Sunday Times November 7 2004
It might have been any Tuesday night in Bonnyrigg, about 18 months ago. Katrina Turner was on the sofa, watching the news with her two teenage children. Saddam Hussein's statue had been toppled a few days before; the world’s attention was on Baghdad. Suddenly, on to the screen came the image of Hannan Shihab, a 13 year-old Iraqi girl. Her body was shrouded in dirty bandages and all that was visible were her hollow, tear-filled eyes. "She was just sitting on the wall outside the Palestine hotel," recalls Turner. "It was her pain that got to me: she was crying and her eyes were so intense. I was so upset, I was howling."
Hannan's face, chest, arms and hands had been badly burnt after a kerosene lamp set fire to her bed during a bombing raid next to her Baghdad home. Turner was appalled by what she saw and imagined her state of mind if her own daughter Kristina, was suffering in the same way. "What would I do?" she asks. How would I feel, how would I cope? I felt compelled to do something. But I didn't know what to do."
That was April 2003. In the months that followed - in a manoeuvre that now seems little more than an elaborate stunt - Hannan was taken to America for treatment, patched up and then unceremoniously returned to Baghdad.
It was left to Turner, a single parent with ME and a rare eye condition, to persuade one of the UK's top plastic surgeons to take on Hannan's dreadful injuries. It was Turner who arranged the flights and visas that brought the girl and her father to Scotland and last month. And these days, when Hannan is not in hospital, she is sharing a Bonnyrigg bedroom with Kristina. Her father, Muaid, sleeps on Turner's living room floor. It all seems so implausible. How, exactly, does a woman who lives on incapacity benefit, who can't drive and finds reading difficult, who has no savings or friends in high places - who doesn't even have a spare bedroom - orchestrate an international mercy mission in a war zone? Turner makes a sound that is half laugh, half sigh. It clearly has taken a superhuman effort. She cashed in her endowment policy to pay her phone bill and send Hannan a mobile so they could talk every day. She is "up to her ears" in debt. But it has been worth it. More than worth it. "By the time she got off the plane, I already knew everything about her," says Turner. "I knew exactly what she was like. It was just nice to be able to give her a hug."
On the night of April 7th 2003, Hannan Shihab was trying to sleep. She was at home in central Baghdad with her parents, two brothers and one sister. Five hundred metres away, in the notorious Haifa Street, American forces were attempting to bomb a group of Saddam's republican guards. The jolts, screams, bangs and crashes were keeping her awake. As a powerful blast shook her room, a kerosene lamp tumbled onto her bed and set the covers on fire.
"Her long hair went up in flames," says Turner, who has relived Hannan's memories with her many times. "She felt trapped, she shouted for her mum and dad but nobody heard." Her parents eventually got into her room, tore off her clothes and managed to get her to hospital. But, in the aftermath of Saddam's fall the city was in uproar. The hospital was being looted in front of their eyes. "They were taking the light bulbs out as Hannan was sitting crying in agony," says Turner. "The staff told her parents, if you want your daughter to survive, take her out of here.”
So they took her home and did the best they could. But it was no job for amateurs: Hannan had extensive burns to her face, neck, upper chest and hands. Her left ear had gone, her top lip was scarred beyond recognition, the front of her nose was burned away, leaving her nostrils exposed. Her father was ready to try anything. He bundled Hannan into the back of a pick-up truck and took her to the Palestine hotel, the base of the international press corps. There he found the ITN reporter Tim Rogers.
"She was in a desperate situation," says Rogers. "She was sitting on the kerb outside the hotel. It's my job to report the news and to be objective but I had to take her to hospital, and she looked at me and cried and begged me not to leave her. And I said I wouldn't. I had to help this kid."
Rogers prepared the moving report that was to reach Turner in Bonnyrigg. The American media also carried the story and a railway steward in Michigan, James Thornberry, spotted Hannan on CNN. He too felt compelled to act; with the help of his congressman, Mike Rogers, and the hospital at the University of Michigan, Thornberry arranged to bring Hannan and her mother, Yusra, to America.
Back in Bonnyrigg, Turner was following every move Hannan made. "I searched every website, called the hospital. I sent $200 - it's not a lot but it was everything I had. She had no clothes so I sent a tracksuit and some shoes, She liked Madonna, so I sent CDs. And I wrote her a letter,"
Turner is still bitter about what followed in America, Hannan arrived in Michigan to glowing media coverage. There was talk of bringing more injured children from Iraq to the USA, She had an elaborate 16th birthday party, with politicians and VIPs. Then it all went quiet. The hospital stonewalled Turner, the website had no news. In November, she received a thank-you card, written in Arabic, signed Hannan Shihab. It was postmarked May. Then, a couple of days later, she spotted a tiny report. Hannan was back in Baghdad.
