Joined: 20 Jan 2006
Location: Surfing The Waves
|Posted: Thu Mar 30, 2006 11:33 pm Post subject: Ali Abbas - The Young Man
| 'I like it here, but the 7/7 attacks upset me.
Those terrorists were not part of Islam'
By Nigel Farndale 26/03/2006
Watching Ali Abbas playing table football with his bare feet is not a melancholy sight. He laughs easily as he spins the rods. When he scores, he whoops and goads his opponent good-naturedly. According to those who know him, he never complains or feels self-pity, though he has good reason to do both.
Three years ago this week, his parents, brother and 13 other members of his family were killed when a stray Allied missile hit their house in Baghdad. Ali, then 12, was rescued from the rubble but suffered such terrible burns that his arms had to be amputated. Doctors did not expect him to live.
Ali Abbas, now aged 15: 'I cried when I realised I didn't have arms'
A rusted metal cage, the shape of a half-barrel, was placed over his bed to protect his charred torso. His face was unmarked, but his body tapered off into two wads of white bandages where his arms had been. A photograph was taken. Poignantly, it showed Ali biting his lip, trying not to cry.
It moved the world to pity and came to symbolise the civilian cost of the Iraq war just as, 30 years earlier, a photograph of a naked nine-year-old girl running away from a napalm attack had become the abiding image of the Vietnam war.
Ali was evacuated to a hospital in Kuwait and then, after a nationwide appeal for donations, was flown to Britain in the Kuwaiti prime minister's private jet. The Limbless Association arranged for him to be treated at Queen Mary's Hospital in Roehampton, south-west London, where expensive prosthetic limbs were fitted.
He now lives in Kingston upon Thames, in a house supplied by the charity, with his uncle, his friend Ahmed Hamza, who lost a lower leg and a hand in a similar attack, and Ahmed's father.
While he was being treated at the hospital, Tim Hobbs, the headmaster of Hall School Wimbledon, a nearby private school, offered him a place, waiving the £8,000-a-year fees. "All we told the other children was not to stare at him," says Mr Hobbs.
It is here that I watch Ali, now 15, playing table football and then proper football, rather deftly, in the playground. His prosthetic limbs hang listlessly by his side as he runs. As Mr Hobbs says, he would find it easier playing without them, but he feels too embarrassed to take them off when other boys are around.
It is here at the school, too, that I get a chance to talk to Ali. I have been warned that Ali does not like talking to strangers, but today he is in an accommodating mood. He offers his hand to shake as we meet and sits down on a sofa in the headmaster's office. His English is good, considering. He punctuates his words with a beguiling smile.
Though the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night last autumn reminded him of the missile attacks on Baghdad, he has only patchy memories of the night that his house was bombed.
Ali playing football
Ali is a keen football fan and has met David Beckham
"We had all gone to bed and were asleep," he says. "We hugged together when we heard the noise of the plane. There was a whoosh. The ceiling opened and there was fire and smoke everywhere. Then strange people came and pulled me out and took me to hospital. I remember hearing screaming. I remember feeling thirsty. I was put to sleep and when I woke up they had cut my arms off. Everything was blurry.
"I cried when I realised I didn't have arms anymore. They took me to England for some new arms. I change them every few years. I am due for new ones in two months. I can move this one a little," he says, looking at his right arm. An electrode touching the muscle in his stump makes the hand open and close. Ali can lock the elbow in three different positions. A chest strap operates the wrist.
"But it is my feet I use to type and paint," he adds. "I also pedal my bike with my feet. And I steer with my shoulders. I can't wear my arms when I'm doing it."
His is a purpose-built three-wheeler, a new purchase. "It's fun. I like it. It gives me independence. I ride it in Richmond Park and frighten the deer. They look at my bike. I am very fast. It took me 15 minutes to cycle home last night."
Mr Hobbs interjects: "He had a slight altercation with a member of the public the other day. He was riding his bike on the pavement. The thing to do, Ali, in that situation is to say sorry rather than pick a fight." Ali giggles: "I did say sorry. He wouldn't listen."
I ask Ali if he is ever recognised in the street. "Some people do. I've been asked for my autograph. There is a shop where I get cheese pasties. They get quite excited when they see me in there. But I look different now."
The photograph that moved the world
Abiding image: The photograph that moved the world to pity
He has certainly grown since the world first saw him in that photograph. He now stands at 5ft 8in. A faint line of dark hair shades his top lip. He has just started wearing glasses, fashionable square-rimmed ones of which he is proud.
A friend of his is sitting beside him, offering moral support. Ali leans forward in his seat towards him and says: "Can you remove my glasses, please." It is a reminder of how incapacitated he still is. He cannot brush his teeth, wash his face nor use the lavatory unassisted, an indignity which pains him. On the rare occasions when he cries, someone else has to wipe his tears.
We talk about football. "I was a football fan when I was growing up in Iraq. I knew all about Manchester United and David Beckham. I have since met him. And Sven-Goran Eriksson. He was nice."
At an awards ceremony, where Ali was named International Child of Courage, he met Tony Blair. It was not planned. According to his friend Alexandra Williams, a 33-year-old freelance journalist living in France, who introduced the two, Mr Blair looked "awkward and confused". "I didn't know I was going to meet him," Ali now says. "We just said hello. His wife talked most of the time. I also met Ant and Dec."
