The number of deformed babies and children with leukaemia is increasing in Iraq, with locals blaming depleted uranium weapons used in US attacks.
It is seven years since the invasion of Baghdad and only now is the US withdrawing its forces from Iraq, but the Iraqi people themselves, meanwhile, are having to deal with what appears to be a more immediate and devastating legacy from the war - stories are now emerging of increased deformities in the country's newborn babies as well as a dramatic rise in the number of children with cancer. Dateline's Walkley Award-winning reporter Fouad Hady, an Iraqi-Australian, went back home to investigate. As you know, Dateline always warns it's viewers whenthey are about to show images or sequences thatthey think you might find upsetting. Well, George Negus had a long look at Fouad's piece and it's definitely upsetting - confronting, in fact. Nevertheless, he urges you to stick with it. It says a lot about the ethical dilemma of modern armed conflicts like Iraq.
REPORTER: Fouad Hady
I'm travelling to Falluja - about two hours drive west of Baghdad - the scene of fierce fighting between Sunni insurgents and US forces in 2004. My driver is Mohammed, a mechanic who lives here, he remembers a happier time.
MOHAMMED, DRIVER (Translation): This is our city, Falluja. Every Monday and Tuesday it used to celebrate weddings, happy occasions, newborn babies and young men and women getting married;..
He says that has all changed now.
MOHAMMED (Translation): They don't have very high hopes of marrying and starting a family because they are scared to have children. This is the stricken Falluja city.
Mohammed and his new bride stayed in Falluja throughout the fighting. They say there is a terrible legacy.
MOHAMMED (Translation): She was two months pregnant when the battles with the American forces started. They were fierce battles and the American forces moved into the houses. There was heavy aerial bombing and armoured vehicles came in. A while later Zahraa was born disabled -she has six digits in her hands and feet - here are her hands and here are her feet. They are the effects - the doctors would not give us reports. She also had general paralysis and obesity, an allergy in the trachea, asthma, cross-eyed and also has mild mental retardation.
MOHAMMED'S WIFE (Translation): I had high hopes when I was pregnant with her - I was expecting her to grow up, play, to guide her, play with her, take her out, enrol her at school... In two years, all kids her age will start school, except for her.
MOHAMMED (Translation): We had a baby boy after her and when he was three or four days old, he died. He had an opening in the crown of the head, from the effects. It's not the only case in Falluja - there are not hundreds but thousands of cases in Falluja.
Mohammad and many others believe US bullets and bombs - which spread depleted uranium - have made Falluja toxic. He wants me to meet some of his neighbours.
REPORTER (Translation): What is your son's condition?
WOMAN (Translation): My son's condition is from the effects of the war - I was pregnant with him when Falluja was attacked - I was pregnant during the first attack and he was barely 40 days old during the second. So that is why this happened to my son Abdul Rahman. It is the effects of war - the bombs the Americans dropped on us. In general, Falluja's women are not happing children.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you know women, like neighbours, friends;
WOMAN (Translation): All of them.
REPORTER (Translation): Do they miscarry or can't they fall pregnant?
WOMAN (Translation): She miscarries - then can't fall pregnant - my sister miscarried as well.
REPORTER (Translation): The same condition?
WOMAN (Translation): Yes, the same condition.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you know any neighbours in the same condition - miscarry and so on?
WOMAN (Translation): All of them.
The fighting in Falluja filled the cemeteries, so people were buried here in the sports ground and the locals say the curse of Falluja continues
REPORTER (Translation): What is this?
LOCAL MAN (Translation): It's for children who were born with deformities and incurable diseases. They grow to about five or six months of age and don't survive any longer. This whole cemetery is especially for children. These are the deformed children.
REPORTER (Translation): Where?
MAN (Translation): All these graves. Those behind you and this side, they're all children. This is for deformed children from Falluja hospital.
I want to ask the doctors at Falluja hospital what they think is causing this tragedy. The hospital is clean, well-equipped and was paid for by the US. Paediatrician Dr Samira al-Ani says she has seen an increase in the numbers of deformed children.
DR SAMIRA AL-ANI, PAEDIATRICIAN: The cases that I am meeting now or I am facing now, are more than before, I can say 2002. I feel that the number is increasing after 2006.
REPORTER: Increasing by how many per cent?
DR SAMIRA AL-ANI: I can't give a per cents, I can't give a percentage because there is no documentation - in the past or even now. There is no statistics at all. There is no documentation of... I can say of most of the cases, not all of the cases, but most of the cases. There is nothing documented. There should be some studies and there should be some investigations.
