Part One: For little Sayef, there will be no Arab Spring. He lies, just 14 months old, on a small red blanket cushioned by a cheap mattress on the floor, occasionally crying, his head twice the size it should be, blind and paralysed. Sayeffedin Abdulaziz Mohamed – his full name – has a kind face in his outsized head and they say he smiles when other children visit and when Iraqi families and neighbours come into the room.
But he will never know the history of the world around him, never enjoy the freedoms of a new Middle East. He can move only his hands and take only bottled milk because he cannot swallow. He is already almost too heavy for his father to carry. He lives in a prison whose doors will remain forever closed.
It’s as difficult to write this kind of report as it is to understand the courage of his family. Many of the Fallujah families whose children have been born with what doctors call “congenital birth anomalies” prefer to keep their doors closed to strangers, regarding their children as a mark of personal shame rather than possible proof that something terrible took place here after the two great American battles against insurgents in the city in 2004, and another conflict in 2007.
After at first denying the use of phosphorous shells during the second battle of Fallujah, US forces later admitted that they had fired the munitions against buildings in the city. Independent reports have spoken of a birth-defect rate in Fallujah far higher than other areas of Iraq, let alone other Arab countries. No one, of course, can produce cast-iron evidence that American munitions have caused the tragedy of Fallujah’s children. [Continue reading…]
Part Two: 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, no genitalia.
“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. [Continue reading…]
Part Three: “He needs multiple surgery outside Iraq. It’s a dysfunctional problem. He has no hearing in his left ear. They told me he has to be six before they can remove cartilage from his chest wall to put in his ear. All operations have to be outside Iraq to beautify the ear and give him his hearing.”
And all the while his father talks, five-year-old Sayef Ala’a sits obediently on the sofa beside us, doing as his father tells him, moving his head to show us the scrappy bit of flesh that constitutes his left ear, tipping his head to one side so we can take pictures of it. Compared to other children with birth deformities, Sayef Ala’a is lucky. He can see, breathe, walk, run, play and listen to his father and friends with his right ear. And he is a little boy of much courage.
“He hasn’t learnt much yet – that’s because he hasn’t been to school,” his father says. “I’m worried he would be bullied at school. He’s a child, but sometimes he comes to me and says he knows he has a deformed ear; but it doesn’t matter, he says, because he has no other problems. He is shy but he doesn’t mind seeing you.” And here the father points at us as we sit beside his son on the sofa. “But no other foreigners come to see him.”
Like others in Fallujah, Sayef Ala’a’s father, who is a businessman, hopes that NGO officials will turn up at his door one day and offer the boy a foreign visa, medical treatment abroad, education. It is a dream that will never be realised – not so long as even the Iraqi government takes no interest in the deformed children of Fallujah. [Continue reading…]