I was so moved to turn on the television and see Panorama telling the story of a little boy who was badly burned by napalm in Iraq many years ago, reunited with his long-lost mother at last, having grown into a man. That boy was the subject of the first piece I ever wrote for a national newspaper, back in 1993. I was an idiot desperate for a break then and running out of time: having given myself six months to get something in somewhere, this appeared on the last Sunday of the last month. Baroness Nicholson was kindness personified, including showing her steely side when I managed to accidentally, foolishly sell the story to two papers at once. I sent a fax retracting it from one of them, but they used the fax to brief one of their own feature writers, who went round to try and get an interview. The good Baroness turned them away, for which I will always be grateful. This, then, is from The Independent on Sunday, for which I was then able to write as a freelance until I joined the staff in 1997. I wrote for the Sindy, on and off, until its closure 20 years later.
AMAR had survived napalm bombs that wiped out his family and friends. He had horrific burns, and was utterly still as he sat alone on a wooden bench in a home for the wounded. ”It was terrible to behold,” said the Conservative MP Emma Nicholson, who discovered the nine-year-old refugee in a village on the border between Iran and Iraq. ”He was a fortnight off death when I found him.”
Surgeons at Guy’s Hospital have operated on Amar 12 times since then, saving his life and his face. Today Amar has a new home in the Devon countryside, living with Ms Nicholson and her husband.
The Conservative MP for Devon West and Torridge went to southern Iraq in 1991 to document the worst of the suffering caused by the Iraqi government’s persecution of the Marsh Arabs, and has launched an appeal in Amar’s name, supported by the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to provide food and medicine for the one million people devastated by the systematic drainage of the marshes. Since Saddam Hussein began his campaign to depopulate the area, following the uprising there by Shia Muslims, 65,000 people have fled across the border to refugee camps in Iran, leaving an ancient land whose way of life is being destroyed.
Ms Nicholson encountered hundreds of suffering children during her visits. It was ”the very stillness of his despair” that made Amar stand out. ”On top of that, he seemed to have no family at all. The other orphans were within the refugee camps: they didn’t have this extraordinary physical problem.”
Amar had fled with his family into a grain silo as Iraqi bombers flew over their village, she said, but the pilots saw people hiding there and dropped napalm and phosphorous directly on to the shelter. Nearly all the 300 people inside were burned alive, but Amar escaped and ran to a nearby river, covering his eyes as the flames attacked his body. The water saved him.
Found by soldiers, he was saved by Iranian surgeons, but was still scarred, bleeding and racked with pain when the Ms Nicholson came across him. ”It was clear that unless someone intervened, any life that remained in him would be extinguished very soon, psychologically if not physically. But I also saw that this was a very remarkable child of great bravery, with immense character. This was no easy ride, no trusting little girl looking up at you. This guy knew what the score was. He’d been smashed, and was stuck.”
Thanks to the intervention of the Iranian government, which provided a diplomatic passport for Amar, she managed to get him back to Britain. It took five months to bring him here to receive specialist medical treatment, and Ms Nicholson planned to find an Iraqi family to care for him.
”I’ve never been an exponent of inter-cultural adoption. It didn’t occur to me to plot a course for Amar that included permanent residence in the UK and, indeed, within my own family, so I never discussed it with my husband.”
Iraqis living in Britain offered homes for Amar, but he chose to stay with Ms Nicholson and her husband, Sir Michael Caine, former chairman of Booker plc, at their home in a Devon village. He was made a ward of court, with the couple as his guardians. ”We thought of sending him to school in London, but Amar understands village life naturally.”
Ms Nicholson, speaking in London before the launch of her book, Why Does The West Forget?, which combines Amar’s story with a plea for further intervention on behalf of his fellow Marsh Arabs, said: ”The hardest thing for me has been the knowledge of my inadequacy in the face of such profound trauma. What can you say? What can you do? How can you heal that?
”It’s the knowledge that you can’t make it right that is the hardest to bear. The troughs are huge, but the roller-coaster is at least upwards.”
Amar has responded well to his new home, becoming a child again – complete with prized black jeans, football boots, even a passion for Terminator II. When he first arrived, he could communicate only by gesture, but his English improves daily.
While Sir Michael works from home, Ms Nicholson makes sure she is back from Parliament at least two days in seven. ”Whether he wants me there or not is an irrelevance. I’m there, cooking, doing fiddly domestic chores rather badly, because they’re not something I’ve ever been good at.”
Amar has not technically been adopted, for legal reasons, but she described their relationship as that of a mother and child. The former Tory party vice-chairman has had to be tough to overcome deafness and make an impact in the Commons, but she visibly softens when talking about the boy.
”I can’t pretend to be Amar’s real mother, and it would be a miracle if she were to be found alive. I know how much he misses her – if I could make that happen, by God I would. Every child needs parents.” With no children of her own, she has four stepchildren and sponsors four other children overseas.
Amar has made many friends, and was even voted form captain in his second term at his new school. ”He had no schooling in Iraq. The essentials of civilised life there have gone, crunched up and spat out by Saddam and his thugs.”
His new family try to find a balance between his new life and his roots – for example, banning pork in deference to his Muslim upbringing – ”Although Michael sneaks in a pork pie if Amar has been drinking too much Coca-Cola.”
The operations continue. ”Plastic surgery has to keep on until a person is fully adult, as the skull grows behind the skin. Now that he’s here on a permanent footing, the surgeons can afford to slow down to a snail’s pace, rather than cramming in as many operations as possible, as we had to do in the first six months, because we didn’t know whether the Home Office would allow him to stay.”
She became involved in the plight of the Marsh Arabs as a personal response to the trauma of the Gulf war. A lifelong charity volunteer, she visited the marshlands with film crews and brought back stories that reduced the Speaker of the House of Commons to tears during one debate.
Her visits sparked the AMAR appeal, which has already sent tons of food and medicine to the marshlands and has commissioned a scientific survey of the area. It supports Iraqi and Iranian medical staff working there, and will benefit from sales of her new book.
”The wonderful thing about helping Amar is that he is no longer a victim,” said Ms Nicholson. ”He’s looked life in the face, been smashed to the ground by forces completely outside his understanding at the age of nine, and he’s back up and bouncing again. He’s a challenge at home, at school, and in every other way, but he’s a wonderful challenge.”