The British tabloid the Sun has reported that a man named Ali Ismail Abbas was married last month. I hadn’t heard or read that name in many years and seeing it again — and especially the news of his marriage — brought back a flood of memories and emotions.
The first and last time I saw Ali Abbas was in 2003. He was 12 years old lying naked on a medical examination table at a hospital in Kuwait City. His torso was charred black in some places. Other patches were red and raw. He had no arms, just a pair of stumps protruding from each small shoulder. He was shrieking in agony as doctors huddled over him and began working on him. I remember it vividly. It was a piercing, horrible sound that rang in my head long after we had left the hospital.
Ten years ago, Ali Abbas was famous in this country. He was famous because a New Yorker magazine reporter, Jon Lee Anderson, wrote about him, and a photograph of Ali in his hospital bed in Baghdad appeared alongside the story. Anderson had come across Ali by chance during a visit to the hospital in the spring of 2003, shortly after the war that toppled Saddam Hussein. Anderson had asked to see the hospital’s worst-case and doctors took him to Ali, a then-12-year-old boy whose home had been hit by an American missile. His father, mother, brother and 11 other relatives had been killed. A neighbor found Ali in the rubble, improbably still alive.
“His face was like an old Italian Renaissance painting,” Anderson later recalled. “He had a biblical countenance. It was the absolute face of innocence. And it seemed absolutely impossible that two arms could just be roasted and the rest of the body intact.”
He expected Ali to die, The Iraqi doctors expected him to die. But he didn’t die. And when Anderson’s poignant article and that photograph appeared in the New Yorker, Ali Abbas became a celebrity, and his celebrity brought him to the attention of the U.S, military, which then arranged to have him taken by one of its helicopters to Kuwait where he could receive better medical care.
I was in Kuwait, having just returned from a month on assignment on the U.S. Abraham Lincoln from which bombing missions had been launched during the war. The rest of the ABC News team was still scattered all around the region, covering the aftermath of the war. I would be going home soon, but in the meantime we learned that this boy, the famous Ali Abbas, was coming to Kuwait so we gathered a team: me, producer Gitika Ahuja, a cameraman and sound person, and raced to the hospital to be there when he arrived. By the time, the ambulance bearing Ali arrived, there were dozens of journalists there. When the ambulance pulled up in front of the emergency room, they – we – surrounded the vehicle. The attendants got out and went to the rear to bring the boy out.
But the crush of photographers was so great, for a while they could not open enough space to open the doors. They pleaded for the photographers to back up, but no one would. No one wanted to miss “the money shot,” as they call it.
Eventually, the attendants’ insistent pleadings succeeded. The photographers cleared enough space for them to open the rear doors, and out came the stretcher bearing a dazed little boy screaming in pain as the flash of dozens of cameras exploded. The attendants hustled him through the throng of journalists and into the hospital.
Since no one stopped us, we trailed them down a hallway and right up the open door of the examination room. We watched and continued to videotape as the doctors began working on Ali. All the while, there was that horrible shrieking. It seemed impossible that an injured little child could make so loud a sound.
After some time, we were forced to retreat to the waiting room. As I recall, the doctors came out after some minutes and told us about Ali’s condition and how he would get excellent care and would survive.
As we broke up, I remember another journalist, an American, muttering: “That’s America. We blow you up and then we patch you up.”
Back at the work space, we edited the story and then fed it via satellite to New York. A producer in New York said we should not have put in the sound of Ali’s screaming, which led to an argument. Gitika and I said that people – our viewers – shouldn’t be protected; that they needed to know what happens in war. People get killed. People get hurt. Children get their arms blown off. The producer disagreed. He said it was too graphic, too upsetting. That’s exactly the point, we argued back. People should be upset. The result was a compromise of sorts. The story ran with Ali’s screams, but muted.
The image of this screaming boy with no arms stayed with me. For a while, I followed his story back in the United States. Someone in Canada offered to sponsor him to come there for treatment.
If he came there, I thought I could do a story about it and I spoke to a man. He seemed nice and was eager to help but for some reason it never happened. Ali remained in Kuwait for a while, and then one day I got an email from one of our Kuwaiti “fixers” that Ali had gone to England for further treatment, that he would be outfitted with artificial limbs.
And then, for years, I heard nothing further. Until I was emailed the Sun article with the headline:
“I didn’t expect to live … be loved and marry/Iconic face of the Iraqi War Ali Abbas on his emotional wedding to childhood sweetheart.”
There was a photo of a young man with dark hair, in a suit, necktie slightly askew, looking into the lens with, well, no expression. His left arm hang loosely. No hand protruded from the cuff. Beside the young man with no expression is a pretty woman in a wedding dress holding a flower bouquet. The caption reads: ” Newlyweds … Ali Abbas and his wife Ankam Hamza on their big day.”
I stared at the photo for a long time. “This is Ali,” I kept thinking. “He’s a grown man.” Then I read the article. It told how “the inspirational 21-year-old,” now a resident of Britain, met Ankam during one of his regular visits to Iraq and they married there last November.
“I’ve definitely made the right choice,” he is quoted saying. “She never lets me feel like I’m disabled. When I’m with her I just feel normal, like me.”
Then I went on-line and found a video of an interview Time magazine had with Abbas in 2011. In heavily accented English, he recalls the bombing and, his time in the hospital in Baghdad. He says the pain he endured was so bad he wanted to die.
“I couldn’t think of anything else apart from the pain I had,” he says. “I had so much pain, I just wanted to be relieved. But, you know, God wanted me to live.” It is remarkable how unangry he seems as he says this.
Abbas goes on to explain that he had declined the offer to go to Canada because the person who offered to bring him there would not or could also take his friend, Ahmed, another war-injured Iraqi he met in the Kuwaiti hospital. Ahmed ended up going to the U.K. with him and they remain close friends.
“I was always angry of what happened to us,” he says. “I lost my family and what happened to me. Of course, I was angry. I don’t see any reason why this happened. For me, it’s like … a nightmare.”
I wondered if he even remembered being carried out of the ambulance, through the crowd of reporters and into the hospital in Kuwait. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t. Maybe the less of the nightmare he recalls, the better. What was important, it seemed to me now as I read about his new life, his marriage, his joy, as I peered at the image of this young man and remembered the howling boy on the hospital table, as I listened to him speak, is that his nightmare is over.