Children of Fallujah - the Hospital of Horrors
Stillbirths, disabilities, deformities too distressing to
describe - what lies behind the torments in Fallujah General
By Robert Fisk
April 27, 2012 "The
- The pictures flash up on a screen on an upper floor of the
Fallujah General Hospital. And all at once, Nadhem Shokr al-Hadidi's
administration office becomes a little chamber of horrors. A
baby with a hugely deformed mouth. A child with a defect of the
spinal cord, material from the spine outside the body. A baby
with a terrible, vast Cyclopean eye. Another baby with only half
a head, stillborn like the rest, date of birth 17 June, 2009.
Yet another picture flicks onto the screen: date of birth 6 July
2009, it shows a tiny child with half a right arm, no left leg,
"We see this all the time now," Al-Hadidi says, and a female
doctor walks into the room and glances at the screen. She has
delivered some of these still-born children. "I've never seen
anything as bad as this in all my service," she says quietly.
Al-Hadidi takes phone calls, greets visitors to his office,
offers tea and biscuits to us while this ghastly picture show
unfolds on the screen. I asked to see these photographs, to
ensure that the stillborn children, the deformities, were real.
There's always a reader or a viewer who will mutter the word
"propaganda" under their breath.
But the photographs are a damning, ghastly reward for such
doubts. January 7, 2010: a baby with faded, yellow skin and
misshapen arms. April 26, 2010: a grey mass on the side of the
baby's head. A doctor beside me speaks of "Tetralogy of Fallot",
a transposition of the great blood vessels. May 3, 2010: a
frog-like creature in which – the Fallujah doctor who came into
the room says this – "all the abdominal organs are trying to get
outside the body."
This is too much. These photographs are too awful, the pain and
emotion of them – for the poor parents, at least – impossible to
contemplate. They simply cannot be published.
There is a no-nonsense attitude from the doctors in Fallujah.
They know that we know about this tragedy. Indeed, there is
nothing undiscovered about the child deformities of Fallujah.
Other correspondents – including my colleague Patrick Cockburn –
have visited Fallujah to report on them. What is so shameful is
that these deformities continue unmonitored. One Fallujah
doctor, an obstetrician trained in Britain – she left only five
months ago – who has purchased from her own sources for her
private clinic a £79,000 scanning machine for prenatal detection
of congenital abnormalities, gives me her name and asks why the
Ministry of Health in Baghdad will not hold a full official
investigation into the deformed babies of Fallujah.
"I have been to see the ministry," she says. "They said they
would have a committee. I went to the committee. And they have
done nothing. I just can't get them to respond." Then, 24 hours
later, the same woman sends a message to a friend of mine,
another Iraqi doctor, asking me not to use her name.
If the number of stillborn children of Fallujah is a disgrace,
the medical staff at the Fallujah General Hospital prove their
honesty by repeatedly warning of the danger of reaching
conclusions too soon.
"I delivered that baby," the obstetrician says as one more
picture flashes on the screen. "I don't think this has anything
to do with American weapons. The parents were close relatives.
Tribal marriages here involve a lot of families who are close by
blood. But you have to remember, too, that if women have
stillborn children with abnormalities at home, they will not
report this to us, and the baby will be buried without any
record reaching us."
The photographs continue on the screen. January 19, 2010: a baby
with tiny limbs, stillborn. A baby born on 30 October, 2010,
with a cleft lip and cleft palette, still alive, a hole in the
heart, a defect in its face, in need of echocardiography
treatment. "A cleft lip and palate are common congenital
anomalies," Dr Samira Allani says quietly. "But it's the
increased frequency that is alarming." Dr Allani has documented
a research paper into "the increased prevalence of birth
defects" in Fallujah, a study of four fathers "with two lineages
of progeny". Congenital heart defects, the paper says, reached
"unprecedented numbers" in 2010.
The numbers continue to rise. Even while we are speaking, a
nurse brings a message to Dr Allani. We go at once to an
incubator next to the hospital delivery room. In the incubator
is a little baby just 24 days old. Zeid Mohamed is almost too
young to smile but he lies sleeping, his mother watching through
the glass. She has given her permission for me to see her baby.
His father is a security guard, the couple married three years
ago. There is no family record of birth defects. But Zeid has
only four fingers on each of his little hands.
Dr Allani's computer files contain a hundred Zeids. She asks
another doctor to call some parents. Will they talk to a
journalist? "They want to know what happened to their children,"
she says. "They deserve an answer." She is right. But neither
the Iraqi authorities, nor the Americans, nor the British – who
were peripherally involved in the second battle of Fallujah and
lost four men – nor any major NGO, appears willing or able to
When doctors can obtain funding for an investigation, they
sometimes turn to organisations which clearly have their own
political predetermination. Dr Allani's paper, for example,
acknowledges funding from the "Kuala Lumpur Foundation to
Criminalise War" – hardly a group seeking to exonerate the use
of US weaponry in Fallujah. This, too, I fear, is part of the
tragedy of Fallujah.
The obstetrician who asked to be anonymous talks bleakly of the
lack of equipment and training. "Chromosome defects – like
Down's Syndrome – cannot be corrected prenatally. But a foetal
infection we can deal with, and we can sort out this problem by
drawing a sample of blood from the baby and mother. But no
laboratory here has this equipment. One blood transfer is all it
needs to prevent such a condition. Of course, it will not answer
our questions: why the increased miscarriages here, why the
increased stillbirths, why the increased premature births?"
Dr Chris Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster
who has surveyed almost 5,000 people in Fallujah, agrees it is
impossible to be specific about the cause of birth defects as
well as cancers. "Some very major mutagenic exposure must have
occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened," he wrote two years
ago. Dr Busby's report, compiled with Malak Hamdan and Entesar
Ariabi, says that infant mortality in Fallujah was found in 80
out of every 1,000 births, compared to 19 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan
and only 9.7 in Kuwait.
Another of the Fallujah doctors tells me that the only UK
assistance they have received comes from Dr Kypros Nicolaides,
the head of Foetal Medicine at King's College Hospital. He runs
a charity, the Foetal Medicine Foundation, which has already
trained one doctor from Fallujah. I call him up. He is bursting
"To me, the criminal aspect of all this – during the war – was
that the British and the American governments could not go to
Woolworths and buy some computers to even document the deaths in
Iraq. So we have a Lancet publication that estimates 600,000
deaths in the war. Yet the occupying power did not have the
decency to have a computer worth only £500 that would enable
them to say "this body was brought in today and this was its
Now you have an Arab country which has a higher number of
deformities or cancers than Europe and you need a proper
epidemiological study. I'm sure the Americans used weapons that
caused these deformities. But now you have a goodness-knows-what
government in Iraq and no study. It's very easy to avoid to
doing anything – except for some sympathetic crazy professor
like me in London to try and achieve something."
In al-Hadidi's office, there are now photographs which defy
words. How can you even begin to describe a dead baby with just
one leg and a head four times the size of its body?