Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Voices from IraqA People's History, 2003-2009$

Mark Kukis

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780231156929

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231156929.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Beloveds Lost and Found

Beloveds Lost and Found

Chapter:
Beloveds Lost and Found
Source:
Voices from Iraq
Author(s):

Mark Kukis

Publisher:
Columbia University Press
DOI:10.7312/columbia/9780231156929.003.0025

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, Maysoon Jahil Obeid, Shiek Jamal Jassim Sudani, Rajiha Jihad Jassim, Entasar Abud Tahan, and Salma Hamid recount their experiences during the Iraq war. In the spring of 2007, Maysoon Jahil Obeid's husband Haytham Muzaham disappeared on a street near the couple's home in Karada, a neighborhood in central Baghdad. In the 1980s, Shiek Jamal Jassim Sudani, a deeply religious Shi'ite from Sadr City, and several likeminded friends from his neighborhood began an informal charity meant to offer proper Islamic burials for families who had suffered a loss and were struggling with funeral costs. He continued with his work immediately after the invasion and throughout the sectarian violence. Rajiha Jihad Jassim's husband was kidnapped in November of 2006. Entasar Abud Tahan and her husband lived in Hibhib, which grew extremely violent during the sectarian bloodshed and remained so through the early phases of the U.S. drawdown. Salma Hamid lived her whole life in Mahmudiya, a small town bloodied by successive waves of violence throughout the conflict.

Keywords:   invasion, sectarian violence, Maysoon Jahil Obeid, Shiek Jamal Jassim Sudani, Rajiha Jihad Jassim, Entasar Abud Tahan, Salma Hamid, Iraq war, Baghdad, charity

Maysoon Jahil Obeid

Jails run by Iraqi authorities overflowed as Iraqi security forces rounded up thousands of suspects amid uncontrollable sectarian violence. Conditions in Iraqi jails were grim. Abuse was common in many prisons, where detainees were often held without proper hearings on charges against them, owing to dysfunctional and overburdened courts. Arrests were often arbitrary as Iraqi security forces, sometimes working with Shi’ite militias, swept neighborhoods around Baghdad. Many families began a long nightmare in learning that a loved one had been taken away by Iraqi security forces. Maysoon began hers in the spring of 2007, when her husband Haytham Muzaham disappeared one morning on a street near the couple’s home in Karada, a neighborhood in central Baghdad.

haytham had his own truck that he hired out for various delivery jobs. That’s how he supported me and our four children. We had been living a fairly good life through the years after the invasion despite some struggles. Haytham had lost a brother in an explosion. We were having a hard time financially, like many. Still, we had decided to have another baby and were feeling hopeful.

Haytham was supposed to help deliver government rations on the day he was arrested. He left for the job very early in the morning. It was barely dawn. About an hour after he left the house, I heard a commotion on the street. Outside we saw Iraqi security forces raiding residences and shops. They had a list of names of people they were looking for. I saw my (p.184) husband’s truck in the street, but he was not in it. I thought he might have been arrested, so I went down and began asking about him. One of the officers told me my husband was not on their list and so therefore would not have been arrested. They told me he had probably just stepped away from the vehicle for a moment.

I waited. I sat next to his truck. I was there for an hour. Then two. There was no sign of him. I found another police officer and told him what was happening. They told me the same thing as before. I went back to the truck and waited some more. I waited there until past noon. Finally I decided to go check at the police headquarters for our area. No one there knew anything.

I’ll never forget the feeling I had that day as I began to know something was very wrong. I felt dizzy. I could not eat. I know my husband well. He would not just leave his truck sitting like that and give no word about where he was to me or anyone. But what could I do? I could only wait and hope he appeared again. After six days of waiting, my sister-in-law came to me and said it was no use hoping for him to come back. We had better start looking.

