Kevin Cullen

The end of Rakan's war

Life asked far too much of Rakan Hassan, the Iraqi boy brought to Boston in 2005 for treatment after a mistaken shooting by American troops. The next chapter of his story is hard to write.

Rakan Hassan flashed his famous smile during a physical therapy session in Boston in November 2005. Rakan Hassan flashed his famous smile during a physical therapy session in Boston in November 2005. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / August 3, 2008

We were standing on a dusty road in Mosul, Dr. Larry Ronan and I, and he had just left us.

It was January 2006 and this boy named Rakan had driven away in an Opel sedan identical to the one he was riding in when his life changed forever a year before, and so we stood there, with this odd mix of hope and apprehension, and waved goodbye.

Rakan Hassan had been shot and paralyzed, his parents killed, when American soldiers panicked and opened fire on the family car as it sped toward them in the fading light of dusk. Ronan and other doctors and therapists in Boston had put Rakan back together, and I had watched the whole process, to write about it, and then we brought Rakan back to the war zone where he was nearly killed because that was what Rakan and his family wanted.

As we waved, and the car driven by Rakan's brother-in-law disappeared into the dust, Larry Ronan must have felt what I was feeling because he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, "Don't worry. We'll see him again."

We never did.

Rakan Hassan, the boy whose life Larry Ronan saved, the boy I sat with most days for five months, the boy who became my sons' friend, the boy who touched anybody and everybody he met, was killed in June when a bomb exploded at his family's home in Mosul. He was 14 years old. Two of his sisters - an infant and a teenager - were injured in the attack but are expected to recover.

It happened June 16, but given the madness that is Iraq, it took us weeks to confirm. We got a death certificate the other day and so now we know for sure.

The information is, like Iraq's future, sketchy at best. Through an interpreter, Rakan's brother-in-law and guardian, Nathir Bashir Ali, said he suspects insurgents put a bomb in or next to the house. He believes the house was targeted either because of his associations with the Iraqi government or because the family had accepted help for Rakan from Americans.

But the truth is, we don't know why. We only know Rakan is dead.

Larry Ronan has been heartsick for weeks, as he awaited final word. I have been, too. Ronan is a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital with thousands of patients, but for six months in fall 2005 and winter 2006 you would have thought his only patient was Rakan.

Rakan's case caught the eye of humanitarians because his shooting was captured in a series of haunting photographs by Chris Hondros, a photographer for Getty Images who was embedded with the platoon from the First Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, which opened fire on a car they thought was carrying suicide bombers.

If some Americans unintentionally orphaned and paralyzed Rakan, others intentionally set out to help him, to show Rakan and other Iraqis that there was another side to Americans, those who would drop everything, do anything, for a kid. US Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Donald Rumsfeld, former defense secretary, who agreed on nothing else, agreed to work together to cut through the red tape to get Rakan to the United States for the treatment he needed.

Ray Tye, the Boston philanthropist, agreed to pay for everything - a Jewish guy who made his money in the liquor business became the benefactor of a Muslim child. Ronan flew half way around the world to fetch Rakan.

When he arrived in Boston in September 2005, Rakan looked like he had just been liberated from a concentration camp, and in some ways he had been. He had received no rehabilitative services in Iraq after he was shot because there were none. He was emaciated, as fragile as glass. His body was covered with sores. He was, doctors estimated, months from death when he got here.

His family did the best they could, but they didn't know how to treat a paraplegic, and were overwhelmed, trying to survive the war themselves. In Iraq, he had been put in a corner, left to fester in his own waste, left, when you got right down to it, to die. In Boston, he had a chance.

Every nurse at Mass. General fell in love with him. It was the same when he was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital's pediatric unit.

Alison Tate, a bubbly physical therapist, took the lead in getting Rakan to walk again. She pushed him, and he would sometimes push back, because he was a 12-year-old boy. But she did it. Alison and her buddies at Spaulding got Rakan to walk again.

"You know," Alison said Friday, when I called to tell her the news, "just yesterday a doctor I don't know that well stopped me in the cafeteria and asked me, 'Whatever happened to that Iraqi boy?' And I made a mental note to find out."

She sighed.

"Now I've found out."

Poor Larry Ronan. It was he who had to face the Solomon-like decision of whether to let Rakan go back to Iraq. There were local Muslim families who would have gladly adopted Rakan. Ray Tye wanted me to adopt him. Fred Gerber, the former 82d Airborne officer and logistics genius who got Rakan out of Iraq, had families lined up, too.

But Larry Ronan is a doctor, and doctors listen to their patients, even 12-year-olds, and Rakan begged to go home. His family wanted him home.

So we brought him home.

And now this.

. . .

All of us who cared about this boy, who loved this boy, are left to wonder: Did we do something, however unwittingly, that got him killed?

Did somebody somehow read Rakan's story, maybe online, and set out to kill him and his family, to prove that anybody who takes sweets or help or anything from the Americans is a collaborator who shall die the death of an infidel?

Did those who murdered him find out he had been seen by US Army medical personnel in Iraq? He hadn't been to a US facility in more than a year, precisely to guard against that prospect. But memories are long in Iraq and people talk.

