While Baghdad improves, a family's hopes still arrested by war

The Methboubs, a family the Monitor has followed since 2002, have been devastated by the imprisonment of one son who says he's being held on false charges.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Moments of joy: Four of Karima Selman Methboub's eight children (from left, Mahmoud, Amal, Duha, and Hibba) kept vigil last month for the release of their arrested brother.
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    Imprisoned: The Iraqi family of Karima Selman Methboub (from left, Mohammad, Fatima, Hibba, Amal, Mahmoud, and Karima) hold a certificate and group portrait belonging to their son who has been jailed in an Iraqi prison for more than 90 days.
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    Vigil: Karima Selman Methboub, left, with a friend in their Baghdad home. The family has been devastated by the imprisonment of one son who was arrested in a joint Iraq-US raid.
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This was supposed to be the year that their hopes soared beyond the war's violence and uncertainty.

Karima Selman Methboub and her family moved into a larger apartment in a safer neighborhood back in January and the oldest daughter, Fatima, was married in a noisy festival.

But optimism has turned to despair for this widow and her eight children whose saga the Monitor has followed since late 2002, before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

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One son was recently jailed after being swept up in a joint US-Iraqi raid on a coffee shop, and Mrs. Methboub is coping with an illness that led to one costly operation and requires another.

While security has improved in Iraq and the killings are down across the board, the horror of this conflict still shapes the daily lives for many ordinary families like the Methboubs.

On a recent day in their Baghdad home, reminders of his tearful, pleading phone calls elicited wails from his mother and tears from his ashen-faced sisters. Methboub is all too aware what can go on inside Iraqi prisons – torture, rampant abuse, and worse.

The raid

The oldest Methboub son has been imprisoned now for more than 90 days. On a cellphone smuggled in by another prisoner, he told them he had been abused and forced to make a false confession on murder and kidnapping charges.

"There is no accusation against him. They just took him from the street," says Methboub, who does not doubt her son's innocence. "If [he] is not released, I will die," she says. "If my son is still with them, he will die."

Methboub says her son, whom the Monitor is not naming due to concerns for his safety, has never been in trouble or involved in political or sectarian issues in the past.

Senior US military officers and United Nations officials – including the top UN Human Rights official for Iraq – have been made aware of the case.

Good news came in recent days: Iraqi court officials visited to say that they knew the son was innocent, but that the process of his release would take more time. In Iraq, innocent prisoners are often arrested and held, in an attempt to extort money from desperate families.

The Methboubs were told that they'd have until Thursday to pay $9,500 to secure the son's release. If they didn't have the money, he would be held longer. So far they have cobbled together almost half that amount by selling daughter Zainab's wedding gold and what remains of the mother's jewelry and other items.

Another Methboub son was at the coffee shop on the day of the raid but escaped arrest.

"We were drinking our tea and suddenly we see pistols over everyone's heads," Mohamed recalls. An informant wearing a mask pointed out to the Iraqi police many young men.

They were fingerprinted by US forces, Mohamed says, before being handed back to Iraqi police units. Nearly all have since been released.

Despite this family's poverty, they are making every effort to pay their way out. They say they have already given $500 to a court lawyer who promised she could do something but did not. Then they cobbled together a $1,700 (2 million Iraqi dinar) loan from a shop owner to pay off a police officer who said he could act in exchange for the money.

Another family has been able to buy the freedom of their son who was nabbed in the same raid.

"The Iraqi people are thieves; they all are! It's unfair for the poor people," says Methboub angrily. "If people don't pay, they can spend 10 years in jail…. I don't care about the money. I just want him released."

Now, she says, the safer apartment they moved into a year ago might be in jeopardy. "If there is no solution, we will sell this house. We will live in the street if they promise to release him," she says. "This year I have never felt happy or taken any rest."

Life amid war

The arrest has devastated the family, interrupting daily life even for a tight-knit group that has coped with the adversity of five years of war. The son was jailed while Methboub and several daughters were in Kut, to the south, for her first operation intended to cure a liver problem that has caused her weight to plummet.

She delayed the procedure and returned to Baghdad to try to release her son. When that failed, she finally had the operation, which was made possible by donations from Monitor readers. A second operation remains on hold.

Daughter Amal has also been set back. The 18-year-old student should be taking college classes, but her brother's arrest came on the eve of two makeup exams, required before she could get her high school diploma. She missed the exams and now must repeat her final year of high school.

"I feel desperate inside me," she says, in increasingly confident English, during a separate visit. "It's not fair; all my friends are in college. I am depressed."

Now twin sisters Hibba and Duha, both 17, are just one academic year below her. Hibba is reading "Oliver Twist" in her English class, while Amal has studied the "Merchant of Venice," which she calls "a great story! I love it."

While their mother is away trying to find another court contact, the kids return to their usual playfulness with each other – a defense mechanism that is well-honed after so many years on the edge.

The girls laugh that Hibba has bought what amounts to a "cheat sheet" for the key vocabulary for "Oliver Twist." They laugh that Amal is limping because she slipped while lunging for the front gate earlier in the day. And they laugh that Hibba hurt one of her teeth while trying to use them to tear the material of her school uniform to adjust its size.

"There are many injuries in this family!" exclaims Amal.

Not to be outdone, sister Fatima – the oldest at 22 and married last January – proclaims that she wants to join a weight loss program. The slimmer Amal jokes: "I must go to another country, then, if I want to marry!"

But the siblings are more interested in talking about the teachers they like and dislike and their own misbehavior when they were younger than marriage.

Mohamed once hit Fatima in the face with a piece of soap and caused another black eye with a piece of fruit. He used a slingshot and hit their mother so hard in the forehead it knocked her out.

"My mother many times chained his leg to a desk, so he would not run away," says Fatima, doubling over in laughter.

The challenges ahead

But the humor soon returns to the impact of a missing brother and other family news. The youngest son Mahmoud, now 13, misses his best friend, whose family moved to another neighborhood. The two used to study together and were so close the friend came to the apartment to wake Mahmoud up.

Fatima's new husband, Bashar, is looking for work; the source of past contracts has left Baghdad. Before the wedding, there had been talk of a move to Dubai. "He was dreaming, then," says Fatima, wistfully.

The top topics are the challenges that remain for a mother who has already endured so much, and upon whom this Iraqi family depends.

"She is not well, but surviving," says Amal. "We just pray. Most nights, she just cries to God."

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