Words: Jon Kay
Video/photos: Andy Alcroft, Alex Littlewood
It’s New Year’s Eve. In a cold, bare council flat in south-west England, Amar rips open a sealed packet and pulls out a cotton-wool swab.
He doesn’t need to read the instruction sheet. He has already read it many times. He watches himself in the mirror as he rolls the swab around the inside of his cheek for 30 seconds.
Then he waves it in the air to dry for 30 seconds and places it in the envelope labelled DNA SAMPLE. So quick. So simple.
Just 60 seconds in total. Sixty seconds that could change Amar’s life.
For a short time in the early 1990s, Amar Kanim was famous.
His scarred face and desperate story featured on newspaper front pages around the world. He was introduced to diplomats and ambassadors. He even attended a session of the United Nations.
He was known as the little boy who had lost everything in a napalm attack. He came to personify the suffering of the Iraqi people at the hands of their own president.
Amar’s body had been left covered in burns when Saddam Hussein bombed Shia Muslim communities in southern Iraq in March 1991.
The Iraqi leader was trying to exert his authority after being pushed back from Kuwait by an American-led coalition in the Gulf War.
In the aftermath of that war, thousands of Iraqis rose up against his regime, including the Kurds in the north and the Shia of the south.
Saddam dispatched his troops to put down the uprisings with terrifying ferocity.
Amar remembers the day of the attack on the southern city of Basra clearly: “It was a beautiful afternoon. While we were out playing, we heard gunshots, sirens and planes overhead. My sister and I hid on the ground floor of a warehouse known as “the silo” with about 30 other people.
“There was a huge bang above us - and a bomb came crashing down through the levels of the building. There was a blinding white flash. I couldn’t find my sister. All I could do was cover my eyes.
“Everyone else had gone deeper into the warehouse and they were trapped, but I was next to the door. I smashed it down and ran for my life. I think I was the only one to get out alive.
“I knew the Shatt al-Arab River was a short distance away, so I jumped into the water to stop the agonising burning of my skin. I must have passed out after that because I don’t really remember anything else.”
Exactly what happened next is unclear, but it appears that anti-Saddam troops found Amar, alone and unconscious on the riverbank, and transported the traumatised boy across the border to a refugee camp in Iran.
He remembers waking up in a hospital ward, covered in burns. “I just lay there. I was in so much pain,” he says. “Every movement was agonising. I couldn’t speak, eat, drink or swallow. I didn’t know where my family was. I was alone and I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Six months later, in September 1991, the British politician Emma (now Baroness) Nicholson found the silent Amar in a hospital ward in the Iranian city of Ahvaz.
“It was a terrible sight,” she remembers. “There was this poor child sitting all alone, burned from head to foot and in desperate agony.”
The MP was on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East to raise awareness of the plight of Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq.
The UK had been part of the coalition which had successfully pushed Saddam back from Kuwait, but - with the war now over - Lady Nicholson felt the dictator’s subsequent actions against his own people were being ignored by the international community.
She was told that Amar was the only member of his family to have survived, so she asked the doctors and aid workers what she could do to help him.
He can’t smile. He can’t cry. He can’t laugh. He can’t do anything. He has no muscles in his face. No nerves. No nothing.
Medical experts told her that Amar urgently needed to be flown to the UK for complex plastic surgery.
So Lady Nicholson launched a fund-raising campaign in conjunction with the Sunday Times. Pictures of the haunted-looking boy staring into the camera resonated with readers who had recently witnessed television reports of the Gulf War. They soon donated thousands of pounds for Amar’s transport and treatment.
Lady Nicholson managed to acquire an Iranian diplomatic passport for Amar, and in February 1992 dozens of photographers and reporters were waiting at Heathrow Airport when the rather bemused little boy stepped off the plane, hand-in-hand with the member of parliament.
They were an unlikely pair: the MP dressed in a bright blue, shoulder-padded 90s “power jacket”, with her young companion wearing a stone-washed denim suit and red bow-tie, which Iranian nurses had bought for his special journey.
Apart from the clothes he was wearing, Amar had nothing. No suitcase. No hand luggage.
“He’s a complete orphan. He’s lost everything - his life, his home, his whole family,” Lady Nicholson said in a television interview at the time.
It’s hard to imagine what the child described in the Sunday Times headline as “the little boy Saddam tried to exterminate” must have been thinking, as he was driven in an Range Rover through London to the hospital where he would begin treatment.
Just a few months earlier Amar had been living a carefree rural existence with his mother, two brothers and three sisters in Iraq.
“I had never seen a camera before. I hadn’t even seen a television. I didn’t really understand what was going on,” says Amar. “But I felt like I was safe with Emma. I felt I had to go to London. It was the only way I would get the help I needed. I had nobody else, so I just went along with it.”
Over the next year, Amar had 27 plastic surgery operations on the 10th floor of Guy’s Hospital.
In the Rothschild Ward, some of the world’s most eminent consultants performed pioneering medical procedures to graft skin from his hip to his neck, in a form of reconstructive surgery known as “waltzing”.
His progress was followed by the BBC. Watching those archive reports now, you see a shy and nervous little boy slowly gaining confidence and understanding as the weeks pass.
He became less self-conscious about his scars. He began to speak a few words of English. He played computer games on a Nintendo Game Boy. He started to smile.
“I had no idea that Amar would stay in England,” reflects Lady Nicholson today.
“I anticipated that we would find some relatives and he would go back to Iraq once his surgery was completed. But that didn’t happen because, as soon as the paediatricians at Westminster Hospital saw him, they said that if Amar was moved again, he would die.”
There were attempts to place the boy with a British-Iraqi family in London, but Lady Nicholson says he never adapted to city life and kept running away. So, instead, he moved to her constituency home in rural Devon where she lived with her businessman husband, Sir Michael Caine.
Although they became his legal guardians, Amar chose not to be adopted. He always hoped that one day he would find some relatives and return to his homeland.
But he speaks fondly of those early years in south-west England. He remembers the foreign holidays, the drum kit birthday present and the Michael Jackson posters on his bedroom wall.
The little Iraqi boy aroused a great deal of interest when he arrived in the traditional farming community, but he settled in quickly. He attended the village school, made good friends, played drums in a village rock band and acquired a love of football and fishing.
“I was grateful. Emma had saved my life,” he says. “I felt safe and secure in the countryside. People made me feel welcome. But in quiet moments, I sometimes struggled to cope. I’d lost all my relatives - everything I knew. You feel completely empty. Like the whole world has let you down.
“I felt very isolated at times. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone. It’s the most horrible position to be in because, without a family, you feel like you don’t belong to anyone. You feel like you’re born out of nothing.”
The death of Sir Michael from cancer in 1999 hit Amar hard. The businessman had acted as a father-figure to the teenage boy, and losing him had a profound effect.
“It was another loss I had to deal with,” reflects Amar. He says it turned him into an angry young man. He left Devon and moved to London for a few years, where he “drifted” and spent time sleeping on friends’ sofas and even living in his car.
“It was a difficult time. I fell out with Emma. I chose to go it alone. I didn’t really know what I wanted or who I was.”
In the summer of 2018, BBC cameraman Andy Alcroft was waiting to film an interview at Exeter St David’s railway station, when he was approached by one of Amar’s friends.
“You should do a report about him - Amar. The boy who came over from Iraq. Remember him? He’s got an amazing story,” he said.
Andy took some contact details and we went to meet Amar in the Devon village where he still lives.
We thought we might end up doing some kind of “catch-up” feature. “Whatever happened to the orphan Amar?” - that kind of thing.
But when Amar revealed he had been receiving unexpected social media messages from a stranger, the story took an unexpected turn.
Watch Amar's story
We find Amar in an empty flat.
He’s lived here for nearly 10 years after returning from London, but there is little to show for it.
Few personal possessions on display; no pictures or photographs; just a stack of bills on the table and some washing-up in the kitchen sink.
He must be in his late 30s now, but he looks much younger - not very different, in fact, from the boy in those grainy archive TV reports. He is slightly built and softly spoken.