Did those who planted the bomb target Rakan's brother-in-law because he has a job doing security work for Iraqi authorities?

We don't know. Maybe we'll never know. There are competing theories, and they are as Byzantine as the place that produces them.

We only know that a boy is dead.

Larry Ronan, one of this world's great globe-trotting humanitarians, is gutted. He blames himself. He had reassured all of us that Rakan's going home was conditional, that if he regressed medically, we could get him out of there and bring him back here.

His head tells him that if he hadn't gone and fetched Rakan, and brought him to Boston, Rakan would have died in a makeshift wheelchair, in a corner, in Iraq. But his head is one thing, and his heart is another, and it is aching.

"I should've kept him here," Larry Ronan said, and for the first time in all the years I've known him his voice cracked. "Everything would have been OK if I kept him here."

. . .

Would he still be alive if I didn't write about him? If Michele McDonald's beautiful photos of him never appeared in this newspaper?

We'll probably never know.

Rakan was in Boston for five months, confined to the hospital, and he was alone much of the time. I would take my wife and kids to see him, mostly on weekends, when the pediatric unit was quiet and he was the loneliest.

We took him to Santarpio's, in East Boston, and despite our best efforts he eschewed the thin crust pizza and stuck with the lamb. He saw his first snowstorm, on Revere Beach, and he was an expert snowball thrower, his first-ever toss landing squarely on my son Brendan's back. He howled with joy. So did Brendan.

We took him to Phoenicia, a restaurant on Cambridge Street, across from Mass. General, and the Lebanese family that runs it fawned over him. My brother-in-law read the Koran with him. Muslim college kids, students at Boston University and MIT and Harvard, would drop by and spend time with him, speaking to him in Arabic, and he liked the attention.

Michele McDonald introduced Rakan to her daughter, Annie, and Annie became very fond of him, too. His hospital roommate, Will Parr, a Salem boy, became a good buddy, too.

Christmas baffled Rakan. We took him to the Enchanted Village at the Hynes, and he didn't know what to make of it. He spent Christmas at my brother's home in Tewksbury with my extended family - a Moroccan, Armenians, a Jew, and boatloads of dysfunctional Irish. He loved it.

I put off telling my sons about Rakan's death as long as possible. Inexplicably, in recent weeks, they began asking about him. It was almost as if they had some sixth sense. They would sometimes ask about Rakan in the same breath as their cousin Tim, who is serving in Iraq with the Army's 10th Mountain Division. They worried about Tim and Rakan equally.

"Do you think Timmy will ever meet Rakan?" Brendan, my 12-year-old, asked me out of the blue a couple of weeks ago.

We were driving, on the way to go fishing.

"I don't think so," I replied.

Rakan and Patrick, my 14-year-old, were peers. They sat next to each other at a Celtics game and shared a bucket of popcorn and talked easily, because for kids, language is never a barrier. Rakan arrived here not speaking English and by the time he left he had passable pidgin English. But with the boys, there was never a problem communicating. They intuitively understood each other.

Patrick kept asking when Rakan was coming back. There had been several scheduled return trips, so Rakan could get some follow-up care at Mass. General. We had planned to take him to Fenway Park, even though Rakan couldn't care less about baseball. He said he wore Red Sox stuff only because Senator Kennedy gave it to him as a gift and because it made Dr. Ronan, a member of the Red Sox medical staff, smile. But there was always a delay, a problem, a visa not obtained, a passport missing. Ronan kept trying, for nearly a year, to get him back, but something always fell apart on the Iraqi side.

And so we now will always wonder, and never know, if he had made it back to Boston, would he still be here, would he be alive?

I told Patrick the other night. His baseball team had just lost a playoff game, and we were driving home on Route 128.

"How did he die?" Patrick asked.

"I don't know," I said. "It's hard to get accurate information."

Patrick looked out the window and didn't speak for a while.

"Dad," he finally said. "Do you think he suffered?"

The question floored me, because of course Rakan suffered. He saw his parents die, their blood splattering him and his siblings in the back seat of a car that had strayed too close to US soldiers in fear for their own lives. He endured the pain of being shot, the agony of being paralyzed, the desperate realization that he was withering away in a corner. And when he got here, there was the heartache of separation, the isolating loneliness of not being able to speak or understand the language of everyone around him, the longing for the only home he knew, even if that home was in the most dangerous place in the world.

"Patrick," I said, "I don't know if he suffered. But I hope he didn't. He suffered enough."

It was harder telling Brendan. He is 12 but acts younger. Rakan loved Brendan the way kids love cartoon characters. Brendan made him laugh. Always. No matter how low Rakan was, he lit up when Brendan burst into his hospital room. Brendan would get in Rakan's wheelchair and whiz around the ward and scare the hell out of the nurses and Rakan would laugh so hard he'd almost fall off his crutches.

"Brendan," Rakan would say, pointing his index finger at his own head and twirling it around, "he's crazy."

I told Brendan on Friday, at approximately the same time Larry Ronan broke the news to Ted Kennedy.

Brendan fought back tears, bit his quivering lower lip and looked around furtively, as if the answers to all his questions were written somewhere on his bedroom wall.

"It's not fair," Brendan said.

And Brendan is right.

He is so right.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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