BAGHDAD, Iraq—I met 8-year-old Mustafa Emad by chance in a hallway at al Kargk Hospital.
He sat in a wheelchair, pushed by his mother. A blanket covered his legs. I was in a hurry to get back to my hotel before the nightly curfew. But when a doctor made me touch Mustafa's foot—the foot he will lose—I knew I had to listen to the boy's story.
About 45 days ago, his mother and doctor say, a U.S. bomb blew shrapnel into Mustafa's home a few miles from the hospital, killing his uncle. The blast riddled the boy's legs. He has endured seven operations since then.
His mother, Nagam Abdul Razaq, told me he used to have a fat, colorful face. She laughed, remembering it.
But his face looked pale and gaunt now. Dark circles hung beneath his eyes. His arms had become sticks. Trauma had stressed his body.
When I asked how he felt about Americans, about soldiers, he replied, through a translator: "I don't like them, because they shot me. They injured me because of oil."
His mother interrupted: "I have a message for the American people. Our children are dear to us, the same as with the American people. Just help my son.
"He keeps asking me: `Why did they do that to us?' And I don't know what to say to him."
Mustafa's orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Haidar Passim Laiby, said the boy was one of hundreds of patients the hospital had treated for wounds sustained in the bombing of Baghdad. The public hospital serves as a surgical center for bone repair.
As the adults talked about him, in Arabic and English, Mustafa fidgeted with his bandages. He seemed preoccupied with his legs.
Laiby said, in English, that Mustafa's right leg would survive. But he will lose his left leg. It will be amputated just below his hip.
The boy and his mother heard the doctor tell me this, but they didn't understand the English words. They didn't yet know about the amputation.
To make sure I understood why this amputation must occur, Laiby lifted the blanket and had me touch Mustafa's left foot.
It felt cooler than the right foot because the circulation had dwindled. Mustafa's foot is dying. The skin on top of his foot, still baby soft, bears a red splotch the size of a quarter. His leg above is withering as well, despite doctors' efforts to mend the shattered bones and torn tissue.
"I feel depressed because of him," the doctor said. "There are innocent people here."
(Potter reports for The Wichita Eagle.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-DISPATCHES