Robert Fisk: 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?

Share
Related Topics

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 betray.

"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 Fallujah.

"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 Nagasaki.

Tomorrow: The doctors fighting to improve the lives of Fallujah's suffering children

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
 

‘They’ve seen the future – and got it for a song’: the unlikely history of Canary Wharf

Jack Brown
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee