Deformities and death matches: Fallujah’s forgotten children
It's November 2009 in Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad in Iraq which lies upon the banks of the famous Euphrates river. At the Fallujah General Hospital, a beautiful baby girl named Janna (the word for “paradise” in Arabic) has just been born.
The blessing of giving birth to a healthy child is the dream of all aspiring parents, but as Janna lies in the ward with a head full of hair and curious eyes, it’s not long before the doctors realise something is gravely wrong.
Janna has been born with a neural tube defect. The neural tube forms the early brain and spine. In her specific case, there is a defect in her vertebral column, resulting in paralysis of her lower limbs.
"It was reported in September 2009 that 170 children were born in Fallujah General Hospital. Within seven days, 24% had died, with the majority of the children displaying the deformities that Dr Alani had been logging for the past three years"
Doctor Samira Alani, a paediatrician who has worked at the hospital since 1997, monitors Janna and notes down the defects she’s discovering.
She has been logging and tracking instances where babies are born with congenital birth defects (CBDs) since 2006 when the surge in the number of cases was first detected. As of December 21st, just a month and a half after Janna’s birth, Dr Alani reported to Al Jazeera that she had logged 677 cases.
When they visited the hospital only eight days later, an additional 22 cases had been registered. But why were all of these children born with deformities?
To find the answer we must go back to November 2004. US forces led a military effort named Operation al-Fajr (The Dawn) also known as the Second Battle of Fallujah, with the first being in April of that same year.
The purpose was to eradicate Iraqi insurgents from the city, with the weapon of choice for the US army being white phosphorous, an incendiary weapon. The United Nations defines incendiary weapons as “weapons or munitions designed to set fire to objects or cause a burn or respiratory injury to people through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, resulting from a chemical reaction of a flammable substance.”
White phosphorus was unleashed upon Fallujah to “dislodge enemy fighters from entrenched positions within the city”, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable disclosed in November 2005.
Professor Paul Rodgers, University of Bradford department of peace studies, stated at the time that it would be considered as a chemical weapon under international conventions if it was "deliberately aimed at people to have a chemical effect”.
When white phosphorus comes into contact with the skin, it burns flesh all the way down to the bone. The use of this weapon is a gruesome war crime that causes excruciating suffering in humans, but how has its presence affected a generation of Iraqi children born in Fallujah since?
The use of chemical weapons has lasting effects on the civilians who inhabit the lands that were tainted by them. The remnants of white phosphorus and other weapons like depleted uranium remain long after the soldiers have left, and many of the families who fled will return to the same homes that they resided in.
Citizens will assimilate back into a new reality oblivious to the fact their city is contaminated, thus increasing their exposure to these toxic substances. The remains of the weapons used in Iraq led to a sharp increase in the number of birth defects as well as infant mortalities, cancer and leukaemia, far exceeding the reports from survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Dr Alani had actually made a visit to Japan to investigate. She was told birth defect incidence rates there are between 1-2 percent. Alani’s log of cases of birth defects amounts to a rate of 14.7 percent of all babies born in Fallujah, more than 14 times the rate in the affected areas of Japan.
"In 2009, the same year that Janna was born with life-threatening defects, Japanese video game company Konami announced a shooter game Six Days In Fallujah... The game's USP? Gamers would be able to experience the savage butchery and violence of the second Battle of Fallujah, all from the US marine’s point of view"
It was reported in September 2009 that 170 children were born in Fallujah General Hospital. Within seven days, 24% had died, with the majority of the children displaying the deformities that Dr Alani had been logging for the past three years. The director of the hospital and senior specialist, Dr Ayman Qais, is quoted to have said "We are seeing a very significant increase in central nervous system anomalies... There is also a very marked increase in the number of cases of brain tumours."
According to the report, these children were being born with “two heads, no heads, a single eye in their foreheads, missing limbs”, and more. In comparison, of the 530 children who were born in the hospital in August 2002 (pre-invasion) only 1% died and a single child had been deformed.
Imagine the horror of those who survived this onslaught, to then witness a generation of children suffering immensely, with no one being held to account?
Now imagine that this was turned into a video game.
In 2009, the same year that Janna was born with life-threatening defects, Japanese video game company Konami announced a brand new first-person shooter game Six Days In Fallujah in conjunction with video game developer Atomic Games.
The game's USP? Gamers would be able to experience the savage butchery and violence of the second Battle of Fallujah, all from the US marine’s point of view.
The game “recreates stories from the battle, based on eyewitness accounts” the trailer reveals. The most innovative feature for gamers is the constant shape-shifting layout of the city. It recreates itself each time, giving no respect to the actual architecture of Fallujah. Wasn’t this meant to be a game that recreated the realities of the battle?
The announcement was met with fierce criticism from people from all walks of life the general public including anti-war activists, war veterans and their surviving family members.
Reg Keys, the father of a British serviceman who was killed in the war, stated: “Considering the enormous loss of life in the Iraq War, glorifying it in a video game demonstrates very poor judgement and bad taste.” Keys was one of the founding members of Military Families Against the War, a campaign group lobbying for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq.
Konami then pulled out of the project, due to the controversy surrounding the game. Atomic Games collapsed shortly afterwards and it looked like the project was dead.
However, in 2016, the former president of the defunct Atomic Games, Peter Tamte, started a new venture called Victura Games. It was this new company that would bring the idea back, for a planned 2021 release.
Victura’s website proclaims “Experiencing someone else's life through a video game helps us discover perspectives that might be different from our own. Our games offer a powerful new way to see the world through other people's eyes.”
In an interview in October 2021, Najla Bassim Abdulelah, a survivor of the Iraq War who’s now residing in Atlanta, Georgia, was horrified at the news of the game’s release. “I am disgusted that this is something that will be producing profit when people like me suffered the consequences of this war and will have to watch people play it for fun,” she told CNN. “I just can’t get past the inhumanity.”
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, as well as the newly intended release date of Six Days in Fallujah.
Unfortunately, for the victims of war, this is a perspective that has been witnessed in the media through a distorted lens too many times to count. Imagine being a survivor of the chemical weapons attack in Fallujah, suffering from trauma and PTSD, to then see young people playing out your horrific reality as a means of entertaining themselves. If Janna is still alive, how would she feel?
Whether it be radiation poison from dropping the Atomic bombs in Japan or white phosphorous used in Fallujah, time and time again the US military-industrial complex (with its doctrine of perpetual warfare) has shown little regard for the wellbeing of the civilians they often claim they are ‘liberating’.
We are tired of this ongoing war of commodification. We are tired of the racist and neglectful portrayal of our people through a colonial viewpoint. We are tired of seeing greedy corporations profit from the death of our country and we should not rest until the campaign to cancel Six Days in Fallujah succeeds for good.
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_