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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.

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"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."

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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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