Schoolgirl is feared dead amid spate of rapes and abductions in Baghdad

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The Independent Online

They say that abductions and rape in "liberated Iraq" are only rumours.

But on 22 May, Baida Sadik left her home in Shaab City, Baghdad, for school and never returned. Her fellow students said they saw her being shoved at gunpoint into a car. It was just after 8am.

She is - or was - 16 years old. The dark-haired, green-eyed Baida had pleaded with her uncle to be allowed to return to school amid Baghdad's post-war anarchy because she knew that her future depended on her studies - she wanted to become a nurse. But the full story of her ordeal may never be known. Her sister Nagham fears she is already dead.

For weeks, the reported rape and kidnapping of young women in Baghdad was treated with a mixture of scepticism and fear. But the tens of thousands of families who kept their daughters from school - or insisted US troops guard their classes - appear to have had good reason to worry.

At the al-Kindi University Hospital in Baghdad, Dr Ahmed Assafi, the emergency room resident, says he has treated five young women who were raped in the aftermath of the war. But he says many other cases are never officially reported because of the Arab "honour" code towards women.

"Baghdad has become a jungle, where anyone can disappear - and without anyone daring to intervene," Dr Assafi said as he prepared to help a middle-aged Iraqi man who had been shot in the head by thieves trying to steal his car.

The latest rape case treated by the doctor was a female student at the Shaab City Secondary School. Like Baida, she was abducted on her way to school but, in this case, the kidnappers threw acid in her face to prevent her ever being able to identify them. The men spent two hours in the car raping the blinded girl.

Somehow, the student managed to escape and was taken to hospital.

Baida Sadik's brothers have been relentlessly searching for her since she disappeared, plastering the walls of Baghdad's hospitals, police stations and schools with her picture, taking turns to drive around the slums at night even though they risk being killed. Attached to Baida's portrait is a note that says: "In the name of honour, please come forward".

Honour, indeed, seems to be a theme in the tragedy of Baghdad's kidnapped women. It plays an essential role in the patriarchal Iraqi society, where a woman has to preserve her dignity at all costs to safeguard her family's reputation.

Sahar al-Yassri, a lawyer who has represented rape victims, explained: "In Iraq, a woman who suffers rape or has been abducted becomes dead to society." Before the war, women who wished to prosecute their aggressors after a sexual assault would be referred by the police for examination by doctors at the Baghdad mortuary.

DNA tests were unavailable during the 12 years of UN sanctions against Iraq.

But Dr Ali Fa'ak, the director of the Baghdad morgue, says that in the "New Iraq" women can no longer be referred to him. "They are now even more vulnerable than before the war because they can't have their assailants prosecuted," he says. This has produced a grim situation. Because the corpses of men and women are still examined by pathologists, a raped woman has a better chance of triggering an investigation if she is dead.

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