Page last updated at 08:54 GMT, Sunday, 28 December 2008

Iraq orphan shows football prowess

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News

Ali Abbas from Iraq plays football for two London clubs - Chelsea and Tottenham.

Ali Abbas playing football; Photo: Hugh Sykes
Ali Abbas seldom wears his artificial arms

He plays well. He scores goals. He is fit. He is skilled. His record with "kick-ups" - keeping the ball in the air - is 98.

Ali has no arms.

Falling over is dangerous - he has had to learn to roll onto his side when he loses balance. And the Chelsea and Tottenham sides he plays for are their disabled teams.

Ali is nearly 18 now - almost six years on from a terrible event in Baghdad.

Late one night, at the end of March 2003, during the Iraq war, an American rocket exploded next to their home.

Ali's mother, father, and 14 other members of his family were killed, and Ali lost both his arms.

TV, websites and newspapers showed a boy lying in a hospital bed, looking straight at the camera biting his lower lip as if about to weep - white bandages just below his shoulders, protecting the stumps of his arms.

Ali Fund

There is another photograph of Ali, taken before his arms were amputated, which was not widely published.

It shows the blackened flesh and bones of his fingers, his wrists and his forearms scorched and incinerated by the explosion.

There is a wide burn, almost circular, covering most of the front of his body.

But above his chest, and below his waist, there was no injury at all.

Ali Ismail Abbas
Ali lost 14 members of his family, and his arms, in 2003

The media attention that Ali received six years ago caught the eye of another amputee - Zafar Khan, a London pharmacist and chairman of the Limbless Association, who has an artificial leg because of a car accident.

"Dr. Zafar", as Ali calls him, set up the Ali Fund, and arranged for the 12-year-old Iraqi to be seen by the prosthetists at Queen Mary's Hospital in south London.

The Limbless Association's senior prosthetist Nick Hillsdon fitted Ali with artificial arms.

But Ali hardly wears them.

He says they are heavy, and hard to attach. He has to leave them carefully positioned when he takes them off, so that he can get them on again without a struggle.

People who lose their legs really have no choice, if they want mobility: they have to get used to wearing artificial legs, and they have hands for tightening the straps.

But Ali gets by very well without arms. He uses his feet to change channels on the TV remote control, to play games on his Playstation, and even to hold his toothbrush.

But he is not able to use his feet to attach his arms. His uncle Mohammed helps him with that, and with going to the bathroom.

Future president?

Mohammed is a self-effacing, smiling, kind uncle who looks after Ali meticulously.

In a symmetry of loss, it was Ali's mother, killed in the rocket explosion, who brought up Mohammed after his own mother had died when he was a child.

Ali Ismail Abbas being guided by a therapist at a hospital in Kuwait City, 8 June 2003
Ali began using his feet for tasks shortly after he lost his arms

Ali is an engaging, apparently well-adjusted young man - he has an infectious laugh, and seems generally cheerful, despite what happened to him one night in Baghdad six years ago.

But tears come to his eyes sometimes when he talks about that night - he is still deeply sad that he was unable to attend his parents' funeral.

And he did not even know they were dead until several weeks later.

But he did know really: "none of my close family came to visit," he told me.

Ali now lives in London and in Baghdad. He has been to school in Britain, but not consistently enough to pass exams.

But he is intelligent and observant and perceptive - and he can type with his toes.

He told me he would like to be a professional football coach.

And, he says, he wants to do something to help his country.

"Yes, why not?" is his reply when I asked him about getting involved in politics.

"President of Iraq?" I suggested light-heartedly.

"Yes," replied Ali Abbas. And he was not joking.

Ali Abbas: In His Own Words will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 GMT on Monday, 29 December, 2008 or you can listen to it for seven days after that on the BBC iPlayer.

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