Almost every day, during the years I lived in Iraq, people I knew would come to me with snippets of what they had heard, or suspected. These tips were often sparse. Somebody in the neighbourhood had disappeared, or had been killed. Marauders had stopped a bus and shot everyone on board. A child had been found dead. Sometimes, these sorts of details made their way into wire stories as bullet-pointed footnotes. Other times, the stories screamed into the lives of people I knew. When this happened, a feeling of impotence and anger overtook me. There are too many to count. But here is one.

Around 5 a.m. on 18 April 2007, twelve armed men broke into a house in Baghdad. Mustafa Mafraci escaped, climbing on to the roof and on to another house to safety. But his brother, Anmar, was caught.

‘You work for the Americans,’ said a man’s voice when Anmar’s father, Abu Taimur, answered the phone a few days later. ‘We took your son and we’re going to kill him and we’re going to kill the rest of your family as well.’ The caller identified himself as a member of the Mehdi Army, a radical Shiite group that claimed to defend Shiite Muslims from attacks by Sunnis.

Anmar was seventeen. He played soccer well. He enjoyed designer clothes. He liked sports cars, too, and was the proud driver of a BMW his father had given him. Anmar and his father were like best friends. Abu Taimur had three other sons, and he loved them, too, but there was something special about Anmar. He was Abu Taimur’s baby boy, so beautiful, he said, and always laughing.

Abu Taimur is a Sunni Muslim. He is short, round. His hair has been thinning for years and for the last few he started dyeing what was left of it a dirty blond colour.

The first time I met him Saddam Hussein was still in power. It was a week before the American invasion. Abu Taimur was my guide. He took me to an open-air book market with a friend of his. Together they whispered in my ear that they hoped the Americans came soon, came tomorrow; they couldn’t come too soon.

At the time I mistrusted him. I believed his goodwill simplistic, his enthusiasm for me a trap. How wrong I was. Over the years he worked for the correspondents at Newsweek; he was woefully, almost painfully loyal. He never complained. When the terrors of the American presence became more acute, when the militias started appearing, the neighbourhoods began to splinter into ethnic enclaves, and when the civil war started, Abu Taimur never faltered in his belief that the right thing had been done. Whenever he saw me he patted me gently on the shoulder; he smiled brightly and laughed and insisted that everything would be all right, that it was all worth it.

‘Hello, hello,’ he says when he takes his leave, explaining that in Baghdad ‘hello’ means ‘goodbye.’

In the days after the phone call, Abu Taimur and his wife, who is Shiite, travelled to the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, searching for clues about their missing son. There they had several interviews with prominent Shiite clerics and eventually learned that the man who had probably kidnapped Anmar was named Arkan al Hasnawi. ‘If we call he will deny it and then he will kill Anmar,’ the clerics in Najaf told Abu Taimur. ‘But you call him and do what you can, maybe he will sympathize and give you your son back.’

The next day, armed with a phone number, Abu Taimur called Arkan al Hasnawi.

‘I know you have my son,’ he said. ‘I’m ready for anything you want. I don’t work for the Americans. I’m not a traitor. All I want is my son. I’m a Sunni. My wife is Shia. For the sake of my wife, let go of my son.’

‘OK,’ Arkan said. ‘Come by so we can negotiate, we’ll discuss and give you your son.’

Abu Taimur approached some Shiites he knew and asked for their help and they agreed. With six men in tow, he went to the Ibn Muslim mosque in Baghdad’s Sadr City, where the Mehdi Army, a Shiite militia led by a radical young man named Muqtada al-Sadr, had been conceived and where it had grown into one of the city’s most powerful forces. Since the American invasion, the Mehdi Army had in effect declared war on Baghdad’s Sunnis, who they held responsible for the spate of car and suicide bombings in Shiite neighbourhoods, attacks most probably carried out by al-Qaeda extremists. The resulting tit-for-tat killings had quickly escalated into a defacto civil war.

After some initial questioning at the mosque, Abu Taimur was quickly separated from his Shiite escort. A group of men ushered him off to a separate room where he was handcuffed, blindfolded and left alone.

That night the group of men returned. Without a word they grabbed Abu Taimur, bundled him into the trunk of a waiting car and drove away. An hour and a half later, by his estimate, the car stopped, he was removed and led into another building.

