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Déjà vu in Fallujah’s ‘Frankenstein’ maternity wards

January 25, 2016 at 9:44 am

Once famous for its heroic resistance to the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, Fallujah is now better known primarily as the epicentre of children born with horrendous deformities. The defects are blamed on the liberal use of depleted uranium (DU), white phosphorous and other deadly munitions by the US military when it besieged and bombarded Fallujah in 2004.

I have just reviewed a video from a maternity ward in Fallujah. One mother cried with frustration as she nursed her baby, which was born with two heads. Other new mothers admitted openly that they wished that their babies had not survived.

Watching the video I felt a sense of déjà vu; seeing children born without eyes, with severe congenital deformities and with nerve and brain damage, I realised that I had seen such heart-breaking images before I’d even heard of Fallujah.

Two years prior to the US invasion, I toured maternity wards in Basra in southern Iraq, where the so-called “Frankenstein babies” were born after the First Gulf War. In Basra’s maternity wards, a new mother’s first question would never be “Boy or girl?” but, “Is my baby normal?”

I was in Basra with paediatrician Lord Nicolas Rea; as he looked at the tiny, deformed bodies lying in rows and rows of incubators he admitted to me: “I’ve never encountered anything like this, on this scale before. I am seeing cancers and growths that are completely unknown to me. There are no names or labels for the conditions that are emerging here.”

After that visit to the maternity wards of Basra in the spring of 2002 I contacted the Ministry of Defence in London and asked about depleted uranium poisoning. I was told that it did not exist and there was no problem and therefore no liability.

The truth, though, is in Basra. In the days when Iraq had fully-functioning laboratories, scientists and medical experts, enough tests were carried out to confirm that DU had poisoned the soil and water in southern Iraq as a direct result of the war. The evidence was there for all to see in the Frankenstein baby wards where a doctor told me that he had made a conscious decision never to have children after what he had experienced. “Whatever is in the soil is now in the food chain and is now present inside us,” he confided to me. “I could not bear to put my wife through what these women here are enduring today.”

Now history is repeating itself in Fallujah, where hundreds of babies are struggling to survive in their badly deformed bodies. Some may even think that it is a mercy that the most horrifically deformed babies never live for more than a few hours outside the womb, so bad is their condition. A large number are born with eye cataracts, nerve damage, missing or stunted limbs; some have only one eye, or no eyes at all.

Despite the hundreds of documented cases, the US will not entertain complaints three months after an incident like the dropping of bombs. The deformed babies, of course, are being born years after the bombs stopped raining down on Fallujah. The current rate of birth defects for the city has already surpassed those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after America dropped nuclear bombs on Japan in August 1945.

At first, the US authorities denied using white phosphorous back in 2004, but by November 2005 the admissions slipped out in stories to the media. Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable told journalists at the time that although white phosphorous had been deployed it was not targeted at civilians; it is only regarded as a “chemical weapon” if it is aimed specifically at civilian areas as, indeed, it was in the Gaza Strip during successive military Israeli offensives over the past decade.

However, neither the US nor its “close ally” Israel are signatories to the international treaty which makes the use of white phosphorous in civilian areas a crime. It is unlikely, therefore, that the mothers in Fallujah will ever get any help or support, just as the mothers in Basra are still waiting for any acknowledgement of responsibility for their children’s deformities. The doctors in Gaza, meanwhile, can only wait anxiously for the poisonous legacy of Israeli munitions to emerge and affect generations of babies born there. Research led by Professor Paola Manduca of the University of Genoa suggests that they have every right to be concerned.

“The occurrence of birth defects was previously shown to be correlated in this cohort to documented exposure of parents to weapons containing metal contaminants, during attacks in 2009,” reported Prof Manduca and her colleagues in 2014. They detected, in significantly higher amounts than in normal babies, different specific teratogen or toxicant elements, known to be components of weapons used by Israel, characteristic for each baby with birth defects or born prematurely.

“This is the first attempt to our knowledge,” Manduca et al wrote in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “to directly link a phenotype at birth with the in utero presence of specific teratogen and/or toxicant metals in a cohort with known episodes of acute exposure of parents to environmental contamination by these same metals, in this case delivered by weaponry. The babies were conceived 20–25 months after the major known parental exposure; the specific link of newborn phenotypes to war-remnant metal contaminants, suggests that mothers’ contamination persists in time, and that the exposure may have a long term effect.” (Emphasis added.)

It is high time for the governments and military authorities in Britain, America and Israel to accept their responsibilities as occupiers, past and present, for such horrific consequences of their use of chemicals in weapons.

The Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) contains specific provisions for the delivery of healthcare services in occupied territories. Article 55 states: “To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territories are inadequate.”

According to Article 56: “To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities, the medical and hospital establishment and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics. Medical personnel of all categories shall be allowed to carry out their duties.”

As occupying powers, the Coalition forces may no longer be in Iraq but they are still in breach of Articles 55 and 56 of the Geneva Conventions, as is Israel with specific regards to the Gaza Strip. Their duty of care has been woefully lacking over the years and the healthcare systems in both Palestine and Iraq are collapsing as a direct result of bombardments by the US, Britain and Israel.

The end of the occupation in Iraq, like both invasions straddling either side of the millennium, has been an unmitigated disaster; the ongoing occupation of Palestine by Israel continues to be a humanitarian catastrophe. Moreover, as is usual in such cases, it is the innocents, especially the children, who pay most heavily for the reckless actions of generals and their armies as they play out the war games dictated by their governments.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.