Iranian twins begin long journey home

Thursday, July 10, 2003

SINGAPORE -- A dozen women in black headscarves washed Ladan and Laleh Bijani's bodies and tenderly wrapped them in long strips of white cotton in preparation Wednesday for the flight home to Iran.

The 29-year-olds, who were born joined at the head, knew no one in Singapore when they arrived more than seven months ago, chasing a dream of living separate lives -- one as a lawyer, the other a journalist.

But hundreds mourned as their bodies were prepared to be sent back to Tehran early Thursday in separate caskets.

The twins sought out the risky surgery at a hospital in this city state because a doctor here had successfully separated 18-month-old Nepalese twins in 2001. The Bijanis' operation -- the first attempt to separate adult conjoined twins -- went awry Tuesday shortly after surgeons finished separating their heads.

The courage and optimism the twins showed as they went into surgery captured the hearts of people around the world, and their deaths Tuesday triggered an outpouring of grief.

Muslim nurses, who befriended the Bijanis during months of preoperative tests, helped women from Singapore's Iranian community purify the bodies for the 4,000-mile voyage back to their birth family in Iran.

Their heads were wrapped first, then right sides and then their left -- the women wound the wide strips from their shoulders to their feet -- in accordance with Shiite Muslim tradition. Afterward, the women draped a brown-and-gold batik funeral shroud over Laleh's body and a black-and-white shroud over Ladan's.

Bahar Niko, 24, who became the twins' confidante in Singapore, pushed her way through the 60 men gathered in the main room of the Islamic school house and knelt between bodies. Putting a hand on each sister's body, she wept.

"God is great," said the imam, Mohammed Rosli Hassan, his voice choked with emotion before the men lifted the bodies into two plain brown coffins.

A copy of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, was placed in each coffin. Some wailed as a man nailed the caskets shut.

"I can't describe the grief," said Mehran Ghadirian, who became a friend to the twins before the surgery.

More than 400 people later gathered in a Singapore mosque at dusk to pray over the caskets, each adorned with a single white geranium. Dozens of wreaths sent by well-wishers piled up at the mosque's entrance as other mourners, including five Buddhist monks, a priest and two nuns, waited outside.

A message on one wreath read: "Separated. May you rest in peace."

"I think they were happy they went together," said 14-year-old Elham Komjka. "We are all very sad."

The twins' operation took more than 50 grueling hours and was carried out by a team of international surgeons. Twenty-eight doctors and about 100 nurses and technicians took part in the surgery.

Previous operations to separate twins joined at the head have been on infants, whose brains can recover more easily.

During the Bijanis' surgery, the doctors repeatedly encountered difficulties. The skulls were harder to cut than expected, the twins' distinct brains had fused and their blood pressures were unstable.

It was the unpredictable changes in how their blood flowed, and surgeons' inability to cope with those changes, that killed the sisters, lead surgeon Dr. Keith Goh said.

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