We began asking around at various police stations and jails. For nearly a month we searched. No one seemed to know anything. There was no sign of Haytham on any rosters at the jails. Then, all of a sudden, I got a call. Some clerk from the prison in Kadhimiya told me that I had a visit with my husband scheduled for that Saturday, as though I had put in a request that had been approved. I was told the visit would be only for immediate family and to be sure and come on time. That was the first I had heard anything about him since he vanished more than twenty days before.

I went to see Haytham that Saturday as told at the jail in Kadhimiya. He didn’t even look like the same man. Haytham had always been a big, muscular guy. Now he looked like a skinny rabbit. He was scared, like a caged animal. He was turning his head nervously left and right, and there were clear signs of abuse on him. His arm was broken. He had been beaten. He told me that they had been shocking his genitals with electricity. And he said he was certain they would never let him out, unless we figured out a way to bribe someone. Haytham had in fact been arrested that day he disappeared on suspicion of some illegal activity. He had been held since then and even appeared before a judge, who ordered him released for lack (p.185) of evidence. But the police kept holding him even so, and it was unclear how he might be released.

During that first visit Haytham gave me a phone number to call. At some point in his initial days in jail an American inspection team visited. An American officer noticed Haytham’s bad condition and offered to move him out. Haytham refused. He was scared of the Americans after what he had heard about what happens to Iraqis in their prisons. So he decided to stay in the Iraqi jail, despite what was happening to him. The American officer gave Haytham his phone number and told him that, if he changed his mind or needed help, to call or have someone he knew do so. I called when I got back from seeing Haytham. Someone answered in English. I don’t know what they said. Then an interpreter got on the phone, and I explained who I was and that Haytham needed to be gotten out of that jail. The interpreter said, Okay, we got your message. And that was the last I ever heard from the Americans about it.

Haytham had also told me that a man named T’aha could get him out if bribed. For some reason Haytham believed that only T’aha could free him, and he told me to find T’aha. According to Haytham, T’aha was among a group of civilians whom the Iraqi police allowed into the jail after hours, to torture the prisoners. They were supposed to be special interrogators who used special methods for questioning, but really they were just torturers. I actually knew T’aha. He was a young guy from our neighborhood. He and his family had a bad reputation. T’aha was rumored to be involved with the Mahdi Army. Some said he had been working with the militia to displace families. Some said he was dealing weapons. Still others said he had a hand in the bombing of a Sunni mosque.

I went looking for T’aha but could not find him. Finally my brother-in-law located him and brought him to our house. We told him our situation and what Haytham had said. At first he denied any connection to the police or Haytham’s case. He told us we were mistaken about who he was. We kept begging him to help us. He went away without making any promises but left us understanding that he at least knew who Haytham was.

Three months passed, and we did not hear any more from T’aha. I kept visiting Haytham. Meanwhile, we were going broke. We had no money coming in, and every time I went to the jail, I wound up handing out bribes. For example, my husband smokes. If I wanted to bring him a (p.186) pack of cigarettes, I would have to give a guard a scratch card for his mobile phone. It was always something like this at the jail. I was pregnant, too, and getting bigger all the time. It was getting harder and harder to go among the crowds at the jail in such a condition. I was at the jail often in those days, even when I was not allowed a visit with Haythem. I went frequently to check the jail’s roster to make sure Haytham’s name was still on it. Sometimes people’s names fell off the jail registry, which meant they might have died or disappeared to another jail, so you had to check all the time. One afternoon I was at the jail checking the registry when I saw T’aha there with about seven other men. He did not see me, but I saw him. Later that day I went and found T’aha where he would sometimes hang out, a place in our neighborhood where you can play Ping-Pong and foosball. I told him I saw him there. He said, Why did you not say hello? I was there applying for a job. I told him, Listen, T’aha, I’m not a fool. I know what’s going on. I want Haytham out, and I am ready to give you whatever you want. Then he said, Okay, look, I have been meaning to tell you that there is an officer there in the jail who says that for $10,000 he can have Haytham out in a week. I said, We barely have enough money for bread! But okay, fine, we’ll get the money together if you are serious. He assured me he was. But he said the offer would not stay open. We had three days.

