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Forever together: The conjoined twins who are separated but inseparable three years after operation which saved their lives
Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf were given virtually no hope of lifeSeparated by surgeons at London's University College Hospital in 2009Mother Angie says they still sleep holding hands as they did in womb
15:52 GMT, 1 January 2013
The first time she saw them they were holding hands in her womb.
The scan showed two little boys facing seemingly impossible odds – conjoined twins given virtually no hope of life.
Doctors told Angie Benhaffaf that even if one survived, the other could die soon after. In her bleakest, darkest moments, she struggled to overcome the thought that she would have to bury her babies.
Two little fighters: Now aged three, Hassan (left) and Hussein love to whizz around on their toy cars
Now, after a remarkable operation to separate them, her ‘little fighters’ as she calls them have become… well… inseparable.
Three years on, the bond between Hassan and Hussein is so strong they still hold hands when they sleep, just as they did when they were attached.
Even when they sit together, they usually adopt the same left and right positions that once enjoined them as one from chest to pelvis.
These days though, they are two distinct individuals. And, as their mother will tell you, two little handfuls of trouble.
The twins are constantly whizzing around on their toy cars, scrambling up the stairs or tumbling around on the floor with their big sisters.
Conjoined: Hassan, left, and Hassan before they were separated in February 2010
Meanwhile both are making giant strides in their battle to walk with the aid of newly-fitted prosthetic legs, plus specially designed frames on wheels.
‘There’s obviously a bit of competitiveness between them and they’re pretty fearless,’ said Angie, 38.
‘It’s lovely to see.’
One of each boy’s legs is prosthetic, and Angie said the way the twins were joined meant they ‘shared just about everything’ – including their liver and the pericardium sac membrane surrounding their hearts.
But despite the risks, surgeons were able to separate them without life-threatening consequences.
The boys’ gift of life was made possible by the brilliance of medical teams at London’s University College Hospital, where they were born, and at nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital, where the 14-hour operation to separate them was performed when they were six months old.
An ITV documentary filmed Angie kissing each of her conjoined babies goodbye and telling them she loved them before she tearfully handed them over to the surgical team.
Thanks to that operation, the twins recently celebrated their third birthday (with two cakes, not one).
But when Angie and her Algerian-born husband Azzedine gathered with their daughters around the Christmas tree, Angie performed a solemn and deeply emotional task.
Big sisters: The twin boys are adored by Iman, aged five (left), and eight-year-old Malika
Parents: Azzedine and Angie Benhaffaf said the boys are their 'little miracles'
Two weeks before the boys were born in December 2009, she bought two small teddy bear ornaments and had ‘Hassan and Hussein, 2009’ inscribed on them.
Weeping, she told me: ‘The doctors had warned us it was highly unlikely they would survive the birth. In my heart, I realised there was a possibility we would be burying them at Christmas.
‘I thought if they do die, I’d put the ornaments on the tree every year. That way, we’d still have them with us in memory.
‘It’s really painful but every year, that’s what I have done, just to remember how many times we nearly lost them both.
‘Now I look at the two of them, and see how happy they are, and feel so very grateful just to have them. We see them as our little miracles. When we are all together in this house, that’s all that really matters.’
The boys’ sisters Malika, eight, and Iman, five, both adore their little brothers and barely seem to notice their disability.
Azzedine, 40, gave up his job as a chef to care for the family at home in County Cork in the Republic of Ireland, and is looking forward to walking the boys to school when they start in September. Experts have said they have an unusually high IQ.
But more surgery looms in the coming new year, and Angie says: ‘They still have a lot of hurdles ahead of them. But they’ve brought magic into our home, and something special into our lives.’