Amar tells us that his gas supply was cut off a year ago because he couldn’t afford the payments. He has had no central heating through the harsh West Country winter.
He is selling his fishing rod and his beloved bicycle to raise some cash. He’s single, out of work and on benefits. “Life is tough on the breadline,” he says.
In one of the rooms, I find some drawings faintly sketched in pencil on the wall. Amar looks a little embarrassed.
He can’t quite explain what he has drawn, but he says they are images from deep in his memory. Scenes he recalls from his childhood in Iraq: riverbanks and reed-beds, leaping fish and soaring birds of prey.
“The trauma means I don’t remember much of that time in my life. I don’t really remember my family or my home, but I do know I was happy then, before the bombing started. Drawing these pictures - it kind of helps.”
‘He is my son’
The quiet routine of Amar’s daily life has recently been shaken.
He tells us that, out of nowhere, he has received mysterious Facebook messages from a stranger in the Middle East.
He shows them to us - including some grainy video footage of a woman who claims she is his mother. The mother whom Amar believed was killed in Basra three decades ago.
Amar stares at the screen and shakes his head. “I thought it was just a scam to start with,” he says. “I deleted it. I assumed it was somebody trying to get money out of me. A prank. But then I received another message and another one. It can’t be true. Can it?”
The footage is so heavily pixelated - and Amar’s phone screen is so badly cracked - that it’s hard to make out exactly what is happening, but the video is taken from a Kurdish TV station, and shows an elderly woman approaching a reporter during a live news broadcast from a food market.
In a croaky voice, the woman in a black hijab says she is in poor health and going blind.
Then she holds up a photograph to the camera. It is the famous newspaper picture of Amar arriving at Heathrow with Emma Nicholson in 1992.
“He is my son,” she sobs to the reporter. “He is my Amar.”
Thousands of miles away, alone in his Devon flat, Amar has been replaying the video over and over again.
“She does look like my mother,” he says, still stunned by what he sees. “But she looks much older than I remember. She looks a bit like me, I suppose. It’s so hard to tell from the picture.”
‘I want it to be true’
Amar asks us to help him. So, Andy, our producer Alex Littlewood and I begin a journey together, with no idea that it will end up taking us from the lush green fields of Dartmoor to the deserts of Iraq.
The first thing we need to establish is where the video clip has come from.
It has been sent to Amar via Facebook by an Iraqi man called Mustafa.
We contact him and over the phone he tells us he is not a relative. He’s a 36-year-old office worker with a wife and three children, living in the northern city of Erbil.
“I didn’t know anything about Amar or his story, but when I saw the old woman on TV, I knew I had to help,” says Mustafa. He tells us he was “heartbroken” when he saw her interrupt the reporter’s live broadcast on NRT Television in April 2018.
Mustafa tells us how, over the days and weeks that followed, he trawled the internet for any information about the boy in the picture.
He eventually realised that a young orphan called Amar Kanim from Basra had been taken to the UK in 1992 and that his story had inspired Emma Nicholson to establish the Amar Foundation. The dates, details and pictures seemed to match, so Mustafa then tried to trace Amar, eventually finding him in Devon via Facebook.
Trying to establish whether the woman’s story was genuine was going to require time and patience. However, over the next few weeks, with the help of Mustafa, Amar’s Arabic-speaking friends in England and our colleagues from BBC Arabic, we make good progress.
Using social media and on-the-ground contacts in Iraq, we are put in touch with a man called Juma and we begin communicating with him.
He tells us that he is married to the woman who is claiming to be Amar’s mother. He says her name is Zahra and that Amar’s biological father died in a road accident before Saddam’s attack on his own people. Amar confirms this detail is true.
He says they now live in the city of Karbala, 500km (311 miles) north of Basra, where Amar grew up.
In tears, he tells us that he always promised his wife that he would do everything possible to find her son. And he can’t believe that contact has finally been made.
The phone connections are often poor, and the conversations highly emotional. Amar sometimes finds it difficult to listen. “My head is spinning,” he says.
