An Iraqi family faces chaotic times

Every morning at 10 a.m., the oldest daughter of Karima Selman Methboub dons her black head scarf, grabs her press card, and walks down the broken steps of the family's lightless apartment stairwell to begin work.

Fatima is a volunteer at the recently founded Al Muajaha newspaper, or "The Iraqi Witness," and spends her days typing up stories on a computer in Arabic - without pay - and learning about journalism.

"I'm trying to learn more - I'm excited by this job!" says Fatima.

The 17-year-old was forced to drop out of school three years ago because of high fees, and because she was needed at home to help her widowed mother care for Fatima's seven siblings. "I hope this newspaper will be big in the future."

That's not the only bright spot in the Methboub's postwar lives. Another is that the primary school attended by Duha and Hibba, twin girls who are 11, is being completely renovated by "the Americans."

"There will be a cafeteria, air conditioning, and even a television - though that is for the headmaster, not us," says Duha breathlessly. "They gave us a paper saying that children are the future."

These are signs of hope, to be sure, in lives once overshadowed by the repressive grip of Saddam Hussein. But for the large and strug- gling Methboub family - which the Monitor has followed since last December - life in postwar Iraq has also been hard, and fraught with new dangers.

The youngest three children - the twins and brother Mahmoud, who is 9 - seem to have grown half a foot each since American forces took Baghdad last April. But coalition gains are being wiped out for this family by persistent insecurity.

"There are killings in the street and kidnappings," says Methboub, sitting on a thin mattress on her living-room floor, surrounded by a gaggle of her kids. "Every day [criminals] kill someone. They kill families. And groceries have become very expensive - sometimes double or triple the price."

Besides the school renovation and Fatima's job - sister Amal, who kept a diary during the war, also volunteers at the paper - this family has seen few improvements.

"It's a sea of illusions," Fatima said yesterday, as she walked to the newsroom.

The two young women are escorted to the newspaper every morning by their mother or an older brother. The family stays at home much more than before, battling power cuts and water shortages in a ramshackle apartment. Painted on a wall and the building entrance, where there seems to be a permanent pile of garbage, is the warning: "May God damn anyone who throws trash."

Electricity has shifted to four hours on and two hours off. That's up from three hours on and three off. But water was cut for two days a week ago. The family says they heard American military vehicles then broadcast a stark message: "Give us safety and stability, and we will give you water and electricity."

As the US occupation nears five months, the Methboubs say they are "shocked" that American forces can't protect themselves from armed resisters that conduct a dozen attacks a day, much less overcome sabotage that is crippling essential services.

"Now the situation is becoming worse and worse," says Methboub. "I am shocked. In one month, they could provide everything, electricity and water. Improvements? We see nothing, we touched nothing."

"Where are all the promises, and those who made those promises?" asks Amal. "If you ask American soldiers now, they say: 'We didn't promise any- thing.' "

And nothing is what Methboub has found, during the month that she has searched for a job. She once made bread to pay the bills, but the price of propane for cooking has jumped from 500 Iraqi dinars (28 cents) before the war to 4,500 ($2.50) today.

"The poor cannot pay this price," Methboub says. "Some people downtown are using wood to cook with, right in Abu Nuwas Street. With the cost of gas, I can't afford to make bread anymore.

The sturdy matriarch visited a job agency two days ago, searching for a job "even as a cleaner," but it was closed. Son Ali - a 21-year-old former Iraqi air-defense conscript - makes just 60 to 70 cents a day, working in a plumbing supply shop.

When the Monitor first met this family, they had just days before sold a couch, and visitors had to sit on the floor. Today there is a new emptiness is a back room: a few weeks ago, the Methboubs sold off a treasured five-part couch set and a cabinet, that they had bought on the eve of the war for a good price. Rent has jumped 50 percent since then.

As she sits in the living room, with Mahmoud in her lap, Methboub reaches over the head of Duha and pulls a gauze curtain back to reveal the now-empty rear room. Now it's a sleeping space.

"It's better to sell things than to borrow money," Methboub says.

Power surges have blown out the long-suffering refrigerator of 18 years. All that's left is a deep freeze, "but it isn't good for vegetables or meat, just water and bread," says Amal.

That bread is bought fresh by one of the twins every day at 8 a.m. The electricity cuts out at 9 a.m. - switching the family onto a shared deal with neighbors. And for the past month, as Fatima prepared to go to the newsroom, the twins dressed in their headscarves every other day for Koran lessons at the local mosque.

Yesterday was graduation day, and they received certificates, and gifts of pens, pencils, and erasers, as well as booklets showing the prayer ritual to be followed five times a day.

"We write the words of the Holy Koran on the blackboard," says Hibba, as she adjusts her dark wrap before departing. "They are teaching us the Koran."

Conversation stopped abruptly when two American armored vehicles rumbled by on the street outside, highlighting how the ongoing guerrilla war, insecurity and continuing US occupation are never far away.

"The children keep on shouting 'Tank! Tank!' as if they had never seen a tank before," Fatima says. On Tuesday, three gunshots in the street rang out, and the neighbor's toddler Suhaib, who was on a visit, raced to the front door to shut it.

But Duha was downstairs filling a jerrycan with water, to hoist up the treacherous dark stairwell. "Someone was testing a pistol," she says, with an omniscient air. "I was not afraid."

Classes don't start for another month for these girls, and until then, they hunt for ways to get by, and discuss the latest rumors. They involve "reports" that far more American troops are being killed than those officially admitted, and common complaints that US soldiers regularly steal jewels and cash during raids, stuffing the items into their helmets.

They talk about the schoolmate who failed all nine subjects during the last term, which was disrupted by war. And they muse about rumors that there is an "American hand" behind some of the recent bomb attacks.

But Methboub puts such falsehoods aside, and she thinks how to provide for her family. "If Iraqis don't cooperate with the Americans, the whole country will be destroyed."

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