by Stephen Grey
In the thick, sweaty heat of a Baghdad night, a family sit in their garden
under a full moon, and wait for news. They’ve been sitting and talking for
many hours now, smoked too many cigarettes and drunk too many cups of tea.
Now they just sit on plastic white chairs and listen.
Many sounds are familiar and reassuring: the occasional dog’s bark, the buzz
of crickets, the rustling of fronds in the date palm tree, the steady
clack-clack of the electric fan propped up on the lawn. From a distance come
other sounds that would normally have them on edge: the bursts of a
Kalashnikov machine gun and the roar of an American fighter plane. But
tonight, the sounds that fray their already stretched nerves, the sounds
that might mean an end to the waiting, come from the road just beyond the
garden wall: the screech of tyres, the horns, and the slamming of car doors.
Photographer Steve Bent and I are waiting with Harb Nayma and his family for
the return of their 23-year-old daughter, Shayma – kidnapped seven days
previously. This afternoon, 62-year-old Harb went alone to a deserted
backstreet to hand over a ransom. The kidnappers had promised to release
Shayma and send her home within one hour. Five hours later, there is still
no sign of her. From inside the family’s house, we occasionally hear the
wails of Shayma’s mother, Khariya. She is so paralysed by fear and anxiety
that she can no longer walk. The rooms she is now crawling round are all
empty. Harb has sold off all the furniture to raise the ransom money.
It is more than a year since Saddam Hussein was toppled by the invasion of
American and British troops. For months, the world has followed the growing
wave of violence and the terrorist attacks against US forces. But ordinary
Iraqis like this family have their own story to tell: of how, since Saddam
Hussein’s departure, a terrible insecurity has descended.
As foreign journalists, we are worried about being here. The family have
asked us to stay – they want the world to know what they and others are
going through. So now we sit here with them, as they wait to see if their
daughter will ever come home. But we are afraid – afraid that the kidnappers
will discover our presence. Maybe they will raise the price of the ransom,
or even murder the girl in an act of revenge.
Each night, dramas like this are being played out all over Iraq. Kidnapping
has reached epidemic proportions and is terrorising whole communities. One
police officer estimated that, in Baghdad alone, there have been more than
15,000 kidnaps in the year since the coalition forces took control, although
many regard this as a huge underestimate; it is almost impossible to find
any family that does not know some close relative or friend who has been
kidnapped. Everyone is affected. Most families don’t report the crime; they
simply pay the ransom – but the police still have dozens of pictures of
women and children who have been executed by their abductors.
Often it seems to make little difference whether a ransom is paid or not.
Harb and his eldest two sons, Hossam and Husham, are well aware of this.
That’s the worst thing, they say, the feeling of powerlessness. “We’ve given
the money to the gang and they still have my daughter. We are at their
mercy,” says Harb.
On the day of the kidnap, Shayma had been preparing for the first of her
final-year college exams, which she was due to take that afternoon. She had
been studying computing and accountancy. Her family home is a two-storey
house with a pretty, green-lawned front garden, surrounded by whitewashed
high walls, in the comfortable and quiet district of Zayoona, traditionally
a neighbourhood for military officers. The dusty road outside her home,
lined with date palms and a swept pavement, is peaceful. But the walls and
metal gates of each family’s compound provide not only privacy; they mean
that few can observe what is happening outside.
Just before 11am, the dustmen had arrived on their regular rounds. As they
drove off, Shayma noticed that some litter had fallen off the van. She told
her mother she was going outside to sweep up the mess. Several minutes
later, Khariya had wondered why, in the heat of the day, Shayma was taking
so long, and walked out to see where she was. The rubbish was gone. And so
too was her daughter. The street was deserted. “We started calling all her
friends, and spoke to all the neighbours, but no one had seen her; she
disappeared,” recalls Hossam, her eldest brother.
By 4pm, the family were desperate and were preparing to visit the city
morgue to look for Shayma’s body. Just then, the phone rang. Harb answered.
A stranger’s voice came on the line: “We have your daughter here and we’re
going to kill her tonight, unless you pay us a million dollars. We know
Harb had certainly once been an army general, one of thousands under Saddam.
But he had retired 15 years ago, lost money in a failed business venture,
and now just worked part-time as a bookkeeper. His two eldest sons were
doing well; they’d just set themselves up as goldsmiths, but all their
savings were tied up in the business.
The following days had been relentless. Harb pleaded with the kidnappers –
though he and his family were comfortably middle class, there was no way
they could raise the kind of money that had been demanded. Once or twice a
day, the kidnappers phoned with more menacing threats. Finally, Harb’s
protests seemed to sink in. Still, they were slow to reduce their demands.