Turner believes it was a grand gesture that went sour and that the Americans thought they could ship Hannan back to Baghdad and it would all go away. "It's just like the war, they didn't think it through," she says.
"It bolstered their campaign and persuaded people who were against the war that they cared. They even spoke about bringing more children. Of course, it never happened."
With Hannan back home, it seemed there was little to be done. It was almost Christmas and Turner's own health was poor. "On December 23, I had a last-minute effort to go to the shops," she recalls. On the way back I said to Kristina, 'Check my emails, darling'. I just could not be bothered." Turner was lying on the sofa when her daughter shouted, "You've got one from Hannan!"
In fact the message was from her father. "It was so distressing," says Turner. "Please help my daughter, she's been returned from the States, we don't know why. . . things are bad, Hannan's stopped eating, she's refusing to go out, see anybody, speak to anybody. It was in broken English but I got the gist: please could you help."
So Turner got to know Hannan and her family, by phone and email. It was clear almost from the start that Hannan could not stay in Baghdad. Her father was dodging bombs to get to the internet office. The family had received threats after Hannan's trip to America. Calls to their landline were monitored. "One person interrupted the line and said he was 'going to cut me," recalls Turner. "It was really chilling."
Hannan was terribly low. In Iraqi terms, her life was over: terribly disfigured, she was deemed unmarriageable, with nothing to look forward to but a life of hiding indoors.
"Sometimes she just didn't want to go on," recalls Turner. "She gave up. It would break my heart. But it made me even more determined."
She tried everything. "I emailed her doctors in the States, tried to prick their conscience. I tried every charity here, a couple in Europe, Canada. I tried Kuwait - they took in Ali Abbas - but no joy. I wrote to Mohamed al-Fayed, Princess Diana's fund, every private hospital in the country."
In June, after Hannan had been in hospital again, Turner had a particularly distressing conversation with Yusra. "She was begging me to take Hannan away. And all I could say was, 'Please be patient, I’m trying hard, don't give up, I won't give up. I'll never, ever forget you'."
At her lowest ebb, Turner went to see her own GP. "I said: 'Dr Smart, name me one plastic surgeon in Scotland that you would recommend.' And he said: 'Quaba'."
This was the break she had been waiting for. Awf Quaba, an Iraqi who has lived in Scotland for 18 years, is one of the UK's top restorative plastic surgeons. He works in the burns and plastic surgery unit at St John's in Livingston, 25 miles from Bonnyrigg. Quaba offered to treat Hannan, if the hospital and the Scottish executive agreed. There was another long wait before the chief executive of St John's rang Turner with the answer she had been praying for.
"I thought, thank God. But I was still only 50% there. Everyone told me there was no way the authorities would let her come." She narrows her eyes at the memory of the red tape involved in getting visas for an injured Iraqi teenager and her father.
"I told them straight: I'm a single parent. two kids, 45, with health problems. I've got £220 a week to live on, I pay my rent, I pay my council tax and I haven't got very much left. But I can offer her a roof and I'll share my food with her."
So Turner co-ordinated the paperwork and Hannan and her father made the 13-hour journey from Baghdad, across the border into Jordan, to the British embassy in Amman. They got there to discover the computers had crashed and all appointments were cancelled. Turner rang, the embassy in Amman. A Scottish voice answered. Somehow, they were squeezed in. Hannan and her father had their visas.
Nobody was more amazed than Tim Rogers, who watched as a mum from Midlothian did what no aid agency was prepared to do. "She proved there are no limits to what one individual can achieve when they set their mind to it," he says. "Her courage and tenacity are amazing. She had no hidden agenda, no axe to grind, just great empathy and overwhelming sympathy. She has shown there is so much we could all do to help if we really wanted to. I have found it humbling to watch."
Turner, who is uncomfortable with eulogies, remains focused on the practicalities of facial reconstruction. She also wants to let Hannan be a carefree teenager again. "When we got her back to Bonnyrigg, I asked Hannan what she wanted to do. I didn't mean her surgery, I meant what other things would she like to do. She said, 'I’d love to go out for a run'. So that’s what she did. She and Kristina went out into the square and ran around with their hair flying in the wind. "I've heard her crying, seen her at her lowest point and I don't want to see that again. It has been so positive for her, stepping out of that place. She's not terrified any more."
Hannan's psychological recovery is as remarkable as anything Quaba can do. "Hello darling," she says, when her mobile rings. "How are you? How am I? I'm looking good." Recuperating in Bonnyrigg, which she now calls "home", she certainly looks better than she did when Rogers found her. Her first operation, to replace her top lip and release it from her nostrils, took five hours and 150 stitches.
