AP Enterprise: Bullet tears open Somali boy's face

NAIROBI, Kenya – The bullet hit mother and son as they walked through Somalia's capital. She felt a sharp pain in her palm. Then she saw her 8-year-old: The bullet tore through his cheekbones, nose and mouth. Blood gushed down to his waist.

Two months later, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud's nose is a small hole. His mouth is always open because he has no upper lip and his right eye is gone. He can barely speak.

His is a lost face of Somalia's war.

Like so many other victims of a savage war, Ahmed was caught in the crossfire between Islamist insurgents and government forces, struck as he walked home from a Mogadishu market with his mother, who says a barrage of bullets poured out from the presidential palace.

Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, there are few images of the bloodshed in Somalia, where thousands of children have been casualties without the world knowing. Most foreign journalists stay away because of the danger.

On Sept. 24, an Associated Press photographer was present after Ahmed was shot and took pictures of the boy, bleeding profusely as he was carried from the scene by two bystanders. During the weeks that followed, AP journalists kept tabs on Ahmed and his mother, who are still struggling with his grievous wounds.

"My heart bleeds whenever I recall his former face, whenever I compare the two faces," said Safi Mohamed Shidane as she inspected her son's scars at a hospital in neighboring Kenya, where Ahmed was flown for treatment after a Minnesota-based Somali immigrant group intervened.

"God will judge those who did this to my son," she said.

The lack of basic medical care, much less specialized doctors, has worsened the plight of children wounded in Somalia, a country mired in chaos since the last central government was ousted in 1991 and warlords turned their guns on each other.

"Ahmed's situation represents the crisis faced by many, many children in Somalia," said Katherine Grant, a child protection specialist with UNICEF who has visited the boy in the hospital outside Nairobi. Her agency will soon release a report accusing all parties in Somalia's conflict of recruiting child soldiers.

There are no reliable casualty figures for children in Somalia, according to Grant and Susannah Friedman, emergencies director for Somalia for Save the Children U.K.

"It is one of the most dangerous situations we've seen for children," said Friedman, whose agency has aid workers in southern and central Somalia, but has pulled out of Mogadishu.

Yet even in violence-plagued Somalia, where the U.N. says one child in 10 dies before his or her first birthday and only 30 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water, Ahmed's suffering tugged at heartstrings.

Doctors at Mogadishu's Medina Hospital did all they could: They inserted a tracheotomy tube for Ahmed to breathe and a feeding tube for nourishment. Doctors stitched together the horrific wounds to his face and wrapped it in thick layers of gauze.

But medical supplies — and expertise — are scarce in Somalia. When heavy fighting hits the seaside capital, tents go up at Medina to accommodate all the casualties. Inside, bloody footprints track down long corridors echoing with screams.

Appeals went out for help for Ahmed, including on Somali Web sites.

In late October, a Somali immigrant aid group, Healing the Children of Minnesota, had the boy flown to Kenya, where there are specialists and more advanced equipment. The Nigerian physician treating him there, Dr. Igohwo Etu, said the boy will need surgeries costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to reconstruct his face.

Associated Press Writer Christopher T. Williams in Minneapolis contributed to this report.