‘Astounded, heartbroken’ mother of conjoined twins trapped behind Islamic State frontlines

As she went into labor last month, Umm Mohammed says that all she knew about her pregnancy was that she would likely have twins. The doctors in her remote desert town in Syria’s east, along the border with Iraq, lacked the equipment to provide any more information.

Expecting twins, the 29-year-old, who is already a mother of healthy children, instead saw a baby boy with the legs of an undeveloped twin attached at his stomach.

“I’ll admit that I was afraid of my son at first,” Umm Mohammed tells Syria Direct’s Huda Abdelrahman via WhatsApp from al-Bukamel, currently under Islamic State rule. “Every time I held him, I would burst into bitter tears.”

Umm Mohammed says that her doctors attribute the birth defects to exposure to depleted uranium—a toxic, radioactive, heavy metal used to pierce armored tanks.  

In November 2015, 14 months before Umm Mohammed gave birth, American A-10 aircrafts dropped thousands of depleted uranium (DU) munitions on IS oil trucks in the desert of Deir e-Zor province, Airwars and Foreign Policy found in a joint report last week.  

The ammunition was reportedly fired that November because of a “higher probability of destruction for targets,” the CENTCOM spokesman Major Jacques told Airwars and Foreign Policy in the same report.

All documented strikes, however, occurred “far away” from Umm Mohammed’s town of al-Bukamal, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).  

“We haven’t recorded any use of depleted uranium inside cities or near IS military points close to cities in Deir e-Zor province,” SNHR founder and director Fadel Abdul Ghani told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Whatever caused her son’s defects, Umm Mohammed says there is little she can do to save him.  

“It’s impossible to leave al-Bukamel because of the Islamic State’s land mines and checkpoints,” she says, adding that her son is not doing well. “I feel the pain he experiences with each breath he takes.”

Umm Mohammed, 29, lives in al-Bukamel city in Deir e-Zor province. In January, she gave birth to a baby boy with the legs of his undeveloped twin attached at the stomach.

Q: How many doctors did you see? Did they inform you that one of your twins was underdeveloped? What did the ultrasound say?

I only saw one doctor. There are very few OB/GYN doctors here since IS forbade male OB/GYNs from working. My doctor didn’t know that I was carrying an underdeveloped fetus because the hospital doesn’t have an advanced scanning machine.

I only got an ultrasound once, and my doctor said that I was most likely carrying twins. I didn’t even consider getting an abortion because my doctor had no idea about the condition of my twins.

 Umm Mohammed’s child. Photo courtesy of Umm Mohammed.

Q: Could you tell is about your pregnancy. Did you experience any difficulties or strange symptoms?

I experienced constant dizziness, and I also lost a lot of weight. I became extremely thin. I thought that this was natural and so did the doctor. She prescribed vitamins and tonics, but my health didn’t improve.

I gave birth in January at the beginning of my ninth month of pregnancy.

Q: Are you related to your husband? Does anyone in your family or husband’s family have children with congenital defects?

My husband is a distant relative, but this is the first time that a child in our entire tribe has been born with a birth defect. This also isn’t my first pregnancy—all of my other children are in good health and didn’t experience any congenital disorders or complications, thank God.

Q: How did you react when you saw your child for the first time? How have you been coping since?

At first I wouldn’t accept that this had happened. I was astounded and heartbroken. I was afraid to carry my child—my own flesh and blood.

I kept asking myself, 'Why my child?' Every time I held him, I would burst into bitter tears. I couldn’t do anything to save him. I wept for my son. What did this child do to deserve this?

I keep wondering and worrying about his future. Will he grow old enough to embrace his mother and father? Will he be able to play with his siblings one day? Or will he be rejected and forsaken by society? Will he even grow older at all? Is he going to survive? Or will he die?

These thoughts never leave me.

How is it logical for my child and I to suffer like this just because we happened to be born in Syria and live in this particular besieged town? What is our sin? Are we supposed to die?

I’ll admit that I was afraid of my son at first. But my love for him gradually increased as did my sorrow. When I look at my baby, I feel his pain. I feel the pain he experiences with each breath he takes.

His siblings are afraid of him; they haven’t accepted him.

Every day, I dream of traveling to another country so he can get surgery to remove the body of his twin in order to save his life.

If only a miracle happened and one day I woke up to see my child healthy and whole like the rest of his siblings.

I’m still afraid that I’ll lose him. But he’s my child, whether or not he has a deformity. He’s a part of me. I love him, and I hope he’ll get treated.

Q: Did doctors have an explanation for why this happened?

Doctors haven’t been able to give a diagnosis because of the basic medical supplies and machines they have. Most doctors, however, after running tests and analyses, said that the reason for my child’s birth defect is the depleted uranium munitions that hit nearby. The uranium residues spread through the wind and also through pollution caused by makeshift oil refineries.

Q: How is your son doing now? Is there a chance he can get treated?

He’s not doing well. Doctors can’t help him because the surgery needed to remove the bottom half of his twin, who is attached at the stomach, is too complicated.

There are only two hospitals in the city, and they don’t have the advanced tools required to perform this surgery. They barely have enough supplies to treat residents.

There are medical centers, but their services are limited. Sometimes vaccines aren’t available.

It’s impossible to leave al-Bukamal because of the landmines and checkpoints surrounding the city, which were put in place by both the regime and the Islamic State.

If the body of his undeveloped twin remains attached, then it’s very likely that he’ll die.

But I thank God that my husband and family have been very supportive during this time. 

Huda Abdulrahman

Huda worked as a teacher in Latakia before fleeing Syria in 2012. She volunteered briefly at a hospital in Turkey before moving to Jordan. Huda joined Syria Direct to spread the truth about what is happening in Syria.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.