After two days they had still been asking for $ 800,000. Then, by the fifth
night, they had at last reduced the ransom demand to $ 100,000. But it was
stillan outrageous sum – far more than the family could afford.
After days without sleep, Harb’s face is etched with tension. Hossam is more
composed. He had spent the past few days collecting money – emptying their
bank accounts, getting help from neighbours, selling their possessions. But
so far he has raised just $ 8,000.
“There is so much waiting. We talk endlessly, and smoke too much, but our
words are not enough to touch the hearts of these criminals,” says Harb.
Shayma’s family believe they have been targeted because of their religion.
They are Mandaeans – members of one of Iraq’s smallest religious minorities.
With perhaps only 100,000 practitioners worldwide, half in Iraq, Mandaeans
follow their own religious texts and monotheistic traditions. Some trace
their origins back to John the Baptist. “Our community is being picked on,”
says Harb. “They are singling us out because they know we are peace-loving.
They know we have no weapons and will not fight back.”
On the face of it, there certainly seems some truth to this. Just around the
corner, another Mandaean family have been in negotiations with another group
of kidnappers, trying to get their four-year-old child back. But dig a
little deeper and it soon becomes apparent that no family is safe –
particularly not Iraq’s large middle class. In Shayma’s street alone, there
have been at least three other children kidnapped.
And it is not only children who are being targeted. The most high-profile
abductions have been of academics and doctors. Three days after Shayma’s
abduction, one of Baghdad’s most famous eye surgeons, Dr Fars el Bakri, was
surrounded and taken at gunpoint as he drove home from his private surgery.
Another eye specialist, 68-year-old Dr Ghiath Abidin, described how, two
months previously, he too had been abducted at gunpoint just a mile away.
The price of his freedom was $ 70,000. Last year, his wife was beaten and
tied up in their home, and the couple were robbed of some $ 150,000. Now
they have eight armed bodyguards. The bodyguard business is booming. Those
who can afford it are either sending their children abroad or hiring gunmen
to escort them back and forth to school.
While Shayma Nayma’s family waited to see if she would ever come home, they
scanned the local paper. It carried an advertisement headlined
“Announcement: Kidnapping of a doctor.” A dermatologist, Dr Zuhair al Azawy,
had just been abducted for ransom, it said. According to the advert, the
kidnappers’ aim seemed to be “to empty this place” of doctors and
scientists. “Save the distinguished people of Iraq!” it demanded.
Shayma has been missing for six days when the phone rings again. The
kidnappers. It is 1.30pm. From the living room, where Harb is sitting
cross-legged on the carpet, it is barely five yards to reach the receiver.
But, for this now frail man, it is proving to be a journey that requires a
huge effort of will. “The problem is that you cannot be too weak with these
criminals,” Harb had been saying. “Whatever the stakes – because if you are
weak they will take everything you have, and come back for more.” But how to
keep your cool when the price of a failed conversation could be the death of
your loved one? And what is her price? How much would and should he pay for
the life of his daughter. “We’re fed up with you. We can’t go on for ever.
We’ll have to leave your daughter’s body in a ditch,” says the
“We’ve collected everything we have, sold all our things, and taken money
from friends, and it adds up to $ 8,000. I beg you to accept this.” Harb is
pleading by now.
“You’ll just have to find more,” snarls the kidnapper, and the phone goes
Nobody seems to know who these gangsters are. The police believe they are
simply common criminals exploiting the anarchy that now prevails in Iraq.
One of Saddam’s last acts had been to release thousands of such criminals
from his jails. With so many Iraqi families now obtaining and storing a
weapon at home, one criminal source also suggested that kidnapping was seen
as safer for the gangs than house burglary. Some judges have even accused
political parties of being involved. An aide to Dr Ahmed Chalabi, the head
of the Iraqi National Congress, was accused of involvement in one doctor’s
kidnap. But the charges remain unproved. Some evidence has also emerged that
insurgent groups – involved in a terror and guerrilla campaign against
American “occupation forces” and their allies – are using kidnapping to fund
Hossam, Shayma’s brother, did at first try to track down her kidnappers. He
could see their Baghdad number displayed on his telephone, and he tried to
trace it. But the kidnappers found out he was making inquiries and warned
the family to stop.
“So there was nothing we could do,” he says. “We have just had to sit and
wait, and then handle these kind of things that we’ve never dealt with
before in our lives.”
