It was ten year old Saif who alerted Jo Wilding to the tragedy. Wilding, a recently qualified barrister from Bristol, UK, was in Iraq before and during the invasion with Voices in the Wilderness and then returned in November to document disasters, civil rights abuses and to take part in a traveling circus - an attempt to bring some laughter and normality in the most abnormal of situations.
Wilding is a natural clown. Last March, she and this correspondent attempted to gain entry to the then still deserted British Embassy, empty since the last British Ambassador, Sir Harold Walker fled down the Jordan road ahead of the 1991 bombs, in such a hurry that in a near unique diplomatic blunder, he failed to hand in his credentials to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. Ever since, he has graced television studios at every opportunity, from the safety of several thousand miles distance advocating bombing again.
The deserted Embassy would be sure to provide a story I thought. The courteous young Iraqi soldiers who had guarded it, tended the gardens and building for over a decade were in a quandary. Finally their superior was called. He was very sorry, but no one was allowed in, they had a duty to keep it safe and were under strict
instructions: no visitors. By this time several dozen children had gathered, strange foreigners always a draw in isolated Iraq - and then followed us as we explored the street behind the Embassy with its evocative ancient houses in which they lived.
Suddenly Wilding dropped to her knees, in an instant she became a tiger, leaping towards them, mock growling, pretending to attempt to catch them, then a cat, a lion - the repertoire was stunning - and on the eve of war, destruction, terror, after the isolation and deprivation of an embargo which had snatched away their very childhood, they laughed, shrieked with delight, ran towards her, away from her - it was a memorable, spontaneous complete joy. Finally the soldiers who had followed us, presumably wondering if we were going to attempt to scale the Embassy wall (it had occurred to us, it has to be said) from the back, torn between laughter and complete bemusement, asked us to leave. The children followed us to the battered car, tugging at Jo, giggling, begging her to do it all again - and she did, becoming a veritable menagerie of exotic creatures. The soldiers, now completely drawn in, barely older than children themselves finally reluctantly called final time up and asked us politely to leave. We drove off watching the little knot of laughing children in the road, waving us on our way. Are they all alive now? Which is why Jo went back, to record, witness and bring some laughter. She witnesses more than most could ever bear - and then becomes a clown in the circus. By the way, when the British took over the Embassy again, after last year's invasion, the first thing they did was to sack the soldiers who had guarded it so faithfully for thirteen years.
Saif has been working as a fixer, shoe shiner, guide, since he was four. Iraq's enchanting, often feral little street children who started to appear about four years into the embargo are a near forgotten tragedy. The Education Ministry who had previously fined parents whose children did not attend school, realized the desperation afflicting families and changed the schooling system to 'shifts', to accommodate their working hours. But many were simply too tired to attend. Saif never seems tired and never attended, he simply adopts foreigners. 'Madam, you looking for something? You lost your way? I help' and a little hand slips in to yours and you were enchanted. He is a child man, old beyond his years, yet still utterly vulnerable. It was inevitable he would adopt Jo, the world's wisest clown. They were meant for each other.
It was Saif's request that she meet his neighbor's who had a problem, that introduced Jo to the boy with the bullet in his brain. On 26th May last year, four and a half year old Baqer was waiting with his family for a taxi, to visit relatives. There was an explosion, US troops started shooting and Baqer was hit in the head with a nine mm bullet. "He has suffered injuries to the left cerebrum, his left 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th cranial nerves, causing partial nerve palsy ... impairing his sight, hearing speech and walking. When he tries to get off someone's lap, he lists, staggers and falls over', says Wilding.
The family lives in Sadr City (formerly Saddam City and previously Al Thawra) - a vast, rambling, largely very poor area of Baghdad. In spite of their poverty, the family has taken Baqer to doctor after doctor, sold all they have and now live in a home: 'bare but for rugs on the floor, a single bulb and a lamp which takes over when the electricity goes out, which seems to be most of the time ...' Further, they are now unable to fill the prescriptions they are given, since health care is no longer free. 'If the bullet migrates it could encroach on his brain stem. In any visible deterioration the family must take him to Jordan ' - a now very dangerous journey and always grueling - from ten to twenty hours by road - even for the fittest.
Baqer's father, Ali, has had to give up his job to take Baqer on the rounds of hospitals in a looking glass world of prescriptions he cannot afford to fill and surgeons with the ability, but not the facilities to operate. The advice to go to Jordan is meaningless, with what will they pay?
'There is no dispute that US soldiers were responsible, that it is a US bullet in his head. There is also no knowing how many more families and individuals are going through similar struggles, trying to find money for medical care, trying to get the forces responsible to give the financial help they promised,' says Wilding, all barrister now, the clown all together eclipsed: 'Congressmen and women, MP's must be approached, contact Bush and Blair and use powers of creative mischief making 'to ensure this happens', she appeals.
The Coalition Provisional Authority promised to help with Baqer's treatment,
medicines: 'But has given them nothing, no medicines, money, treatment or assistance with traveling out of Iraq for treatment in Jordan or beyond. We need to demand compensation and financial support from the forces responsible, for all civilian victims. At the moment, the military institution has complete impunity for what its soldiers do and the soldiers have impunity within the military.' Listening to Wilding I remembered again, little Ali Abbas, whose arms were blown off in another unfortunate incident involving the military. Before he left Kuwait for treatment in the UK, the US military presented him with a US military hat. No doubt in military mind-set this was an honor. To the uninitiated it was a crassness beyond belief.
Meanwhile there is a four year old with a bullet in his brain who needs a neurosurgeon.
Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist in London. She has written and broadcast widely on Iraq and with Denis Halliday was senior researcher for John Pilger's Award winning documentary: 'Paying the Price - Killing the Children of Iraq.'