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Adnan Hamid held his son, Hassan, as his wife, Zainab, held their daughter, Benin, in May. Hamid’s brother Kaiss (R) also lives with the family in Sadr City.
Adnan Hamid held his son, Hassan, as his wife, Zainab, held their daughter, Benin, in May. Hamid’s brother Kaiss (R) also lives with the family in Sadr City. (World Picture News File Photo / Scott Nelson)

For Iraqi family, scars slow to heal

Casualties of war struggling amid poverty, grief

BAGHDAD -- Benin Hamid, now a coquettish 4-year-old, swings the stuffed yellow duck that has been her constant companion in a short life punctuated by an invasion and two uprisings that forced her and her family to flee their home in Sadr City.

She has never named the duck, and it is not clear how well she remembers her older brother and her two sisters, who were killed with her aunt, on the catastrophic day in April 2003 when a mortar struck the house.

Life goes on in the Hamid household, a two-story jumble of rooms that contains four scarred families whose uneven progress since the US invasion mirrors the struggles of many in the Shi'ite Muslim slum where they live.

The Hamid family has survived, but just barely, over the past 26 months.

Repeated visits by a Globe reporter offered a view of an extended clan whose members have inventively kept themselves fed and clothed, but who have a decidedly mixed record at keeping their spirits up.

Benin's father, Adnan, 34, who is supposed to be the main breadwinner, has given up looking for work and cannot focus for long on his 1-year-old son, Hassan. He still has the same far-off look in his eyes that he had more than two years ago when he squatted in his courtyard at the point of impact of the deadly mortar round and slowly recited the names of his three slain children: Mohammed, Rokaya, Aya.

In a year he has lost his enormous belly, and is now the thinnest of his brothers.

Despairing that he could not feed the family properly, Adnan last year released the singing parakeets he had bought during a passing fit of optimism the summer after his children died.

He warmly greets visitors, but then sits in a corner of the living room while his brothers answer simple questions in his stead.

''He's never recovered. He'll never be his old self again," his brother Akeel, 28, said when Adnan left the room to get sodas for his guests.

Zainab, 26, his wife, is as vigorous as her husband seems withdrawn. When she was pregnant with Hassan and the deaths of her three children were too fresh, Zainab would sit on the floor weeping, helplessly pushing away her surviving daughter when she came seeking comfort.

Now, though, she holds Hassan on her hip, feeding him a mix of crushed cookies and milk from a glass while Benin (the nickname that has stuck for Bunayah) plays in her skirts.

''The water causes diarrhea," Zainab said, explaining why she only gives the children processed milk when she can afford it. Sadr City, an impoverished section of the capital, has also suffered typhoid epidemics from sewage seeping into the drinking water.

Battle with depression
Most of the good cheer and humor comes from Kaiss, 31, the brother who lost a leg in the mortar attack and nearly died of gangrene. He seems to have fended off depression.

He hobbles to a corner in front of the house every day on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg to sell cigarettes. The job does not bring in much money, but it gets him out of the house and makes him feel productive.

He tried working as a street cleaner for the municipality. ''After three days they fired me because I'm handicapped," Kaiss said.

Doctors told him he should refit his $200 prosthesis every six months, to adjust it to the changing shape of his stump, but that is a luxury out of range of the family budget.

The Hamid family blamed Saddam Fedayeen militia, which tried to resist the invading Americans, for firing the mortar that hit their house during the waning days of the US invasion in April 2003.

They identified the shell as a Russian type of munition from the shell fragments they gathered, establishing to their satisfaction that it was not fired by Americans. They assume Ba'ath Party loyalists were punishing Sadr City for its open-armed welcome of US troops.

For the first year after the invasion, the Hamid men got odd jobs in American- financed reconstruction, earning enough money to buy Kaiss's prosthesis and a satellite television for the house.

But in 2004, the jobs vanished. In April and August, uprisings by the Mahdi Army turned Sadr City into a bloody battleground, and the Hamid family had to flee to the home of the wealthiest brother, Ali, who lived on Haifa Street on the west bank of the Tigris.

'No one has knocked'
In January of this year, just before the election, that brother -- whose income from a factory job supported the other brothers during hard times -- was killed in a cross-fire between insurgents and Americans on Haifa Street.

There is no longer a reserve bag of flour in the kitchen, and the Hamids do not have chicken during the traditional Friday family meal as they used to, only stewed okra or seasonal vegetables.

The grandmother, who rarely utters full or coherent sentences as she did a year ago, speaks angrily about the government's indifference to the martyrs the family has given. ''They have given us nothing. No one has knocked at our door."

Still, the family members' reactions to their plight are always personal; they are still grateful to the American troops who kicked out Saddam Hussein, and they are indifferent to the Iraqi leaders, political and religious, whose words occasionally thunder over the rooftops during Friday prayers or over the television during newscasts.

So long as the Iraqi government gives no jobs or benefits to the Hamid family, it remains a phantom to them.

''The political parties don't care about us, they only want to get money and jobs for their own party members," Akeel said.

Added Kaiss: ''We don't go to Friday prayers. Our hearts are fed up with that. We prefer to pray at home."

Forgotten victims
Kaiss wants a government pension because he was disabled during the war. Apparently, his situation is a catch-22: the Iraqi government would give him a disabled pension if he were married, but he cannot find a woman who wants to marry a man with no job and only one leg.

''No regime change can take place without victims," he said. ''But shouldn't someone pay attention to the victims?"

Still, a subtle shift has taken place in the family dynamic. While the two older brothers, who have marketable skills as blacksmiths, sink deeper into silence and complain about the hopeless future, Kaiss and his brother Akeel, who is unskilled at any trade, still make jokes and speak of a future.

While bouncing Benin on his knee, Kaiss wonders whether his relatives will manage to find him a bride. Akeel feeds baby Hassan from a bottle and tousles his hair. Both of them appear to be standing in for their depressed older brother, Adnan.

As the men sit in the small living room, waiting for the Friday lunch to be served, Adnan refuses to answer when asked how he imagines his life in five years. But he brightens when asked about his hopes for his children.

''Things might get better. They might have bank accounts. I want them to get higher education. Maybe they could get out of Iraq to some European country," said Adnan, who did not finish junior high school. ''Our future is already lost, but it's not too late for our children."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@ globe.com.

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