In a fortnight, she will have the first stage of her ear reconstruction, and the sides and tip of her nose rebuilt. She has a balloon in her chest, stretching the tissue and, after Christmas, Quaba hopes that he will have enough good skin to stretch up over her chest, neck and chin. After that, he says, "it's the law of diminishing returns. Hannan will always look different from you and me."
Despite her devastated face, Hannan is a charming, optimistic, amazingly normal teenager. She calls Turner "mum" and considers Daniel, 20, and Kristina, 14, her brother and sister. She is inseparable from her mobile and gives Kristina sisterly advice on boys and make-up. The two girls' birthdays are in October, just one day apart. They held a joint celebration, a family bowling trip followed by a Mexican meal. It was, says Turner, a very happy day. "Then I saw Muaid had gone very quiet. I asked him what was up. He said nothing, he was just looking around the bowling alley at all these youngsters enjoying themselves, with not a care in the world."
Everyone knows that, despite what has happened to her face, Hannan is one of the lucky ones. Quaba says: "She is one of thousands. For everybody who is killed in a bombing raid, there are five or 10 like her who are left maimed."
Turner despairs at the cost of the war. "There are so many girls like Hannan. I wish I could take them out by the planeload. If I succeed with Hannan, I'm going to help others." And when Hannan has a face again, she is signing up for her new mum's one-woman humanitarian campaign. "After I have had all my surgery, I want to help all the people who have been burned," she says. "I want to help every people feel better. " That is my hope for the future."
Surgeon set to help Iraqi bomb victimprint
Edinburgh Evening News Tue 12 Oct 2004
ALAN MCEWEN AND RUTH ARMSTRONG
AN Iraqi teenager who was horrifically disfigured in a bomb blast has been flown in to Edinburgh to have her face rebuilt by a leading plastic surgeon. City-based Awf Quaba, who works as a specialist at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, is recognised as one of the leaders in his field. Born in Iraq, he has also been asked to carry out the demanding job because he will be able to talk to the girl without using an interpreter.
The 16-year-old was left severely disfigured after being caught up in a bomb blast during the first few days of the Iraq war last April. Her face and neck have been badly burned and she needs major reconstructive surgery. Mr Quaba, who trained in the Iraqi city of Mosul, has agreed to give his time for free to treat the blast victim. NHS Lothian has also made an exception to official rules and agreed to waive any fees to ensure the teenager receives the best possible treatment.
The youngster flew in to Edinburgh Airport yesterday before being transferred to the hospital. She was today set to have her first consultation with Mr Quaba. "I understand this girl is in her late teens," said Mr Quaba, 53. "She has sustained burns to her face and neck. The scarring is quite severe. "She was injured during the first few days of the war last April. She has received some treatment before but I have not met her yet to ascertain the extent of the injuries."
The teenager is understood to have undergone previous treatment in the United States. The burns and plastic surgery unit at St John’s is internationally renowned and routinely treats patients from across Scotland. A victim injured in the Bali terrorist attack last year was among those treated at the hospital. One source close to the case said: "She has severe facial damage. This is plastic surgery and it’s not cosmetic. "There’s not much they can do to improve things for her other than try to improve her quality of life."
Mr Quaba admits that the process is likely to be difficult, but he was eager to help a victim of the conflict which has engulfed his homeland. "I will have to assess the care which she can receive," he added. "Treating burns is also a very time-consuming process. It is unlikely that it will last two or three weeks. It is more likely that she will be here for a few months." Mr Quaba has worked as a consultant plastic surgeon with St John’s and the Sick Kids Hospital for the past 18 years.
He hopes that his Iraqi background will help him to deliver the best quality of care for the teenager. "I am perhaps better suited than most surgeons to deal with this case as I will be able to communicate with the girl and understand her culture," he added. "Most Iraqis can speak quite good English but it will be easier for her to tell us her hopes, fears and aspirations in her own language." Mr Quaba treated city solicitor Olivia Giles, who lost her hands and feet in 2002 after being stricken by meningococcal septicaemia, the blood-poisoning form of meningitis. His expertise helped to save her knees and elbows, giving her extra mobility.
St John's thanked by Iraqi war victim
Hospital staff rebuild girl’s damaged face
An Iraqi girl badly disfigured in a bombing attack has thanked staff at a Lothians hospital who are helping reconstruct her face. Hannan Shihab, 17, who was injured in a United States air strike during the war in Iraq, was flown to St John’s Hospital in Livingston to be treated by leading plastic surgeon Awf Quaba.
