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From the Archives | Feb. 26, 2006

Rakan’s war

This is the first part of a four-part series.

On Jan. 18, 2005, as dusk fell in Tal Afar, a scruffy city in northwest Iraq, Rakan Hassan was riding in the family car, heading home after visiting his uncle. His father, Hussein Hassan, a clerk in the local electricity office, was driving faster than usual, trying to beat the curfew, because, after nightfall, in a town crawling with insurgents and US troops, anything could happen.

From the back seat, where he was crammed in with three of his sisters, his little brother, and a cousin, Rakan saw the dark figures up ahead, waving.

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‘’Look!” Rakan shouted, pointing.

But it was too late. A patrol of US soldiers, jumpy after recent attacks, thought the worst and opened fire. Rakan says it sounded like pops. The windshield splintered, and something punched him in the stomach. In an instant Hussein and his wife, Kamila, were dead in the front seat, their blood splattering the children in the back.

The Opel sedan drifted, ‘’almost like a dream,” Rakan recalls, until it rolled dead, against a curb. As it did, his sisters broke the silence, screaming hysterically.

It was the sort of horrifying accident of war that would normally go unrecorded. But Chris Hondros, a photographer for Getty Images, happened to be embedded with the patrol and captured it all in a series of haunting, indelible images.

The children spilled out of the back seat, as the US soldiers shouted ‘’Civilians!” and realized their mistake, Hondros recounted. Rakan, his spine pierced by a bullet, flopped on the pavement. He couldn’t feel his legs, only a searing pain in his midsection.

Given how many shots were fired, it seemed incredible that only Rakan, among the six children, was wounded. Even his wound was initially thought to be superficial.

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But the scene was hellish: the children’s hair mottled with blood; the mournful wailing; the soldiers cursing their mistake. Jilan, Rakan’s 14-year-old sister, cried out in their native Turkoman language, ‘’Why did they shoot us? We were just going home!”

The US Army acknowledged its mistake immediately. But the soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division who were involved in the shooting were not allowed to dwell for long on what had happened. They had to focus on surviving a yearlong tour in Iraq. During their deployment, which ended in September, the brigade’s 4,200 soldiers suffered heavy losses: 34 killed, 632 wounded. They faced more than 3,000 enemy attacks, including 84 suicide car-bombers, and 1,335 improvised explosive devices. Five of the suicide attacks occurred in the two weeks prior to the shooting of Rakan’s family.

Rakan’s uncle, Falah Abbas, recalls that a US officer turned up at the family’s home the next day, to apologize and to offer compensation.

‘’He was crying,” Abbas said.

The family did not accept the apology.

‘’There is no apologizing for such a thing,” Abbas said.

The family was given $7,500 in compensation. In the Byzantine calculus of war, the payment for the car -- $2,500 -- was the same as the recompense for the dead.

Rakan spent a week in a small, rundown hospital in Tal Afar before being transferred to a bigger hospital in Mosul, a city about 40 miles to the east, where his siblings had been taken in by his oldest sister, Intisar, 25, and her husband, Nathir Bashir Ali. In a country where, even in the best of times, there is limited access to rehabilitative care, Rakan was deemed beyond help. The only thing he took home from the hospital was bedsores. His limp legs had withered from disuse. His family was told his only hope was to get out of Iraq, to get the medical care he needed.

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Rakan remembers feeling that his plight was dismal.

‘’I was just in bed,” he said, shrugging. ‘’I didn’t get out of bed. I watched TV. I played video games. I’d call my sister for food.”

Most of the time, he didn’t feel like eating.

No one knows how many innocent bystanders in the Iraqi conflict, like Rakan’s family, have been casualties of American or other forces’ fire. But civilian deaths are a tragic commonplace in this war, as in all wars. In December, President Bush estimated that about 30,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed. A similar figure is cited by a British-based, antiwar group, Iraq Body Count, which estimates that about 37 percent of those deaths have been the result of actions by US forces.

But if Rakan had plenty of company in his misfortune, he was also more fortunate than most. Hondros’s dramatic pictures appeared in Newsweek magazine and The Times of London, drawing attention to his plight.

And Hondros, deeply affected by what he had witnessed, tried to interest others in Rakan’s situation. His friend, Marla Ruzicka, an American humanitarian worker in Iraq, took up the case. At 28, Ruzicka was an idealist with a practical streak, an accomplished schmoozer who knew how to get officialdom to take an interest in Iraqi civilians, especially children, injured in the war. By April, she had lined up a doctor in San Francisco to help Rakan, and was cajoling US diplomats to help get him into the United States. On April 12, Ruzicka sent a plaintive e-mail to two State Department officials, begging them to speed the visa.

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‘’If we don’t get him treatment soon he may never be able to walk again,” she pleaded.

Four days later, as she awaited word on the visa, Ruzicka and Faiz Ali Salim, her colleague at the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up on the road to the Baghdad airport. The bomber was targeting a US military convoy.