I took my mother-in-law, and we started begging from everyone in the neighborhood. We went to everyone we knew. We knocked on doors of strangers. I only managed to get $7,000 together in the end. Everyone was having a hard time financially in those days, and it was difficult to get money even for us, a family people knew and liked. I called T’aha. He came over. I handed him the money we collected, and then I fell to my knees and kissed his feet. My mother-in-law was there too, and she knelt to kiss his hand. I said, Please, I want Haytham back. Please. He promised I would have Haytham in less than fifteen days, and then he left.

Shortly after he left, I had a nervous breakdown. I was so exhausted from getting the money together and all the worry that I collapsed. I was taken to the hospital, where I remained for two days. While I was there I heard that T’aha had been arrested. Iraqi army forces had found him with a dead body in his car and had implicated him in a fake checkpoint used to abduct and murder Sunnis. T’aha was gone, and so was the money.

Some weeks after that I went into labor and gave birth to twin girls. Now we had six children and no father in the house and no income. About (p.187) two weeks after the birth I was well enough to go visit Haytham. He had heard about his daughters already. When I asked him how he could have known, he said, Look, all the men from our neighborhood practically are here. We get all the neighborhood news. I heard about the girls the night they were born. Two or three days after that visit, someone called asking if this were Haytham’s house without identifying themselves. I said yes. They said Haytham had been transferred to another jail and that I could visit him every other Monday. The prisoners could see male visitors on one Monday and then female visitors the Monday after that. Before hanging up, the caller asked me to deliver the same message to a family in the neighborhood who also had someone in jail with Haytham, to save them the trouble of making two calls.

My brother-in-law got to see Haytham first at the new prison. He came back after a visit saying Haytham was looking and feeling good. He said the new facility was much better than the other one. When I went for my visit on the next Monday, Haytham was indeed looking better, but his spirits were very low. He had tears in his eyes, and he seemed to be broken psychologically. He was despairing. He told me, I have done nothing, but I’m in here with the drug smugglers, the pimps, and the murderers. I told him to be patient and to be strong, that I would collapse if he collapsed. And I could not take care of all our children if he had lost hope for coming home. He suggested we hire a lawyer. He thought that might help get his case in front of a judge again.

I went looking for a lawyer and found one I thought could help. The lawyer asked for $300 just to read Haytham’s file, and the price for services went up from there. I could not afford all his fees, but he agreed to reduce the rates if I handled much of the paperwork myself. He didn’t want to be bothered bringing copies of documents to offices around the city. Getting the process started involved a lot of gathering, copying, and delivering documents related to Haytham’s case around to various police stations and government offices. I kept working at things with the lawyer in the months that followed and continued visiting Haytham when I could.

The last time I saw Haytham alive was at the end of January 2008. He had developed some kind of skin condition and was not looking so good. And he was in very bad shape emotionally that day. He started talking like he was not coming out, telling me to say goodbye to his parents and the children for him and things like that. I asked him why he was saying such (p.188) things. He said, I just have a bad feeling. I’m innocent, but I’m still here. I told him again to be patient. We were making progress with the lawyer. It could be any day now when he could go free. Just give it some time. You know how it is in this country. Everything takes a long time.

About two weeks later, at around noon, I got a call while at home. It was one of the guards I had gotten to know a little in my visits. He said he was sorry to inform me that Haytham had been dead for eight days and that his body was resting in the morgue. Haytham’s family refused to let me see the body for fear I would have another nervous breakdown. To this day I do not know exactly how he died. I was only shown a picture of his face taken at the time of death for identification purposes, and I could not see anything unusual. At the morgue they said Haytham died from complications related to the injuries he got when they were torturing him heavily. Apparently a wound on his neck had gotten infected and poisoned his blood. But it could have been something else. They were forced to eat food with rodent droppings in the prison. Perhaps that gave him a fatal infection.

Around this time, ironically, all the work I had been doing with the lawyer finally began to pay off. Two days after I got the news of Haytham’s death, a judge signed an order for him to be released.

