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Iraqi voices: Corruption in high places costs widow everything

Editor's note: Photojournalist Kael Alford spent 10 months covering the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath in 2003-2004. She returned this summer to see what has and hasn’t changed as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its troops. 

By Kael Alford

When I returned to Iraq for the first time in nearly eight years, I went immediately to the home of Karima Methboub to orient myself. It wasn’t easy to find. Like so many people in a country reshuffled by the cruelty of civil war, she had lost her home and, with all but one of her eight children, was eking out a bare-bones existence in a borrowed apartment in Baghdad.

Karima’s children were safe, and doing quite well considering what the family had been through, a first-hand encounter with the deep corruption and dysfunction of the new Iraqi government: Karima’s second-oldest son, Ali, had been arrested in 2007 in a roundup of suspected “Sadrists” – militant supporters of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr --  at a local café, starting a three-year rollercoaster ride that left the family homeless and deeply in debt.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Duha and and Hibba, pictured here on the roof of their apartment, are 19-year-old twins with a force of energy that keep the house in constant motion. Duha is finishing her last year of high school while Hibba is in her first year of college. Hibba hopes to be a social worker and aid in divorce cases while Duha waffles between hoping for a job in a bank or a hair salon. Thanks to the insecurity in Baghdad, they spend much of their free time at home helping with house work and watching television, only occasionally dressing up and socializing outside in the neighborhood.

 


Duha and Hibbe stop to talk to American soldiers at a checkpoint during a shopping trip in Karrada neighborhood, Baghdad, May 2003.

I had met the Methboubs at the height of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign that launched the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. My life at the time consisted of rotating shifts in a drab hotel room with windows taped to keep them from shattering; anxious tours of destruction and bloody emergency wards on buses chartered by the Iraqi Ministry of Information; and nights interrupted by the nightmarish thunder of U.S. missiles incinerating targets a few miles from my bed.

 

I had an assignment for an American magazine to profile an ordinary Iraqi family and was introduced to Karima through an acquaintance. Though I had a government minder in tow, I felt relief almost from the moment I arrived at her dim and dingy apartment. Despite their financial hardships – she was a widow living on government rations – she insisted on feeding me a lunch of bread and a thin soup She reserved the largest chunk of meat for me as her guest, though I insisted on passing it to her youngest son, 5-year-old Mahmoud.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Karima Methboub keeps an eye on the air conditioner repairman. Karima has raised 8 children mostly on her own in a society that offers few opportunities for widows without a college education.

Karima allowed me free rein of the house on the days when I photographed the children passing time in the apartment and hallway with inventive games. By the end of our visits, I felt like one of her kids. Those days shared with Karima, her squirming children and a mustachioed government man were the closest thing to normal that I found in Baghdad.

When the capital fell to the U.S. Marines weeks later, I went to visit the Methboubs, something I also did frequently over the following two years. Their apartment became the place I went for direction, grounding and spiritual solace.

During our reunion this summer, Karima described the family’s hardships since my last visit in 2004, most of which were centered around Ali’s arrest and the nearly three years he spent in prison.

It happened after an Iftar feast during Ramadan in 2008, when Ali went to a neighborhood coffee shop to smoke a water pipe with his friends and his brother. Suddenly a joint patrol of U.S. forces and an anti-terrorism unit from the Ministry of Interior surrounded the café and told everyone to freeze.

“It was something so scary,” Ali told me this summer. He said he tried to slip a licensed gun he was carrying to his brother Mohammed, who was sitting apart from the main group. “They hit me on the back, then in the face and tore my lip. Then they pulled my T-shirt over my head.”

Then they took him to a prison in Amarah, a Sunni area of Baghdad.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Ali is Kareema's oldest son. Last year he was arrested in a sweep operation in Baghdad along with a group of men sitting at a cafe who were accused of being members of the Mahdi Army. Although he was never formally charged, he was tortured and moved from prison to prison before his family could raise the bribes and fees to secure his release.

He said he wasn’t charged, but was interrogated and tortured on a daily basis and eventually forced to sign a false confession connecting him to militia activities. He pulled back the hem of his jeans to reveal scars from puncture wounds in his shins where, he said, he was hit with a wooden board with a protruding nail shortly after his arrest.

