Backstory: One family in a suicide bomber's wake

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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

"This house - no life anymore," laments Ahmed. Though he'd lashed out in grief earlier, he was more welcoming later, stepping through the debris to take sober stock of the loss - of normalcy stopped like the clocks that lay among the rubble.

Though he's had to repair glass in his own home five times since the fall of Hussein, notes Ahmed's brother-in-law Hadi Yassin, this time is different. "Now after this ... this will stick in our minds," says Mr. Yassin, a burly builder who was working at the house that morning. "I feel afraid."

Each family member was touched differently by the bombs. One child appears unaffected - 13-year-old Ammar Yassir managed to sleep through both blasts. But other children lost their books and their confidence, and took a week off from school. And 4-year-old Hassan refuses to return to the house where his sister Rousel perished, and where his mother Azhar died chasing after his brother, who survived the blasts. And the whole family has since seen on Arabic TV the last moments of Ali Abdu Salaam, 19, the son of another Al Khafaji brother, Salaam, caught on security camera video, as he walked to his job at the Al Hamra sweet shop when the first bomb exploded.

Just one framed picture - a military photo from the 1970s - survived the blast: It's of the family's current elderly patriarch, butcher Khudair Khafaji. He was struck in the face with shards of glass in his ground-floor room, just a few feet from where Azhar was crushed.

One flight up, the ceiling over the stairs rained brick and tile on Rousel, 11. Her father, Yas, one of the four Al Khafaji brothers, broke his leg in the blast just feet from Rousel. He heard his daughter's last breath. Now, recovering in the hospital, he mourns the loss of his "two eyes" - his wife and daughter.

That family's upstairs room is missing a wall and gapes open, with the stuff of life all around. One of Yas's ties - still knotted - hangs forlornly from a peg. Qassim Fadhil Al Khafaji, Yas's brother-in-law and cousin, steps into the room and picks up a doll. Dust and dirt spill from the disheveled yellow hair. "This is the doll of Rousel," he says, his voice breaking. "Rousel is gone."

Gone, too, is the detachment this Iraqi family once felt from the violence that has engulfed so many fellow Iraqis.

"I don't have dreams at all anymore," says Al Khafaji brother Ammar, a house-painter. "In the 1980s, the problems began ... it's been nothing but war. And after the wars, we have this. Saddam was safer."

It's a sentiment echoed by others. "With Saddam Hussein, [the killing] happened secretly, now it's in the open," says Nateq Khadhim, a friend who'd come for a family photo album to take to Yas. "We have to be honest to show the people's point of view. They're targeted [now]."

A devout Shiite, Mr. Khadhim found a lace tablecloth in the wreckage, laid it down outside the broken house, and prayed facing Mecca.

Salaam, an Al Khafaji brother who works the night shift at the Al Hamra reception desk, keeps his emotions to himself. Though his son Ali was killed, Salaam cried only "a few seconds," says Qassim. He'd come home early by chance, or he, too, would've been in the path of the bombers.

Cleanup is under way, and slivers of hope and pride emerge from the ruins. Seeing a reporter's camera while standing in the broken living room, Ahmed puts his arm around the shoulder of his boy, and asks for a portrait.

"My name is Ahmed Al Khafaji," he declares, in proud defiance, and with an irrepressible smile. "And this is my son, Idris Al Khafaji."

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