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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 February 2008, 10:01 GMT
Shabana's story of hope against the odds
By Dawood Azami
BBC News, Rome

Shabana and her father, Janat Gul
It's hoped that other Afghan children may be treated abroad

Shabana, a three-year-old Afghan girl, was born with a potentially deadly facial tumour.

But as part of a pioneering project, she has been flown from Kabul to Rome where she is being operated on by a team of Western surgeons.

Shabana suffers from a particular form of skin disorder in which tumours develop along nerves, causing severe damage and premature death if left untreated.

The disease, called neurofibromatosis, is common in Afghanistan. But due to lack of medical expertise and modern equipment, it is claiming the lives of many children across the country.

Shabana arrived with her father, Janat Gul, from Kabul to Rome following a campaign by Italian photojournalist, Kash Gabriele Torsello.

Mr Torsello, 37, first met Shabana by chance in 2005 while photographing in Kabul.

He organised Shabana's first operation in the city when she was aged just nine-months-old and suffering from a severe facial abscess on her face.

War damage in Kabul
Afghanistan's infrastructure has been damaged by years of war

Mr Torsello has visited Afghanistan several times.

While documenting the everyday life of "ordinary" Afghans, he was kidnapped in Helmand province in October 2006.

Following negotiations by the Italian foreign ministry and Afghan authorities, he was released after 23 days.

Since his release, Mr Torsello has been working to develop a programme of medical and cultural exchanges between Afghanistan and Europe.

Cultural dialogue

"Shabana's operation marks the beginning of direct collaborations between Italian and Afghan hospitals," said Mr Torsello.

"The little girl's surgical operation offered an important opportunity for European and Afghan hospitals to come together and collaborate with each other."

Shabana is the youngest of Janat Gul's four children.

This is the first time that Shabana and her 37-year-old father have travelled outside Afghanistan.

"It is a blessing in disguise. When God wants to help you, He provides all the means," said Janat Gul, who works loading and unloading trucks in Kabul.

"I am a poor person and I couldn't dream of this happening to us. I wish we had all these facilities in our own country."

It is hoped that Shabana's operation will prove a milestone in a series of medical exchanges between Afghanistan and Italy, eventually enabling Afghanistan's own doctors to treat patients with similar conditions.

Hospital in Kabul
Medical supplies are in woefully short supply

This is the objective of Mr Torsello's campaign.

"We try to help Afghans help themselves and achieve independence in an effort that can be much quicker and cheaper," he said.

The photographer's ongoing picture exhibition in Italy is part of a project focusing on comprehension, acceptance and respect for different cultures and people.

Mr Torsello has worked in other Muslim countries where he embraced local cultures and accepted Islam.

"Our aim is to encourage Europe and Afghanistan to erase socio-political and cultural barriers and come closer," he said.

Afghanistan and Italy established formal links during the rule of the reformist Afghan King, Amanullah Khan (1919-1929), who visited the country in 1924 and later lived there during his exile.

Muhammad Zaher Shah, another Afghan King, received Italian medical treatment in 1973, and remained in Rome for 30 years before returning to Afghanistan in 2002.

Medical equipment

Shabana's operation was carried out by an expert medical team under the direction of surgeon Fabio Abenavoli, president of the charity Smile Train Italia.

"We work closely with Afghan doctors and try to share our expertise with them," said Dr Abenavoli.

Shabana and Kash Gabriele Torsello
Shabana's treatment has been described as a blessing in disguise

"The ultimate aim is to enable Afghan doctors to cure many other Shabanas in Afghanistan."

The 1979 Soviet invasion, followed by a civil war, destroyed much of Afghanistan's infrastructure, including its health care system.

Since the fall of the Taleban regime six years ago, health care provision has improved in some areas, largely thanks to the aid given by the international community.

But hospitals and clinics still lack much-needed modern medical equipment and a big number of local doctors are not well trained or qualified to deal with complex medical conditions.

Those Afghans who can afford the costs go to neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan and India, for medical treatment.

But many others still suffer and die from common curable diseases.

In a country where the infant and child mortality rate is among the highest in the world, Shabana's trip to Italy is a rare event.

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