Maysoon Jahil Obeid was making a living doing odd jobs at the main hospital in western Baghdad as of May 2009. She said most of the men arrested along with her husband Haytham in Karada were released about four months after Haytham died. T’aha, she said, had bribed his way out of jail and could be seen around Karada.

Shiek Jamal Jassim Sudani

He is a deeply religious Shi’ite from Sadr City. In the 1980s, he and several like-minded friends from his neighborhood began an informal charity meant to offer proper Islamic burials for families who had suffered a loss and were struggling (p.189) with funeral costs. Out of their own pockets Sudani and his friends provided coffins and burial clothes. Sudani often allowed preparations of bodies in his home. Scores of poor Iraqis sought help from Sudani as the years went by and word of his charity spread. Eventually the government of Saddam Hussein even reached out, granting Sudani and his fellow volunteers access to the morgues in order to bury unclaimed remains. He continued with his work immediately after the invasion and throughout the sectarian violence.

when i see a body, I think of them as a soul, someone born to a father and a mother and a family who was happy see him grow up day after day. Someone who carried a family’s hopes until his life was cut short by a bullet or an explosion. I respect their lives and what they meant. I don’t just bury Shi’ites because I am a Shi’ite. No, I bury Sunnis or Christians or Jews. They are all humans, and they are all souls.

In the years before the collapse, we were burying about thirty unidentified bodies monthly. Many of the people we buried then had clearly been murdered. I saw bodies of people killed by axes. Some were cut into more than a dozen pieces. Some were beheaded. We thought honestly that after the invasion our work would be less. There should be fewer bodies without the Saddam government murdering. Unfortunately, we were wrong.

During the initial days of the invasion, there were dead bodies all over the city. For weeks there were as many as 250 a day to be dealt with. We were overwhelmed. We could not figure out how to gather up them all. People began to help us, though, and we managed. After that initial wave of deaths, the appearance of unclaimed bodies slowed. I would say that through the first three years of the occupation on average we were burying between 75 and 100 bodies per week, taking them from wherever they were found in Baghdad to Najaf as we always had. Najaf is a holy place, and it’s good according to Islam to be buried there. Also, the ground is sandy, so you can dig deep for a proper grave that won’t be disturbed by dogs or animals.

I have a personal computer at home. I take pictures of each body brought to me, four or five images, which I store on the computer in a database. I take photographs of any tattoos, for example, anything that might help identify someone. I keep a map of where we bury each person in Najaf and give them a number in the database. That way anyone (p.190) who comes to me and identifies a loved one by looking at pictures in the database can go to their grave and either exhume the remains for burial elsewhere or pay respects.

After the Samarra bombings, the unidentified bodies were everywhere in Baghdad, more than we had ever seen before. The ones piled up in the main morgue alone were enough to create a stench you could smell a kilometer away. In the early months of 2006, we started burying on average nearly 500 bodies per week. That’s nearly 2,000 per month. I catalogued them all in my database. The condition of some was unbelievable. Many were without heads. Some were without eyes. It’s difficult for me to describe for you what it was like to see so many mutilated bodies. It was very hard. Really, there is no way I can tell you what it was like to take in the smell of so many bodies day after day. There is no way I can describe the fear we felt so often when transporting dead as Shi’ites to Najaf from Baghdad when Sunni insurgents were doing so much killing.

And those thousands of bodies I mentioned were just the ones that came to us. That does not count the identified people who were killed and buried by their families or the unidentified bodies that were either dealt with by others or just never found. Who knows how many people were buried in mass graves that remain undiscovered or how many people were simply chopped into pieces and scattered. I would guess you could multiply the number of bodies we were burying each week during the sectarian violence by five to get an estimate of the real number of deaths in that period.

I’m sure one day when people feel totally safe they will point out where all the mass graves are. I don’t know where in Baghdad they will be found, but certainly there are many. So many people came to me, thousands of them, and looked through all the pictures in my database searching for someone without finding them. So where did they go, these people?