The following day, Shayma’s father stands at the end of his driveway in the
midday sun, making the most dangerous decision of his life. In his pocket is
$ 10,000 in cash: close to the price finally agreed for almost all kidnap
ransoms in Iraq. The deal had finally been struck at 6pm the previous night.
The kidnappers had brought Shayma to the phone to prove she was still alive.
“Please release me, father; please give them what they want,” she had
Now, the kidnappers order Harb to come alone with the money to one of the
most dangerous districts of Baghdad. And they are offering no guarantees
about how Shayma will finally be released. “You must not go. It’s too
dangerous. They will take your money and just kill you,” Husham’s wife,
Sabah, is saying. She bursts into tears as she and the other women raise
their hands and implore him not to go alone. “You’re too old for this.”
“We are terrified that after they take me they will do something bad about
her, maybe kill her,” Harb says. “But I have to do this.” He pauses to shake
our hands. Fear is furrowed into his face. And then he sets off alone.
Time drips slowly by. The heat is now intense but, with another power cut,
there is neither electricity nor running water to cool the house. And so we
sit on the porch and drink tea and smoke cigarette after cigarette.
Ahmed, Shayma’s 31-year-old brother, paces the driveway, almost burning out
the soles of his rubber sandals. Hossam had gone to the police when his
sister was first abducted. It proved fruitless. “The police were more afraid
than us. They said if they helped they would be kidnapped themselves. ‘Just
negotiate and pay a ransom,’ they said.”
Kidnapping is now routine. Hossam mentioned the 12-year-old boy next door
who had been taken, then released for $ 20,000. A Kurdish family had paid $
40,000 for their boy – but the kidnappers killed him anyway. The family’s
cousin, Ali, recounted how a secretary at his office had phoned: her
sister’s seven-year-old boy had been kidnapped that morning.
It is more than three hours before Harb phones. He is safe, the money has
been handed over, Shayma will be freed in one hour. Twenty minutes later, he
staggers back up the driveway. “They have utterly exhausted me. I have been
walking the streets for hours. ‘Go here, go there.’ They wouldn’t stop.”
The kidnappers had repeatedly called him – maybe 30 times. Each time they
had told him to go somewhere new. “They talked like they were watching me,
but I looked behind and there was no one there. It was strange.” Once, to
his horror, some old friends spotted him in the street and rushed to say
hello. Another time an American patrol came by. “Both times they rang me
immediately and asked what was going on. I begged them it was just chance.”
At last, three armed, hooded men stepped from a car on an otherwise deserted
street and demanded the money. “Where is my daughter?”
Harb had asked, but the men just snatched the cash. “She will be free in an
hour,” they said.
“Now they have both the girl and the money,” Harb says. “We just have our
The family has gathered round as Harb is handed the Ginza Raba, the
Mandaeans’ most holy book, bound in white leather. Kissing it first, he
opens it and begins to read. “Don’t weep because of death and tear your
clothes in grievingI Arm yourself with faith not weapons. Your weapons are
your good honest words.” As he reads, his back to the wall, he keeps
glancing through the window to the gate.
At 6.30pm, the kidnappers call again. Too many American patrols are on the
road, they say. Shayma will now be released in two hours’ time. It has begun
to get dark, and we all move into the garden. The family talk now about
everything, just to pass the time: their history, their religion, and,
inevitably, of Saddam Hussein. Like most Iraqis, they detested the dictator.
But now they wish he was back. At least he provided security. At least under
his regime bandits did not control the streets.
They try to talk of Shayma, about what might have happened to her in
captivity. But it is too difficult to contemplate – far too painful. Just
after evening prayer, at 9.45pm, the telephone rings one more time. Shayma
is on the line, but still with the kidnap gang. She says the gang had tried
to free her but the roads are still blocked by American troops.
One of the gangsters interjects, but this time, his by-now familiar voice is
gentle: “Do not worry now. You should sleep. The deal is done and she will
be released tomorrow.”
We slip away to our hotel. It is no longer safe for Westerners to be up so
late. Harb and the rest of the family stay in their plastic chairs in the
garden, clinging to the hope that Shayma might walk in at any time. “It was
the longest night of our lives,” they said later.
At eight the next morning, the first neighbours begin popping round to see
if there has been any news. Tea is served again in the garden. Half an hour
later comes the sound of a taxi pulling up outside. Hossam runs to the gate.
Shayma is standing there. She falls to her knees and, at the sight of Harb,
begins screaming. “My father. They are criminals. We’re in danger,” she
cries. Her three brothers pick up their sister and carry her indoors to her
stricken mother. “They’ve hurt me,” says Shayma as they lay her down.
