Tragedy and Compassion in Iraq

07/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thousands of Iraqis are celebrating the redeployment of US troops out of their cities and in to military bases throughout the country.

But the fireworks fired into the air and the pomp and circumstance of so-called Sovereignty Day, the sobriquet the Baghdad government has chosen to earmark the US redeployment, cannot mask the grief felt by hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost loved ones in the past six years.

In a ramschackle teahouse in downtown Cairo, Haitham, a former interpreter with a degree in linguistics who fled the turmoil in Iraq, told me his story of tragedy and compassion.

Haitham's younger brother had been a friend of mine during the few years I spent growing up in Baghdad's Jami'a district. After the 1991 Gulf War I lost touch with the family but was able to reconnect thanks in large part to Facebook.

I immediately recognized him when he walked into the teahouse even though time had taken much of his hair leaving him with silver patches; his face was cracked by the wrinkled lines of age and heartache.

I greeted him warmly and we sat down to reminisce about our youth, the friends we knew, the burger joints and cafes in the trendy Mansour district where many young Iraqis met, and the parties we went to with our friends.

As has become commonplace during reunions of this sort, we reviewed the number of people we knew who had been either kidnapped, killed, disappeared or fled the country.

It was a sad and exhaustive list.

"I have a daughter now," he blurted out suddenly. Haitham could not have children; he had married three times but had never been blessed with the pitter-patter of little feet.

I looked at him inquisitively as he proceeded to tell me the story of Minna, his three-year-old daughter.

In 2001, Omar and Nadia met in Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University, one of Iraq's revered institutions of higher learning. Omar was studying to be an environmental engineer and Nadia was hoping to pursue a degree in information sciences.

As with many young couples in Iraq at the time, they fell in love, married and moved into a small house in the Harithiya district of the capital in 2002.

But their somewhat normal lives were shattered when US forces invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, and by the sectarian distrust between Iraqis which followed.

Omar, a Sunni, and Nadia, a Shia, were under increasing pressure by both their families to divorce but they both refused to renege on their wedding vows.

In 2005, Nadia became pregnant with their first child. Shortly thereafter, Omar disappeared. He had left the house to attend a friend's funeral but never made it back home.

Nadia would later discover that her family had kidnapped and tortured Omar until he agreed to divorce her. When he refused, they killed him.

Omar's family kidnapped Nadia in an act of senseless revenge and promised to kill her after she gave birth. They would then raise her child among them.

During her ninth month of pregnancy, Nadia escaped and managed to secure passage on a bus traveling to Syria.

But she had grown frail in her captivity and her water broke en route.

Without proper medical facilities, and realizing she might not make it over the border, she told her story to a young Christian family of four who were traveling on the bus to Damascus to pick up their refugee visas from the Swedish embassy.

The bus stopped in the middle of Iraq's western desert and Nadia gave birth to a daughter she named Minna -- a name she and her husband had picked out in case the baby was a girl.

She asked the Christian family to take care of her child and then died. The passengers on the bus hurriedly buried her in an unmarked grave by the side of the road, each saying a prayer, and quickly drove on fearing rogue militias in the area.

In Damascus, the Christian family were in a dilemma; their Swedish visas were for two adults and two children. They could not take Minna with them to Sweden, she had no papers, no birth certificate, and was in need of immediate medical care.

They took her to a children's hospital where she was given a check-up; they roamed the halls looking for someone who could take Minna and perhaps raise her as their own.

When all their efforts were exhausted, they decided to write a letter to the Swedish government hoping for some reprieve for the baby. They drafted a letter in Arabic and searched the Salhiya Street district in Damascus for someone to translate the letter into English.

Josef, the father, happened upon the Maqha al Rawdha -- a café frequented by both Syrian and Iraqi musicians, actors, philosophers, and writers.

He went from table to table asking for a translator. As fate would have it, Haitham was sitting at one such table filling out a visa request form to travel to the Arab Gulf.

"He looked desperate," Haitham said, "but I told him I had been a certified translator in Iraq."

As Josef began to tell the story as told to him by the recently deceased Nadia, Haitham was overcome with emotion.

"It was as if God placed this innocent girl in my arms to raise," he said. "I had not been able to have children and here was God saving the life of a baby girl in Iraq and giving me a daughter."

Haitham took Minna home to his wife and both of them began the laborious process of bribing Syrian hospital staff to produce a fake birth certificate and certificates proving she was their natural-born daughter.

Two months later, he got a job working for the government sector in an Arab Gulf company.

When Haitham finished telling the story, he showed me a picture of Minna in a pink dress on his cell phone.

She was gorgeous. But would this innocent child ever know the sacrifices both her natural mother and father made? Would she come to know the horrors that her people had to endure?

I looked at Haitham and in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a crowded Cairo teahouse we both began to cry.