constitutes a war crime that should not only be punished but should also hold the perpetrator liable for damages incurred.
2. It would now be the duty of all those who use such weapons, and all doctors in areas where people are affected, to do all that is possible and conceivable to research the effects and repercussions, to make diagnoses and to develop and initiate counter-measures. This of course is not happening or not in sufficient measure. And in this very failure lies a scandal. The Hippocratic Oath clearly stipulates that it is every doctor’s inalienable duty to render assistance, punishable on non-compliance by a revocation of the medical license. Prof. Siegwart-Horst Günther, US experts Doug Rokke and Asaf Durakovic (both of whom were initially occupied in an official capacity in the US army with the issue of uranium weapons), but also non-medical specialists such as Dan Williams, Tedd Weyman and many others are making remarkable contributions to the struggle, at great risk to their health and person.
A counter-example is a German clinic in Kabul whose German management have to date refused to take even tissue samples which could then be tested at the (rarer, but still in existence) neutral AND cooperative institutes. Under such conditions, it is no surprise that the Afghan insurgency every now and then undertakes operations against Western aid organisations, killing their staff. (Another, as yet unwritten chapter, could be devoted to the frequently silent cooperation between the management level of such organisations and the secret services of their home countries.)
3. On the issue of uranium weapons our mainstream media remains tight-lipped, to say the least; indeed, this has been the case since exactly February 2001. Occasional broadsheet articles come nowhere close to bringing home the proportions of the destruction, horror and future damage. Nevertheless, German film-maker Frieder Wagner, in his prize-winning (5) WDR (1st German TV) documentary 'Lethal Dust’, strikingly addresses many aspects of the use, repercussions and their analysis as well as political questions. In exemplary fashion, he is one of a handful of fellow campaigners worldwide who raises awareness of the problems involved in the use of such weapons and advocates the outlawing of such weapons. Unfortunately, though, his film is much more likely to be seen in privately organised cinema evenings (or in schools thanks to the concerted efforts of dedicated teachers, where the screening of the movie has, however, been a great success) than after the nine o’ clock news.
Since the beginning of the nineties it has primarily been the USA and Great Britain using uranium munition, as for example in the second gulf war in 1991; in Yugoslavia in 1999; in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan since 2001. Other active users, however, are Pakistan, Russia, Israel and France.
Characteristic of the way the USA deals with its own uranium weapons experts is the fate of Prof. Durakovic (6). He:
"was brought in by the Pentagon as an expert in 1988. Amongst other things, he served as head of the US medical team for the American-Soviet Joint Nuclear Verification Experiment (experiments related to the limitation of nuclear tests) in Central Asia.
As head of the Department of Nuclear Medicine which the US Department of Veterans Affairs at Wilmington Vet-Center in Wilmington, Delaware, maintains, he was responsible for the examination of US Veterans who were suffering from Gulf-War Syndrome. These soldiers had been stationed in Saudi Arabia and had been in contact with tanks that had been destroyed by 'friendly fire’ (that is, tanks that were shelled by their own troops’ tank-busting depleted uranium – DU – munitions). After identifying the presence of DU, and in some cases plutonium, in veterans’ bodies, he was advised to continue his research in other fields. He did not allow himself to be deterred but discovered that the health files and laboratory tests had disappeared.
In 1997, the Pentagon replaced him. Together with like-minded people, he continued his research at his own expense, founding the Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC). In spite of harassment and threats, he continued to be active against the cover-up and devastating effects of DU weapons."
On the topic of Afghanistan, Durakovic stated in an interview with Zeitfragen (7) (English version: Current Concerns) that:
"Afghanistan provided an opportunity to conduct studies close to the time of conflict. Operation Anaconda ended just as the first UMRC team entered eastern Afghanistan (Fig. 1). The team had access to stationary and fixed assets, since the mobile military equipment had either been removed or secured. UMRC’s studies of the population of Jalalabad, Spin Gar, Tora Bora, and Kabul areas have identified civilians suffering from the same multiorgan, nonspecific symptomatology encountered in Gulf War I and the Balkan conflicts. The symptoms included physical weakness, headache, muscular and skeletal pains, respiratory changes, fever, persistent dry cough, chest pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, neurological symptoms, memory loss, anxiety, and depression."
