October 2013

Dying of wounds from a war she never saw

The woman in the pink dress gazed with loving concentration at her baby, urging her, willing her to live, to take another breath, writes Donna Mulhearn.

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 woman’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 deformities 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 baby’s 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.

The day before this encounter I had met a new-born with a bloodied, fleshy hole in her back – a classic case of spina bifida, another common occurrence here now, along with brain dysfunction, spinal conditions, unformed limbs and cleft palate.

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 of little ones who may not have the chance to live, or at least not a healthy life.

Why was this happening every day in Fallujah Hospital? What has caused a seven-fold increase in birth defects here since 2000? Why a dramatic increase in miscarriages and stillborn births?

Several studies on the health crisis in Fallujah 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.

The studies present evidence of widespread exposure to heavy metals such as lead and mercury – metals that would be contained in bombs, tank shells and bullets – as a possible cause.

Today’s wars are wars of the city; they intrude into neighbourhoods, streets and houses. And the nature of modern weaponry means the wars don’t end when the guns fall silent. On the contrary, long-term damage continues, long after the bombs and guns have been packed up.

The increase in birth defects in Fallujah and Basra, another Iraqi city suffering the same fate, 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 in local environments and in patients, and point to it as a possible cause, but more research is urgently 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, and ideally, a total ban on its use.

The Precautionary Principle is at the heart of a resolution scheduled to come before the United Nations next year urging 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.

At a similar vote last year, 155 nations voted in favour of this non-threatening proposal, four voted against and Australia abstained. When I speak to Australians about this they are shocked that Australia would not deliver a ‘yes’ vote to a resolution about protecting civilians caught up in war.

The Australian Government must confront the question: 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 programs, but another kind exists, the toxic remnants of war whose silent legacy is still unclear.

And what of the woman in the pink dress, her little baby and how they are accounted for? Are they not our neighbour and deserving of our attention, compassion and engagement?

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 as if to take her photo and she nodded her approval.

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, urgent and ugly issue of the toxic legacy of 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.

Donna Mulhearn was a human shield during the war in Iraq. As part of her fifth visit to Iraq this year she researched the impact of depleted uranium weapons and co-ordinates the Australian Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons.

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