One officer in particular, a major, was crueler than the others, he said.

“He shocked me (with electricity) in my ears, chest, even my sensitive places,” Ali said, adding that the torture finally led him to invent confessions. “I couldn’t handle it, so I admitted to anything … things I didn’t do, like I killed my cousin, my friends, I kidnapped a relative.”

At one point, he said, American soldiers visited the prison and documented how he had been treated. He was allowed to see a doctor eventually, but was still not released. (Ali’s account matches systematic problems in Iraqi prisons documented in a 2010 Amnesty international report.)

Ali was held for almost another year, the last six months at a local jail, where he was not treated as badly.

During her son’s imprisonment, Karima was beside herself.

“I was a crazy woman,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep at night, couldn’t work in the day. I could only think of getting Ali out of prison.”

It took nearly three years -- and almost $50,000 U.S. paid to multiple prison officials – to finally win Ali’s freedom, she said. The officials never took money at the prison, she said, instead arranging meetings in other locations to take the bribes.

Living on a diminishing widow’s pension, Karima said she had to sell everything she owned -- her apartment, furniture and family keepsakes – to raise the money. She also had to borrow money from relatives and isn’t sure how she will pay it back. The family now lives in the apartment of a sister who is living in the United States.

Ali finally got his day in court in early 2010 and was released when the judge found insufficient evidence against him.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Hibba does laundry in the family bathroom. Karima and her children had to sell their apartment where they have lived for years, to pay for the bribes required to get Ali released from prison. The apartment where they live now belongs to a Karima's sister who lives in the United States.

His tribulations weren’t finished. Ali was lucky enough to get his old job back as a security guard at the Ministry of Electricity, but his superiors said he wouldn’t be paid until he could produce papers proving his innocence.

As of July, he’d been back at work for several months without receiving a paycheck. Ali said getting documents that say he’s innocent will likely cost more money that he doesn’t have. In the meantime, he keeps showing up at work and keeps his head down.

Karima’s is grateful to have Ali home and that her other children are OK.

Her daughter Fatima, 22, who had left school at age 12 to help Karima with the other children, was living at home again. Her marriage fell apart as a result of domestic abuse. Fatima’s husband, “was banging her head against the wall,” according to Karima.

Fatima’s uncles negotiated with her ex-husband’s family and reached consensus on the divorce.  That was nearly two years ago, but Fatima was still sleeping late and moping around the family apartment this summer. With only a primary school education, she can’t find decent work. She hopes to find a new husband, but divorce carries a stigma in Iraq, even when it stems from abuse.

Despite the family’s trials, Karima had one success story to share.

Her second-oldest daughter, Amal, was attending the American University in Sulaimani in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) on a scholarship obtained through the U.S. embassy and has survived her freshman year. 

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Amal Methboub, 20 (left) jokes with classmates in her English composition class at the American University in Sulaimani, northern Iraq. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the U.S. embassy that subsidizes her tuition. She hopes to be a lawyer and work with issues relating to Iraq's justice system and just finished her first year, a preliminary course in English that will prepare her language competency for the rest of her studies which will all be in English.

When I first met Amal, she was already speaking English that she learned in school, and practicing with Americans she met. Another American journalist helped her apply for the scholarship at the university, a private school started by Kurdish Regional Prime Minister Baram Salih that offers instruction in English in hopes that a “neutral language” will help dissolve the divides between Iraq’s political and sectarian groups. 

After what happened to her brother, Amal said she hopes to work in Iraq as a lawyer one day, fighting corruption in the court system. She said the first time she told an uncle she wanted to be a lawyer, he asked ‘Why? All lawyers are liars!’. Amal replied “No, I want to be a good one!” Their devotion to each other first drew me to this family, and after eight years I could see how that dedication had sustained them through their struggles. “My priority is my family,” said Amal, sitting on her dorm room bed when I visited her at school. She had developed the force of character I recognized in her mother. “And second is my studies. I have to focus on my studies to make my family proud of me.”

More from the series:

Introduction: As U.S. withdraws, the people speak
For 'the Sheik,' U.S. pullout is cause for alarm
Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects
A new day for culture and consumer goods
For women, freedoms under fire
Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Colonel helped with the ‘Surge,’ then his past came calling

 

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