Victims of the death squads: 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

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 sunk.

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 paintings.

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 out.

"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 having nightmares."

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 already dead.

"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 that."

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 false hope.

"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 irrelevant.

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