I dropped my camera bag to the floor. Why was this happening every day in Fallujah Hospital’s nursery? What has caused a seven-fold increase in birth defects here since 2000? Why a dramatic increase in miscarriages and stillborn births?
The day before I had met a new-born with a bloodied, fleshy hole in her back – a classic case of spina bifida, another common occurrence now along with brain dysfunction, spinal conditions, unformed limbs and cleft palate. Another day I walked through Fallujah cemetery, which is littered with small, unmarked “baby” graves, and stood with Marwan and Bashir, a young, healthy couple, at the grave of their baby Mohamed, who lived five minutes after birth. He was their fourth baby to die. They will not try again.
The medical recommendation of the gynaecologists to the women of Fallujah is simple: “Just stop.” Stop falling pregnant because it is likely you will not give birth to a healthy baby. These words carry a shocking implication: a city of about 300,000 with a generation of young women who may never be mothers; and a generation who may not live, or at least not a healthy life.
Four new studies on the health crises in Fallujah have been released in the last four months. The studies suggest the baby of the woman in the pink dress is dying of wounds from a war she never saw. That this epidemic is the legacy of toxic weapons dispersed in this community in the ferocious attacks by US forces in 2004.
Today’s wars are wars of the city; they intrude into neighbourhoods, streets and houses. And the nature of modern weaponry means today’s wars don’t end when the guns fall silent.
The most recent study, “Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities”, published in Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, examines the prevalence of birth defects in Fallujah as well as Basra, another Iraqi city that experienced intense fighting. It found that in Fallujah more than half of all babies surveyed were born with a birth defect between 2007 and 2010. Before the siege, this figure was closer to one in 10. More than 45 per cent of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriages in the two years after 2004, increased from 10 per cent before the attacks. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage.
The study presents evidence of widespread exposure to heavy metals such as lead and mercury – metals contained in bombs, tank shells and bullets – as a possible cause.
The increase in birth defects in Fallujah and Basra is often connected to the use of another heavy metal – depleted uranium, used in conventional weapons for its armour-piercing capabilities. Several studies undertaken in Iraq have found evidence of the presence of uranium in local environments and in patients, and point to it as a possible cause, but more research is needed.
About 400,000 kilograms of depleted uranium has been dispersed in Iraq since 1991. Depleted uranium (DU) is radioactive and chemically toxic. The long-term impact on civilians is unknown. Militaries consider it a hazard and use extreme care in its handling. It’s been labelled the “Agent Orange” of today.
With uncertainties surrounding the use of weapons containing DU and its long-term impact, precaution is clearly needed. Such precaution was at the heart of a resolution before the United Nations First Committee in October. The resolution, passed by 138 states (Australia abstained from voting), urges nations to take a precautionary approach and requires greater transparency from users of DU weapons – simply that they declare in what areas the weapons have been used so that affected communities are aware. It’s about protecting civilians who just by very nature of urban warfare have been caught in the middle and left to deal with long-term contamination.
What’s needed now is a total ban. The Australian army deems DU a hazard and will not use it, and a 2010 trade agreement with the USA does not allow Australian uranium to be used for DU weapons.
In Fallujah Hospital I stood for a while in sad, silent solidarity with the woman in the pink dress and her baby. At one point she looked up at me, we held a gaze, and in a wordless gesture I said I was sorry. She nodded. I motioned if I could take her photo and she nodded. I left feeling gutted, tears stinging my eyes.
I heard the baby died just an hour later. Her name was Dumoa. For the sake of baby Dumoa, and her mother, may their tragic story awaken the conscience of the world and prompt us to discuss and act on the long-term impact of modern weaponry.