A young life changed forever by Iraq's war

BAGHDAD (AP) -- She was a beautiful, round-faced little girl with large, coal-black eyes and an instant smile. Two years later, the 3-year-old is blind and scarred, her mother is dead and her father's new wife can't cope with caring for her.

Shams, whose name in Arabic means "sun," is among tens of thousands of Iraqis whose suffering will linger long after the war ends.

Shams' young life changed on Nov. 23, 2006, when a car bomb exploded near her father's pickup as he was driving his family - his wife, two sons and the daughter - home after a visit to his wife's parents in the Shiite district of Sadr City.

The blast engulfed their car in flames. Shams and her mother, who was fatally injured in the blast, were thrown from the backseat into street. Her father, Husham Fadhil, tried to douse the flames on his wife's clothing.

But there was little he could do for his 1-year-old daughter, lying face down next to her dying mother.

"I was totally preoccupied with putting out the flames which were burning my wife's body," Fadhil, 32, said. "Then, I lifted Shams and saw her face covered with blood. I thought that they were caused by minor injuries that would heal. Later, I learned that the blood was coming from her badly injured eyes."

The car bomb was one of a series of attacks in Sadr City, including rocket and mortar fire. Iraq's medical and rescue services were strained to cope with the carnage that day, when about 160 people were killed.

Ambulance attendants loaded the dead and wounded into vehicles and sped off to hospitals. Fadhil's wife Wafa, Shams and the two boys - 3-year-old Taif and 5-year-old Gaith - were rushed to separate hospitals. It took Fadhil hours to track them down.

"After searching for 24 hours, I found her in the Medical City compound," he said. "The doctors there took care of her burns but neglected her eye injuries" that left her blind.

In 2007, Fadhil took his daughter to Amman, Jordan, with the assistance of Doctors Without Borders. But the Jordanian doctors told him there was little they could do because Shams didn't get proper treatment at the time she was wounded.

"Had there been proper treatment of her eyes at that time, she could have at least had one of her eyes safe and active by now."

Months later, Fadhil took her to Iran, hoping for a miracle cure.

"All of them gave us the same response," he said. "They said take her to Europe. There doctors can transplant corneas for her. But no one seems ready to help us get her there."

After his wife's death, Fadhil remarried. But the new wife refused to care for Shams, who was given to her father's relatives next door in eastern Baghdad.

Two years after the blast, Shams walks haphazardly through the house, finding her way by touching the wall with her tiny pinkish fingers. If she bumps into someone, she clutches them and asks to be hugged or carried.

Occasionally, she cries out, "Mommy, Daddy, Granny."

Fadhil has not told his children their mother is dead. Instead, he explains that she has gone to Syria, where thousands of Iraqis have sought refuge. But he believes his oldest child, Gaith, suspects the worst because he never mentions his mother.

"We were a happy family which became perfect when Shams was born," Husham said as tears welled in his eyes. "I never thought such a horrible thing could happen. I was dreaming of Shams to be an engineer or a doctor. Now she can't be anything but a blind girl."