In Harm's Way: Children, born and unborn, trapped in wartime
In Afghanistan, the Taliban kill children and other civilians by suicide bombing and roadside bombs. The United States kills them with Hellfire missiles. In northwestern Pakistan, families have much to fear from U.S. drone attacks, but they also fear their own government’s planes and artillery. All major combatants in the current wars have innocent blood on their hands.
When the United States and other NATO countries started bombing Libya in March 2011, they said they were doing so in an effort to protect civilians there. Yet the Catholic leader of Tripoli, about 12 days after the bombing began, said the “so-called humanitarian air raids have taken the lives of dozens of civilians” in that city. In comments to Fides, a Vatican information service, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli stressed that he had “heard various eyewitness accounts from trustworthy people about this.” Among civilian casualties elsewhere was a toddler named Sirajuddin al-Sweisi, of the poor mountain village of Khorum. His mother said a piece of hot metal struck his face when NATO bombed a nearby ammunition dump. His uncle told the Associated Press: “We took him to the hospital, where they treated him for the burns and some broken bones. But by nightfall he was dead.”
While there is plenty of blame to go around in today’s wars, Americans have a special responsibility for what their own government does. Americans must pay attention to the way our wars harm the most innocent and defenseless civilians of all—especially children, born and unborn.
The Death of Innocents
The Guardian, a British paper, reported a mistaken U.S. attack in July 2008 on a bridal party in eastern Afghanistan in which 47 people died; many were children. An elderly survivor, Hajj Khan, recalled that he was holding his grandson’s hand as they walked in the bridal procession toward the groom’s village. He said there “was a loud noise and everything went white. When I opened my eyes, everybody was screaming. I was lying meters from where I had been.” He added, “I was still holding my grandson’s hand but the rest of him was gone. I looked around and saw pieces of bodies everywhere.”
In December 2010, a reporter for the McClatchy Company interviewed some Pakistanis about mistaken attacks by U.S. drones. A boy of 13 carried a picture of his 10-month-old niece, who had been killed by a drone attack on her home. “The drones patrol day and night,” the boy said, adding that at times “we see six in the air all at once.” Another boy, 15-year-old Saddullah, was having tea with his family when they were struck by a drone. Three family members died, and Saddullah lost his legs and one eye. More fortunate than many drone attack victims, he eventually was able to walk with prosthetic legs.
In 2001, early in the U.S. war on Afghanistan, American planes bombed two houses in Khanabad, killing nearly every occupant. The Washington Post reported: “On the street was a 5-year-old girl in a red dress, sobbing and beating her chest with her hands. ‘My mother died,’ she cried.” When neighbors rescued her father from beneath the collapsed roof of his home, he said the little girl was the only survivor among his seven children. He wept as he described his losses—his wife, the six children, his brother and his brother’s entire family.
U.S. surveillance technology is far less accurate than advertised. In any case, humans still must interpret what they see. This is true whether a pilot actually flies a plane or a computer operator back in the United States controls a drone in Afghanistan or Pakistan. A video screen may show what appears to be men who are digging, and a pilot or technician may suspect they are planting roadside bombs. But they may be gathering scrap metal to sell. Or they may be boys collecting firewood for their families. According to The New York Times, NATO helicopters fired rockets at 10 Afghan boys who were doing that in March 2011. Only one boy survived. A local shopkeeper who lost a nephew in the attack said some victims “were really badly chopped up by the rockets. The head of a child was missing. Others were missing limbs.” The man’s nephew, 14 years old, had been the only breadwinner of a large family.
Many deaths of the innocent are due to an assumption by the United States that it has a right to destroy a home and all its occupants on the suspicion that an enemy is in that home. How can this be reconciled with just war standards and international laws that ban direct attacks against civilians? And what can we say to those who have lost their children, parents or siblings to the aptly named Hellfire missiles?
Unborn children share all the war dangers their mothers face. In 2006 Nabiha Nisaif Jassim’s brother rushed her by car toward a hospital in Iraq when she was about to give birth. U.S. troops at an observation post shot and killed Jassim and her cousin, an older woman who had accompanied her. According to the Associated Press, the U.S. military said troops had fired only to disable the car when it failed to stop despite warnings. But Jassim’s brother said he had not seen “any sign or warning from the Americans.” Doctors at the hospital could not save Jassim’s baby. Other unborn children never make it to the hospital; they die with their mothers when their family homes are bombed by U.S. planes or raided by U.S. troops.