The couple send us a torn and faded black-and-white photograph which Zahra claims is a school portrait of Amar. But Amar can’t be sure that it’s him.
The little boy in the picture has no scars, and Amar doesn’t know what he looked like before his face was burned.
Zahra also sends us copies of documents and certificates which, she says, prove that she is Amar’s mother. Some of the details she provides do make sense to him.
The names of his brothers and sister are correct. The places and incidents she refers to sound familiar. Her account of the napalm attack is consistent with what he remembers.
She weeps as she describes how her youngest daughter Zainab was killed in the attack. “I carried her body to the cemetery and then came back to the bombed building to look for my little Amar. I searched through the rubble for days, but I couldn’t find any trace of him.
“There were rumours that he’d been injured and carried away by local soldiers. Years later I heard a story that he might have been taken to Europe. I’ve been trying to find him for 30 years.”
A couple of years ago, she explains, a family friend found an internet picture of a little boy called Amar holding hands with a politician in England in the 1990s.
Zahra suspected it was her son, but couldn’t be sure because of the child’s scars. “Since then we’ve tried to contact charities, embassies and government officials, but nobody has helped us. We put an advert in the paper. We have approached journalists in the street. But it’s very hard for people like us to meet officials in Iraq.”
Amar is still dubious. His own memories are hazy and he struggles to accept what he is being told. It all seems too much. He’s concerned that the woman, or those around her, might be inventing the story, looking for a route out of Iraq. Or looking for money.
But Mustafa believes the woman’s poverty makes her story more credible. “These people have nothing,” he explains.
“They are very poor. They have little education. They have no internet. No smartphones. No links to the authorities. That’s why they have not been able to reach him.”
In the confusion and chaos of war, was a terrible mistake made?
“I want it to be true,” Amar sighs. “I really want to believe it. But for 30 years I’ve been alone. For 30 years I’ve been told my family is dead. And now they might not be. It’s like a movie. It doesn’t make sense. I need proof.”
The woman agrees to Amar’s suggestion that they both undergo a DNA test.
For Lady Nicholson, the possibility that Amar may have found his biological mother comes as a shock. “Family is the most important thing in life,” she says. “It’s who you are. It’s your identity. From the very beginning I did everything I could to try to trace any of Amar’s relatives in Iraq. I hoped we would find someone, but I struggled.”
After rescuing Amar from Iraq, the politician set up an international charity in his name. Today the Amar Foundation is a highly successful operation, working with vulnerable people in conflict zones across the Middle East, including a school for orphans in Basra, where Amar was born.
Lady Nicholson says several women came forward claiming to be Amar’s mother in the years after he first arrived in the UK, but they all turned out to be hoaxes.
“In the mid-90s we did manage to find an auntie in Baghdad,” the politician explains, “but she was so frightened when we approached her under Saddam’s regime. She fainted and her husband begged us never to turn up again.”
After the longest two weeks of his life, Amar stands in his flat, his hands trembling. “I hope it’s true,” he says. “I’ve been exhausted. I’ve had sleepless nights because of this. It feels like I’ve been waiting so long for this moment.”
He rips open the envelope. The piece of paper inside is a confusing blizzard of numbers, letters and symbols. Amar’s eyes scan the technical data and genetic code but, at the bottom of the page, he finds the words he has been searching for.
It is more than 99.9999% proven that Zahra is his biological mother. There it is. Finally. In black and white.
Amar stares silently at the page. He’s stunned. “I’ve got a mum… I couldn’t be happier about this. Nobody loves you more than your mother.”
For the first time since we met him six months earlier, a broad smile spreads across Amar’s face. “I’m going to frame this piece of paper. And I might even have a few drinks tonight to celebrate. The next step is to meet them…”
Three decades after that terrified little boy arrived at Heathrow gripping Emma Nicholson’s hand, Amar strides through the same airport, heading back to Baghdad, this time holding his British passport.
This will be his first trip back to Iraq since he left in 1992. “I’m nervous, but I’m so excited. This is the biggest thing to happen in my life.”
