She has her country, but not her daughter: The end of the Gulf war brought little joy to the mother of a young Kuwaiti last seen in an Iraqi jail. Celia Dodds reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Children's parties are banned in the Ma'arafi household in Kuwait. Baheeja Ma'arafi's two young grandchildren, who live upstairs, go elsewhere for their birthdays.

The family has had little cause for celebration since Samira, Baheeja's daughter, was arrested during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait almost four years ago. The last Baheeja heard, her daughter, then aged 29, was in a jail near Baghdad, but for more than a year there has been no news. Her family have no idea where she is being held, or whether she is alive.

Baheeja says that life in Kuwait can never be the same in spite of the Iraqi withdrawal. 'It's very hard for everyone in our country. Every family has a relative in prison in Iraq. We are thankful that we have got our country back. But the country has changed; everyone is sad because there are still prisoners.'

Samira is one of more than 600 Kuwaitis who were left behind in Iraqi jails when thousands of Western and Kuwaiti prisoners were repatriated in the spring of 1991. Her mother and two other women are visiting Britain this week as part of a campaign to remind the West of the prisoners' plight and Iraq's refusal to comply with UN resolutions to free them. On Tuesday the women met Sir Edward Heath, who agreed to look into the situation. The Iraqi government denies the existence of Kuwaiti prisoners, despite a list detailing the circumstances of the 625 arrests.

Baheeja is grim-faced and unsmiling; when she talks about her daughter, whose photo she wears on her lapel, she lapses into silent weeping. At a press conference in London earlier this week she held a large frame containing 100 photographs of prisoners, her daughter's at the centre. She helped to organise the printing of 2,000 posters of the missing prisoners, which have been put up in schools and embassies in Kuwait.

Later she told the stories behind the individual pictures. She knows many of the prisoners and their relatives. Some, like her daughter, were snatched from the streets; others were taken from their homes in the middle of the night. All were civilians, and many were arrested simply because they were helping to distribute food or, like Samira, working as volunteers in the hospital. Such action was interpreted by the Iraqis as resistance.

The hospital was overloaded with casualties, but many of the medical staff had fled Kuwait or were unable to travel because of fuel restrictions. Samira became part of the network that matched the faces of corpses and torture victims with photographs of missing people and informed the victims' families. She also hid three women, an American, a Canadian and a Briton, in her cellar for three months.

It was a week after Samira's disappearance before her mother discovered she had been arrested. She knew something was wrong, because Samira had failed to telephone at the appointed time. When Baheeja rang her daughter's friends, Iraqi soldiers answered.

While Samira was held in Kuwait, for two months until the beginning of January 1991, mother and daughter were able to exchange letters. Baheeja even managed to catch a final glimpse of her daughter as she was driven out of the gates of a Kuwaiti prison bound for Iraq. But Baheeja, who was pretending to be Iraqi, was too scared to get close to the car in case the guards saw her tears and realised she was the prisoner's mother. With an eight-year-

old son at home, she could not risk arrest. That was the last time she saw Samira.

Baheeja lived through the occupation, terrified that the Iraqis would arrest her and members of her family. Nevertheless she refused to hide or leave Kuwait, and stood her ground against the invading army. On one occasion, soldiers were trying to arrest a young man who worked in the local supermarket. A group of 20 women, including Baheeja, surrounded their car. 'We told the Iraqis they could not go until they gave the boy back. If you want to, take all of us, we said. I told them the boy was my son, and eventually they said, 'OK, take him'. We told the owners to close the supermarket in case the Iraqis came back. They did, three days later, but fortunately it was closed.'

Since Samira's disappearance Baheeja has lived from one phone call to the next. Former prisoners who had seen Samira in jail would ring to say she was still alive; on several occasions they said she was about to be released. The last woman who saw her, more than a year ago, said that she was very thin, in poor health and depressed. Since then there has been silence, but Baheeja remains convinced that Samira is alive.

Baheeja is more fortunate than her two companions on the mission to Britain, who have had no news of their relatives. Fowzia Mandani's husband was arrested at gunpoint in front of her children; her youngest child has never seen his father. Najeebah Al-Rifari spent five months in an Iraqi jail looking for her two missing sons.

Najeebah's accounts of prison conditions do not cheer Baheeja: she slept on newspaper, using her shoes for a pillow; she was given only bread and dirty water; and there was no help for the sick. Baheeja is also troubled by reports of mysterious injections and the fact that Samira is one of only eight women prisoners. 'What do we know about what they are doing with them? We don't know,' she says.

While most of Baheeja's thoughts are concentrated on her daughter's return, she also worries about her mental and physical health: some former prisoners remain in hospital long after their release. And for Baheeja, who has become so involved with the other relatives who wait with her, there can be no celebration until all the prisoners are released.