Victims of the
One family's harrowing story of kidnap
and murder in Iraq
Nadia Hayali tells Kim Sengupta of the day her family were
seized and she lost her husband, a story that gives the lie to
claims that US forces are succeeding in Baghdad
By Kim Sengupta
Independent" -- - Anyone who believes that the
American-led "surge" in Iraq is succeeding should hear the story
of Mohammed and Nadia al-Hayali. Both fluent in English – Nadia,
who was born in Montpellier, also speaks French – they were the
kind of well-educated, modern Iraqis who should have been the
driving force behind a new secular democracy. Yet Mohammed is
believed dead at the hands of kidnappers who seized the whole
family, and Nadia is living the miserable half-life of the exile
with their two children in Jordan.
While the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, spouted
statistics in Washington last week to indicate that progress was
being made in the Iraqi capital – suicide bombings down, fewer
sectarian murders – what happened to the Hayalis dispels this
carefully constructed impression of greater normality. Simply to
recount my friendship with them demonstrates how far Baghdad has
I first met Mohammed, then 40, and Nadia, 39, at the Hunting
Club, a private establishment behind high walls, surrounded by
armed guards. With a joint income of about $1,100 a month, the
couple represented the comfortable middle class. The club was
the one public place in the city where the Hayalis and their set
could socialise in safety, using the restaurants, tennis courts
and swimming pool.
This was the autumn of 2004. President Bush had declared
"mission accomplished" in Iraq 18 months earlier. Although the
insurgency was already under way, with dead bodies turning up in
the streets, daily power cuts, and petrol queues looping around
blocks for miles, the Hayalis still hoped that the country would
settle down after a period of turbulence. They lived in al-Jamiya,
a once-prosperous district now described as "mainly Sunni",
where previously sectarian labels did not matter. Before the
war, when Mohammed was working as an internet engineer and Nadia
as a teacher, the fact that he was a Sunni and she was a Shia
did not seem worthy of comment.
Nadia had initially thought that the invasion was worth the pain
to get rid of Saddam Hussein and bring an end to UN sanctions.
Mohammed, who after the fighting earned about $500 a month
working for the medical charity Merlin, opposed the war – not,
he stressed, because he was a lover of the regime, but because
he thought it would open a Pandora's box of trouble. He was
right, but in 2004 it was still possible for me to visit them at
home, where Nadia, also a talented artist, had decorated the
place with Japanese vases, Rajasthani prints and her own
I would stop at Ali al-Hamdani's renowned pastry shop to pick up
presents for the children, and met the Hayalis' relations and
friends. The talk was often of what they would do when life
returned to normal. There were trips to the national art museum
and the theatre.
When I returned a year later, at the end of 2005, everything had
changed. Suicide bombings were a daily occurrence. Death squads,
often made up of members of the security forces, roamed the
streets, and kidnappings had become common. It was no longer
safe to go to restaurants or the theatre, and outings to the
Hunting Club had stopped too, after it emerged that abductors
were watching the entrances for potential victims.
My visits to the Hayalis had to be carefully planned to avoid
anyone seeing me. Groups of men in dark glasses cruised around
in Audis and BMWs; they were insurgents, I was told, looking for
US or Iraqi security convoys to attack. Shias in Jamiya were
beginning to feel unsafe, and the middle-class exodus from Iraq
was well under way.
The Hayalis, like many of their friends, had by now made the
decision to emigrate. "We don't want to leave. It's our
country," said Mohammed. "But what is left now? The place is
destroyed. This is what liberation has done to us." The family's
income had dropped by half, because the Baghdad International
School, where Nadia worked, closed as funds dried up and pupils
fled the country.
Mohammed now kept a gun in the house, an old Glock. "It is the
sort of thing one has to have nowadays," he said sheepishly.
"But I don't even know how to use it. It's things like this that
make me want to leave even more." The last time I saw him was
when they were waiting for visas to Dubai, which came through
after I left. "We are just surviving day by day," said Nadia.
"Terrible things are taking place all around us. Unless we get
out now, something bad will happen."
I learned what happened next in a phone call from Nadia in April
this year. Her voice was flat, emotionless. The family had been
kidnapped by an armed gang, she said. She and the two children,
Dahlia, eight, and Abdullah, 10, had eventually been freed, but
Mohammed had been kept captive, despite the payment of a ransom.
It was not until this summer, when I saw Nadia and the children
in Amman, the capital of Jordan, that the final tragedy came
"Do you remember how it was, even a few years ago?" asked Nadia.
The confident, articulate woman I remembered had gone, and the
trauma of recent months was written on her pale, drawn face. "We
thought things couldn't get worse, violence will ease off,
things will get better. How wrong we were."
In the final days before their departure, she said, they were
unloading the shopping from their Jeep Cherokee when half a
dozen men came into their driveway, carrying Kalashnikov rifles
and pistols. "They said they wanted me. Somebody had told them
that I was a Christian, that I was working for the Americans at
the airport. Even to this day I do not know who said this about
me, or why. Mohammed insisted that he go too. The children were
clinging on to us, and of course we could not leave them behind.
