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'I found the child I wanted – in Iraq'

War reporter Hala Jaber longed to be a mother. So when she saw Baghdad families shattered by conflict, she simply couldn't walk away. By Simon Usborne

Lying on a Baghdad hospital bed, a three-year-old girl shivers with cold and pain. A tunnel-shaped lattice keeps the sheets away from her burnt skin, on which thick antiseptic cream is smeared over dirty bandages. Her eyelashes have been singed off, along with much of her hair. Crying, disoriented and close to death, she whispers, "Mama, Baba." But there is no answer – a missile that incinerated her father's car has killed her parents, five brothers and her sister.

Hala Jaber knew she would be shocked by what lay behind the doors to that ward. By April 2003, the foreign correspondent had spent weeks in Baghdad as American bombs rained on its streets. She was used to the sight of blood and suffering, but as she looked down on the little girl, she never imagined how devastating the encounter would be. After a decade spent trying – and crying – for a child she could never have, Jaber was confronted with a girl sobbing for a mother who would never come.

Talking rapidly, her Arabic accent thickening as she remembers the meeting that turned her life upside down, Jaber tries to explain the emotions that tore through her mind. "She hasn't got anybody, you haven't got anybody. Maybe you can be her mother. Is this what it's for? Have I waited all these years for a child who has lost its family? They were crazy thoughts, but I couldn't push them away."

Jaber, 48, was raised in Lebanon into a culture with great expectations when it comes to family. "You get married and two days later they're asking when you're going to have a baby," she says. But babies were not a priority for Jaber early in her marriage to the British photographer Steve Bent. They were carving out careers as journalists, reporting on conflict in Beirut, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It wasn't until she was 29, when most of Jaber's contemporaries had big families, that the couple decided the time was right.

But as the months and then years rolled by and nothing happened, worry turned to despair. "There were a few years when I sank to rock bottom," Jaber says. "I wasn't working and had become totally dependant – financially and emotionally – on my husband. I was part of the furniture and it went against everything I thought I would be. Arab culture told me if you don't have children, as a woman, then what the hell are you? I was good for nothing".

In the meantime, Jaber had become consumed by an unassailable, biological yearning for a child. "Something inside me kicked in," she explains. "I wanted the tiny hands and the child clinging to me, thinking I am their world – their security. I wanted to see my husband's blonde hair or his blue eyes. I even wanted to feel pregnant. When friends would complain about being heavy or having heartburn or indigestion, I thought, I want to feel that."

By the time Jaber met Zahra in the filthy Baghdad hospital ward, she had turned her life around. Propelled back to work by the prospect of a "bottomless well of depression" and the fallout of 9/11 ("I knew I had to be out there reporting on this huge story") she used her contacts in the Middle East to get Iraqi visas for her and Bent. They were among the first Western journalists to arrive in Baghdad as the wheels of war were set in motion in Washington. Reporting for The Sunday Times, Jaber used her ability to straddle Western and Arab perspectives, and her unerring eye for a story, to win the biggest prizes in foreign reporting, including Amnesty International's journalist of the year award in 2003. She had reclaimed her reason for being. And then came Zahra.

The assignment had been simple: find an orphan. When Jaber broke the story of Ali Abbas, the 12-year-old Iraqi boy who became a cause célèbre after losing both his arms and suffering horrific burns in a rocket attack, her editors realised the power of the personal story. They wanted to launch an appeal for Iraq's children and needed the right face. "They wanted a badly-injured but beautiful young girl with an expressive face who was an orphan," Jaber recalls. "It sounds like a shopping list, but the goal was to help as many children as possible."

But Jaber's editors were unaware of her battle with infertility. Still lurking in the depths of her mind was the pain that had laid her low for a decade. The need to search for a child again, albeit in very different circumstances, brought those emotions bubbling back to the surface. "I thought, oh my God, me of all people having to look for a child."

Within hours she and Steve were touring Baghdad's hospitals. "We looked at graves the size of babies in one hospital garden," she says. "Some had bits of paper with a description, but there was one with no name or any details." On day three they found Zahra and the search was over. But for Jaber, the story was only just beginning.

"You could feel her pain – she was so vulnerable," she says. "Steve was taking pictures but I could see he had switched to auto mode because he was having trouble focusing through the tears in his eyes. He placed a hand on my shoulder and pressed it like he often does when he knows I need support but doesn't have to say anything."

Three things compelled Jaber to "get a grip", as she puts it: the empty notebook in her hand; the race to save the girl's life (doctors gave her a 50 per cent chance of surviving the week); and the presence by the bedside of the girl's weeping grandmother. Jaber got the story and the appeal was launched. With help, she also arranged for Zahra to be evacuated to an American military hospital. Finally, she had a conversation with "Grandmother", the consequences of which would leave her reeling.

"I told her, I'm a Muslim with a good job and a good life in London," Jaber recalls. "I said I would love Zahra and her only surviving sister, Hawra, like a mother and that they would never lose touch with her family or Iraq. I didn't want to adopt them in the Western sense; I wanted to be a guardian. Looking back it was patronising and Grandmother was taken a back. She looked at me and said, 'first Zahra – promise me you will help Zahra'. I knew what I had to say but I choked on the words and promised Grandmother that Zahra would have life and a future."

Ten days after Zahra's evacuation, Jaber had returned to Beirut to spend time with her family after three months in Baghdad. She then visited her sister in Cairo. She had just been shopping for jewellery when she got a call from a colleague in Baghdad. Zahra was dead.

In her new book, The Flying Carpet to Baghdad, Jaber describes her reaction to the news as "like falling from a great height... All I could do was scream: no." Her grief was compounded by a more corrosive emotion. "Not only was I buying jewellery rather than being by her side, but I had promised something I could not deliver," she says. "I sank into another kind of hole not caused by depression but anger with myself and guilt – so much guilt."

It would take Jaber years to dig herself out. Last year, she finally returned to Baghdad, where she had planned a reunion with Hawra and her grandmother. She discovered that her guilt had been misplaced. "The minute Grandmother hugged me and I put my head on her shoulder, I felt like a weight had been lifted," she says. "It was as if I had walked into forgiveness."

Grandmother reassured Jaber that Zahra's death had been "in Allah's hands". Her only grievance was that, in her eyes, Jaber had abandoned baby Hawra, who is now six. And so it became Jaber's mission to protect the girl's future. She had long since banished thoughts of adoption – why deprive a Grandmother of her only grandchild and the last remaining link to her dead son? Instead, she would become the family's benefactor. "It's not charity," she says, "it's my way of helping in any way I can."

The longing for a child that threatened to ruin Jaber's life has now died. "My mother still tells me Allah works in miraculous ways but I say, 'Mum, I'm 48 years old – what are you talking about – it's too late'. I won't fight it any more." Instead, between assignments Jaber directs her energies towards helping some of the hundreds of other Iraqi children maimed and mutilated by conflict. She has just come from London's Moorfields Eye Hospital, where she has helped to raise funds to treat Shams, a three-year-old girl blinded and disfigured in a car bombing in 2006.

By involving herself in the lives of Zahra, Hawra, Grandmother and now baby Shams, Jaber continues to tread the line between cold objectivity and involvement in people's lives that becomes particularly tricky to negotiate when all around you is suffering and death. She says it's a line she's "proud" to cross. "Behind the title, we're humans," she explains. "When you're confronted with a child like this or an injury or human suffering you can't not react. Today people talk about Iraq and say it's getting better. But reconstruction isn't just about bridges and buildings, it's about children we damaged in that war.