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Boy, 5, doused in gas, set on fire by masked men

  • Story Highlights
  • Boy describes being set on fire: "I was burning"
  • Mother says January attack has made her son spiteful
  • Other neighborhood kids won't play with him anymore
  • Mom: "I'd prefer death than seeing my son like this"
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By Arwa Damon
CNN
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Editor's note: CNN agreed not to use the full names of the mother and son in this article due to concern for their safety.

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Youssif was known for his bright smile before he was attacked by masked men.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Five-year-old Youssif is scarred for life, his once beautiful smile turned into a grotesquely disfigured face -- the face of a horrifying act by masked men. They grabbed him on a January day outside his central Baghdad home, doused him with gas and set him ablaze.

It's an act incomprehensibly savage, even by Iraq's standards today. No one has been arrested and the motive remains unknown.

In a war-ravaged city torn by sectarian violence and marked by acts of vengeance, this attack's apparent randomness stands out as an example of what life has become in a place where brutality -- even against young children -- is a constant.

"They dumped gasoline, burned me, and ran," Youssif told CNN, pointing down the street with his scarred hands where his attackers fled. Photo See photographs of Youssif before and after the attack »

As he sucked his thumb, he repeated, "I was burning." He tried to put the flames out himself.

It looks as though this boy's face melted and then froze into rivers cutting through swollen hard flesh. It's hard to see the energetic outgoing child his parents describe beneath the sullen demeanor that defines Youssif today.

"He's become spiteful, I am not sure why," said his mother, Zainab. "He is jealous of everyone. If I say the slightest thing to him, he cries. He's sensitive." Video Watch the mother describe how she cries at night wracked with guilt »

Even things like eating have become a chore. His face contorts when he tries to shovel rice into his mouth, carefully angling the spoon and then using his fingers to push the little grains through lips he can no longer fully open.

He has also become jealous of the baby sister he used to dote on. "I sit sometimes at night and cry," Zainab said, her voice heavy with guilt. "If only I hadn't let him go outside, if only I hadn't let him play."

It was on January 15 that masked men attacked her boy, their identities still unknown. Zainab said she was upstairs at the time.

"I heard screaming. I thought someone was fighting or something," she said.

She ran downstairs, saw her son and fainted. When she came to, she barely recognized her child. "His head was so swollen, you couldn't see his eyes, and his nose was pushed in."

"There was blood," she added, shuddering slightly. "The skin was melted off."

He spent two months in the hospital recovering from the severe burns. These days Youssif spends most of his time indoors, in front of the computer. It's only then that traces of the 5-year-old in him emerge. "He can't play outside with the other kids," Zainab said. "The other day they were playing, and he came in crying. I asked him, 'What's wrong?' and he said, 'They won't play with me because I am burned.'"

She said he once wanted to be a doctor and he loved kindergarten. "He used to be the one who would wake me up every morning, saying let's go to school," Zainab recalled.

She coaxed him to tell me the few words he knows in English. "Girl, boy, window, fan," he said, his voice barely audible, the words barely intelligible.

Doctors told the family there is little more they can do to help Youssif. The family can't afford care outside Iraq.

So Zainab has taken a massive risk by telling her story to the world. Her husband works as a security guard, and it's too dangerous for him to talk to the media.

"I'd prefer death than seeing my son like this," Zainab said.

All she wants is for someone to help her little boy smile again. See how CNN.com users responded to help Youssif E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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