The frail little girl wears a blue and gray striped dress with matching gladiator sandals and bag. Her grandfather pulls her aluminum wheelchair out of a dust-blanketed taxi, places her in the seat. Her legs dangle like a broken doll's.
Dr. Saad Nasser welcomes the girl as she is wheeled into his office, a room not much larger than a walk-in closet. A fan strains to ward off the smell of fresh paint. It's hard to tell this is a physician's office except for the posters advertising medications like Panadol and Novalac. There's little in the way of equipment.
Nasser leans over the girl on his patient bed.
"Where does it hurt?" he asks.
"In my head," the girl answers, lifting her hand to her forehead. She tells him the pain is constant.
The doctor has been examining the girl for about five years. She is 7 now.
He tries to voice optimism, tells her she is doing well. He says she should be seeing a neurologist and other specialists, not a family physician like him. She should have a CT scan done every three months, but her family cannot afford it. She has a shunt in her brain that could need replacement. She suffers from urinary tract infections that result from abnormal bladder function. He fears further complications.
He knows there is little chance of a normal life for her here in war-ravaged Iraq.
The girl, like her homeland, is struggling. Hope for the future is fading.
She is strong, the doctor says. But it is very hard for her in Iraq. He says she may even die.
A broken girl in a broken land
Royal Jordanian Flight 8613 begins its descent into Baghdad on this late February night. It has been five years since I was last in Iraq. I strain to see out the window; I know I am nearing the city when blackness over Anbar province gives way to the twinkle of low-voltage lighting.
It is a strange feeling returning to this place where I spent so many months of my life. Covering the war, I had found a connection here to a people I did not know before.
I am making this long journey now in search of a little girl.
I'd always thought of her as a metaphor for the war. She was someone whom the Americans saved, just like they saved Iraq from Saddam Hussein. But now she was unfinished business. Forgotten by America.
A decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she is a broken girl in a broken land.
Things did not go as expected after U.S. troops toppled Hussein. In years of lethal occupation, America found itself running a nation about which it knew little. American men and women were dying every month, as were thousands of Iraqis. Many soldiers I met struggled to make sense of a perplexing mission. They found meaning in small acts of humanity.
The girl, Noor al-Zahra Haider, was the beneficiary of one of those acts.
She was not even 3 months old yet when I first saw her, suffering from a severe spinal cord birth defect that was certain to kill her. She was discovered by soldiers patrolling impoverished Abu Ghraib -- the town notorious for its high-security prison -- and shuttled to America for life-saving surgery.
She became known to the world as Baby Noor.
Her smile enthralled everyone who saw her on television screens and newspaper pages. She was labeled Iraq's miracle baby.
Her name means "light" in Arabic -- she was a flicker of brightness in the midst of war's gloom.
Jeff Morgan, then an Army National Guard lieutenant, spearheaded the effort to fly Noor out of Iraq. The soldiers, he told me, felt compelled to do the right thing.
But there was little if any discussion about what would become of Noor after her stay in the United States.
What would happen to a child with a complicated medical condition who might need more surgery in the future? A child without regular bladder function? A girl who could not walk?