Woman survived Iraq bomb, but now she can't be found

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 9, 2009 

BAGHDAD — Shadia Abdulbaki survived a horrific bomb blast, but she's been lost ever since. Is she wandering the streets? Did she become an amnesiac? Did someone take her in? No one can say.

Her family members have placed advertisements in Baghdad newspapers, showing her staring at the camera in a light-colored scarf. They're gathering DNA evidence in hopes that they can identify her remains from the flesh recovered around the bomb site, comparing it with samples of her mother's blood.

The 34-year-old mother vanished moments after Baghdad's most brutal suicide attack in more than a year, but she isn't counted among the 60 people who were killed when a 3-ton bomb detonated Aug. 19 outside the Foreign Ministry.

A police officer says that he escorted Abdulbaki away from the ministry 10 minutes after the explosion. Her husband and brothers scoured hospitals and morgues day after day, searching for clues to her disappearance.

"We need the release," said Ali Muhi Eldden, Abdulbaki's brother-in-law. "If you found that she died, you would bury her and mourn her."

That relief doesn't come for everyone after mass casualty bombings such as the ones that rocked Baghdad three weeks ago. It's common for victims to be unrecognizable after explosions, leading to gruesome scenes at morgues as Iraqis try to identify loved ones by single hands or legs.

The difference for Abdulbaki centers on the extent of her family's efforts to find her.

She comes from a family of doctors and engineers, who've stayed in Iraq despite kidnappings, ransoms and killings aimed at them because of the perception of their wealth.

Her disappearance is a new kind of torture. Muhi Eldden knew how to handle the kidnappers who snatched his son two years ago and the man who put a gun to his head last year: Give them what they want, and protect what's most important.

With his sister-in-law, however, "You have no way to do anything; no way to find the facts."

"The family is in a horrible state," he said. They're not fasting, as is their custom in the holy month of Ramadan. They're missing the large family dinners they should be enjoying every night with Abdulbaki, another tradition for Iraqis during Ramadan.

Their hope rests largely with the young officer who maintains that he helped Abdulbaki walk away from the Foreign Ministry minutes after the bomb detonated. The officer, Mohammed, spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, because he isn't permitted to talk to journalists.

He said that Abdulbaki, covered in dust and distraught, appeared shocked by the explosion. Another woman drew his attention to Abdulbaki, saying that she needed help.

"She was terrified," he said. "She was astonished by everything. She was dirty, as if she had been thrown to the street."

He took Abdulbaki to a checkpoint, where he had to leave her because he was called back to help other officers who'd been wounded in the bombing. Two of his close friends were killed.

Later that day, Abdulbaki's family members went to the Foreign Ministry to search for her. They knew that she'd been there, taking a break from her job at the Ministry of Education, to run an errand for a relative who's living abroad.

"They told me, 'You are our only hope now,' " the officer said.

He thinks that the bombing knocked Abdulbaki into a state of amnesia. In that case, the newspaper ads could help reveal what happened to her, but the family hasn't gained any information since they started running.

"Maybe there's someone who took her to his family, and maybe she can't remember anything," the officer said.

At Abdulbaki's home, her 2-year-old son, Jafaar, asks strangers where she went. He watches television, and when news about the Foreign Ministry bombing comes on-screen, he points and says, "Mom," as if he understands that the attack caused her disappearance.

"We don't believe she has died," Muhi Eldden said. "We have a feeling inside that she is alive. How can you prove that?"

(Ashton reports for The Modesto Bee. McClatchy special correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.)

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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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