After the U.S. troop buildup of 2007, Shiek Jamal Jassim Sudani said the number of unidentified bodies he helped bury per week went down to between 50 and 75. As of May 2008, when the interview was conducted, his work was increasingly focused on recovering bodies from newly uncovered mass graves.

(p.191) Rajiha Jihad Jassim

Her husband, Ghazi Swadi Tofan, was a watchman at a school in western Baghdad. The two lived on the grounds with their five children, a common arrangement for school watchmen in Baghdad. He disappeared one morning late in November of 2006. Wearing a gray tracksuit, he went out early to run an errand. By noon his kidnappers were calling.

they wanted $30,000. There was no way. We are so poor. He only ever made about $100 a month, which was nothing. All five of us were living in one room at the school. How could we possibly get such money? After that first call, I ran into the street screaming, crying for help. I was hysterical. I went to the police station and reported the kidnapping. The police did nothing. They simply wrote up a report repeating what I told them. That was it, and I went home. For the next ten days or so the kidnappers called roughly once every forty-eight hours to see if I had arranged the money. Of course it was impossible, and they knew this. The last time I talked to them I asked if I could speak to my husband. Let us talk, I said. Let me hear his voice. Maybe he knows someone who can help me raise the money. They refused to put him on, and they never called back.

After that I started going to police stations and hospitals asking if there were any word about him or his case. There never was, and eventually I started going daily to the central morgue to view photos of the unidentified corpses brought there. The scene at the morgue was very bad. The smell of bodies was overpowering. The corpses were scattered everywhere as new ones came each day. Many of the bodies were so mutilated from torture that you could not recognize them by the faces. It was very bad. Very bad.

Inside the morgue at that time was a large viewing hall with five television monitors high on the wall. The room could hold maybe 300 people, and it was always full of women with more waiting outside, all looking for husbands, sons, and brothers. Men would not come to the morgue then, because someone wanting to kill them might be watching or (p.192) waiting. So the viewing room was always packed with women. We hardly ever spoke to each other as we stood looking up into the screens at pictures of corpses. Each monitor scrolled photographs of bodies grouped by the month they arrived at the morgue. For example, one monitor showed corpses from April, and the next monitor showed corpses from May, and so on. The scroll was controlled by a young man who sat at a desk in the hall. If anyone saw someone they knew among the pictures, the man at the desk would stop the scroll and give her a number from the picture that matched the storage slot holding the body so she could claim the remains.

Hundreds of pictures of bodies scrolled on the screens. Thousands. I lost track of how many pictures of bodies I saw looking at those screens for my husband. Only once did I see one that might have been him. One picture showed a body naked except for underwear without a head. The body really seemed like his, but I could not be sure without the head. As I looked at the picture wondering whether it was my husband or not I had a nervous breakdown. I went home in a state of shock and stayed there unmoving for days. The body looked so much like his, but I could not bring myself to get the number for the remains. I told myself it was not him, and managed to find enough strength to start going back to the morgue each day after a few days at home. Altogether I went virtually every day for six months to the morgue before stopping. Eventually I just could not afford the daily trips. The fares for buses and taxis became too much. We were allowed to remain living at the school but had no income with my husband gone. Thank God our neighbors offered some money, and I began baking bread in a small oven to sell on the street. This is all we live on now.

Ghazi was very good to us. We had been married since 1985, and he always worked hard to support our family. He would do odd jobs as a laborer in addition to his work as a watchman to bring in some extra money for the family. Anything he earned he spent it on the family, not himself. He was very sweet to me, and all our neighbors thought well of him. Sometimes I still let myself hope a little that he may come back.

Rajiha Jihad Jassim renewed periodic trips to the morgue but had found no trace of her husband as of February 2009.

