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A Witness to Iraq’s Health Crisis: Nahoko Takato Speaks about her Experiences as an Activist and Aid Worker in Iraq

September 9, 2010 - ... I mean, why is Falluja under such a strong siege? Why is it under such strict control, even today? When I visited Falluja last year, it was very difficult to get permission to enter. It’s surrounded by checkpoints… Basically, only those who have IDs that are provided by the American army can enter. And only cars that get a number from the American army are allowed to enter. The Ramadi citizen can enter Falluja by foot, but he cannot enter Falluja in his own car because he needs special registration that is very difficult to get…Maybe the American army is afraid that an international will collect evidence of the pollution, uranium traces, and so on. But uranium remains almost forever. Its half-life is about 4.5 billion years. The moment the atomic bombs were dropped [in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan], 100,000 died…In the following months, many people came to Hiroshima to search for survivors... But the radiation remained, invisible. These people were also exposed to it. So 65 years later, we there are still victims with leukemia and other types of cancer. It’s similar to Iraq, as people return months and years later. The uranium traces are still in the soil, water and air… Since 1994, three years after the Gulf War (1990-1991), doctors from Iraq and Japan started to collect data on victims in Basra who were suffering from similar symptoms and illnesses as people in Ramadi and Falluja today...


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A Witness to Iraq’s Health Crisis: Nahoko Takato Speaks about her Experiences as an Activist and Aid Worker in Iraq

NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI)


NCCI, September 9, 2010

Nahoko Takato, a Japanese aid worker, quickly developed strong connections in Ramadi and Falluja, Iraq, following the US-led invasion in 2003.   In an exclusive interview with NCCI, she chronicles how she has since delivered emergency aid to health clinics while confronting trauma, intimidation, and international indifference.  Takato also discusses the rising rates of cancer, congenital birth defects, and other illnesses in many areas throughout Iraq.

NCCI: Can you tell us what first compelled you to focus on Falluja and Ramadi, the two largest cities in the western governorate of Anbar, Iraq, as an aid worker?
Nahoko: On May 1st 2003, I first went to Baghdad, Iraq.  Two Iraqis who were from Ramadi and Falluja...came to Baghdad to knock on the doors of the media who were staying at the Palestine Hotel.  These two Iraqis wanted the media to come and witness what was happening in Falluja.  Just three days before, there was a peaceful demonstration at a Fallujan school where American soldiers shot 17 Iraqi civilians…  Many of the media officials were telling them things like, "Oh, you are exaggerating," and so on. 
But some journalists [from Japan] went with the two Iraqi men to Falluja, and I joined them…  I went to the Falluja General Hospital.  It was crowded, and I found many victims.  Some of them were shot in the leg.  There were many people with amputations.  Some had been shot in the abdomen...  In the media, we were hearing things like, "The combat is finished in Iraq…"  But it was not finished.  While former President Bush was saying, "Mission accomplished," the Iraqi people were saying, "The real war has started." I realized how complex the situation was, and I recognized that I had to do something in terms of emergency relief for them. 
I visited the pharmacy in the hospital.  There was almost nothing…  So immediately, I contacted some Japanese NGOs.  They purchased some medicines and basic materials, like cotton and bandages, antibiotics.  Several days later, I chartered a big bus to carry the boxes with medicines and materials to the hospital.  I went to Falluja and Ramadi very often…

NCCI: When you were taken as a hostage in April 2004 and subsequently released, Japanese and international media outlets gave your case considerable attention.  How has this incident impacted your ability to continue working for humanitarian relief in Iraq?
Nahoko: It was horrible for me coming back to Japan after I was released…  When I was captured, one politician announced at a press conference, "Nahoko Takoto had relations and ties to the Falluja resistance.  She made this kidnapping by herself…"  I wrote a book in which I tried to explain what was happening in Ramadi and Falluja at that time.  But the media didn’t care about that.  They were only interested in my kidnapping… 
Every time I went to talk about the Iraqi situation after I returned to Japan, I was scared.  Some people would shout at me, "You are a terrorist!  Go back to Iraq!"  My family protected me but my mother strongly recommended to me, "After you finish writing your book, just go back to Jordan to start again.  Help the Iraqi people.  Don’t stop."  So I finished it and I came to Jordan, where I met my friends who visited me from Ramadi and Falluja.  We started again.

A food distribution project that Nahoko Takato and her Iraqi partners organized.

NCCI: After major combat between armed Iraqi militias and Multi-National Coalition Forces in Iraq (MNF-I) escalated, some medical professionals in Anbar announced that they were witnessing rising rates of congenital birth defects, cancer, and other rare, chronic illnesses.  Are there any detailed records in the hospitals of Ramadi and Falluja that illustrate these trends?
Nahoko: …That’s the problem.  No, there really aren’t.  I am in contact with Doctor Samira, who is often in the media, speaking about concerns like this.  She faces birth defects, deformities, and cancer daily at the hospital where she works in Falluja.  But she doesn’t have any records…  In Iraq, the patients keep the documentation.  The patients may go to many different hospitals.  It is often difficult to collect accurate, sufficient information from patients…the facilities don’t seem to have the capacity to create and maintain this documentation.  This is one of the reasons why I respect the work of Chris Busby[1], and the whole group that published one of the most recent studies on these illness patterns in Anbar.  The team visited around 700 families.  They had to go to the patients’ homes to get this information, because it is not located in the hospitals.

NCCI: The Iraqi Ministry of Health rates Anbar as "high risk" for health issues.  Access to and utilization of Anbar’s health facilities also rate among the worst of all eighteen Iraqi governorates.  Can you describe the conditions of healthcare facilities that you have visited in Ramadi and Falluja? 
Nahoko: Between Ramadi and Falluja, there are different situations...  The Ramadi Maternity Hospital is big, with about 270 beds.  In 2003, the hospital was very crowded with many doctors and nurses.  But last year, there were few doctors and nurses.  I could see that much of the equipment was gone…  The director explained that in 2006, Ramadi city was occupied by the American army.  The Ramadi Hospital and Ramadi University became American military bases.  The American soldiers threw all of the equipment—blood pressure monitors, desks, medical tools, refrigerators…away.  You can find the remains as garbage around the hospital…you can find wheelchairs, beds, and medical equipment.  It’s all completely damaged.


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