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18 October 2007

Siegwart-Horst Günther

Siegwart Horst Günther had already spent decades as a doctor in the Middle East researching and treating the epidemiological problems of patients, when, in 1991, he was appalled to stumble across a number of Iraqi children born with congenital deformities. The children betrayed symptoms unlike any he had previously witnessed: their immune systems tottered on the edge of collapse, and they suffered from dreadful maladies and skin conditions. Günther suspected that the ailing children or, while they were being carried to term, their mothers, had come into contact with large doses of radioactivity. One source was widely available: the collection of Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles rusting in the desert.


In 1991, the United States and its Persian Gulf War allies blasted Iraqi convoys with armor-piercing uranium munitions. To this day the military salvage littering the Iraqi landscape – from the ‘Highway of Death’ to the suburbs ringing Basra – are playgrounds for children. To make fuel rods for nuclear reactors, uranium must be refined, a process that spins off depleted uranium as waste.


“The moment a DU round hits its target, it unleashes a firestorm of low-level radioactive oxide particles.”


How can this radioactive byproduct be disposed of economically? A German military supplier (“Rheinmetal Defence has an international presence”, the firm boasts of itself) came up with the solution: DU is almost twice as heavy as lead, and Rheinmetal shell casings hardened with DU possess an enhanced capability of armor penetration. The problem is, Dr. Günther tells us, “the moment a DU round hits its target, it unleashes a firestorm of low-level radioactive oxide particles that are chased through the air by desert winds to be inhaled or absorbed by plants, animals and human beings.”


Professor Günther returned to Berlin from Iraq with a DU shell he had discovered in the Iraqi desert to have it spectrographically analyzed. Indeed, the shell was radiating ionizing rays, but the outcome of going public with his discovery – part of the cocktail of toxic agents that accounts for the ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ – was to be fined some 3000 marks by German authorities for transporting a dangerous material into the country. In the meantime the good doctor’s health has so markedly deteriorated that he has been forced to give up his medical researches. Still, in 2005 he published Was heißt Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben? (“What Does ‘Reverence for Life’ Mean?”) about his experience of working together with Albert Schweitzer from 1963-65 in Lambarene, and in 2006 his autobiography, Zwischen den Grenzen; Mein Leben als Zeitzeuge (“Crossing Borders: My Life as Life Witness”). For the mainstream media uranium weaponry remains no theme, yet for the human gene pool it spells an enormous threat. With Horst Siegward Günther the jury of the Nuclear-Free Future Award honors for the third time – after Souad Al-Azzawi (2003) and Asaf Durakovic (2004) – a hero activist who dared investigate the toxic aftermath of spent DU munitions directly at the scene of the crime.


Craig Reishus