REPORTER: No study here?
DR SAMIRA AL-ANI: No, no, no.
DR SAMIRA AL-ANI: We have no facilities to do such investigations. It's a complex subject and it needs complex investigation.
Travelling with us is a journalist, Mr Haamed Alname from a local paper, he also tried to talk to doctors - without success.
HAAMED ALNAME, JOURNALIST (Translation): They refused categorically and the direct response was that an official letter from the Health Ministry prohibits all statements by doctors in relation to, quote unquote, "congenital deformities". The main reason is pressure from the American forces on the Health Ministry. The letter was sent to the Anbar Department of Health and to Falluja General Hospital.
I decide to head back to Baghdad seeking more information. The Health Ministry refuse all my requests for an interview, but Mishkat al-Moumin, the Minister for the Environment, agreed to talk. She's working to clean up those parts of Iraq contaminated during the war.
MISHKAT AL-MOUMIN, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT (Translation): So what we have today is 41 sites. The majority are in areas close to Baghdad or in areas close to Basra, or in the proximity of Basra.
Central Baghdad - this is one of the many radioactive sites scattered across Iraq. Once the Department of Youth and Sport, it was badly damaged in the fighting for the city. Many of the shells and bullets contained depleted uranium. This man is from the Environment Ministry. With barrels of contaminated material, including depleted uranium, or DU, stacked along the wall, I put on the protective overalls.
MAN (Translation): Contaminated rubble. DU. Dirt, concrete, rubble. Level 4. Alpha, beta, gamma. This is the third floor.
REPORTER (Translation): Isn't it contaminated?
MAN (Translation): No it's not.
REPORTER (Translation): Which floor is this?
MAN (Translation): Fourth.
REPORTER (Translation): Contaminated?
MAN (Translation): Yes. These are all bullet marks on this wall. The readings were high, but Science & Technology removed the contamination and now the reading is normal.
REPORTER (Translation): Which level?
MAN (Translation): Eight. The bullets penetrated the walls here. See how the background reading has changed? There's a reading. We requested another clean-up, to finish the job.
REPORTER (Translation): So there's still uranium here?
MAN (Translation): It's more than the normal level. There's radiation activity so they'll redo this area.
When the shells hit, radioactive dust particles can contaminate large parts of the surrounding area.
MAN (Translation): If you walk on a contaminated area and move to a clean one, contamination will spread.
REPORTER (Translation): They're not wearing suits, will they be exposed?
MAN (Translation): Only if they touch it. The alpha range is 5 cm.
Not far from this building is the al-Alwiyah Children's Hospital, in the centre of Baghdad. A baby has been delivered in the ambulance on the way here.
DOCTOR: Female baby, with cleft palate and the issue of abdominal vessel and most probably a polycystic kidney. This is the bulge in the abdominal muscle and this is a polycystic kidney and there is a facial cleft complete facial collapse and the cleft. Most of all, this patient is - low-set ear and polydactyl, you can see the polydactyl for the left hand, there is six fingers, not five, six finger on the left hand. She is a female baby. We see multiple cases like this.
This is the newborn baby's grandmother.
GRANDMOTHER (Translation): They told us in her sixth month hat she had this condition.
REPORTER (Translation): You found out by ultra-sound?
GRANDMOTHER (Translation): Yes. I felt it was so wrong and did not accept it - the medical committee recommended an abortion and she was young and scared. But I did not agree and told her to have the baby. God Almighty created her and God will; Here, look at her. So many things are wrong with her. Both her father and mother are healthy. It's not that anything's wrong with them. They're fine.
REPORTER (Translation): Where's her mother?
GRANDMOTHER (Translation): I sent them home. I haven't told the mother or father yet. Even when I saw her in the ambulance, I was dumbfounded. It's all because of the fighting. What has this baby ever done? If her father sees her, he will go crazy. What's her fault, this baby? Oh, God.
The doctor calls me to see another baby, just two hours old.
REPORTER (Translation): Doctor, this is a scary case. What is this?
DOCTOR (Translation): It's wrong to say scary about them.
REPORTER (Translation): Not scary, I'm sorry. But this case is tragic. It's really a sad situation?
DOCTOR: This is a case of enkaphalosio - you'll notice that this is the forehead of the baby disappeared completely and there is a herniation of the brain tissue to the back of the baby. This is a common situation we have noticed lately. This baby is gasping - put him on oxygen, please. Oxygen, oxygen, oxygen.