During the long journey - 10 hours in total - Amar’s eyes are fixed on the little graphic aeroplane on the in-flight screen.
Every few seconds the map refreshes, and Amar watches the plane’s progress as it pulses from London towards the Middle East.
“It just feels very unreal. It’s hard to believe, to be honest, how quick things have happened,” he says.
As the landscape thousands of feet below changes from green fields to endless desert, Amar worries about how he will react when he meets his mother.
To prepare for this journey he has spoken to psychologists and counsellors about his lifelong struggle to express emotions: “I’ve learned to hold back my feelings. I don’t allow myself to show them. Because of the war, the loss I suffered and the injuries I sustained, I have learned to live with things. I’ve learned to keep my feelings closed.”
It’s 11 o’clock. The morning sun is gaining strength. Pigeons swoop overhead. The sound of a muezzin calling Muslims to prayer drifts from a minaret across the Baghdad skyline.
Amar stands in the shade of a palm tree, to protect his scarred skin. He rearranges the collar of his new shirt. The moment of the reunion has finally arrived.
“The purpose of this journey has been purely for her. Purely for the woman.” He pauses to correct himself. “My mother, I should say. I’ve got to get used to saying that word. Mother. My mother.”
Amar has chosen to meet her in the garden of the BBC offices in Baghdad. It is a quiet, enclosed space - hidden from the bustle and business of city life.
He hears an engine approaching. A car door slams. Footsteps shuffle down the path towards him. The garden gate opens. The outline of a woman appears. She is dressed in a long black chador cloak with a hijab around her head.
“Mother. My mother.”
“Amauri. Amauri,” she calls. My little Amar. You can sense the utter disbelief in her breaking voice.
Arms oustretched, mother and son collapse into one another. They hold on firmly. Not letting go.
They stroke one another. Kiss one another. Stare at one another’s faces. They whisper reassurances. Repeat one another’s names. But there are few other words. None are needed.
Zahra softly runs her fingers over the scars on Amar’s face. Then she pats her son’s arms and legs up and down. She examines his hands.
She tells him she is looking for signs of injuries. She thought he would be unable to walk. She expected him to have more severe physical disabilities as a result of his burns. But here he stands, hugging her.
Without thinking about it, the Arabic language Amar thought he’d forgotten suddenly returns.
Zahra: You are my lion. My son.
Amar: I am your son.
Zahra: Do you remember me? I’m your mother. I raised you…
Amar: Of course you did.
Zahra: Look. This is my son. My brave boy. Oh God, you’ve brought me my son. Please don’t take him away.
Amar: No, no-one will take me away. It’s all in the hands of God.
Zahra: It’s fate, my darling. It’s God’s will. I can’t believe it, I’ve seen my son. Amar. I’ve seen my little boy, Amar.
Watching from a short distance away, it’s remarkable just how naturally and comfortably the pair interact. He forgets all his concerns about showing emotion.
The connection - the love - that he worried would be absent couldn’t be more obvious. His feelings are unlocked.
As the minutes pass and the immediate intensity subsides, Amar and his mother relax into a gentle chat. How do you resume a conversation after 30 years?
This mother and son have so little in common. And yet, they have everything in common. For both of them, everything has changed. But somehow, nothing has changed. The bond Amar has worried about is still there.
“My son is a hero, a superhero,” shouts a jubilant Zahra, nestling into Amar’s chest and kissing him.
“He missed me. He cares about me and he wanted to find me. This is all I ever wished for. We had wars. So many wars. I lost Amar. I survived, but I was only thinking about Amar. And now he came back, finally. I’m so happy today. I would do anything for Amar. Anything.”
From the magnitude of their loss, they quickly move on to discussing the little things they’ve missed.
Amar pulls out his phone and shows his mother photographs of the fish he caught in Devon.
Her eyesight is failing so she has to hold the device right next to her face.
She beams with pride and reminds him of the fishing they used to do in Basra. That was hundreds of miles away - a lifetime ago - but it’s as if Amar and Zahra have only been apart for a few days.