There appear to be few studies of war’s effects on abortion rates, but reports from Sarajevo show how drastic they can be. When that Bosnian city was under prolonged siege by Serbian forces in 1993, the abortion rate rose steeply. “I would never do this in peacetime,” one woman told The Washington Post. “And God knows I wanted the child, but there is no food for him in my house. There is nothing. What could I do?” According to the Post, before the war, one baby was aborted for every three born in Sarajevo. In 1993, according to a study by Srecko Simic, head of the obstetrics clinic at Kosovo Hospital, the numbers were reversed; there were three abortions for every pregnancy carried to term. The Simic survey, using a sample of 400 women, also found jumps in rates of premature birth, stillborn babies and babies who died in the first week after birth. “Virtually all of the pregnant women in Sarajevo are anemic,” the Post reported, and the Simic survey indicated that “congenital birth defects are up 300 percent.”
War makes medical care much harder to obtain, especially in poverty-stricken Afghanistan. Reto Stocker, the chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul, said last year: “Every day, there are mothers who bring their sick children to hospital too late because they are afraid to travel or are held up by roadblocks, and relatives who take patients home before their treatment is completed. The result is that children die from tetanus, measles and tuberculosis—easily prevented with vaccines—while women die in childbirth and otherwise strong men succumb to simple infections.”
Prenatal and obstetric care in Iraq have suffered greatly from trade sanctions, war and years of sectarian violence. In 2007 The Washington Post reported that many doctors had fled Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and that others, still there, were threatened by kidnapping. The streets were still so dangerous that some women asked to have Caesarean deliveries before 5 p.m., so they would not have to travel at night to a hospital. Noor Ibrahim, 20 years old, lost her second child because the threat of violence caused a delay in reaching a hospital, and there were no doctors there when she finally arrived. (“A surgeon had just been kidnapped and the doctors refused to go to work,” the Post reported.) Nurses attempted her difficult delivery, but the baby died. Ibrahim suffered a ruptured uterus; it was uncertain whether she could ever have another child. Also in 2007, Iraq’s Red Crescent Society reported that over one million Iraqis had been displaced by violence or the threat of it. ABC News, covering the Red Crescent report, said many pregnant women in that situation were having abortions “because they are unable to get medical care for themselves and their unborn.”
War-caused birth defects are another source of suffering. The city of Fallujah, Iraq, has experienced a large increase of severe birth defects since the U.S. bombarded it heavily in 2004. Some children are born missing one or more limbs; others have paralysis, facial deformities, major heart problems or cancer. A baby named Fatima Ahmed was reported to have been born with two heads. Sky News, a British television broadcaster, showed a video of Fatima with her mother. The sweet-faced little girl had what appeared to be a huge head covered with a great mass of hair. (Apparently a second, partially-formed head was attached to the first.) The rest of her body was tiny. Her mother said Fatima could not see or hear. While she slept most of the time, the video showed that she could move her arms when awake. She died at age 3.
There is dispute about what caused the increase in severe disabilities. Many Iraqis point to white phosphorus or depleted-uranium weapons. The U.S. has acknowledged using white phosphorus in Fallujah in 2004. It has denied using uranium weapons there in the last half of 2004, but has said information on whether they were used there in the first half “was not collected.” Many professionals say there is no proof that these weapons cause birth defects in humans.
Others believe they can, especially when an area is highly saturated with them. John Simpson, a veteran war correspondent with the British Broadcasting Corporation, suggested that there “may well be a link with drinking water.” He heard that “the worst problems were to be found in the neighborhood of al-Julan,” near a river. After the battles in Fallujah in 2004, he said, “the rubble from the town was bulldozed into the river bank, and most people in this area get their water from the river.” Another possibility: Some neural tube defects may have been caused by war-related malnutrition. Still another: Perhaps bombs struck areas where toxic industrial chemicals were stored, releasing them into air and water. Whatever the causes, many women in Fallujah are now afraid to have children.
In current and former war zones around the world, children are endangered by unexploded ordnance that can be detonated when a curious child picks it up. Cluster bombs are a special danger to children because they are relatively small and can be mistaken for toys. When farmers die because they strike old landmines while plowing their fields, their children may have a hard time surviving.
Many people try to help children caught in war. Relief groups aid them and their families in many practical ways. Dedicated doctors, nurses and therapists ease the suffering of wounded children. In the United States we need more people who will work hard to end the wars that cause so much agony. Above all, we need such people in politics.
Listen to an interview with Mary Meehan.