Rakan’s relatives, who had been encouraged by Ruzicka’s efforts, were devastated by her death.

And Rakan, his thighs and backside covered with bedsore ulcers the size of quarters, was wasting away.

Sitting in front of his computer in his Rockland, Mass., home, Adam Burnieika, a 57-year-old disabled postal worker suffering from throat cancer, read a news account about Marla Ruzicka shortly after her death. Moved by Rakan’s situation, and by Ruzicka’s compassion, Burnieika typed out a three-line letter to US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, enclosing the news story, and urging him to finish her job.

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‘’You have the power to help,” he wrote.

With those few words Burnieika triggered a remarkable series of events.

Of the hundreds of constituent letters that arrive in Kennedy’s Boston office every week, this one was plucked from the pile and made it all the way to the senator’s hands. Kennedy, who has opposed the war in Iraq from the outset, said his reaction was personal, not political.

‘’This one got to me,” he said, sitting in his private office on the third floor of the Capitol Building.

Kennedy called Raymond Tye, the United Liquors magnate and philanthropist, who agreed to pay for Rakan’s treatment. Tye, in turn, called Dr. Laurence Ronan, a Massachusetts General Hospital internist, asking him to get Rakan out of Iraq and oversee his care. Ronan is a protégé of the late Dr. Thomas Durant, a Mass. General physician and legendary, globe-trotting humanitarian. Ronan, 52, a Chicago native who came to Boston in 1973 to attend Harvard and never left, inherited from Durant a passion for the Red Sox, and for parachuting into the world’s trouble spots. In Ronan’s spartan sixth-floor office at Mass. General, Durant’s photo hangs next to his Harvard College and medical school diplomas.

Tye hung up before Ronan could say, ‘’I’ve got to check it out with my bosses first.” But then Ronan was used to abrupt telephone conversations with Tye.

Six months earlier, Tye had called Ronan for the first time, out of the blue, moments before the doctor left Boston to help victims of the tsunami in Indonesia. Tye had marked his 80th birthday, in 2002, by creating a $2.5 million foundation to pay for medical care for hard-luck cases. It was a commitment made stronger the following year, when Tye’s son, Michael, died of cancer at 49. As Ronan glanced at his watch, trying to figure out if he’d make his plane, this total stranger told him that if he found anyone who needed life-saving care, he’d pay for it.

A couple of weeks later, on a hospital ship in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Ronan came across a 3-year-old boy with a large tumor on his liver and recalled the offer. Ronan brought the boy to Mass. General, Tye covered $300,000 in medical expenses, and the boy recovered.

‘’All the money in the world couldn’t save my Michael,” Tye explained, sitting in the Braintree office where he presides over his liquor distribution business. ‘’But it can save others.”

Ronan had been to Iraq once before, in February 2004, for a conference with Iraqi doctors. But the on-ground situation had deteriorated dramatically since then. He needed someone who could marshal the power of the US military, to pluck Rakan out of a hostile environment with precision and discretion. He knew just the man: Fred Gerber.

Gerber had spent 31 years in the US Army, retiring as a colonel with the 82nd Airborne Special Forces two years ago to become the Iraq coordinator for Project Hope, a Virginia-based humanitarian organization. Ronan had been impressed by Gerber’s logistical genius during the tsunami relief efforts coordinated by Project Hope. Among the many hats Ronan wears is chief internist for the Boston Red Sox. After three weeks onboard a hospital ship in Banda Aceh, it dawned on Ronan that he was supposed to be in Fort Myers, Fla., when spring training opened. Gerber dispatched a US Marines helicopter for the first leg of an elaborate evacuation. Ronan made it to spring training on time.

‘’That’s when I knew Fred was good,” said Ronan.

Working with Kennedy’s office was not an easy fit for a career military man.

‘’Let’s just say me and Ted Kennedy wouldn’t see eye to eye on many things,” said Gerber. ‘’But this was about a little boy.”

Gerber, relentless and persnickety, and Kennedy’s staff, especially Emily Winterson and Bethany Bassett, masters at cutting through red tape, worked together well, becoming friends. Gerber said more than 60 Iraqis, most of them children, have been airlifted to the United States for medical treatment over the last three years. He has overseen many of the evacuations.

‘’Every kid like Rakan needs a champion,” said Gerber, who after three decades as a spit-and-polish officer now cuts a more rakish figure, his brown hair spilling over his collar. ‘’Once you find the right people, it’s not that complicated.”

But getting to the right people can take an extra push. After requests to get Rakan out of Iraq had languished for a couple of months in the Beltway bureaucracy, Gerber suggested that Kennedy appeal directly to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to have Rakan declared a ‘’secretarial designee” for evacuation through military channels. Rumsfeld and Kennedy agree on little, but in the case of Rakan, they put aside longstanding political differences.

