Monday, Dec. 25, 2006

Iraqi Citizens

What Civil War Has Done to a Family
Amina Sabah Shaab is only 6, but she has already been orphaned three times this year. When her father Husam was killed in January — he had been kidnapped, tortured for five days, shot, then strangled — one of his brothers took charge of her upbringing. But the unrelenting violence of Iraq's civil war eventually forced him to flee the country, passing Amina on to another brother. In a matter of months, he too had emigrated. Her mother, who had divorced Husam and rarely sees Amina, is planning to leave Iraq with her second husband and their children. Stuck in Baghdad with her last paternal uncle and a sick grandmother, little Amina is running out of options.

The trauma of repeated abandonment has left the child with sad, grownup eyes and only the haziest memories of her father. "He was a nice man," Amina says, deadpan and listless. "He used to bring me sweets."

Her uncle Heitham, 29, does what he can to cheer her up, but he is burdened with his own anguish. Sectarian violence has claimed four of his six brothers, two of them this year alone, all Shi'ite victims of Sunni insurgents. He is acutely aware that his own life is on the line every time he leaves home — and he's a taxi driver. To protect Amina and her grandmother from the worsening civil war, he has moved to a relatively safe Baghdad neighborhood where the rent for a one-bedroom apartment takes most of the $200 he earns every month. Even there, the sounds of gunfire and occasional mortar explosions are reminders of everpresent danger. But Heitham, left, encourages his niece and mother not to dwell on their tragedies. "This is Iraq," he says with an air of quiet resignation. "There are many families worse off than ourselves."

He is only too right. As simmering sectarian tensions finally exploded this year into a civil war, Iraq's families have been brutalized and traumatized as never before. Not even their long suffering during almost three decades of dictatorship, more than 12 years of economic sanctions and three wars could have prepared them for the year that 2006 turned out to be. Since the Feb. 22 bombing of an important Shi'ite shrine — the first blast of the civil war — sectarian violence has routinely killed more than 100 people a day. It has also displaced more than 420,000 from their homes; toward the end of the year, more than 100,000 were leaving the country every month. One of Amina's uncles fled to Syria (Mohammad, right), the other to Jordan. Both those countries are struggling to cope with the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from Iraq.

Can Iraqi families endure another year like 2006? Heitham is not hopeful about his own shrinking clan. Like many in Baghdad, he expects the security situation to get worse, not better. He would love to follow his surviving brothers into exile in Jordan or Syria. But they are university graduates; as a high school dropout, he is unlikely to qualify for a residency visa in either country. Many of his friends have sneaked into Jordan illegally, but it's hard to be inconspicuous when you have an ailing mother and a young niece to care for. So Heitham must remain, and this places on him yet another burden: figuring out who would take care of Amina and her grandmother if he should be killed. "I have to talk to some of my cousins about taking them in," he says grimly. "I'd better do that soon." In Iraq these days, that's not pessimism — just prudent planning.