Down the corridor is another 3-month-old baby with facial deformities. Her name is Farah, which means 'happiness'. She's been isolated from other babies because she is very sick.
REPORTER (Translation): What's wrong with Farah?
WOMAN (Translation): She has acute infections. She was very ill yesterday - she was almost finished. We gave her, her medication, and plasma. We felt so sad in the section when we stopped hearing her voice.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you like her?
WOMAN (Translation): We love to hear her voice. Especially as we have children... We're mothers and we know. Poor girl - She's helpless. We are all she has. Isn't she a human being too?
REPORTER (Translation): Did you find her mother?
WOMAN (Translation): I don't know if anyone has visited her or not. They haven't even left an address. Just Baghdad.
Just across the Tigris River, is another hospital specialising in young cancer patients.
DOCTOR (Translation): After the last war on Iraq the number of leukaemia cases has increased. The children who come to us face real suffering, especially those coming from remote areas, rural areas.
REPORTER (Translation): Is he your son?
WOMAN (Translation): Yes.
REPORTER (Translation): What happened?
WOMAN (Translation): He has leukaemia in the blood.
REPORTER (Translation): How long has it been?
WOMAN (Translation): Almost a year.
REPORTER (Translation): How did you discover it?
WOMAN (Translation): He had a tumour - he started losing weight and got skinny. We did a marrow test and it showed up in his blood. All the children are like that. They say it's the effect of wars, I don't know why.
WOMAN 2 (Translation): We took her to a hospital in Irbil - a haematology hospital, we did the marrow test. We'd never heard of it before. We knew her condition was critical. The results confirmed it was leukaemia. We were so shocked but when we came here we saw so many cases even worse than Marwa's case. But thank God... God is generous, He will cure her.
REPORTER (Translation): Hassan, what's Hassan's condition?
WOMAN 3 (Translation): He was fine except that he was coughing. They requested more tests and the results showed he had the disease in the blood.
REPORTER (Translation): Leukaemia.
WOMAN 3 (Translation): Yes. I cried until I couldn't cry any more. My tears dried out from so much crying.
The hospital could not, or would not give me any figures about the number of young leukaemia patients.
REPORTER: Let's talk about the war.
DOCTOR: Oh, maybe this is difficult. You cannot say for sure that the war in what way affected our problem in Iraq but our observations that the numbers are increasing for the newly diagnosed patients over the past 20 years.
Again, I can't get no firm statistics but as I film a technician testing blood, I begin to get an idea of the scale of the problem.
REPORTER (Translation): How many cases do you detect per day?
TECHNICIAN (Translation): Sometimes 10, 14... It depends on what comes in..
REPORTER (Translation): Leukaemia?
TECHNICIAN (Translation): Leukaemia - All blood diseases.
REPORTER (Translation): You're saying 10 cases a day, that's 300 a month. So the numbers are;
TECHNICIAN (Translation): The numbers are, well, it's normal here.
Those figures would mean thousands of cases a year in this one hospital. I return to al-Alwiyah Hospital the next day. The doctor is examining baby Farah - her condition has improved but her severe disabilities make me fear for her future.
DOCTOR: There are no eyelids for this baby since her birth and that make a lot of complication for her. And her age now is 80 days, but also she has a repetitive infection in the chest because she is complaining from repeated aspirations to the lower respiratory system. One of the time in her early life she was complaining from pneumonia - aspiration pneumonia. She aspirates her own saliva and that's all.
Iraq's broken children need love and care and they need to know what's causing this terrible tragedy.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you have the intention to have more children?
MOHAMMED'S WIFE (Translation): I hope so. I would love to have more children. But I'm scared, because I had a baby boy after her and he died then, he was deformed. His head was deformed. I would love to, but I'm scared.
GEORGE NEGUS: Fouad Hady with that disturbing report. Fouad tells us, by the way, that the head of the Baghdad hospital where he was filming was gunned down on Thursday as she left work. The Iraqis are struggling to come up with valid evidence of the causes of the deaths and deformities in their children, but this UK report done in Fallujah and published by the 'International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health' says "we conclude that the results confirm the reported increases in cancer and infant mortality, which are alarmingly high." The report also states that "although we have drawn attention to the use of depleted uranium as one potential relevant exposure, there may be other possibilities". And our website this week includes a blog from our executive producer on our decision not to show some particularly distressing scenes from Fouad's Iraq report, plus links to research on uranium and deformities. That's at sbs.com.au/dateline.
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15th August 2010