When asked why he thinks all these people would want to meet him, he says: "They were meeting all the people there, not just me, other people who were collecting awards."
Did it feel strange for him to come to live in a country that had been at war with his country? "At first it did, but I knew that the people were not to blame, it was the Government. The British people have shown me kindness."
The Home Office has granted him indefinite leave to remain, a status which means that he should be automatically entitled to a British passport after five years. "I would like to take British citizenship," he says, "but also keep my Iraqi passport. I think I will be allowed a dual passport. I like it here, though I was very upset by the London bombing last summer. They brought back memories."
Does he have a message for would-be Islamic terrorists in this country? "They are just people. I pray every day. I am a good Muslim and the Koran says be kind to each other. I don't think those London terrorists had religion when they did that. If they do that they are not part of Islam. The bombs happened on the last day of school and I was about to go to visit Iraq."
Members of his extended family still live in Baghdad, he explains. "I phone my relatives there using a cheap call facility. I found my house on Google Earth the other day, where it had been. I found a white spot from the sky. We had sheep and chickens. When I went there last summer it seemed a dangerous place, not very safe. I didn't go out much."
Should the British and Americans withdraw from Iraq, I ask, or will that make things worse? "I'm not sure. There are people from lots of different countries doing the bombings there. I don't know why Iraqis want to blow up other Iraqis. They are crazy people. I heard they pay people to do it, to blow up the Iraqi police. They are doing it for money, even suicide bombers. Their leader asks them to commit suicide and they will give money to their family, and they will do it."
What did he and his family think of Saddam before the war? "We didn't like Saddam that much, but we didn't know about all the killing of Iraqi people he was doing, because it was not allowed on Iraqi television, you were not allowed even to have a satellite in Iraq. There were lots of posters of Saddam, about him helping the Iraqi people, but they were all lies. I watch a lot of Iraqi television now. I get Iraqi football channels here, and al-Jazeera."
What did he make of President George W Bush coming on Iraqi television every night in the run-up to the war saying that Iraq had to surrender or be attacked? "It seemed unfair because we didn't know why. I feel angry about George Bush."
"You don't have to discuss this, Ali, if you don't want to," Mr Hobbs says, with concern in his voice. "Are you happy to go on talking, Ali?"
"Just until maths lesson finishes," Ali replies, with a grin. We all laugh at this. It seems a good time for our photographer to take some pictures. Ali, I notice, checks his reflection long and hard in a mirror by the door before leaving us.
We are joined by Mr Hobbs's brother, Jonathan, who is the principal of the school. I ask him if he ever worries that Ali might suffer delayed trauma.
"A year ago, I went back to his house for tea," Jonathan Hobbs says. "His family played a video compilation of all the news about Ali being in hospital in Baghdad. All the pictures of his family members who had died were shown and he sat there watching it, smiling. I was surprised that he had shown no signs of shock or grieving for his family - no apparent emotion at all."
"I would have thought his behaviour was inconsistent with Middle Eastern culture," Tim Hobbs says, "because you do tend to see lots of wailing and shouting after a bomb attack there.
"Ali seems to have adopted the stiff upper lip approach. But we're vigilant in terms of his pastoral care here. I've never had reason to refer him to a specialist. If he suffers from anything, it is boredom. He is an incredibly intelligent child. He probably has a verbal reasoning IQ of 140. He hopes to sit his first GCSE, in Arabic, next summer. I expect he will eventually sit ten or eleven."
As Hall School only teaches pupils up to the age of 16, Ali's future after his GCSEs looks uncertain. It is hoped that a private school might offer him a place for the sixth form and that, afterwards, he could go to university.
His ambition, at the moment, is to open a halal restaurant in Chamonix where his friend, Alexandra Williams, lives. But then it is also his ambition to play for Manchester United.
Outside, as Ali has his photograph taken, he pulls faces and tells jokes: "What do you call two thieves? A pair of nickers." He has a repertoire of swear words, apparently, and a keen sense of mischief.
He is also a good mimic and enjoys making puns. He offered some of his doughnuts to a teacher the other day with the words "Have some". When the teacher reached over, he said, "No, I said I'm handsome." When the photographer says that he is now taking a "head and shoulders shot", Ali jokes: "Are you saying I have dandruff?"
Despite all this jollity, Ali, I am told, can cut a lonely figure at the school, eating his halal meals separately and having one-to-one tuition. He still experiences pain. He had a number of skin grafts to treat the burns covering 35 per cent of his body, and the scars have healed too fast. As he continues to grow, these may cause him problems. Clearly, he will need life-long care, and the funds to pay for it.
But Tim Hobbs worries that the press and the public will lose interest in his story. "I think there is a tendency to breathe a sigh of relief that Ali's problems have been sorted out," he says.
"But he still doesn't have his parents and he is still very badly disabled. His is not a living-happily-ever-after story."
• Donations for Ali's future care and education can be made to Ali Abbas, c/o Hall School Wimbledon, 17 The Downs, Wimbledon, SW20 8HF.