(p.193) Entasar Abud Tahan

She is the mother of seven, six daughters and one son. Originally from Baghdad, she had settled with her husband in Hibhib, a mainly Sunni village in Diyala province where insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in June of 2006. Her husband owned a car and made a living using it as a taxi for years around the area, which grew extremely violent during the sectarian bloodshed and remained so through the early phases of the U.S. drawdown.

in 2006, as sectarian violence began to rise in Baghdad, an incident or two happened in our village. We heard about a kidnapping case and a murder in which the victim was hacked to pieces. People in Hibhib began to fear for their lives and started to move out. Initially I didn’t think we should go, even though we’re Shi’ites. Our family was well known and respected. We had a good name and had never faced any sectarian problems before. But I began to change my mind as things got worse. I urged my husband to move us. He didn’t think we should. He kept thinking like I initially had, that we had no enemies and therefore nothing to fear. Also, we had no place to go, frankly. Hibhib was our home.

The stories of the killings and kidnappings in our area kept coming. I don’t know how many I heard. A lot, especially after they killed Zarqawi. Things got much worse after that. Then one day in mid-July of 2007 my husband left for work and did not return. Apparently he came across a fake checkpoint shortly after leaving the house and was taken captive.

I got a call from the kidnappers shortly after he disappeared. They demanded $50,000. I told them I didn’t have that kind of money, as they knew. Even if everyone in our family gave all they had, it would not reach that sum. Over the course of the next few days they called us several times, pressing for the money. Each time I told them the same thing, that it was impossible for us. Finally on the last call they told me that since I could not find the money I could go find his head under a bridge leading to Baquba.

I went to a friend of mine, a female neighbor, and we took a car and went together to the bridge the callers identified. We looked in the brush (p.194) under the bridge by the river but didn’t see any heads or human remains. We started asking passersby if anyone had found bodies or heads in the area, and we heard from people that someone had in fact found some heads under the bridge and had taken them to be buried at a nearby mosque. People told us that the person who found the heads videoed the faces before burying them. Gradually, after asking one person after another through that day, I was able to get the name of the person who found the heads, and I went to him.

He was a young man from the area, maybe 25. He told me that the only reason he videoed the heads he found was so that someone might be able to identify them later. As it was, the three heads he found were buried in a makeshift grave at a nearby mosque, but no one knew who the victims were. He had made three short separate videos of the remains before burying them and showed me each one on his phone. I didn’t recognize the faces of the men in the first or second videos, but the third was my husband.

Entasar Abud Tahan never found the rest of her husband’s body, but she managed to make a proper grave in the place where his head rested before fleeing Hibhib with her children for Baghdad. She hoped to exhume the remains at some point and rebury them alongside family members resting in Najaf. But as of April 2009, when the interview was conducted, she felt Diyala province was still too unsafe for her to return.

Salma Hamid

Born in 1971, she lived her whole life in Mahmudiya, a small town roughly 50 miles south of Baghdad bloodied by successive waves of violence throughout the conflict. She is a Sunni but married a Shi’ite merchant from the town in 1997, and the two of them raised nine children together, five boys and four girls. The oldest, Hayder, had gone to college in Baghdad but returned home in 2002 to serve as a vice principal and a volleyball coach at a local high school.

(p.195) i remember the last time I saw Hayder alive with my eyes. He was getting ready to run errands. He had on tan slacks and a bright shirt with pink, yellow, and red stripes going up and down it.

The day he disappeared started normally. We all had breakfast. He was talking to his sister. Both of them were saying they could not sleep the night before. Something they could not put their finger on was making them nervous, and they decided not to go out of the house that day after all. Shortly after breakfast I left the house to pay respects to a family who had recently lost someone. I had a bad feeling the whole time I was gone and returned home quickly. In the time I was gone he went missing.

He decided to go out anyway to get a scratch card for his mobile phone, and one of his sisters needed to see the dentist, too. So they left together for their errands on foot. When his sister finished up at the dentist, she found Hayder on the street standing with some of his friends and putting minutes on his phone. Hayder told her to go ahead and that he would catch up. Then a white sedan pulled up, and some men emerged and beckoned him to get in. They said he was wanted for questioning by the local intelligence chief, whom everybody knew was working with the Mahdi Army. He got in without a fight.

