All she wants is to walk again
Suham Hassan Ka-Naan is a beautiful young woman with bright flashing eyes and a shy, sweet smile.
At 19, most Iraqi women would be thinking about getting married and starting a family.
But neither of those things will probably ever happen for Suham, who has only one great wish in life now.
“All I want,” she said, speaking through a translator, “is to have new legs and to be able to walk again.”
Suham, whose name means “arrow” in Arabic, lost both of her legs in 2004 after an insurgent rocket fired at a nearby U.S. base went astray and struck her family’s home, just southeast of Baghdad.
For more than three years, Suham’s wish was nothing more than a cruel fantasy. But now, with the help of U.S. forces, her dream may finally come true.
Soldiers with Assassin Troop, 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment are working to get Suham fitted with new prosthetic legs at an Iraqi hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Her case has drawn the attention of several high-level U.S. medical officials, and Brig. Gen. Abdullah Samir, Iraq’s surgeon general, has pledged his full support.
Suham might have been just another unknown victim of the war in Iraq if Assassin Troop had not raided her village on the night of Aug. 4, looking for several men affiliated with the Mahdi Army, a Shiite extremist militia.
The soldiers cleared 50 houses in the village and detained nine men. While clearing one house, they also found Suham. Still traumatized by the explosion that took her legs, she fainted at the first encounter.
The soldiers told Capt. Troy Thomas, Assassin Troop commander, and Capt. Sayed Ali, the unit’s surgeon, that they felt they should do something to help her.
A few days later, Thomas went back to the village to have a look at the girl himself.
“The second time we came out here, she passed out cold again,” said Thomas, 34, of Litchfield, Minn.
Throughout the meeting, Suham avoided making eye contact with the soldiers and didn’t want to talk.
“At the very end, I got her to give me a little teeny smile,” Thomas said. “Once we told her we were going to help her, she’s been all smiles ever since.”
‘No life for me’Suham and her family were asleep when the insurgent rocket struck their house in the middle of the night. Of the eight people in the room, only she was injured.
“She was screaming, and there was lots of blood everywhere,” said her brother, Mohammed Hassan Ka-Naan, 34. “When we pulled her out, she was without legs.”
The family rushed Suham to a nearby Iraqi hospital, where doctors worked on her mangled limbs. They amputated her left leg below the knee. The rocket had taken off her right leg just below the hip. According to Mohammed, doctors gave Suham 14 pints of blood during the course of the operation. Afterward, she lapsed into a coma for six hours.
When she regained consciousness, she didn’t know what had happened. To lessen the shock when she finally came around, someone at the hospital had rolled up two blankets underneath the sheets where her legs had been. When Suham saw what appeared to be her legs, she couldn’t feel them. Then she realized they were gone.
“I told my brother to leave the room,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t believe I won’t walk anymore. There is going to be no more life for me.’ ”
In the Iraqi culture, Suham had suffered a fate worse than death, condemned to live the rest of her life as a double amputee, unlikely to ever marry or have children of her own.
“She’s totally dependent on her male relatives,” said Ali, 31, originally from Nairobi, Kenya. “And in this culture, when they die, she will be shunned.”
In any other Iraqi family, Suham might be “stuck in a corner somewhere and ignored,” said Ali. But Suham’s family has by all accounts been very loving and supportive.
The family is used to tragedy. Suham’s older sister Hayat, 31, whose name means “life” in Arabic, was born with crippled legs, and is unable to walk. A truck hit one of Suham’s nieces while she was crossing a road, and her bones didn’t heal properly, leaving one shorter than the other.
Grateful for the attentionOnce Ali met Suham, he started e-mailing medical colleagues in the military and back in the United States, trying to ascertain the best course of action.
A medical team in Alabama offered to treat Suham free of charge, but getting a visa would be time-consuming and rife with problems. After consulting with higher officials, Ali decided it would be best to take her to the Green Zone prosthetics clinic.
On Sept. 5, Ali, Thomas and several other soldiers from Assassin Troop accompanied Suham and Mohammed to Baghdad for an initial evaluation. According to Ali, Suham faces more evaluations and at least one additional surgery before the prosthetics can be fitted properly.
“They will probably be able to do it,” Ali said, referring to the surgery and the prosthetic fitting. “But she’ll need very extensive physical therapy after that. A lot of it will be her work.”
Although she has been a little overwhelmed at times, Suham is grateful for the attention she’s been getting lately. After years of living with nothing but pain and loss, she feels a new sense of hope.
“When the soldiers come, they talk to me, and it makes me feel better,” Suham said. “Now I know that people care about me. It makes me feel like a normal person again.”
Asked what she plans to do once she gets her new legs, Suham’s mother decided to speak for her.
“It will be a very happy day for the whole family,” her mother said. “We will make a big party for everyone that day, and they will all come and see that my daughter can walk again.”