Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Children of Fallujah - Sayef's story

The Children of Fallujah - Sayef's story


Special Report day one: The phosphorus shells that

devastated this city were fired in 2004. But are the

victims of America's dirty war still being born?





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.


Sayef lives - the word is used advisedly, perhaps - in the

al-Shahada district of Fallujah, in one of the more

dangerous streets in the city. The cops - like the

citizens of Fallujah, they are all Sunni Muslims - stand

with their automatic weapons at the door of Sayef's home

when we visit, but two of these armed, blue-unformed men

come inside with us and are visibly moved by the helpless

baby on the floor, shaking their heads in disbelief and

with a hopelessness which his father, Mohamed, refuses to



"I think all this is because of the use by the Americans

of phosphorous in the two big battles," he says. "I have

heard of so many cases of congenital birth defects in

children. There has to be a reason. When my child first

went to the hospital, I saw families there with exactly

the same problems."


Studies since the 2004 Fallujah battles have recorded

profound increases in infant mortality and cancer in

Fallujah; the latest report, whose authors include a

doctor at Fallujah General Hospital, says that congenital

malformations account for 15 per cent of all births in



"My son cannot support himself," Mohamed says, fondling

his son's enlarged head. "He can move only his hands. We

have to bottle-feed him. He can't swallow. Sometimes he

can't take even the milk, so we have to take him to

hospital to be given fluids. He was blind when he was

born. In addition, my poor little man's kidney has shut

down. He got paralysed. His legs don't move. His blindness

is due to hydrocephalus."


Mohamed holds Sayef's useless legs and moves them gently

up and down. "After he was born, I got Sayef to Baghdad

and I had the most important neurosurgeons check him. They

said they could do nothing. He had a hole in his back that

was closed and then a hole in his head. The first

operation did not succeed. He had meningitis."


Both Mohamed and his wife are in their mid-thirties.

Unlike many tribal families in the area, neither are

related and their two daughters, born before the battles

of Fallujah, are in perfect health. Sayef was born on 27

January, 2011. "My two daughters like their brother very

much," Mohamed adds, "and even the doctors like him. They

all take part in the care of the child. Dr Abdul-Wahab

Saleh has done some amazing work on him - Sayef would not

be alive without him."


Mohamed works for an irrigation mechanics company but

admits that, with a salary of only $100 a month, he

receives financial help from relatives. He was outside

Fallujah during the conflict but returned two months after

the second battle only to find his house mined; he

received funding to rebuild his home in 2006. He watches

Sayef for a long time during our conversation and then

lifts him in his arms.


"Every time I watch my son, I'm dying inside," he says,

tears running down his face. "I think about his destiny.

He is getting heavier all the time. It's more difficult to

carry him." So I ask whom he blames for Sayef's little

calvary. I expect a tirade of abuse against the Americans,

the Iraqi government, the Health Ministry. The people of

Fallujah have long been portrayed as "pro-terrorist" and

"anti-Western" in the world's press, ever since the murder

and cremation of the four American mercenaries in the city

in 2004 - the event which started the battles for Fallujah

in which up to 2,000 Iraqis, civilians and insurgents,

died, along with almost 100 US troops.


But Mohamed is silent for a few moments. He is not the

only father to show his deformed child to us. "I am only

asking for help from God," he says. "I don't expect help

from any other human being." Which proves, I guess, that

Fallujah - far from being a city of terror - includes some

very brave men.


Fallujah: A history


The first battle of Fallujah, in April 2004, was a

month-long siege, during which US forces failed to take

the city, said to be an insurgent stronghold. The second

battle, in November, flattened the city. Controversy raged

over claims US troops had deployed white phosphorus

shells. A 2010 study said increases in infant mortality,

cancer and leukaemia in Fallujah exceeded those reported

by survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and



Tomorrow: The doctors fighting to improve the lives of

Fallujah's suffering children


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