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UK help for Baghdad blast victim

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Beirut

Shams with her father Hisham in Beirut
Shams was blinded in a car bomb blast that killed her mother

Little Shams Karim sits beside the sea in Beirut with her father Hisham and his aunt Sattoota, listening to the blue Mediterranean waves as they lap at the rocks below.

Hisham and Sattoota have never seen the sea before - they have lived in Baghdad all their lives.

Shams, who is three-and-a-half, can hear and smell the sea. But she cannot see it, and she probably never will.

She was blinded in both eyes, and deeply disfigured, when the family was caught in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad in November 2006.

Shams and her mother Wafa were thrown out of their car by the force of the blast.

"Everything was on fire," says Hisham, who was driving.

"I tried to save my wife, but she died instantly. My two young sons were slightly hurt. But in all the chaos, Shams disappeared."

Rescue workers had found the little one-year-old lying face down in burning asphalt.

'Not easy'

She was rushed to hospital. It took Hisham and his brothers 24 hours to trace her, after an announcement on local TV said a baby girl had been found.

When they saw her in hospital, her injuries were so horrendous they were not sure at first that it was Shams.

Shams' story has touched the hearts of many, but back in Iraq, there are hundreds of other damaged children - and adults - who will not be so lucky

Then they recognised the earrings and some of the clothes she had been wearing.

Shams was patched up and eventually sent home, where her great aunt and father have been looking after her.

She was taken on one trip to see doctors in Amman, but has never had advanced specialist attention for her eyes.

"Looking after Shams hasn't been easy," says Hisham.

Not confident enough to walk far, she has to be carried most of the time.

Although most children her age can talk, Shams speaks only in single words and with difficulty, as her tongue was also damaged.

London surgery

Now, thanks to generous donations from Sunday Times readers and the personal efforts of its Middle East correspondent Hala Jaber, Shams is to be given the best treatment possible at Moorfields Eye Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

Sattoota and Hisham play with Shams
Doctors in London have warned Shams' family not to expect miracles

That is why Shams, Hisham and Sattoota stopped off in Beirut to get their visas for London, where they arrived on Saturday.

Doctors at both hospitals are waiving their fees for treating Shams, who is having her first examinations on Monday and may undergo some initial surgery on her eyelids later in the week.

The doctors have already cautioned that miracles should not be expected.

Shams' left eye is completely gone, leaving only a gash that still looks raw although it is two years on.

Her right eye is sealed shut. There is thought to be an outside chance that a small amount of sight might be restored, but that will not be clear until tests are done.

But doctors are confident that reconstructive and cosmetic surgery can at least restore Shams' looks, and she could be given prosthetic eyes.

Health-care shortage

Shams' case has highlighted the difficulties involved in dealing with the myriad medical complications afflicting thousands of people in Iraq whose lives have been shattered by the war.

Years of sanctions and infrastructural degradation, and the violence since 2003, have left Iraq's national health system in a very run-down state.

Getting Shams to England for specialist treatment has been a huge task for Hala Jaber and her husband, photographer Steve Bent.

It is a social as well as a medical and financial challenge. None of Shams' family speak English or have travelled abroad before.

A generous Iraqi Foreign Ministry official has lent the family his apartment in London during Shams' treatment, which will see her coming and going for months while multiple operations are carried out.

The Iraqi embassy has offered to help her father and his aunt find their way in a city where they are bound to feel bewildered.

Shams' story has touched the hearts of many. But back in Iraq, there are hundreds of other damaged children - and adults - who will not be so lucky.

Realistically, it is hard to imagine how a large number could be given the kind of exacting attention that Shams is receiving.

The only way would be for specialist medical treatments to be made available more readily in Iraq itself - a development that must await a general upgrade in the overall medical services there.

Read more about the Sunday Times appeal



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