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Nahrain Yonaan, A Victim of a War of Retribution

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2004 at 03:05 PM CT


Assyria

She was a spirited, animated presence in the coffee shop and Internet cafe of the U.S. base known as Camp Cuervo.

"She was the classic coffee shop girl: very bubbly, bright, positive," recalled Maj. Greg Bedrosian of the 1st Cavalry Division, an executive officer at the base. "She had a great rapport with the soldiers."

Today, the woman, Nahrain Yonaan, lies blind and broken in an ill-equipped Baghdad hospital, her left eye destroyed and her delicate face a battlefield of wounds from a drive-by attack and bombing.

Her mother doesn't have the heart to tell her the dreadful truth: Yonaan's younger sister and her aunt were killed in the assault Saturday evening on a minibus ferrying the women home from their jobs at the base. The driver was also killed. The mother changes her black mourning clothes before visiting the hospital, lest Yonaan notices despite her wounded eyes.

Gunmen in two black cars opened fire on the van as it was driving along a highway, authorities said. Then the assailants stopped and dropped a homemade bomb into the minibus, blowing it apart as though it were made of papier-mache.

The women's crime? Working for the Americans, a job that Yonaan, 25, said she loved.

They are among the latest to pay the price simply for accepting U.S. employment, part of the insurgent campaign to target collaborators. Most victims — cleaning ladies, interpreters, common laborers — are anonymous, their deaths unreported in this war of retribution that has killed scores of people and left many more fearful of being stalked by assassins. Unknown numbers have left their jobs.

Victims are often followed upon leaving U.S. installations. Watchful eyes are everywhere in Iraq, as are lurking killers. Christian women such as Yonaan and her relatives have suffered disproportionately, because Muslim women in Iraq generally eschew such jobs because of cultural reasons — husbands and fathers might balk at the idea.

A picture of the attack was pieced together in interviews with U.S. and Iraqi officials and Yonaan's relatives, with whom she has spoken intermittently about the incident. The nightmares come in the evening.

"The masked men are coming!" she screams, report relatives who stay in her hospital room 24 hours a day. "A bomb! A bomb!"

Yonaan and a friend who also worked on the base were not injured in the initial barrage and survived by pretending that they were dead as the assailants, who wore head scarves around their faces, stopped and surveyed the scene. The two women then slipped out of the minibus in the dark, Yonaan told her family, as the killers returned to their sedan to fetch a homemade bomb, with one declaring: "These are Christians. Let's burn them."

Yonaan and her friend were safe, but Yonaan felt compelled to act. She made her way back toward the van in the hope of saving her sister and her aunt, who, she reasoned, might still be alive. It is unclear whether she planned to drag them from the van or remove the explosive device. Then the bomb went off. The shrapnel pierced Yonaan's face and torso like tiny, hot spears.

The family is imploring the U.S. Army to move Yonaan to an American hospital, where her damaged eyes and other wounds can be treated properly. The Army expresses sympathy and says the request is moving up the chain of command.

"She deserves the best of care, she's a wonderful girl, but we have to go through channels," Bedrosian said.

Yonaan's mother, Najiba Gori, doesn't blame the Americans — somewhat of a novelty in a country where so much violence is blamed on U.S. forces, regardless of its origins. She just wants help.

"I have already lost two of my loved ones," she said Wednesday, her face drawn from days of mourning for her sister and her younger daughter and deep anxiety for Yonaan. "I want to save her."

The state of medical care in Baghdad is widely recognized as abysmal. A doctor who treated Yonaan here acknowledged that she had been "neglected" and needed help from a specialist.

"I want my daughter to be looked after. There is no hope here," Gori said. "Everyone knows that the reason she was hit is that she was working for the Americans."

The family has been staying with relatives and telling people that Yonaan is dead — lest the killers come to finish her off. Male friends and relatives stand guard outside her hospital room.

Yonaan, the second of five children, has always been the liveliest and most responsible, her mother said. She had to leave school early to help support the family, because her father suffered a back injury that forced him to leave his job as a construction foreman. The family lives in a two-room apartment rented for less than $100 a month.

"She has been the backbone of her family," said a cousin, Muhanned Nooh. Nooh tries to help Yonaan recall happier times: a picnic in the park, a family outing, a shared joke.

Yonaan was always a vivacious woman, with Assyrian features, thick black hair and a winning smile, Gori said. "She was very proud of herself, proud of her beauty," the mother said. "But she didn't think about marriage. She thought about helping her family."

Iraqis and U.S. soldiers alike spoke about Yonaan's effervescent personality. She was known to give impromptu Arabic lessons to the soldiers.

Now some relatives whisper about whether she would be better off dead. Even if she survives, some wonder, how can she cope with the deaths of two loved ones? Nahrain — whose name means "two rivers," a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates — hawked clothing in a south Baghdad market for a time, making a decent go of it. Her younger sister, Narmeem, 19, often helped. Narmeem was introverted, dark, somewhat depressed, relatives said; she and a brother were hospitalized with separate illnesses a few years ago. The boy still has seizures.

"Narmeem was always sad," said her mother. "She liked darkness. She liked to turn out the lights."

Still, Narmeem loved her big sister. And when Nahrain found a job through friends at the coffee shop and Internet cafe at the U.S. base in south Baghdad, Narmeem soon followed, finding work in the base call center on her sister's recommendation. Soon, the women's aunt, Eklass Gori, followed, working in a smoke shop on base.

The money was good — about $200 each a month, relatives said. The three and another Christian woman, Yonaan's friend, paid a taxi driver, Muthana Ramadhan Jassim, to take them to and from the base every day in his minibus. He picked them up about 8 a.m. at their houses, then returned to the base about 8 p.m. to drive them home. Jassim was known as an honest man who always watched out for the women.

The mother worried, especially after a bus carrying Christian women who worked on a U.S. base west of Baghdad was attacked this year and several women were killed. But Yonaan and the others had no fear.

On Saturday night, as the minibus was heading to the women's houses, two Opel sedans pulled up alongside the van and opened fire without warning. Hit immediately were Yonaan's sister and aunt, along with the driver, who managed to pull the van to the side of the road.

After the bomb exploded, a guard from a nearby Iraqi refinery took Yonaan to the hospital.

Yonaan says she would like to go to America. She smiled at a Westerner who dropped in on her this week and she offered her hand in greeting, though she couldn't see.

Her mother said Yonaan had mistaken the visitor for an officer from the base, a friend from a life forever interrupted.



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