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Byron Shire
July 28, 2021

Legacy of an unnecessary war

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According to Australian Institute of Health & Welfare there are 308 birth defects for every 10,000 births in this country.

But this is not the case in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where one in three babies is born with a birth defect, claims journalist Donna Mulhearn (pictured).

It’s a case of generational genocide, with surviving children later developing unusual tumours and cancers.

Ms Mulhearn has just returned from Iraq, and will be addressing north coast audiences in what she calls ‘the legacy of the war’.

Toxic legacy

‘The impact on the physical place and on society has been dramatic and very negative, but I’ll be focusing on the long-term toxic legacy of the Iraq war and the impact of chemical weapons and weapons containing depleted uranium.’

Donna has spent a significant amount of time in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, a city that shows itself as a microcosm reflecting the bigger problems Iraq is now facing.

‘I spent a week there last time and I felt that what I could bring to the issue as a journalist was to document the issue; my goal was to give a face to the issue and to humanise it.

‘I feel often that our government and our media and commentators talk about wars as if the people who live in these places aren’t like us. They are often presented as “the other”.

‘I want to humanise that and hopefully raise the awareness of what has happened to families there.’ Donna believes that it is often difficult for audiences to comprehend the scale of the problem.

‘What I often say to audiences is that Fallujah has 200–300,000 people. That’s the size of Hobart. Imagine if that happened in Hobart or Newcastle – if one in three babies was being born with these defects, there would be civil and government outrage. But it’s a story that in the main part is dismissed; Fallujah is a city where almost every family is affected.’

Iraqi citizens have clearly sustained genetic damage, and continue to live, grow their food, and drink water in contaminated surrounds.

‘It’s an intergenerational effect,’ says Donna. ‘I don’t even know if there is a name for it – slow violence? These babies are basically dying from wounds from a war that they never saw; it’s similar to Agent Orange and I believe that it is the Agent Orange of today.

Damaged genetics

‘I did my masters last year on Fallujah, the killing of a city.

The city wasn’t flattened at the time, but the longterm legacy may mean a total change in the genetics of the demographic.

‘Those living in Fallujah don’t have access to a lot of information, but many are coming to believe that they and their families have been poisoned by the Iraq war.

‘When I interviewed lots of parents, most of them were healthy, so I asked what caused the birth defects.

‘They are aware it’s related to the weapons used by Americans, [when] we asked one young couple who had lost four babies – they were buried at the football field which is now a cemetery. In 2004 the deaths were so high, they gave up the football stadium and used it as a cemetery, and the only people buried there are people connected to the attacks. This football stadium has a section of baby graves, many unmarked. I went to the fresh grave of their little baby Mohammed, who had lived for five minutes. I asked: “what are you going to do, try again?”

‘They said they won’t try again until there is a solution. The most heartbreaking thing about that is there is no solution. The doctors’ and gynaecologists’ advice is just stop, don’t fall pregnant, as it’s unlikely you’ll give birth to a healthy child.’

Disabilities are varied although the most common are congenital heart and spinal defects, she says. ‘For instance, there was a little girl born when I was there who had a hole in her back. The doctor said this is very common now; they get a couple a week.’

In Australia, spinabifida is rare, with statistics showing it occurs in just one in 2000 births.

Perhaps the most shocking are the physical deformities.

‘There are babies born without brains, or shrunken heads, often very grotesque physical deformities. There are children who are born and look normal but they could be dead in three months because there just aren’t the facilities or the equipment available to deal with these complex cases.

‘Parents have to go to Baghdad to access the help they need. It costs them a fortune.’

So why hasn’t this story gained international media attention? ‘Every now and then there is a story,’ says Donna, ‘but I find that the media aren’t really interested; they need a local angle. I would argue a local angle is that our army helped deliver the depleted uranium there as part of our coalition.

No media attention

‘I find that when ordinary people find out about what is happening over there they are angry and want to know more.’

Donna has just returned from her fourth trip to Iraq.

‘I have a long history there,’ she says. ‘The first time I went as part of the human shield movement, and I returned later as an aid worker.’

So does Donna fear for her own health? ‘In terms of being exposed to depleted uranium, it’s possible that I am affected. When I got back in 2003 an American colleague got basic tests done and they showed radiation levels that were significantly higher than normal.

‘My friend said, “It doesn’t matter for me as I’m 70”. I was in my mid-30s.

‘I investigated getting tests but there was no place to get tests. So I have decided not to have children.’ She says for years people have been growing their crops in contaminated land and kids have been playing in tank graveyards.

‘Areas need to be decontaminated. We hear about billions of dollars of aid going to Iraq but much of that has been squandered. What is urgently needed is genetic testing and research – it’s what the hospitals are crying out for.’

Donna Mulhearn will be presenting her very personal journey and the story of the forgotten casualties of the Iraq war this Friday at the Mullumbimby RSL at 6.30pm with performers Renee Simone and Ilona Harker, along with a screening of David Bradbury’s film Business as Usual.

Mulhearn will also address the Byron Services Club from 6.30pm on Monday October 15.

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