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 women’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 defects 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 babies 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.
Why was this happening every day in Fallujah Hospital’s nursery? What has caused a seven-fold increase in birth defects here since 2000? Why a dramatic increase in miscarriages and stillborn births?
The day before I had met a new-born with a bloodied, fleshy hole in her back – a classic case of spina bifida another common occurrence now along with brain dysfunction, spinal conditions, unformed limbs and cleft palet.
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 who may not live, or at least not a healthy life.
Four new studies on the health crisis in Fallujah have been released in the last three months. The studies 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.