SALI, just 13 and with eyes of dark beauty, dragged herself along the floor of the hut on her elbows.
She couldn’t walk or even stand because her lower body was hideously twisted out of shape – as if crumpled by some huge hand – and this was the only way she could move.
But she was determined to get herself to the doorway to meet the young woman she called “Beautiful Sun” in her native Nepali language. Sali had seen few Western women in her short life – to her they came from a distant world, far from the dark poverty of Nepal.
Sali’s world was certainly not the bustle of the capital city Kathmandu, with its free-spending tourists and garish souvenir shops, or even any of the thousands of villages, where a tap of running water is a novelty, scattered over this tiny kingdom perched on the roof of the world.
Hers was the leper hospital of Anandaban, a four-hour journey on crumbling, mountainous roads in a beaten-up old coach. But it was to this haven of love and care that Princess Diana came on a sweltering day as patron of the London-based Leprosy Mission.
On this day, the 10th anniversary of Diana’s death, the thoughts of millions of us are bound to turn to her extraordinary life and our memories of her. For me, nothing symbolised the magic Diana possessed or the effect she had upon people as that visit I witnessed at the Nepalese leper colony.
Leprosy, that most biblical of scourges, attacks the nerves to the hands, feet and face, rendering them numb and without feeling. The result often leads to hideous disfigurement.
It was proof she genuinly cared for the sufferers.
But almost as bad is the damning social stigma attached to leprosy. And in Nepal, sufferers are often cruelly disowned by their families who consider them a mark of shame.
It was even once believed that you could contract it by merely staring at a leper, let alone touching one. But that afternoon I watched with mounting amazement as Diana extended her hands and love to some of the most suffering people on earth.
Despite ignorant rumour, leprosy – like Aids – cannot be contracted through touch. But the Princess, despite being advised to avoid physical contact, was unafraid and undaunted by what she saw.
By now, Sali sat on her twisted limbs in the doorway of her hut, staring in awe at this golden-haired, pale-skinned young woman who was now walking towards her. Her mouth dropped open as the Princess crouched down low beside her.
Then, to the astonishment of perspiring, pin-striped officials and the formidable British press corps accompanying her, the Princess took one of Sali’s painfully distorted limbs and gently caressed it.
She stroked the girl’s face, hugged her close and listened with an infinite, truly loving care as the hospital’s English superintendent, Dr Ruth Butlin, gently outlined the lengthy treatment being given to Sali.
THIS was no whirlwind visit with rigid smiles and false displays of caring. What was remarkable about that afternoon was proof positive that this remarkable young woman genuinely cared for those suffering.
She proved this by willingly, openly, and determinedly touching the lepers. There was a brisk intake of breath among the officials and press as she stopped by each of the sufferers, talking to them through an interpreter, and listening to their stories.
Each one was touched, stroked, even caressed. And every gesture helped remove the terrible stigma of leprosy.
Outside in the searing sun she also met Karna Bahadur, a 15-year-old beggar who had no toes or fingers and could not lift what was left of his right leg. Hospital physiotherapist Rene Pasquier said they had problems persuading him to have treatment.
“Karna is a beggar who needs his disfigurement to earn his living on the streets,” he said. “He has agreed to have an operation, although he is most unhappy about it.”
The sight of Diana holding Karna’s fingerless hand was deeply moving. She brushed away a tear when Pasquier explained how the boy needed his disfigurement to live as a beggar.
“Oh God,” she said quietly. “That is so terrible. What will happen to him? Why is it like this?”
Close up to her, as I was, it was possible to see the genuine grief in her eyes. Young Karna stared up at her, not quite understanding what was going on.
The Princess then moved on to a very old lady, with blue-white hair and a sweet smile that made you forget she was suffering from one of the world’s most horrific diseases.
Diana crouched down again and touched the old lady’s face with the back of her hand. Then they removed a sock to reveal a terribly deformed foot. Not even in one’s wildest imagination was there such hellish disfigurement.
But this did not daunt the Princess. She lifted the foot into her hands, cradling it in one palm and caressing it with the fingers of her other hand. It was a remarkable sight and, quite suddenly, tears started to flow down the face of the old lady, the medical staff standing around and many of us in the press.
The reality was clear: here was the most famous woman on earth, from a life of infinite privilege, who had been married to the heir to the throne, and she was now coming face to face with unimaginable suffering.
Her concern helped dispel much of the stigma attached to the terrible disease and Dr Butlin commented: “In remote areas they usually try to expel a member of their family who has leprosy. A visit here from the Princess helps change their perception.”
Later she spoke of the effect of Diana’s visit on the patients: “When they heard about her coming they were delighted. Most did not know she was English nor that she was married to the heir to the throne, or indeed what that meant. But they understood that she was a foreign princess and during the visit we found they were not disappointed.
“They were perhaps a little surprised at her informality but they were overwhelmed by her kindness – the way she paid full attention to the patient in front of her, ignoring staff, reporters and dignitaries to listen to their story. The result of the visit was that many previously undiagnosed patients voluntarily came forward for treatment over the next few weeks.
“Other dignitaries have come to the hospital just to see its work,” said Dr Butlin, “but Diana quite obviously came to see the patients.”
And, she added touchingly: “Diana gave the gift of time.”
As she walked round the hospital, she paused in the shade for a moment. And I asked her how it was that she was willing to touch people suffering from leprosy.
She raised her eyes and stared, then said: “It has always been my concern to touch people suffering leprosy, to try to show in this simple action that they are not reviled, nor are we repulsed.”
The Princess’s trip to Nepal was controversial from the very start. Courtiers at Buckingham Palace were unhappy that she would garner so much publicity, particularly when she came face to face with the lepers. Unofficial instructions had gone out that the national anthem was not to be played when she landed in Kathmandu – a small-minded move that shocked the courteous Nepalese.
From the moment she emerged from a commercial jet on March 2, 1993, it was plain she was the subject of interference from Buckingham Palace. Rather than God Save The Queen, a band welcomed her with Spanish pop tunes rounded off with “Colonel Bogey” – the latter bringing a broad laugh from the Princess.
Normally she would have stayed with the Nepalese royal family but this was deemed “inappropriate” and she was put up at the British Embassy.
And instead of the chauffeur, private secretary and ladies in waiting who had accompanied her on previous trips, she was attended only by her sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale.
One of her last engagements was a press reception held at the British Embassy in which she talked openly about her visit to the leper hospital. “It was all so deeply moving and makes you realise how small one’s own problems are when you see the suffering in their faces,” she said. This came at a time, of course, when the Princess’s own life was in turmoil.
But the strain of the months leading up to Nepal and the sheer tragedy of what she saw at the leper hospital were beginning to tell. After the press reception ended she slipped back inside the elegant house that is the British Embassy.
A few moments later I peeked in through a window and saw her sitting at the foot of some stairs, her head in her hands, sobbing, and being consoled by her sister, Lady Sarah. Perhaps it was the combination of her own fears about her future and the heart-rending visit to the hospital that was proving just too much.
Only a handful of people witnessed the outpouring of Diana’s tenderness that day at the hospital in Anandaban. For she helped conquer the scourge of leprosy with love.