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THE ANGEL OF MERCY; She saves two hole-in-heart Afghan kids.

Byline: NICK MEO

A SCOTS-BASED angel of mercy sets off tomorrow on a mission to save two hole-in-the-heart Afghan children.

Medical student Houra Qadir, 21, was so moved by their plight - she found them dying in an Afghan hospital - that she organised and helped fund the trip to get them life-saving treatment.

Without surgery, Zarif Istalifi, 10, and Zamzama, 9, will be dead in less than two years.

Now Houra, who grew up in London and lives in Edinburgh, is flying to India with them after securing free treatment and scraping together money for their air fares.

She discovered the tragic children after visiting a Kabul orphanage on a six-week volunteer stint with Scottish-based landmines agency, the Halo Trust.

There are no heart surgeons in the war-ravaged country to perform the vital life-saving operations they need.

Afghan-born Houra contacted hospitals in Europe and Asia and got the Madras Medical Institute in India to agree to carry out the pounds 7,500 operations without charge.

To pay the pounds 750 cost of travelling to India with Zarif and Zamzama, Houra had to beg and borrow from expats in Afghanistan - and put in pounds 200 of her own.

Yesterday she said in Kabul: "They are such lovely kids. They treat me like a big sister. I just had to do something for them if I could.

"The doctors here are dedicated but they are working in terrible conditions, and the children's families are poor.

"They should both have had an operation five years ago when their heart problems were first diagnosed.

"But there is not the equipment or the skills to treat them here.

"Now the procedure will be more complicated and risky, but they still have a very good chance of surviving.

"If they stayed in Kabul, there is no hope of them living more than a year or two."

Their home at the moment is an overcrowded children's hospital. But

tomorrow Houra leaves with them for their operations on Wednesday.

"The pair are playmates, and they clearly both needed treatment," she said. "We decided we couldn't treat one and not the other."

Anxious relatives spend all day at the hospital trying to comfort the children, then sleep in the corridor.

Zarif's condition means he misses school and can't play football with his friends. He gets breathless after walking and suffers painful side-effects from the cocktail of drugs which keep him alive. He wants to be a pilot when he grows up - or a doctor so he can help sick children.

His mother died of cancer two years ago and his poverty-stricken father is too ill with typhoid to look after him, a task carried out by his big sister.

Zamzama has a beautiful singing voice, but has now had to stop because any exertion makes her faint.

Her father was killed by a rocket attack on Kabul a few years ago, and when her mother remarried her stepfather forced her out because he didn't want an extra mouth to feed.

A few weeks ago, Zamzama had typhoid and malaria, which hospital staff feared would kill her because of her weak condition.

Zarif said last night: "I want to get better."

Houra - who is studying medicine at Edinburgh University and living in the city's Marchmont area - added: "These two are the lucky ones. Many other children in the ward will die of diseases like anaemia and leukaemia because no treatment is available.

"If they were in the UK they would survive, but Afghanistan is short of almost everything needed to treat ill children."

Houra says she hopes to raise more money so other children can get vital treatment.

She initially left Afghanistan at the age of one. Her mother carried her over the mountains when as escaped the Russian invasion on donkey-back.

"The need is so great in Afghanistan and conditions are so bad," she said.

"Hospitals are woefully short of basic things like syringes and there are no proper labs to carry out simple tests.

"Hospitals are like they were in Britain 100 years ago. After years of war and poverty there are so many ill people who need our help.

"I speak the language and understand the culture, so I can be really useful here."

Admitting that her parents, chef Ghulam Nabi and housewife Parwin, were terrified at the prospect of her returning to Afghanistan - where she wants to work as a doctor - Houra added: "My father was an electrician in the royal palace. The Russians killed everyone in there, so he had to escape. The rest of the family followed later.

"It's been an amazing experience to come here and see the place at last. People are so friendly, and they are much more liberal than I thought.

"It has been great meeting family members. They had a tough time when Kabul was being fought over, and during the Taliban era.

"l tried on a burkha once to see what it was like. I didn't like it - I couldn't see, I fell over, and it was claustrophobic and sweaty!

"Now women don't have to wear them. It's all part of the new optimism about the future in Afghanistan."

CAPTION(S):

RUINED KABUL: Hospitals can't cope; FLYING TO HOPE: Medical student Houra Qadir with Zamzama (behind) and Zarif
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Comment:THE ANGEL OF MERCY; She saves two hole-in-heart Afghan kids.(News)
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Aug 11, 2002
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