Fallujah and Weapons of Mass Destruction
Victoria Fontan reports from Fallujah where the medical consequences of war and the US occupation of Iraq continue to express themselves through congenital malformations and high cancer rates, particularly among children.
Blessed are the meek. He is the cheeriest child in Fallujah, Anbar. He spends his days stuck to his older brothers, who take turns playing with him, feeding him, and reassuring him when he feels disoriented, which happens every time a stranger comes to visit his family. He is sweet, a little smaller than other children his age, and is as pale as a cherub. There is no light in his eyes when he looks into yours; at times, he watches you like he is floating above the room. He is the son of Sheikh Faker in whose mosque Occupy Fallujah was initiated last December. Sheikh Faker tells me his son is one of many children born with congenital abnormalities after the 2004 US-led destruction of 75% of the city. He was born alive, yet his future is jeopardized by his fragile nature: any infection could kill him.
Dr Samira Alaani, Head of the Congenital Malformations Unit at the newly renovated Fallujah hospital, explains how abnormalities have soared since 2004. She has been documenting more than a thousand births since 2009, and argues that in the past couple of years, the rate at which children with congenital malformations have been born has dramatically increased. She explains: "we did a study that was published in a peer reviewed journal, and it shows rates of enriched uranium in the hair samples of the children’s parents." Much has been written about the use of depleted uranium in warfare, but "we were very surprised at finding enriched uranium, this stuff alters genetic codes for generations." The study, carried out alongside faculty at the UK-based University of Ulster, is damning. It concludes that since "enriched Uranium exposure is either a primary cause or related to the cause of the congenital abnormalities and cancer increases (…) questions are thus raised about the characteristics and composition of weapons now being deployed in modern battlefields."
Dr Alaani was not surprised to see me, as she has been interviewed by scores of media outlets in the past few years. She dutifully came back from her vacation to meet me in the hospital’s media relations office, where its manager had all the dreadful evidence ready for my visit: medical reports, peer-reviewed medical journal articles, etc. Weapons of mass destruction are indeed connected to the Iraqi conflict, they were used by the US occupier against the people of Fallujah, in a brutal battle that still eradicates its residents almost ten yeas after it ended. Dr Alaani showed me pictures of those children born with no brains, tumors, and malformed limbs. She also supplied me with a list of children born the month before my visit. She asked me to call their families, to see if they agreed to be interviewed, but told me not to get my hopes too high, "many of these children are probably dead by now." On that day I had no "luck", each and every one of those children were already dead. In a cultural setting where abnormality still carries a social stigma, many said that they wanted to move on and forget about what had happened.
As we ended the interview, we took pictures for the hospital’s newsletter. My interlocutors think that this article might make a difference. I know it won’t. There is such a thing as double standards in international relations; it is the basis of my work as a peace studies professor. In my university, we teach on Human Rights, and its mendacious avatars called Responsibility to Protect or International Humanitarian Law. We like to believe that states can behave in a humane way as they kill and main innocents. We hold lectures and Model United Nations simulations on the current Syrian conflict, condemning the use of chemical weapons of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and we pat ourselves on the back as future humanitarian workers. We are no more than useful idiots to a system that instrumentalizes our good intentions in order to validate its repeated crimes against humanity.
As I left, Dr Alaani hoped that my institutional affiliation would generate interest from the UN in Baghdad, since the Iraqi government has not given any support to her unit, despite the amount of international media coverage on the issue. I told her not to get her hopes up, but asked what could be done to help mitigate the situation. First, she asks for the US to acknowledge what they did, or for a special tribunal to be set up on the use of dirty weapons in the occupation of Iraq. Second, she says that proper facilities should be established by the culprits to help the children who stay alive. Third, she would like every family exposed to have their DNA tested, so that screenings can be carried out as early as possible. Those demands do not seem extravagant. If the US considers the inhabitants of Fallujah as unworthy of its remorse, they could at least acknowledge their use of dirty weapons for their veterans, many of who also suffer from the same plight as the Fallujah children.
My gateway into Fallujah was a rather sad one. Everywhere we went, my host mentioned that my daughter was born with a congenital heart issue, which Dr Alaani confirmed could well be due to my repeated visits to the town. Last year, I also had a tumor removed, another passport to people’s hearts and minds. Dr Alaani’s entire immediate family has had cancer, she is the only one left to develop anything. Dr Thanak, oncologist at Ramadi hospital, explains that the cancer rate has increased by 70% in women of the Anbar governorate. The US-led occupation of Iraq continues, and will do so for generations.
Victoria Fontan is Associate Professor and Head of Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University for Peace, Costa Rica.