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Girl's Odyssey From Tragedy to Hope

Errant blast steals the power in Iraqi's legs. But helpful strangers refuse to let story end.

August 15, 2004|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Her pink canvas shoes, stuffed bears and sturdy metal leg braces were packed neatly into cardboard boxes, ready for Ma'rwa's long journey home to Iraq.

The time for goodbyes was near.

Ma'rwa's friends loaded up jeans, cameras, quilts and rolls of fabric, 475 pounds in all. They packed her medicines too, not thinking about the day when the supply would run out and they would not be there to find more.

And they carefully wrapped a special gift: a globe that sat next to her hospital bed. Ma'rwa could use it to show her family how far she had traveled, the ocean she had crossed, the distant places -- Texas and Minnesota -- where her new friends live.

The outside world, with its cruelties and kindnesses, had never really intruded on her until an artillery shell exploded on the edge of her family's farm.

That blast ripped apart her life and started Ma'rwa Ahteemi on an extraordinary odyssey. With strangers rallying around her, the 13-year-old -- a girl who loves red nail polish and pink clothes -- became more than just one of the thousands of civilian casualties in this war.

Ma'rwa made friends who spanned the continents, from the desert battlefield to the marble halls of Congress, with each one tenderly passing her along.

They helped heal her, they cheered her as she tried to take her first steps, they gave her something she desperately needed -- hope.

In the end, they sent her home -- a scarred girl back to her scarred land -- nurturing their own hopes that what they had done will matter, that it will give Ma'rwa a new start in life.

*

It was a rainy, windy morning in November, a bloody month for Americans in Iraq, when a mortar shell screamed from the sky deep in the heart of the deadly Sunni Triangle.

Iraqi insurgents had launched an attack on a U.S. Army base, but they missed. When the Americans returned fire, they missed too.

Their 155-millimeter howitzer shell tore into the earth about 60 yards from a crowded house nestled in the fields outside Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

It was 7 a.m., and Ma'rwa Ahteemi and her large family, including 17 brothers and sisters, awoke in terror.

Debris and red-hot shrapnel pounded their walls and shattered their windows. Babies screamed. Children cried. Everyone wanted to run. Ma'rwa's father said no.

"If we are going to die," he declared, "let us die in our own house."

But their panic only grew.

"Let's go!" one of Ma'rwa's sisters shouted, and several others bolted with her into the wet air. Ma'rwa hesitated for a moment and dashed outside.

Just then, another shell came howling out of the clouds.

In an instant, Ma'rwa's 10-year-old sister was dead, her skull split open. Her 8-year-old brother, 2-year-old sister, baby niece and a stepmother were killed too.

Shrapnel pierced Ma'rwa's stomach, spine and face. Blood flowed from her nose, ears and mouth.

She collapsed in a pool of rainwater, where a live wire had fallen.

She struggled to pull herself up, but couldn't move her legs. She screamed for her father.

"Carry me!" she cried. "Carry me!"

*

A few days later, Ma'rwa sat in a hospital bed in Balad, all feeling gone from her legs, tears streaming down her cheeks, as a U.S. Army officer tried to console her.

It was Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment who would become the first link in the long chain of people who intervened on Ma'rwa's behalf.

The commander was frustrated. Ma'rwa and other injured family members were bandaged but seemingly ignored.

"Are they going to be looked at?" he asked an Iraqi surgeon, then proposed bringing in American doctors.

Sassaman was trying to make amends. "We'd made a mistake," he said later, "and we were trying to help the family out."

The ironies of war were ever-present, and not just in Americans trying to help a child inadvertently hurt by their weapons. Sassaman, who would later be disciplined for impeding an investigation into an Iraqi civilian's drowning, was hoping that others would hear about his goodwill gesture toward Ma'rwa's family.

"It was a way of building trust in the community," he said.

An Army trauma surgeon arranged for Ma'rwa, two brothers and a sister to be transferred to the 21st Combat Support Hospital.

There, among the sand-coated tents, Maj. Mary Adams-Challenger, a physical therapist, met her newest patient.

She noticed that Ma'rwa had a large, potentially life-threatening pressure sore on her backside, caused by the malnourished girl's long days on thin mattresses.

Ma'rwa needed treatment for that, and she had to learn a new way to dress, bathe and go to the bathroom (she lost bladder control from her injuries). She needed a wheelchair too.

"I couldn't sleep at night. I was tossing and turning," Adams-Challenger said. She began e-mailing friends, family and other physical therapists. That's when she discovered a pediatrician stationed just down the road.

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