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IRAQ: When a parent's worst nightmare becomes reality

May 22, 2008 |  8:55 am

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It was a parent’s worst nightmare.

Um Jihad left home about 7 p.m. on April 28 to do some grocery shopping at the local market with her mother, sister and three sons. It was a short trip that didn’t even require leaving their central Baghdad residential complex.

“My mother was carrying my son, Humam, a year and 8 months, and was walking a bit ahead of us, a few meters as I remember,” said the veiled woman, who asked to be identified only by a traditional nickname. “Suddenly, a man who was hiding in the garden appeared from the dark and started walking towards my mother. He was in his 20s, alone, unarmed, had a blue shirt. His face was exposed, but I had never seen him before in my neighborhood.”

The stranger reached for Humam and started punching and hitting the child’s grandmother, trying to force her to release him. The elderly woman collapsed with shock. Without thinking, Um Jihad and her sister rushed towards Humam’s kidnapper.

“He started beating us back, as we hit back all over, trying to get hold of my son,” she said. “We all lost control, screaming, crying. He would not release him. He was committed, insisting on kidnapping him.”

A few people were standing nearby, but did nothing to help the desperate women. Finally, some youths from their building rushed out and started chasing the stranger, who dropped Humam and fled. The boys caught the man, beat him and handed him over to police.

Um Jihad was in a daze. Finally, when the assailant was gone, she realized she no longer knew what had happened to Humam.

“I was screaming out his name,” she said. “But then I realized that he was in my arms.”

It was a lucky escape. Kidnapping for ransom has become an industry in Iraq. But the scars of that experience run deep.

“My son’s personality has been truly changed,” Um Jihad said. “He was very social before, friendly. But now, he does not like to go out, prefers to stay home all the time. He cries when he sees strangers, and up to now he fears his grandmother.”

Humam’s grandmother hit her head on a bench during the assault. But she said the humiliation of the attack hurt her more than her injuries.

"A vicious monster came out from nowhere to attack me,” said the 58-year-old woman wrapped in black, who did not want her name published. “But I faced him. He was hitting me, scratching my face and pulling my grandson from my neck. After it was all over, I went to the doctor, did an X-ray for my head, took my treatment, and now I feel better.”

“On the same night, I went to the police and pressed charges,” she continued. “He will go to court soon and get what he deserves.”

The child’s father, who gave his name only as Khalil, was in Jordan on business when his wife telephoned with news of the attack.

“I thought there was something wrong by the tone of her voice. Then she told me the bad news,” he said.

As she recounted the tale, Khalil feared the worst. “Finally, when she told me he was beside her and safe, I was able to collect myself,” he said.

Now, he refuses to leave his family’s side.

“I came here to this neighborhood because it’s the most secured area in Baghdad,” he said. “Next to us is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ... and a few blocks away is the entrance to the Green Zone,” the fortified enclave that is home to the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government headquarters.

The family moved there after receiving a note from a sectarian gang demanding that they leave their old neighborhood. Enclosed in the envelope was a single bullet. At first, the family felt safe in their new abode, but gradually the neighborhood started to change. More and more of the original residents fled the country.

"Their flats would be taken over by different kinds of people,” Khalil said. "Some are decent, others are not. Some are squatters, thieves, whatever your mind can imagine.”

Now, all Humam's mother can think about is packing up and leaving again, but her husband depends on the income he earns from a government ministry.

“I feel unsafe in anything I do,” Um Jihad said. “I can not even sleep at night. I hear strange voices, I never leave my home alone, my husband does not take any trips outside the country, my whole life has altered.... My greatest wish is to leave this country and never return.”

-- Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad.

Photo: Humam plays at home after his kidnapping ordeal, but the child is afraid to go outside. Credit: Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles Times

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