Amar is also reunited with his younger brother, Tahrir.
Once again, there are plenty of tears and hugs, but there is no awkwardness. No silences. No agenda. The way they speak to one another, touch one another and interact with one another, seems incredibly easy.
They remember the tricks they played on their parents. They laugh about football games and bird-hunting. Sharing chickpea stew and chicken kebabs, they tease, giggle and joke. They are a family again.
The next day Amar says he wants to visit his family’s house in Karbala - about two hours south of Baghdad.
What he finds there is very different from the rural home he remembers from his childhood in Basra. His mother, brother, sister-in-law and stepfather share a cramped breeze-block hut on a piece of polluted wasteland.
Their roof is just a sheet of tarpaulin. There is little in the way of sanitation. Loose electric cables dangle from the power lines overhead.
Before he returned to Iraq, Amar was worried that he would find it too upsetting to visit the house. He says he feels guilty that his family is living in such poverty. But, once again, his anxiety quickly subsides.
Instead of focusing on the dirty floor, he smiles at old family photographs hanging on the wall. He laughs when his mother tips a celebratory bag of sweets over his head, like he is a little boy once again. The place quickly fills with the sound of laughter.
Although he has never lived in this house, it soon feels like his home.
Zahra unzips the bag of documents and photographs that she has carried with her for years, in the hope that one day she would find Amar. She unfolds the birth certificate, which reveals his real date of birth.
Without any official paperwork, doctors in the UK could only guess Amar’s birthday from the state of his teeth and the length of his bones when he first arrived as a refugee.
It turns out they got it wrong. Amar is three years older than they estimated. “It’s my 40th birthday next week,” he laughs. “And now I’ve finally got something to celebrate.”
And there is another surprise. It turns out that the strange inky dot on the inside of Amar’s right arm is actually a family tattoo. His mother and brother have identical marks.
Amar could never remember where his came from - or why it was there - but Tahrir explains how, as a young boy, he gave each family member a blue dot, so they would be able to identify one another if they were ever lost.
“And now we have found our Amar,” he says. For a few poignant seconds, they all sit in silence, comparing their small blue dots.
Five days after touching down in Baghdad, it is time for Amar to head back to the UK. Saying goodbye to his family was always going to be painful, but there is a calm confidence about their farewell. It is dignified, rather than dramatic. Realistic.
Amar promises to return one day. He says he will try to send some money, but they understand that he doesn’t have much to give.
“Thank you for finding me,” he says.
“Thank you for coming back,” his family replies.
‘I feel blessed’
From the top floor of a nearby building, Amar watches the sun setting beyond the Tigris River. It’s his final night in Iraq. He reflects on what he describes as an “overwhelming” week.
“I’ve been alone for all these years - with all this trauma - but now I feel reborn. All I wanted was for my mother to be proud of me. And I think she is.
“For so long, my life has been empty, but now I have a purpose. I want to come back and visit my family again soon.”
In the park below some brothers are playing football. They’re about the same age Amar was when he lost his family. He smiles.
“This has been the best moment of my life,” he says.
Back in his Devon flat, Amar has put some ornaments and photos on display. There are prayer beads, which his mother gave him as a parting gift, and some stones that he picked up from the ground near the family grave in Najaf.
Since returning home, Amar has been in regular contact with his family. Most nights his phone lights up as they share messages and photos.
He’s now thinking about moving to London to find a job. He wants to fund another trip to Iraq and provide his relatives with some financial assistance.
Lady Nicholson has described Amar’s reunion with his family as “an absolute miracle”. After several years without much contact, Amar has now reconnected with the politician and shared his news.
Having met her again in Westminster, he is now keen to rebuild their relationship and maybe do some work for the Amar Foundation.
Lady Nicholson has promised to help him in whatever way she can. She’s invited him to visit some of the projects that have been set up by the Amar Foundation - particularly its school for orphans in Basra.
A year after he received that mysterious Facebook message, Amar looks out of the window towards Dartmoor and beyond.
“I feel blessed. Everything makes sense. My life is finally complete.”