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Bombings take toll on families

By Anne Barnard
Globe Staff / June 13, 2004
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BAGHDAD -- Mazin's mother lies on his bed and drapes his clothes over her face to catch his fading scent. His grandfather wanders the house calling his name. The rest of the family sits in the darkened living room, afraid to leave the house and paralyzed with grief since the high school senior died in a recent car bombing that barely made the news.

His aunt, among the first Iraqis to return to work for Iraq's government after the invasion last year in her eagerness to help rebuild the country, now wonders, "What for?" His father, once optimistic about Iraq's future, now calls it "hopeless."

"How can you live, how can you shop, how can you work?" he said, speaking stiffly as his 21-year-old daughter stared into space beside him. "You are walking on the street and every minute you think a bomb could go off."

Car bombs and suicide attacks have killed more than 800 Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein -- 600 of them this year and 30 this month, according to media reports. They have become part of the background noise in the conflict in Iraq.

Explosions like the one on June 2 that killed Mazin, who was 17, get only brief mentions in Iraqi and international news reports, drowned out by assassinations of political leaders or attacks that kill dozens. Although they do not grab headlines, the blasts that often strike several times in a week, killing two Iraqis here and five there, are destroying the lives of Iraqi families, braking their economic progress, and draining their trust in the US and Iraqi authorities who cannot seem to defend them from faceless attackers.

The emotional and physical toll that the violence is taking on Iraqis can be measured in plain sight on the streets of Aadhamiya, a Sunni Muslim neighborhood in Baghdad where Mazin's family has lived for five decades. In a three-block section near the scene of the blast, black banners festoon the walls, listing the names of the dead: Mazin, Ziad, Ahmed, Amin, Umm Mohammed.

The explosion struck just before noon on Omar Abdel Aziz Street, a busy thoroughfare lined with offices and shops. A small blast set a car on fire and drew a crowd of would-be rescuers to the scene. Then came a second explosion.

Four people were killed immediately, including Mazin, who was hit in the head with shrapnel. Thirty-seven people were wounded, and at least three others died later.

For Mazin's family, the loss added to a grinding fear. All the adults in the family work in Iraqi ministries, and for months have been terrified that they would be attacked on the way to work from their neighborhood, which is home to many members of Hussein's former military and has been the scene of frequent clashes in recent months between US troops and guerrillas. Now, they are afraid to go outside, or have their full names published.

On another side street, Ahmed Farouk, 25, is mourned by his bride of five months.

Across the street, a family of seven lost their breadwinner. Ziad Tariq, 25, worked in a car dealership. On Thursday, his mother lay on a mat in their bare living room beside a full ashtray, barely able to speak. His brother, Mohammed, 12, was in the hospital with a shrapnel wound. His sister, Zina, 22, picked at her black dress and worried that she would not be able to get a job to support the family because she missed her college graduation exams for his funeral.

"He was our father, he was our brother, he was everything to us," she said.

What the families have in common is a sense that they are forgotten. No officials have offered help or condolences, they said. No police have come to ask questions, and no official updates on the case have been issued.

The explosion was especially bewildering because it struck a neighborhood that has been hostile to the occupation. No US troops were in the area.

Some residents speculated that the second blast went off accidentally. But some witnesses think the blast was a sadistic attack that targeted rescuers: The car that caught on fire was strewn with toys, they said, and two large dolls in the back seat made people think that children had been trapped inside.

Abu Mazin, the traditional Arab nickname for Mazin's father, said he thinks he will never get an answer.

"There is no follow-up," he said. In the slow but precise English he learned at Baghdad College, a Jesuit school that was once affiliated with Boston College, he raged against the Iraqi police: "Your job is not to collect the pieces of the exploded people. Your job is to follow up to stop these attacks and protect Iraqis."

Abu Mazin is educated, moderate, thoughtful -- the kind of Iraqi professional whose help the new government may need most after it takes formal sovereignty at the end of this month.

"We love our country; we love Iraq," he said. "We want to do something for the sake of this country, in spite of all that we're suffering."

But he does not think the new regime will make Iraqis safe. "It is hopeless -- hopeless," he said. "The people here are too weak."

The sister of the slain teenager said she had hoped to finish her master's degree in microbiology at Baghdad University this month. But she missed exams because of her brother's death and may have to wait a year to graduate. The university says it will dock her grades 10 percent.

"I hate my university. I hate everything. I hate . . . the life here," she said. "I can't study. I can't read anything. I am very hurt."

On Thursday afternoon, she sat on a formal chair with a scrolled wooden back, glaring at the floor. Her aunts and her father sat along the walls decorated with modern art and traditional Islamic calligraphy. The electricity was out, but they kept the lights off and only ran fans off the expensive generator. During a year of mourning, they said, they will not leave the house except for necessities.

Abu Mazin flipped through pictures of his son, who as the only son of an only son was the last of the male line. In one photo, the boy stared intensely from a class picture. "What do I have?" Abu Mazin said. "His clothes, his glasses, his watch, his car, his shoes."

His wife walked into the room, her face pale and her short hair tousled. She accepted greetings in silence but seemed not to hear the rest of the conversation.

Mazin's family had tried to protect the boy by sending him to his grandfather's house in another Baghdad district, fearing he would be arrested in the many US raids on their neighborhood. They understand people's anger at the military raids, they said.

"It's not a reason to kill children, to kill ladies," Abu Mazin said.

"Especially not young people," his daughter said, fiercely.

Abu Mazin said he cannot believe Iraqis are responsible for the attacks on Iraqi civilians. But in the throes of emotion, he addressed the bombers as though they were countrymen: "Why are you killing your people? Why are you using the way of killing?"

The disarray in Iraq lent insult to injury on the day of Mazin's death, the father said. He received a call on his cellphone informing him that a blast had occurred in his neighborhood. When he got home, his father told him his son was dead.

Abu Mazin rushed to the hospital. Police pointed rifles at him. Doctors were working on a stream of patients without proper equipment. His contact with police, he said, amounted to, "Bring the papers for your son, put him in his grave, and go away."

For now, he is thinking about something simpler: what to do with Mazin's car. It is with a neighbor now, but when he thinks he can cope with it, Abu Mazin will bring it home, he said. "I will look at it every day."

Globe correspondents Shatha al-Awsy and Sa'ad al-Izzi contributed to this report.. Recent articles by Anne Barnard.

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