Durakovic then went into more detail regarding the procedure:
"Control subjects were selected among the symptom-free residents of nontargeted areas. An assessment of environmental contamination has been performed by the analysis of the soil, dust (91), debris, as well as drinking water (92), according to established criteria of the estimation of dispersal and hazards of actinides and post impact collection of environmental samples (Figs. 2 and 3). All subjects, including the controls, were briefed about the protocol and the sample collection in local Dari and Pashtu languages. Each subject signed a consent form. All samples were analyzed for the concentration and ratio of four uranium isotopes, 234U, 235U, 236U, 238U, by a multicollector and inductively coupled plasma ionization mass spectrometry in the laboratories of the British Geological Survey, Nottingham, England.
In one incident of bombardments in Kabul, for example, the average concentration of uranium in one of the test groups was around 99,5 ng/l, levels that were 10 times above the norm. But in one boy within this specific test group, we measured a value of 2031,6 ng/l. We wanted to know why this was. Were we dealing with a statistical anomaly? Was it a strange mishap in the laboratory or something inexplicable? We took the story of this 12 year old to task. He was at home eating breakfast with his family, when the bomb hit their village. 27 members of his family were killed instantaneously; the boy survived. In a state of panic he tried to rescue members of his family from the wreckage of the collapsed house. All were dead. We were shocked when we looked at the lab results of this boy called Hussein. We thought there must be an error in the method or in the analysis. The test was repeated and again over 2,000 ng/l. In the entire history of uranium contamination there has never been such a case. It is the first time in the history of internal actinide contamination that such a value has been recorded as a consequence of exposure through inhalation directly after a weapons strike. If this case shows us anything, then it is the terrible consequences of internal contamination by uranium isotopes."
This test result has been challenged by some because it means we are simply dealing with an inexplicable anomaly. Durakovic says the same thing himself but gives, nevertheless a plausible explanation, as detailed above. However all other test results have also been challenged as it could always be the case that these people could have become contaminated in other ways not monitored by scientists. We are surely all aware of this from the nicotine debate: it is obvious that a smoker could have gotten his lung cancer in other ways. We only had a few lobby issues to deal with before we managed to put a curb on smoking in public places and get the restaurants 'decontaminated.’
And we must make it clear, that we, for 20 years now, have not fulfilled our highest duty: to examine the uranium problem exhaustively and, as far as possible, to dispel all doubt in the process. Our complicity with those who use such weapons of mass destruction is plain for the rest of the world to see. How far unscrupulousness, cynicism and contempt for humanity extends to the politicians and the military responsible is shown quite plainly when we consider that even one’s own soldiers are afflicted by uranium contamination. Cases of soldiers and members of the local population suffering from 'inexplicable’ illnesses are becoming increasingly frequent.
Thus the spokesperson for the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Terry Jemison, told the French news agency AFP in August 2004, that from 592,560 soldiers discharged from the time of the second Gulf War almost one third were claiming disability benefit. A further almost 25,000 cases were being processed. The communication in question cannot be found on his department’s website. We regret this technical inconvenience…
In England on the 2nd of February 2004 the British Army’s first uranium victim, Kenny Duncan, was officially acknowledged. It is characteristic of institutions’ handling of this issue that the test was initiated and paid for by Dr. Albrecht Schott in Berlin, Chairman of the World Depleted Uranium Centre, (WODUC - registered charity) (8). Schrott wrote that an additional 66,000 British war-veterans are awaiting similar acknowledgements. It is a testament to the power of the armaments lobbies that soldiers, who have risked their lives and their health and end up suffering from preventable illnesses incurred while doing their duty, also have to struggle to get their documented claims officially recognised. It is proven that Kenny Duncan sustained, among other things, genetic damage that has been passed on to his children.
While US diplomats and their German allies have in the past continuously denied the harmfulness of uranium weapons (9), the use of these weapons has been shown by numerous official sources (10).
In a study on uranium weapons and their harmfulness to people’s health and the environment, the US army institute concerned gushes (11):
"These solid metal projectiles have the speed, mass and physical properties to perform exceptionally well against armored targets. DU provides a substantial performance advantage, well above other competing materials. This allows DU penetrators to defeat an armored target at a significantly greater distance. Also, DU's density and physical properties make it ideal for use as armor plate. DU has been used in Army systems for many years in both applications. Over the past 20 years, the Department of the Army (DA) has developed, tested and fielded a number of weapon systems containing DU."