"We were blindfolded. They put Mohammed in one car and I was
with the children in the other. There was one man who kept
questioning me about my religion. They said Christians were
targets because of what was going on in Iraq, but also because
of what was happening to Muslims in Europe, like the controversy
over the hijab in France. I told them I was not a Christian, I
didn't work at the airport, that I was a teacher. They were a
Sunni gang who said they were followers of al-Qa'ida.
"At one point Dahlia started screaming, and one of the men stuck
his gun against her face and said he would shoot her unless she
kept quiet. I covered her with my body, that is all I could do."
The family were taken to Habaniyah, an hour's drive away, where
Mohammed was put in a room by himself. "There were about six or
seven in the gang. One of them was young, only about 15. He was
very polite, he called me khala – Auntie. I remember thinking,
'How did this young boy end up with these killers?'
"Dahlia could not speak, she could not even sit up, she just lay
shivering. I could not think of anything else but her and
Abdullah. They questioned me for five hours. Then they took
Abdullah into another room and asked him questions as well. They
gave us dinner, chicken and some rice, but I could not eat
anything, I was feeling sick. Dahlia kept waking up, she was
The next morning the abductors said they were going to search
the family's home. They were looking, they said, for money, the
family's identification documents and their computers. Sitting
in their darkened, airless captivity, the family were not to
know that the computers would seal Mohammed's fate. He had been
working for a fund-raising agency for small businesses in
Baghdad, and this had brought him into contact with US and Iraqi
government organisations, classing him as a collaborator in the
eyes of his captors.
"They looked through Mohammed's laptop. Then they began to
question him in another room. I could hear raised voices. A
little later I managed to see him. He whispered to me that I
must deny all knowledge of his work. I said, 'But you have not
done anything wrong.' He insisted that I must not argue with the
gang, so when I was questioned, I simply told them I did not
know anything about his work. They kept on saying I was lying,
but I just stuck to my story. Then they questioned Abdullah
about it, and he genuinely knew nothing.
"A little while later they began beating Mohammed, whipping him
with their belts. I could hear the blows. The only thing I could
do was try to distract the children from the noise. Then it fell
silent. I was afraid that they had killed him. I said I wanted
to go to the toilet, and saw him lying on the floor, covered by
a blanket. He was hurt, but not dead.
"I was begging the men not to kill Mohammed, and let him go. I
told them that our religion asks us to forgive people. They said
they would try to make sure he was not killed, but their bosses
would make the decision."
The next day Nadia and the children were told that they would be
released. Mohammed would be kept behind for further
investigation. The gang needed Nadia on the outside to get the
ransom money they were going to demand.
"That last meeting with Mohammed was just so terrible. He was
telling me he did not think he would get out alive, he was
saying that he would not see us ever again. He was crying, he
asked me to look after Dahlia and Abdullah, tell them how much
he loved them. I said to him, 'I will refuse to leave, I'll stay
with you.' But he said I must go for the sake of the children.
That was the last time I saw him."
Nadia and the children were dropped off near their home. She was
told that they must not leave the house, and to await messages
about what to do next. In the end a ransom of $10,000 was
delivered by Nadia after she had gathered the money with the
help of relations and friends, but Mohammed was almost certainly
"I stayed at the house waiting for news," she told me. "I could
see men from the gang out in the street. I had one phone call
from them, asking me why I wasn't sending the children to
school. I said it was too dangerous, there were a lot of
kidnappings. The man said it would be safe, they would look
after Dahlia and Abdullah. I really did not have an answer to
Finally Nadia and the children fled to her parents' home, in a
safer part of the city. There they learned that two members of
the family had gone to the Baghdad morgue, having heard that
Mohammed's body might be there. But when they arrived, they were
told that the body had already been buried. They were shown a
photograph of a man; one of the relatives thought it was
Mohammed, while the other was unsure.
"I never went back to our home," said Nadia. Instead she took
the children to Dubai, then Amman, where they live in a tiny
flat and she has found an office job. "I keep on thinking maybe
it was not Mohammed in that photo at the morgue. Perhaps the
kidnappers are still holding him. But I know this is probably a
"I just cannot understand why Mohammed is not here with us. We
have known each other all our lives. Ours isn't an arranged
marriage – we met at high school. I know many people have
suffered in Iraq. But when you have spent your life with
someone, someone you love, it is hard, very hard."
The greatest tragedy is that the story of the Hayalis is far
from unique. No police report was ever made on Mohammed's
kidnapping and probable murder, so it is not included in the
figures purporting to show that the "surge" is working. The same
is true of vast numbers of deaths, because going to the police,
infiltrated and dominated by militias in many districts of
Baghdad, is considered futile or downright dangerous. For Nadia
and others like her, George Bush's last throw of the dice is
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