When it looked certain that Rakan would come to the United States, a grateful Kennedy asked if there was anything he could do for Gerber, and Gerber said yes, as a matter of fact, there was. He is now the proud owner of an autographed photograph of the senator, inscribed with these words: ‘’To my favorite Republican Airborne Ranger Special Forces officer, thanks for helping our Iraqi friends.”

On the ground in Iraq, United Nations officials from Egypt had persuaded Rakan’s relatives that the child needed to go to the United States for treatment, and to entrust him to an army they had every reason to fear. Although bitter over what had happened, the family accepted it was an accident, according to Rakan’s uncle, Falah Abbas, who was chosen by the family to accompany Rakan to the United States.

Rakan, still angry and heartbroken, greeted with equanimity the news that he would be spirited out of Iraq by US troops. ‘’I was not afraid,” he explained, months later, ‘’because I knew they were taking me to get better.”

Flying somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 10, 2005, in the belly of a C-17 transport, Rakan lay on a litter, wide-eyed, listening to the dull hum of the engines and the occasional moans of wounded American soldiers. One of the soldiers was missing a leg, another an arm. Ronan sat next to Rakan, worried that what the child was hearing and seeing would further traumatize him.

A soldier in the bunk above Rakan awoke and slid his legs down to the floor, mumbling in a morphine haze that he had to go the bathroom. A nurse tried to take the soldier’s helmet, but he held it tightly to his chest, pointed to a jagged hole in its side and said it was the only reason he was still alive and that he’d be damned before he gave it up.

The soldier, a big country boy with wide shoulders and a deep shrapnel wound in his back, looked at the small, emaciated Iraqi child beneath him, and turned to Ronan, who had met Rakan at the US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and was bringing him back to Boston for treatment.

‘’What happened to him?” the soldier asked, as Ronan recalls it.

Ronan repeated the story: a speeding car, a jumpy patrol, a family devastated.

The soldier bent down, wincing in pain, and stroked Rakan’s head. ‘’I’m sorry, kid,” the soldier told him. ‘’I’m really sorry.”

Rakan looked at him, intrigued.

Still clutching his helmet, the soldier dug into his duffel bag with his free hand and pulled out his US Army cap and handed it to Rakan. Rakan smiled up at him.

Ronan turned away, his eyes welling up.

Later, he tried to explain.

‘’Every military person I’ve dealt with in this says the same thing: what can I do to help? All these guys know they could have been the one who pulled the trigger.”

Rakan’s first hospital room was on the 18th floor at Massachusetts General Hospital. It was private, offering sweeping views of Beacon Hill, where the State House’s Golden Dome dominated the horizon, shining like a light bulb.

With his infectious smile, Rakan became the darling of the pediatric ward, especially when the nurses and whoever came to his bed read the chart that, in a few dry words, explained he was an orphan from Iraq.

For the first couple of weeks, Rakan said little. His uncle did all the talking, occasionally translating questions to Rakan in their native Turkoman. Hospital officials were unable to find a translator who spoke Turkoman, so language became a huge barrier. Rakan would look back and forth at his uncle, the translators, and the hospital staff, as if he was watching a three-way tennis match, often amused at the cacophony and confusion.

But there was no mistaking the challenge facing Rakan and his caregivers on the afternoon of Sept. 22, when Dr. Nwanneka Okolo, a cheerful neurosurgeon, clapped her hands, saying, ‘’Let’s have a look,” and pulled back the blankets that covered Rakan’s legs.

Rakan was shrunken, almost birdlike. He weighed just 48 pounds, was just over 4 feet tall, and appeared far younger than 12. The muscle mass in his calves had disappeared from atrophy, making his legs appear stick-like. His face was drawn and angular, his almond eyes, doleful and intense.

But the real damage was out of view.

The bullet had pierced his spine, causing neurological damage that left him unable to control his bowels or bladder. There was also nerve damage to his right ankle, but most of his inability to walk was chalked up to the atrophy. His hamstrings had shortened and were painfully tight. His hips were weak.

Okolo stood Rakan up, and his legs wobbled. He held onto her tightly, like a child on ice skates for the first time. He looked like he would shatter if he fell.

‘’You’re in a good place,” Okolo said, pulling the blankets back over his legs.

Rakan flashed her the grin that made everybody want to help him.

After two weeks, Rakan was transferred to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital’s pediatric unit, on the 10th floor of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. With just 15 beds, its corridor walls lined with prints of idyllic scenes of Boston -- Durgin Park bathed in snowfall, the Charles River at dusk -- the unit is small, warm, and self-contained. It would become Rakan’s world for four months.

Anne Dodwell, program director of the pediatric unit, was confident her staff would meet Rakan’s physical needs. But she worried about the things they could only guess at.

‘’I was lying in bed last night, and I couldn’t get all these questions out of my head,” Dodwell confided, standing outside her office a few days after Rakan arrived. ‘’What’s going on in his head? What things did he see? Is he going to go home? Is someone here going to adopt him? What does he want? What’s ultimately in his best interest? How will we ever know?”


Kevin Cullen can be reached at cullen@globe.com.