We felt something was wrong and went to an Iraqi Army outpost in the area, because everyone knew the Iraqi army was working with the militias. We were told by people at the outpost that Hayder was there being held for questioning, but we were not allowed to see him. They told us to come back tomorrow. But when we went back the next day, we were told Hayder had been taken by another group of men because he was Sunni. No one would tell us who the men were or where they had taken him. No one there had any answers for us.

In the days that followed we began to hear rumors about where he was. We heard that he was being held by the Mahdi Army. We heard that he was being held by the National Police. Twice people claiming to have connections to the police and the militias came to me saying they would find him for a fee. I could tell they were swindling me. They would not find him, I knew. But what could I do? I had to pay them, just in case they might come back with some information. Nothing ever came of it.

In the months that followed I checked all the jails around Mahmudiya. I checked several jails in Baghdad. I even went to the American detention (p.196) facilities hoping he had wound up there somehow. I never found any trace of him.

Throughout this time we were hearing whispers about mass graves around some houses in an area just outside town, where the Shi’ite militias were supposedly torturing and killing Sunnis they had abducted. It was an open secret. Everyone knew it was happening. But no one dared to talk too much about it, because the militias at that time were supported by the government. Anyone who talked too loudly about it would wind up killed, either by the militias or the Iraqi security forces.

For the next year I never stopped searching for him. How could I? Then, on the tenth of April, 2008, American and Iraqi military vehicles drove through Mahmudiya blaring an announcement on loudspeakers. They were calling anyone with missing relatives to a neighborhood just outside of town where they had found a mass grave.

American forces were at the grave site with body bags. Iraqi army forces were with them, and volunteers were digging up remains as others looking for loved ones stood around. The killers had thrown bodies, I don’t know how many, maybe thirty, into a trench and poured cement over them. So the volunteers had to chip some bodies out of the concrete as well as dig. Unearthed bodies were taken from the pit and lined in a row on the ground above so people could look them over. Most of the remains were nothing more than bones.

Even as the bodies were being pulled out I could tell we were being watched by the Mahdi Army. We knew who they were, and they were there watching the whole scene. I pointed this out to some of the men from the Iraqi security forces on hand, and they told me they saw them too but not to worry. Things had changed, they said, and we would be safe from these men from now on.

I didn’t see my son among the bodies being pulled from the grave. I was told that some bodies taken from the grave had been moved to the hospital, so I went there. At the hospital, the morgue trays were completely full, so they had lined up bodies on the floor. I don’t know how many bodies there were. It was impossible to count, because most of the remains were just piles of bones and scraps of clothes. But my son somehow had remained whole.

I saw him there among the body parts, and I knew it was him because he was still wearing that brightly striped shirt I saw him in before he left (p.197) the house the day he disappeared. I was surprised how clean the shirt looked, actually. How could it be so clean?

You know, when he was missing I would sometimes feel a sharp pain in my neck. I could never explain it. And then when we were looking at the body I saw that he had been shot through the head. The bullet had gone through the top of his head and out through his neck, at the same spot where I had been feeling pain in mine.

We took the body home, and I put him in his bedroom. We wrapped him in blankets and put lots of pillows under him. Family and neighbors gathered to help us put him in a coffin and take him to the mosque, where they would prepare him for the trip to Karbala. I’m a Sunni, but my husband is a Shi’ite. So we decided to bury him in Karbala, as many Shi’ites do.

We were very happy, actually. At least we found him and were able to bury him in a proper way. We consider him a martyr. We decided that we would make his funeral like a wedding day for him, because he had been wanting to get married when he died. So we organized a procession as you would for a marriage to carry his coffin. It was midday but dark outside because a dust storm had risen. We lit candles and carried him through the haze to the mosque.

Salma Hamid, who insisted on aliases for herself and her son out of continuing concerns for her safety, pressed local authorities in Mahmudiya to conduct an investigation into the murder. But she had seen no effort on their part as of April 2008, when the interview was conducted.