By Donna Mulhearn
I’ve never seen a face as sad as a mother watching her new baby die.
I saw it several times in the week I spent in Iraq’s Fallujah Hospital recently, but the most heart-breaking was the round, brown face of the woman in the pink dress.
I entered the room in which she sat, motionless, just staring intently at her baby in the humidicrib in front of her. She did not turn to look at me, despite my odd appearance: white girl in oversized black abaya and untidy hijab juggling a camera and notebook. I attracted stares throughout the hospital but the woman in the pink dress was too engaged with her baby to notice.
The women’s baby girl was struggling to breathe. Her little tummy heaving up and down too fast. She had complex congenital heart defects, like so many babies born here in Fallujah, a dusty, war-weary city, west of Baghdad currently experiencing a dramatic increase in birth defects and miscarriages.
The woman in the pink dress gazed with loving concentration at her baby, urging her, willing her to live, to take another breath. Her large brown eyes were not angry, more overwhelmed, full of innocence, and questions. I saw the babies eyes as she stared back at her Mother, only innocence there too.
I dropped my camera bag to the floor and just stood there sharing the sacred, painful space between life and death, between love, yearning and grief and the questions, so many questions.
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 palet.
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 crisis in Fallujah have been released in the last three 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 only 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 lead and mercury- metals that would be 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 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 depleted uranium and its long-term impact, precaution is clearly needed.
Such precaution is at the heart of a resolution that came before the United Nations First Committee this month. The resolution urged 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.
At a similar vote held two years ago, 148 nations voted in favour of this non-threatening proposal, four voted against and Australia abstained.
When I spoke to Australians about this they were shocked that Australia might not deliver a ‘yes’ vote.
And yet that is exactly what we did. We abstained from making our position known, yet again.
Labor MP John Murphy raised the issue in Parliament last month noting that: “It would therefore be consistent to extend this precaution to assist civilian communities caught up in conflicts where DU weapons are used.”
“… Considering this precautionary approach, it is logical that Australia would change its vote from abstaining to voting yes.”
Australia has joined with nations including the USA and United Kingdom in repeating its current line that the science is not there. And then we’ve wheeled out out-dated studies that have superseded by new research, in support of our position. However the science is there and it is compelling, but there are also questions and in the case of uncertainty then the precautionary principle should apply.
The key question is: Is it politically acceptable to disperse large quantities of a chemically toxic and radioactive heavy metal, which is widely recognised as hazardous, in conventional warfare?
It points to a broader question about what remains in neighbourhoods when armies pack up and leave. Remnants of war that explode such as landmines and cluster bombs attract attention and clearance program, but another kind exists, the toxic remnants of war whose silent legacy is still unclear.
Can Bob Carr’s sense of independence and common sense overcome the pressure he is receiving from user nations, most notably the USA?
Can he pass the first test of the Australian Agenda?
You see the woman in the pink dress is there too in this discussion and her little baby and how are they accounted for?
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 my head haunted by her face.
I heard the baby died just an hour later, her name was Dumoa.
Dumoa’s was a short life, but one which brings into clear, sharp focus the large, hard, ugly issue of the legacy of the weapons our armies take to the neighbourhoods of ordinary families.
For the sake of baby Dumoa, and her mother in the pink dress, 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.