In late 2004 war nerds all over the world were nuking the popcorn and drinking in the sight of the US Marines going toe-to-toe with insurgents in Fallujah. Finally the cowardly terrorists were going to stand and fight. And with the city (allegedly) empty of non-combatants, the Marines were free to do what they’re actually designed for: visit unholy amounts of violence upon their designated enemies.
But after the capture of the city the war moved on and into years of occupation and dodging IEDS. The rights and wrongs of the Fallujah campaign became history, apart from lengthy debates in everything from academic journals to internet discussion board flame wars. But whilst forgotten as an insurgent stronghold, Fallujah these days has another poignant claim to fame: it is the birth defect capital of Iraq.
Robert Fisk’s column in The Independent makes for sad reading as he describes the work of medical staff in Fallujah dealing with stillbirths, horrific malformities and rates of infant cancer that dwarf those experienced after the atomic bombings in Japan. Fisk builds upon earlier work from his colleague Patrick Cockburn.
The cause of the medical issues is not clear. Some blame toxic effects from secret American munitions, since much of the rise in defects has occurred since the battle and subsequent re-settling of the city. But even the local doctors are not convinced by this as a total explanation. They also point to a high frequency of in-breeding amongst clan bloodlines within the area.
Whatever the cause, the local physicians are battling their problem with only primitive equipment, no specialised training and in a cultural environment where such defects are looked upon with shame. Indeed the rate of still-born children may be much higher than imagined, simply because many such home-births would never be recorded.
It’s a reminder that the problems of the Middle East, be they political, social or even medical, are pan-generational. And the world, and the doctors of Fallujah, will be dealing with them for decades to come.