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Look into the eyes of Ali Ismail Abbas: what do you see?

April 30 2003

This is the story of Ali Ismail Abbas. Ali is the 12-year-old boy who had the misfortune to be at home in Iraq when a United States rocket arrived.

According to one newspaper report, the “hovel” he lived in was destroyed. So were his father and his five-months pregnant mother. He lost his brother. Some of his sisters were injured. Cousins and other relatives were also killed. The number of relatives who died varies from report to report.

What happened to Ali himself is not in dispute. After the terrible explosion, Ali woke up, soaked in blood, his sheets on fire. The Times of London reported that Jon Lee Anderson, the New Yorker correspondent who saw him in hospital, was shown a photograph of Ali before his treatment, his body blackened, one of his hands “a twisted, melted claw. The other arm had apparently been burned off at the elbow… two long bones were sticking out of it.”

That is not the photograph of Ali that we see now, however. We see photographs of Ali after his arms were amputated, the stumps and his body swathed in bandages, his face somehow unscathed, his eyes… What do we see in his eyes?

Almost all of us will retain images of this invasion of Iraq. There is the shot of a dead child, taken by Akram Saleh of Reuters, his or her face like porcelain, intact, appearing strangely at peace as only the dead can, but the rest of the head and body bound together, as if to stop bits falling out. There is the symbolism of statues toppling, footage of crowds (with one person wearing a Beckham shirt), a mother sobbing next to her injured toddler, suspects stripped and kneeling in the dirt, a boy liberating a bag of sugar as big as he is. The blood on a BBC cameraman’s lens. Those are my images. You will have yours.

The full cruelty and catastrophe of war has become something we cannot avoid. We are assaulted by it even when we try to avoid it. Susan Moeller, an American journalism professor, describes us all as “passive receivers of images”. That is akin to blaming the victim. The images home in on us, no matter how much we duck and weave. They are wrapped around our papers, they are inserted into television programs, even our children’s programs are “updated”.

Children have always suffered massive damage in war. Even when they are not themselves killed or maimed like Ali, they lose mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. As in my parents’ families, in the London Blitz, they lose uncles and aunts and other relatives, both actual and potential.

The world has a long history of treating children cruelly. Children worked as chimney sweeps, encouraged to work faster by the fires lit under them. Children were used to dip pottery figures into poisonous lead glaze. Slain infants, it was believed, could benefit sterile women, cure disease. Buried in the foundations of buildings, dead children strengthened the structure. The unwanted child was abandoned. Children were mutilated to alter their appearance.

Perhaps our new technologies have provided new ways of using children.

Most of us will now have an image of Ali Ismail Abbas, although it is hard to believe that the images we see are sanitised.

We do not see (but can read about) his arm that looked like, in Jon Lee Anderson’s words, “something that might be found in a barbecue pit”. Perhaps we are shown what it is believed we can tolerate, what is judged to be useful, what is required to show that he has been rescued.

As ABC TV’s Media Watch observed, Ali’s future is brighter “with the help of The Daily Telegraph, “his rescue was organised by The Courier-Mail team”, “by the Herald Sun’s team”, “by The Australian”. Many newspapers claim a part in his recovery.

Several charities and other papers have claimed his image. London’s Evening Standard and the Daily Mirror are reported to be using his face and torso to raise money for good causes.

What do we see when we look at the photographs of Ali? What do we see and think when we look into his eyes? I see the confusion and random cruelty of war. I see a child who, in the words of his uncle, “wants to be normal again” but can never be. I look for other children’s eyes, other bodies, other children we should be caring for but are not.

I think, such are our relations to children, that we need a particular child to “adopt”. Just as we “adopted” the bruised and battered face of Daniel Valerio, dead and beyond repair, so we “adopt” Ali Ismail Abbas who can never be mended. Perhaps, at heart, we tend to be indifferent to the present suffering of children in general, of children who need our help every day, but we find it difficult to ignore a child, a clearly identified, named, photographed, damaged and distant or dead child.

I wonder what Ali Ismail Abbas is thinking. I think of the words he has said, his anger at being repeatedly exposed to the stares of strangers. I wonder if we do this to him because he is 12 years old and because he is an Iraqi. After all, that is how he came to lose his arms, skin, parents, family and home. I reflect upon our sensitivities to photographs of “our” soldiers as prisoners. I wonder if any of the newspapers and charities have thought to ask his permission to use his photograph around the world in this way. Perhaps we use his photograph rather than that of a wounded adult because we do not feel we have to ask a child. Perhaps some of us believe that, after all he has lost, he will not miss his dignity and privacy.

I wonder if Ali Ismail Abbas knows that, perhaps, we need him more than he needs us, that he is helping us more than we can ever help him, that we didn’t want to do what we have done, that we really don’t know what to do now.

I see Margaret Drabble’s words, in The Millstone, that we claim that children forget and recover so readily because we dare not contemplate the fact that, in reality, they will always remember, they will never forget.

That is perhaps another part of the story of Ali Ismail Abbas.

Dr Chris Goddard is head of social work in the school of primary health care at Monash University and director of the Child Abuse and Family Violence Research Unit, a joint initiative with Australians Against Child Abuse.
Email: chris.goddard@med.monash.edu.au

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