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Backstory: One family in a suicide bomber's wake

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2005


The Al Khafaji family thought it would never happen to them. But such denial has its limits in Iraq, where explosive violence can be as indiscriminate as it is frequent.

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And so, on a bright morning in late November, two suicide truck bombs targeting the nearby Al Hamra Hotel - a hive of Western journalists and contractors - turned the dreams of residents of the neighborhood to anguish. Within 20 seconds at 8:12 a.m., three family members were dead and 15 were wounded. And the green two-story house - that for six decades anchored the household of butchers, painters, and builders, mothers, cousins, and grandfathers - was smashed. What remained upright was full of rubble, refrigerator doors were ripped off their hinges, and the air was redolent with the fresh food that lay everywhere. Even a clump of bananas had burst. Glass from windows and photo frames carpeted everything and was covered, in turn, by thick dust.

Ahmed Al Khafaji, one of four grandsons of the fisherman patriarch who built the house, was delirious the moment rescue workers dug out the body of his sister-in-law, Azhar Kamel. She'd been caught beneath a collapsing balcony in the second blast as she ran after her 5-year-old son Ali, who'd left the house just before the first blast to fetch breakfast yogurt.

As her body was moved out, photographers at the bomb craters 25 yards up the street focused on the Al Khafajis. Inconsolable, Ahmed screamed and bent over, splashing water at them from a broken main that flooded the street.

Common though this scene of destruction has been in US-occupied Iraq, witnessing firsthand such a degree of immediate suffering is rare for a Western journalist, because of risks on the ground and the uncertain reaction of Iraqis.

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This is a story repeated grimly across Iraq, sometimes several times a day, and experts say it's taking a deep toll on Iraq's mental health. After 2-1/2 years of unrelenting violence that has claimed 30,000 Iraqi lives, experts worry about the permanent fraying of society's fabric.

Ironically, it was the Al Khafajis' tight-knit family structure - a function of Arab culture and poverty - that brought several households under one roof and made the family toll high. But even as they grieve, it's that closeness that may help them pull through the crisis.

"Family cohesion and family support play a good role," says Abbas Al Rubaie, a psychiatrist at Baghdad's Ibn Roshd Hospital, Iraq's only specialized mental health facility. "They have a good therapeutic effect ... sharing the experience."

In recent months, Dr. Al Rubaie has screened 2,000 elementary-school children in Baghdad. More than 200 had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of those, 90 percent were war-related, such as being caught near an explosion, witnessing violence, or finding dead bodies in the street. A small number had had kidnapping victims in their family.

Deepening the fear of this atmosphere is the purpose of terrorists who target civilians with incidents like the one on the Al Khafajis' street.

"During Saddam's time, the stresses only came if you tried to confront the regime. If you weren't political, you lived safely," says Al Rubaie. "You didn't see murder, kidnap, and rape in the Saddam era. Now we view these murders on TV every night."

And more are experiencing them firsthand.

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The psychological shock for the Al Khafajis may be greater than the physical damage to their urban sanctuary, which once hummed warmly with the daily life of three generations. Three kitchens served two dozen relatives, and there always seemed to be children around, making noise and sparking smiles.