After a second stage of treatment, Hannan yesterday left the hospital to stay with a family in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian, but first insisted on thanking everyone who has helped her. She was joined by Livingston MP and former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, as well as Midlothian MP David Hamilton, in praising doctors and nurses at St John’s. "I’m so glad I could meet the people who have helped me and I want to give special thanks to Mr Quaba," said Hannan.
The teenager was injured in the same bombing attack which left 12-year-old Ali Abbas orphaned and blew his arms off. He was also flown to the UK for reconstructive treatment in a case which gained international attention. The recent operations were the second stage in Hannan’s treatment after spending some months in the US for initial surgery. St John’s was chosen to continue the work because of its international reputation in the field of burns and plastic surgery. The teenager suffered severe burns to her hands, neck and face but Mr Quaba, who was also born in Iraq, will be able to help rebuild her face through extensive treatment, which will continue for many months.
Mr Cook yesterday praised the plastic surgeon’s "dedication" and thanked him for offering his services for free. The MP also thanked NHS Lothian for making an exception to official rules and agreeing to waive any fees. "I want to say how proud I am that we have a world-class burns unit in Livingston and it is to the credit of the hospital that they are helping Hannan without any charge," he said. "I also want to thank the surgeon for giving his services for free and Katrina Turner, who Hannan is now staying with."
Mr Cook added: "There is no clinic to treat burns like this in Iraq. Whatever view one takes of the conflict, there can be no excuse for not providing proper care. I believe we all have an obligation to help - there are thousands of children like Hannan." Mr Hamilton, whose constituency includes the Bonnyrigg home where Hannan is staying, said: "The Scots in general are a really giving nation. We have to look after the innocent people and the children caught up in the violence in Iraq. "I have told the Prime Minister about Hannan and I have asked him to talk to world leaders about the fact that there are no burns units in Iraq. "We need to make a special case for people in Iraq to be able to get that type of treatment throughout the world."
Ms Turner, 45, who campaigned to bring Hannan to the Lothians, said she was "delighted" with the treatment so far and said she enjoyed living with the teenager and her father, Ahmed. "I have been overwhelmed by the help we have received from everyone involved," she said. "It’s a long, slow process and Hannan needs time to rest before her next round of treatment, but she has now become part of our extended family. "I just wish we could help all the children - they are just normal teenagers, but they need our help."
Hannan will still need to visit the hospital several times over the next few months. A combination of techniques including skin grafts, injections, laser surgery and silicon gel will be used to make Hannan look as much like she did before the blast as possible.
During the air strike, a bomb ripped through her family’s home - leaving the Iraqi girl badly disfigured and killing more than a dozen other people nearby.
Operations A Success For Disfigured Iraqi Girl
Edinburgh Evening News
13th April 2005
AN Iraqi girl badly disfigured in a United States bombing attack has successfully undergone the first series of operations to reconstruct her face.
Hannan Shihab, from Baghdad, has been given a new top lip, nostrils and ear by Lothian plastic surgeons following pioneering surgery at St John's Hospital in Livingston.
The operation also removed a painful balloon from Hannan's chest, which was created by doctors to enable loose skin to be stretched over her neck and chin.
The 17-year-old was flown to Edinburgh following a bombing attack on the Iraqi capital last year, which left her with severe facial injuries. She has spent weeks inside the West Lothian hospital while being treated by leading plastic surgeons Awf Quaba and Ken Stewart.
Hannan was bedridden for almost four weeks following the latest operation - the first major reconstruction of her face.
When not in hospital, she is cared for by Katrina Turner - a single mother from Bonnyrigg, Midlothian. Ms Turner, who arranged for Hannan's trip to Scotland after watching harrowing television pictures of the war, said the surgery has had a "very positive effect" on the teenager's personality.
"Hannan is so full of life and she really likes the look of her new face," she said. "She knows she will never look the same as before, but this is a considerable improvement.
"Mr Quaba was able to remove the balloon from her chest, which had been in there for months and was causing Hannan quite a lot of pain. He used the excess skin and pushed it over her neck and chin.
"Meanwhile, Mr Stewart completed the reconstruction of Hannan's ear and nose after some initial surgery last year. When I saw Hannan in the hospital she gave me a big wink, so I knew the operation had been a success. She has been home for a few days now and there have been no complications."
Hannan's ordeal started on the night of April 7, 2003, when she was at home in Baghdad with her parents, two brothers and sister. A bomb blast shook her room and knocked a kerosene lamp on to Hannan's bed, setting the sheets alight.
Her hair was burnt and her face and body were badly disfigured - her injuries were so severe there was little Iraqi doctors could do.
Ms Turner, 45, now hopes to find a company willing to provide a full makeover for Hannan, so she can be "proud of her appearance".