One assumes that official readers who entertain the idea of advocating a ban on the use of uranium weapons refrain from such remonstrances so as not to impair the ability of the troops on the ground to wage war effectively. Such a course of non-action also delays the necessity for the costly development of alternatives. In addition, it is clear to all professional readers that their 'desire for change’ would set in motion a whole army of military bureaucrats who would be sure to kick up a considerable fuss. This would be enough to end the promising careers of many an opponent to the use of uranium weapons. Therefore the tone of the study should come as no surprise: the US Army denies the harmful effects of these weapons, even on its own personnel, and gladly does so, moreover, because of the praiseworthy efficiency of such weapons giving rise, in turn, to outrageous assertions such as the following (12):
"It is highly unlikely that DU is a contributing factor to the unexplained illnesses currently being reported by veterans of Desert Storm."
Fears are allayed even in the foreword of the report that any environmental damage would have to be cleared up after the end of the war – or that the corresponding liability risk would have to be shouldered (13):
"Furthermore, it is unlikely that future remediation of battlefields solely to remove DU will be required."
While it took 5 whole years in the nineties before the first symptoms began to manifest themselves on a large scale (above all in the area of Basra), the population of Afghanistan began to show signs of the effects immediately, evidently due to the sheer amount of uranium material dropped. Professor Miraki (14) quotes one witness in Afghanistan:
"I realized this slow, yet certain death, when I saw blood in my urine and developed severe pain in my kidneys along with breathing problems I never had before. Many of my family members started to complain of confusion and the
pregnant women miscarried their babies while others gave birth to disabled infants." (Akbar Khan from Paktika province, February 2003)
The existence of harrowing new illnesses (in greater number and in various manifestations) in areas that have been intensively bombed cannot be disputed irrespective of how urgent the need for more extensive research is. But this is exactly one of many unexplained problems concerning the research of the potential adverse health effects of uranium-weapons. Indeed, we are faced with a great and unpredictable range of symptoms for which standard explanations of the exact way that the poisoning takes effect cannot account for. The UN General Assembly requested that the General Secretary gauge the opinion of member states and international organisations regarding the ramifications of the use of uranium munitions which was to be presented in the form of a report in the next meeting of the General Assembly in autumn 2008. This would be a golden opportunity for the Bundestag (Federal German Government) to put all their available knowledge concerning the overall detrimental effect of uranium munitions and their contravention of international law to good use. This would be perfectly in the national interest, and not only because the Bundeswehr have decided to forgo the use of uranium in their weapons systems and use instead the less efficient – but also far less harmful – tungsten carbide, that supposedly causes cancer. However, the German companies Rheinmetall and MBB experimented with uranium weapons at many test sites in Germany from the seventies well into the nineties. That ex-defence minister Scharping allowed the testing of uranium weapons gave the military the opportunity to observe possible health risks, health risks which are experienced by those afflicted as follows (15):
My wife was pregnant and we were happily waiting for the moment to see our second child. On the day of the delivery, my wife felt weird, saying that she did not feel good and had pain in her abdomen. When the baby was born, it was hardly a human. It looked as if some one had beaten a baby and then covered its body with flour. My poor child looked like having been rolled in a basket of flour. When my wife saw the baby, she went into shock and died after five hours." (Qunduz, Zar Ghoon, December, 2002)
According to the newspaper Jane’s Defence which published the following harrowing diagram (16) http://www.eoslifework.co.uk/u23.htm on the use of uranium weapons, it is Afghanistan, of all places – one of the poorest countries in the world – where the various types of weapons have been used most extensively (and also possibly where the highest tonnage has been dropped). In addition, Dai Williams
(http://www.eoslifework.co.uk/du2012.htm), ; the dedicated, self-taught expert on uranium weapons, provides the following interesting diagram (17):
At the beginning the question was asked as to what purpose the use of armour-piercing weaponry has in a poverty-stricken country with almost no concrete, armour or protection of any kind. We will all have to get used to the fact that when it is not about the armour-piercing effect of such weapons, then it can only be about a silent and intentional genocide. All 36 nations in the Hindu-Kush – including Germany – are accomplices to what is happening under their and our very eyes; eyes closed to the daily perpetration of this genocide.
I would like to end this section with the words of a former member of parliament, ex-media executive and advocate for peace, the Honorary US-Army Colonel Dr. Juergen Todenhoefer, who comments on the moral fuss made by the West of other peoples’ violations of human rights while doing worse themselves: "The Western community, which is held together by its value system, will fail, if this double standard does not cease." (18)
* On the Author: Christoph R. Hörstel
Studies of Chinese and Romanist Philology and Marketing Strategy in Munich and Basel Universities.