We’re out in the garden again. It’s three hours later. A sheep is tethered
to a deckchair, busily chewing up the lawn. It’s going to be slaughtered for
the family feast that will celebrate Shayma’s return. Already the smell of
rich, spicy stew is wafting in from the kitchen.
Shayma’s return has been bitter-sweet. Exhausted after the days of sleepless
nights and tense negotiations, the family has reached its emotional limit.
Relief is being replaced by anger: fury that these criminals have stolen so
much – and that they might want even more. Shayma has brought back a
chilling message: “They kept saying that all our lives and our property now
belonged to them. They said it was halal (permitted in Islam) for the gang
to seize anything from us at any time in the future.
They kept repeating this.”
In the garden, Hossam and his wife, Hind, are arguing. He wants to pop down
to the shops. She is begging him not to go outside. “You’re still in
danger,” she pleads. “They’ve said they will kill you at any time.”
In their house without furniture, Harb’s family contemplate their future.
They want to get out, they’ve lost too much. They ask our advice on how to
get visas to other countries.
When Shayma first arrived home, she was exhausted, and had instantly fallen
asleep. But now she rises and begins to tell her story. “I was in the street
and these men jumped out of two cars. They pushed machine guns in my face,”
she says. The gangsters tied her hands, put a plaster on her mouth, and then
shoved her on to the floor of a car, pushing their feet down on her back. “I
The gunmen drove around for two hours until they reached some kind of house
in the countryside. Shayma was led to a concrete cell, her home for the next
eight days. Most of the time she was bound and blindfolded. Only
occasionally would they release her bonds – so she could stare at the blank
walls and the only window – a tiny hole in the roof through which a shaft of
sun or moonlight would shine.
“I really thought I would die. I could not believe I would survive this
experience. They seemed to know everything already. They knew all our family
names and all our ages and jobs.”
Trussed, with both her hands tied to a metal rod on the wall, she was beaten
repeatedly with a thick rubber hose. “Why are your family refusing to pay?
Don’t they know we will kill you if they don’t,” they shouted.
Some of the beatings were carried out by the men, but mostly they were by a
middle-aged woman who brought in food once a day – a little jar of water
with a crust of bread and some kind of root vegetable. She spoonfed it into
Even as she pondered her own fate (for she knew that many kidnap victims
were simply murdered even after the family paid a ransom), Shayma worried
about her own family. “They kept talking about Hossam and how he was trying
to track them down. They said they would go and kill him in the street.”
Three times she was allowed to speak to her father, but her words were
carefully coached. “Father, father, release me. Give them everything they
want,” she had begged.
On the final night, she was told to tell her father that she’d been taken to
see a roadblock, and to explain why they could not take her home. “But it
was all lies. They never took me anywhere. In fact, that night they were
discussing whether I should be killed, whether they would take me back at
all; it was my worst feeling of terror.”
Did she have a change of clothes? She looks at me awkwardly. “You know they
used to strip me,” she says. “I only got my clothes back when they released
me.” As I look into her eyes, I have a sense of foreboding that worse things
happened – events of which she does not yet have the courage or desire to
The final truth about Shayma’s ordeal emerges three weeks later. In a small
flat in North London, Shayma’s elder sister, Jinan, who has lived in England
with her husband for six years, explains how it took Shayma several days to
reveal the whole story: how she was tied to the floor and raped on every
night of her captivity – by six different men. “These are horrible things to
talk of, but the family asked me to tell you. They want people to know every
truth,” says Jinan, bursting into tears.
Shayma has developed serious medical complications from her ordeal. She
cannot sleep at night, and has been prescribed antidepressants. There will
also be social consequences. Within the Mandaean culture, to lose her
virginity in this way means that it is possible she may never marry, and
certainly not have a normal wedding. In their culture, the whole family is
It seems the kidnappers delivered on their promise to take revenge on Hossam
for his efforts to track them down. A week after Shayma’s release, he was
driving when another car pulled alongside and gunmen opened fire.
Hossam accelerated away and escaped the attack. Hossam has now taken Shayma
and his own family and fled to Jordan: hopefully their first stage of a
journey to a better life in a safe country.
The end of the kidnap story for one family marks only the beginning of a new
struggle – to cope with its aftermath. For thousands of other families in
Iraq, whose child or breadwinner has recently been kidnapped, this whole
grim saga is only just beginning.
*This was first published in the Times magazine, London, july 2004.