Optimism Recalibrated

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Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

Yasser sings and strums his oud (Arab lute) at the TIME house in December 2004.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq four years ago, Yasser Obaid Hussein's life was full of peril, but his mind was filled with hope. Night after night, his modest Baghdad apartment was shaken by the U.S. "shock and awe" bombing campaign. His pregnant wife Sheherezad was worried that a cruise missile might crash through the window. To calm her and their three children, Yasser tried to stay positive. "If we survive the bombs," he recalls saying, "we will have a wonderful new life."

He smiles wanly, embarrassed now by that optimism. But how could he have known then that the new life he was promising would expose his family to even greater danger, and drive them out of the country? Yasser, who has been a loyal TIME employee since the fall of Saddam Hussein, now keeps his family in Jordan, where they live among nearly 1 million other Iraqi exiles. His story mirrors Iraq's: a tale of hope and opportunity overwhelmed by terror and tragedy.

Saddam's fall brought joy to most Iraqis, but Yasser had further reasons to celebrate — the birth, a few days later, of his twin daughters, Tabarek and Aya. But there were complications. The babies had been born premature, and Tabarek was weak. Much of the pediatric hospital's life-support equipment was lost to the looting mobs that rampaged through Baghdad after the regime's collapse, leaving only an old, malfunctioning incubator. Tabarek later developed learning difficulties that, her doctors believe, resulted in part from poor postnatal attention.

Still, Yasser remained optimistic even as chaos became pervasive, finding consolation in the fact that he was making a good living. He served as a bodyguard for TIME's correspondents and photographers, protecting us from kidnappers, insurgents and others who resented our presence. Frequently threatened with death — by Sunni terrorists and Shi'ite extremists alike — he never quailed. Once promoted to security chief, his income was three times that of a university professor.

But his good fortune attracted the attention of bad people. Iraqis working with foreigners are regarded with suspicion by radical Shi'ite groups like the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Extremist groups view people like Yasser as traitors and collaborators who deserve to be tortured and executed. Early last year, one such group grabbed Yasser and interrogated him for several hours; that they released him unharmed was a small miracle — and a testament to his ability to talk his way out of trouble. But a few months later, the same faction kidnapped and tortured one of his friends, and, through him, sent Yasser a terrifying message: We know where you live, and we're coming for your family. By this time, Shi'ite death squads were operating with impunity in Baghdad, kidnapping and killing scores every day. Tens of thousands of people were fleeing the country, heading mainly for Jordan and Syria. Yasser concluded his family had to join the exodus.

Yet as they tried to escape one nightmare, they confronted another. Sheherezad had two children from an earlier marriage — Liliyan, 16, and Raed, 15 — and while Yasser had raised them as his own, their natural father refused to allow them to leave the country. This left Sheherezad with a terrible choice: Leaving Iraq could mean never seeing two of her kids again, but staying would gravely endanger the three others. She and Yasser decided to leave without the teenagers. Yasser had to sit down with the younger children and have the conversation he had hoped to avoid until they became adults: telling them that Liliyan and Raed had a different father. Rawan is 7, and the twins are 4 — too young to fully comprehend but old enough to be traumatized. "They didn't stop crying for days," Yasser says.

Yasser retains the optimism that allowed him to see hope amid the explosions of March 2003. He regards himself as lucky. Unlike most Iraqis, he has moved his family out of danger. He knows Amman isn't a permanent shelter: Jordan has been generous to Iraq's exiles, but their sheer number is straining the resources of the tiny kingdom. For the moment, however, Yasser is dwelling on small mercies. "My children are alive, and these days, that is enough to ask," he says. If a new life is no longer possible, he'll settle for just life.

But it is a life bereft of expectation and ambition. So much of the discussion about the war's toll on Iraqi society centers on the numbers of dead and wounded — victims of Sunni suicide bombers, Shi'ite militias, American arms. Yasser's story is a reminder of the millions whose lives have been destroyed without a single drop of blood shed. Who keeps count of wounded hopes and dead dreams?