After 14 years as German TV Anchorman and Senior Editor, Head of Siemens Group Communications. 2001 foundation of "Hörstel Networks – Government an Public Relations, Business Consulting" in Munich.
Hörstel is expert on Islamic Movement and terror, since 1985 active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he served as government consultant. Further assignments include Iraq and Iran.
Hörstel coached selected leadership personnel of the German ISAF troops, subject: "Afghan Studies".
Hörstel was guest teacher at "Institute for Peace and Security Studies" (IFSH) at Hamburg University: "Terror-Mediation in the Case of Afghanistan". Hörstel is regularly teaching and lecturing at various institutions.
Books: "Bombshell Afghanistan" (287 pages, Droemer & Knaur, Munich 2007, ISBN: 978-3-426-78116-6), "Storm Center Pakistan" (400 pages, Kai Homilius Publishing House, Berlin 2008, ISBN: 978-3-89706841-4).
Hörstel’s disengagement plan for Afghanistan steadily gains acceptance in the German parliament.
Note on the title photograph
Taken in Kabul, Malalai Hospital, March 13, 2006, by Prof. Dr. Daud Miraki. The picture of this poor misfigured child, like many others of its kind cannot be confirmed as of victims of uranium weapons, since all hospitals in Afghanistan refuse to help secure a valid diagnosis by taking tissue samples and having them checked. This refusal is in contradiction to their medical duties as described in the international formula of the Vow of Hippocrite. If German law and regulations were applied to the doctors in charge, they would lose the right to perform their profession - all of them, immediately.
1.There is also much discussion concerning 'DU-weapons’ (depleted uranium). It has been shown, though, that uranium weapons make use of all kinds of uranium be it enriched, depleted or unaltered. Therefore it is more appropriate to talk of 'uranium weapons’. Very good websites on this: http://www.ratical.org/radiation/DU/. I am particularly indebted to Dr. Andreas Mylaeus, Munich, and his helpful suggestions
2.Randall Parrish et al. "Depleted uranium contamination by inhalation exposure and its detection after ~20 years: Implications for human health assessment," Science Total Environment, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2007.
3.Mohammad Daoud Miraki, "Americas weapons of mass destruction and the silent genocide of the Afghans," Zeitfragen No. 40, 05/10/2006, Zürich, CH http://www.zeit-fragen.ch/ausgaben/2006/nr40-vom-5102006/ame
4.Printed in Die Zeit, No. 2 10/01/2002: http://www.zeit.de/2001/02/200102_dlfinterview_0108.xml
5.European TV Oekomedia Award, 2004
6.Zeitfragen, "Die vorsaetzliche radioaktive Verseuchung der Bevoelkerung Afghanistans 2001 bis heute" (The wilful radioactive contamination of the Afghan population, 2001 to the present), No. 37, 11/09/2006, p. 9
8.Albrecht Schrott, "Britischer Kriegsveteran Kenny Duncan gewinnt als erster vor dem Kriegsrenten-Tribunal" (British war-veteran Kenny Duncan first to win war pension tribunal) open letter, 14/04/2004, http://www.uni-kassel.de/fb5/frieden/themen/DU-Geschosse/sch
9. Matthew D. Sztajnikrycer and Edward J. Otten, "Chemical and Radiological Toxicity of Depleted Uranium," Military Medicine, volume 169, no. 3 (2004), pp. 212-216
10. In particular the official US-Airforce website Air Force News: http://www.af.mil/news/
11. US Army Environmental Policy Institute, "Summary report to Congress - Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use by the U.S. ARMY," June 1994, p. 2 http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/land/docs/du.html
12. US Army Environmental Policy Institute, ibid., p. 5
13. US Army Environmental Policy Institute, ibid., p. 2
14. Miraki, ibid., see note 3
15. Miraki, ibid., see note 3
16. Jane’s Defence Weekly, updated September 2002 in: Dai Williams: "Hazards of suspected uranium weapons in the proposed war on Iraq (summary)," 24/09/2002. http://www.eoslifework.co.uk/u23.htm or http://www.eoslifework.co.uk/du2012.htm
17. Dai Williams, ibid., see note 16
18. Thomas Wagner, "Die Loesung ist: Mit dem Krieg aufhoeren und verhandeln" (The solution is: stop the war and negotiate), junge welt 26/04/2008 p. 1 (appendix) http://www.jungewelt.de/2008/04-26/001.php
© Christoph R. Hörstel: Uranium Weapon Use in Afghanistan