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.