Frenzy over Ali, but there are thousands of children like him

Kim Sengupta
Saturday 12 April 2003 00:00 BST

"Why do you all want to talk to Ali? There are hundreds of children suffering like him, and we are getting more every day," said Moufak Gabriel, the hospital director, as we arrived to see Ali Ismail Abbas, the injured 12-year-old boy who has become the centre of a British media frenzy.

All around him at the Saddam General, the worst-equipped hospital in Baghdad, in its most violent slum, Saddam City, there was pandemonium. Staff were barricading the gates as dozens of people, some ill, some seemingly healthy, struggled to get in. The danger lay beyond them – groups of men with guns, knives and staves silently watching.

Every other big hospital in Baghdad including Al-Kindi, where Ali was initially treated, had been ransacked by mobs of looters.So he had been transferred here and now he lay on a soiled bed, under a neon light, in a room with broken windows and water on the floor.

The pitiful pictures of Ali, his arms reduced to bandaged stumps and his body covered in burns, biting his lip in pain and grief, have been carried by newspapers around the world. He will become one of the enduring images of war. For millions of people around the world, Ali is already the face of this conflict. Perhaps one boy's tragedy is easier to comprehend than the enormity of grief and pain visited on an entire nation.

Yet three weeks of war have certainly left scars on countless other Iraqi children. There are no reliable figures for the numbers killed, orphaned or maimed. Thousands will have been affected by contaminated water as the power supplies in cities such as Basra and Baghdad were bombed. The immune systems of these children were already depressed by malnutrition after years of sanctions. Even before the war, experts warned the UN that Iraqi children were already suffering "significant psychological harm" from the fear of bombing and death.

The facts of what happened to Ali are as follows: an American missile smashed into his home in the village of Zafaraniya, 30 miles from Baghdad, as his family slept, just after midnight. He was severely burnt and both his arms had to be amputated.

His father, Ismail, and mother, Azhar, who was pregnant, were killed.

Ali has black curly hair and hazel eyes. His aunt Jamila and a nurse brushed away the flies. "If I had hands, I would shake your hand," he said. "They cut them off after the bomb. I want my hands."

We stood there awkwardly. Rahim al-Kinani, the doctor treating him, said he had been told that newspapers in Britain had launched an appeal on his behalf and that he would have artificial arms soon.

How much of this Ali understood was not clear. He wanted new hands, he said, but he definitely did not want to go to Britain. This may be a problem, for a number of tabloids are competing to raise funds for an airlift to have him treated at a London clinic.

Ali cried a little and then, unprompted, began to say what happened that night. "We had all gone to bed and there was this loud noise and smoke. I felt very scared and I was in much pain. I kept shouting for my mother. I did not know at the time what had happened to her.

"I do not remember much after that. I was taken to a hospital in Zafaraniya. After that they brought me here and the doctors cut off my arms."

Ali has six sisters, aged from six to 20, and a 10-year-old stepbrother. They are now being looked after by an uncle. His favourite subject at school was, he said, geography.

He has suffered third-degree burns over 60 per cent of his body. His chances of survival, said Dr Kinani, were 50-50. "The main problem we face now is septicaemia. Infection is a real problem and, as you can see," he added, "we are not exactly in the most perfect of conditions."

"If he gets through the next phases, there will, in time, be skin grafts. But that is a very difficult process and I am afraid the boy will face pain for a very long time."

His aunt Jamila used a corner of her chador to wipe the boy's eyes. "He cries all the time. There is nothing I can really say to console him," she said. "He has heard about these people in England getting him new arms. I do not know whether he understands what it means. But he is really building up his hopes."

Two floors away, in another ward of Saddam General, lay 11-year-old Fouad Abu Haidar. He has lost his left arm, half his face is hidden by bandages and he may lose one of his eyes. He suffered his injuries during another air attack, 10 days ago, near Iskandiriyah, in the southern suburbs of Baghdad. A 14-year-old cousin, Karim, died when the missile struck their house just after nine o'clock in the evening.

Fouad has not had anyone visit him from the Western media, and no promises that he will also benefit from the generosity of the British people. His father, Haidar Hussein, said he was glad to know about the concern of the British people but felt nothing but anger about what had happened. "No one has told me anything about any money from Britain. But this is a war by Bush and Blair. They did this to my son and other children, women, men. Why didn't the British and American people stop their leaders from doing this? What is the justification in bombing ordinary people?

"Now the Americans are in Baghdad, and look what is going on here.There is looting and killing and the Americans are also killing Iraqis. What is their justification?"

There are other wards and other young victims. A three-year-old boy with a fractured skull, and Jenan, a girl of nine with her foot blown off who has also had to be transferred from Al-Kindi. She said: "It hurts a lot, all the time. I do not think I will be able to walk again. I do not know what is going to happen to me. I feel very, very sad."

Her grandmother, sitting beside her, started to cry.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in