The men took off his blindfold and Abu Taimur found he was surrounded by a group at least ten men strong. They began punching him, cracking several teeth, breaking his nose and beating him repeatedly on the legs with long metal bars.

‘We killed your son,’ the leader of the group said. ‘We filled his body with bullets.’

Abu Taimur screamed.

But then the man frowned. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘It’s not true. Your son is alive. We have him in prison somewhere safe. But first we’ll speak to you.’

Men came and went and beat Abu Taimur for several hours that day. One of them videotaped the torture. They used metal rods. They beat him on his upper legs and his ankles so that he wouldn’t be able to walk. Then they left.

Early the next evening, around sunset, the men left Abu Taimur alone and went to break their fast, for it was Ramadan. He found a small window. Looking around he saw that he was in a room on top of an abandoned shop. He managed to untie himself. He removed his blindfold. He found the door the men used to come and go and slipped through. But as he moved toward the streets, a man spotted him. Waving a pistol, the man said, ‘I’ll shoot you right now if you don’t go back to where you were.’ Abu Taimur hesitated.

‘I will shoot you right now,’ the man warned.

So Abu Taimur returned to his room. He realized then that the men were going to kill him. He panicked. He kicked a window out with his foot, grabbed a piece of broken glass and opened the veins on his left wrist. He thought he would be dead before the men returned.

He was not. When they saw the blood, the men took Abu Taimur to a local hospital in Sadr City, where he was treated. He was under threat, though, and he feared for his son still, so he chose not to speak. In those days, hospital staff would have been placing their own lives in danger by contradicting armed men from the Mehdi Army. Once he had been bandaged up, the men took him to a house in Sadr City. By that night he was back in his old room, with the kidnappers.

In the morning, the men hung Abu Taimur upside down by his legs. They urged him to confess that he was a terrorist.

‘Where is my son?’ Abu Taimur wailed.

‘Confess,’ they shouted.

Now the men beat him with reeds.

He swam in and out of consciousness. As Abu Taimur hung he wondered whether the kidnappers had harmed his son as they were harming him. The possibility sickened him.

On the second day the men ripped Abu Taimur’s clothes off and rigged up a set of electric wires, which they attached to his hands. They doused him in water, set the wires crackling and lit him up.

Around one in the afternoon on the fourth day, the men brought Abu Taimur a bucket of water and told him to wash himself. Then they took him to a car and told him soon he would be released.

‘Where is my son?’ he asked.

‘Don’t worry,’ they told him. ‘You will find your son at home when you return.’

They gave him money for a taxi. They gave him a phone and he called his sons and told them to meet him and to come armed.

Abu Taimur’s son was not at home when he arrived. The kidnappers must still have him, his family said. He told his other sons to search for him at the hospital. He told his wife to search the morgue.

It was his wife who found Anmar. Baghdad police had discovered a body on a pile of garbage in the days just after Anmar had disappeared, she learned. The police had taken the body to the morgue where it was photographed and registered. Then, because it was unclaimed it was sent down to the holy city of Karbala where it was buried in a grave with a number. A charitable organization had taken care of the arrangements.

Now a year after his son’s murder, Abu Taimur is sitting on a ratty brown couch in my house in Baghdad staring at me. His eyes are large and brown and they dart from my face down to the floor and back again. On the table between us he has laid some pictures of Anmar.

‘Good boy,’ is all he says. ‘Good boy.’ Abu Taimur fingers the pictures of Anmar. His big eyes begin to drip tears. He leans far back into the couch and heaves a tremendous sigh.

‘Ahhhhh,’ he grits and clenches, and his hands grasp at his head.

I ask him what he will do. He looks at me.

‘I will kill them,’ he says, and nods his head as if agreeing with himself. ‘I will find them and kill them.’

He tried, but he did not. Today he lives in Texas, with three of his surviving sons. He finds comfort in the arid weather. He takes English classes. When a visitor comes knocking at his door, Abu Taimur waves him off.

‘Hello, hello,’ he still says. ‘I will talk to you later.’

His wife lives in Baghdad. She refuses to leave. Every Thursday she visits Anmar’s grave in Karbala, where a picture has been placed, and flowers have been laid and where, she says, her heart is also buried.


Photograph by jrseles

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