Italian soldiers keep dying from ‘Balkan syndrome’

At least 300 Italian soldiers may have died from exposure to depleted uranium in Bosnia and Kosovo – but the Italian authorities continue to deny the existence of a connection – much like Canada. That is happening to Canadian soldiers: the number of Canadian soldiers and military personnel that is sick and in need of medical treatment, let alone those who are dead already. We had Terry Reardon, who was a Canadian veteran, absolutely contaminated, no doubt he died from uranium poisoning, according to the autopsy. Yet, the Canadian DND continues to insist there were no exposures and no health risks. | Rodolfo Toe, BIRN 

 An Italian soldier on the hills above Sarajevo in 1996 | NATO

More than 300 Italian soldiers may have died during the past 15 years from exposure without protection to depleted uranium during missions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, while another 3,700 are sick for the same reason.

“To date, 331 Italian soldiers have died and another 3,764 have developed cancer as a consequence of having been exposed to depleted uranium,” said Domenico Leggiero, a former Italian pilot who is now president of the Osservatorio Militare [Military Observatory] association, which represents the victims and their relatives.

Leggiero said it was impossible to know exactly how many of these soldiers specifically died from the consequences of NATO bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia because they also served elsewhere.

“After [serving in] the Balkans, many of them were deployed also in Afghanistan and Iraq, where depleted uranium was also used,” Leggiero explained.

“But this issue only entered the public domain after the first cases of soldiers dying of cancer or leukaemia were recorded among veterans of the war in Bosnia and Kosovo,” he recalled.

The ‘Balkan Syndrome’

The first cases of soldiers dying from what the Italian media calls the “Balkan Syndrome” were recorded between 1999 and 2000.

Six Italian soldiers who had taken part in missions in Bosnia after the end of the war there, from 1996 to 1998, were reported to have died of cancer as a consequence of exposure to depleted uranium.

The first victim, Corporal Salvatore Vacca, was only 23 and had served in Bosnia in 1998 and 1999. He died of leukaemia months after returning home, the Rome-based newspaper La Repubblica wrote.

 An Italian soldier of the NATO peacekeeping forces stands near Sarajevo’s Lion cemetery | NATO

Depleted uranium, D-38, is a by-product obtained from the process used to enrich natural uranium for use as fuel in nuclear reactors.

Its huge density makes it the perfect material for producing “tank armour and bullets … to penetrate enemy armoured vehicles”, the US Department of Veterans Affairs wrote on its website.

The use of D-38 in making weapons represents a serious hazard for human beings, however.

“It can expose people to radiation both from the outside and from the inside if it enters the body by inhalation or ingestion … increasing the risk of cancer,” the UN Environment Programme mission, which operated in Bosnia and Kosovo after the end of the wars there, said.

The US Army started using D-38 on a large scale during the first Gulf War. NATO has also acknowledged that shells containing depleted uranium were used both in Kosovo and Bosnia. Around 31,000 such shells were fired in Kosovo and 11,000 in Bosnia.

Although Italian soldiers in Kosovo were deployed in the sector of Kosovo which NATO had bombed most heavily, the World Health Organization, WHO, reported, Leggiero said they were operating without special training or special equipment.

“While soldiers from other countries had information about the risks they had to face and took adequate protection, Italian soldiers were in the dark,” Leggiero said.

Everything was ‘OK’

Over the years, Italian soldiers who were deployed in Kosovo and Bosnia confirmed they had no protection or awareness of the danger they were in.

“We used to see the American soldiers, and we wondered why they were going around dressed like astronauts … they had equipment to handle those materials that we didn’t have,” Gianluca Danise, a former Italian pilot, told the Verona-based newspaper L’Arena before dying of a cancer in December 2015.

“We used to work with our bare hands … without masks, in territories which had been hugely polluted by depleted uranium … when we asked our superiors [why US soldiers were so much better equipped] they answered: don’t worry, they are Americans, they exaggerate … everything is OK,” Enrico Maria Laccetti, a worker from the Red Cross who developed lung cancer after 10 years spent in different missions across former Yugoslavia, told the Italian media in 2014.

During the past 15 years, the Italian authorities have repeatedly denied a connection between the deaths of the soldiers and their likely exposure to D-38 in former Yugoslavia.

On April 6, the Italian Minister of Defence, Roberta Pinotti, told the media that “as far as our Ministry is concerned… there is not a problem with depleted uranium.

“We have had several scientific commissions that have always denied the existence of a connection between cases of people who are sick and the use of weapons [with depleted uranium],” Pinotti added.

But activists and representatives of the victims claim the Italian government was well aware of the risks and failed to protect its soldiers.

BIRN asked the Italian Ministry of Defence to comment on the claims but got no reply.

“The Italian government has demonstrated an amateurish attitude,” said Alessandro Marescotti, president of Peacelink, one of the first Italian associations to denounce the effects of depleted uranium during the war in Yugoslavia and to campaign to force the Italian government to admit responsibility.

“The Italian authorities have never admitted officially the existence of this problem… they accused us of raising alarmism and insisted on minimising the issue,” Marescotti told BIRN.

The Italian government has in fact created six commissions to examine the problem. However, all of them rejected a connection between the exposition to D-38 and cases of cancer among Italian veterans.

Some Italians say this is no surprise. “In Italy we create commissions of inquiry when we don’t want to discover the truth,” Leggiero commented sarcastically.

Nicole Corritore, who works at the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, [the Balkan and Caucasus Observatory] and has followed the issue of depleted uranium since its beginning, argues that admitting reality would have serious consequences for the Italian authorities.

“Demonstrating the connection between the use of depleted uranium and the deaths of hundreds of Italian soldiers would also mean talking about the effect of depleted uranium on the civil population of former Yugoslavia,” Corritore told BIRN.

“It would also mean recognising that weapons using D-38, which are currently used by the Italian army… in Sardinia, have inflicted damage on the local population,” Corritore said.

 A group of Italian “Lagunari” in Kosovo during the war | Ryan C. Creel Wikicommons

The Italian government in 2008 set up a fund of 30 million euros to provide financial compensation to soldiers who developed cancer as a consequence of dealing with ammunitions made with depleted uranium.

But, Corritore noted, most of the funds have not been used so far.

With the Italian government still refusing to recognise that its soldiers died from depleted uranium, the right to compensation is still disputed and in the hands of Italian judges, who decide on individual cases of veterans suing the Ministry of Defence.

So far, according to the Osservatorio Militare, judges have recognised the right to compensation for former soldiers in 43 cases.

However, in May 2015, in a case concerning a soldier who had died after having served in Kosovo the Appeal Court in Rome ruled that there is “an undisputed connection between the exposition to depleted uranium and cancer”.

Angelo Fiore Tartaglia, a lawyer who has assisted several victims against the Ministry of Defence, said the ruling could represent a turning point for thousands of Italians who claim to have been damaged by depleted uranium.

“This verdict … will finally put an end to the attempt [by the government] to hide the truth,” Tartaglia said after the verdict.

At the end of 2015, the Italian parliament also voted to establish of a new commission of inquiry.

But once again, as its chairman Giorgio Scanu [from the ruling Democratic Party] told the Rome-based newspaper L’Espresso, the goal would not be to prove a connection between exposure to D-38 and cancer, but “to protect our soldiers… by making it possible for them to obtain compensation without need to prove the existence of this connection.

“We care about this issue … and we are fully aware of the seriousness of this situation. We would like our commission to be the last one in a series that so far has been too long,” Scanu said.

Balkan Insight

For your information

Shunpiking Dossier on Depleted Uranium





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