3 Years of War Wither a Family’s Seed of Hope

Times Staff Writer

As U.S. forces made their way to the capital, Baher Butti sat alone in his house with the AK-47 that Baath Party officials had given him to guard his neighborhood. It was March 25, 2003, and the psychiatrist had just celebrated his 43rd birthday.

“The war on Iraq has started,” he wrote in his diary. “I have not prepared myself to be a fighter but a doctor and a family man.”

A man trained to heal the suffering of others, Butti would see trauma enter his own house in the three years to follow. Fighting and havoc would empty his church, claim the lives of friends and relatives and, finally, touch his 9-year-old daughter -- leaving her scarred and traumatized after a bomb ripped through her school bus.

That March night, Butti described sneaking out from his forced guard duty to see his wife and three children at her father’s home.


“I used a road that I thought was convenient to avoid the risk of bombings. I returned back very quickly to resume my duties,” he wrote. “I am now in my house. I feel mentally exhausted.”

Target practice had been part of Butti’s high school curriculum, and Baath Party membership was almost mandatory for him to work as a doctor. But the idea of using a weapon to defend the regime repelled him.

“I feel afraid after I was put by the [party] in this silly role,” he wrote. “I was overcome by the feeling of being a sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse.”

Street fighting never came to his neighborhood. On April 6, Butti crossed the river and joined his family. Together on a rooftop they watched the tanks enter the city. His wife, Balsam, a more vociferous critic of Saddam Hussein’s regime, greeted arriving U.S. soldiers with tea and biscuits.


The soldiers refused.

“We were so happy” that the soldiers had arrived, Balsam Butti recalled later. “But they were afraid of us.”

Her husband, for his part, was bewildered by the sight of Americans riding their tanks through the streets of his city.

The idea that his country was occupied by foreigners made Butti uncomfortable. Still, a hope grew. With the Americans, perhaps a kind of progress would arrive.

Butti, a graduate of the Jesuit High School in Baghdad, quickly became involved in local politics, writing pamphlets and columns. He talked to journalists and pontificated on the meaning of democracy, tyranny and freedom.

He stopped keeping a diary. His writing -- by necessity private during Hussein’s regime -- became public.

In June, three months after the invasion, Butti was still trying to articulate what was happening in his country.

“When people saw the statue [of Hussein] falling in Firdos Square, the mountains of oppression that were in their souls started to explode,” Butti wrote with characteristic flair.


With Hussein gone, U.S. forces watched as Iraqis looted the city. Freedom meant “do what you feel like,” he wrote.

He was still ambivalent about the Americans -- “friend or an enemy?”

A few days after the invasion, his wife, an obstetrician, returned to her clinic. Their children, a girl and two boys, went back to school. And Butti resumed his job at Ibn Rushd Teaching Psychiatric Hospital, Baghdad’s biggest mental hospital.

Psychiatry had been a neglected field in Iraq for decades. Butti and his colleagues maintained little contact with the outside world and relied on outdated theories and textbooks.

The psychiatrist dreamed of building a small clinic in Baghdad that would offer group therapy and counseling. He brought American doctors to Iraqi mental wards to show them Iraq’s abysmal healthcare system. He sent funding proposals to the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled Iraq after Hussein’s fall.

U.S. officials listened with sympathy but had no money for his project. Their priorities were first relief, then election campaigns and eventually security, he said.

As violence worsened, American and Iraqi officials moved into the Green Zone, a heavily fortified compound along the Tigris River. U.S. soldiers began to refer to the city outside as the “red zone.” Baghdad was being divided.

“We used to meet them outside the Green Zone,” Butti said of U.S. officials. “Then things became that we had to go to the Green Zone [because] they couldn’t go out. Then our entrance to the Green Zone became very difficult.”


Outside the compound, gunmen took over streets, kidnapping and killing Iraqis. Doctors and academics in particular became targets. By 2004, many of the doctors who stayed in Iraq carried guns as they made their hospital rounds.

Leaving the house became a gamble, said Butti, who refused to arm himself for work.

Instead of progress, he and his wife saw advancing irrationality. Baher Butti -- a slight, balding man with a bookish air -- observed the proliferation of faith healers. Balsam Butti -- composed, beautiful and partial to charcoal-colored suits -- noticed that more women were giving birth at home, unable to make it to the hospital because of curfews or violence. As a result, more babies were stillborn and more women bled to death during labor, she said.

“Collectively speaking, we have regressed,” Baher Butti said. “I’m a believer in God, but it doesn’t make me superstitious. But our people are becoming superstitious.”

Fundamentalism also took hold. Arsonists torched the Buttis’ local library. Liquor store owners were assassinated. Three gunmen shot Balsam Butti’s cousin in the stomach as he stood behind the counter of his convenience store. His family believes he was killed for selling beer.

Under Hussein’s secular rule, Iraq’s Christians were allowed to prosper and practice their faith without much trouble. At Christmas, Iraqi Muslims would go out caroling with their Christian neighbors.

But in the new Iraq, Christians in the Buttis’ neighborhood received death threats and fled. By Christmas 2004, pews at their local church were half empty. Extremists targeted barbers for giving Western-style haircuts and violating strict Islamic teachings by trimming or removing men’s beards. Baher Butti forbade his teenage son to wear his hair the way he wanted it -- spiky.

Violence closed in. Their world was shrinking.

Friends left the country. The Buttis no longer went swimming at the Al Wiya Club in downtown Baghdad, now nearly deserted. Eventually, they stopped visiting relatives living outside the capital.

The retreat into their middle-class home in the Baghdad suburbs was bittersweet. Suddenly, there was more time with each other and their children -- 9-year-old Ula and her two brothers, 17-year-old Sarmad and 20-year-old Fadhil. Baher and Balsam’s marriage blossomed.

On most nights, the family would gather in their cozy living room, watching their favorite TV shows -- “Friends” and “The West Wing.” Shipwrecked by the upheaval around them, they clung to each other and their island of normality.

Baher refused his family’s advice: Abandon Baghdad, move abroad and start a new life. He believed his roots in Iraq were too deep. His grandfather had served as a minister of culture. Baher wanted to build his own legacy -- the Al Janna, or Paradise, clinic.

On May 7, 2005, a bright Saturday morning, Balsam was standing in the kitchen rolling up dolmas. The phone rang and Sarmad picked it up. After a brief conversation, he turned to his mother. “Mama, Ula is in danger,” he said. “She is in Al Kindi Hospital.”

A bomb had ripped through the school bus carrying Ula and seven other girls from Dijla Primary School. Balsam, otherwise unflappable, panicked. She frantically called Baher, who had taken their car for repairs. Rushing to the hospital in a taxi, Baher prayed incessantly for his daughter’s survival.

At Al Kindi -- a dirty, depleted hospital downtown -- doctors had taken Ula for X-rays, examining the damage done to her freckled face. They stitched her wounds without anesthetics.

When Baher found Ula, he showered her bruised and bloodied face with kisses. He thanked God that shrapnel had slashed his daughter’s nose rather than her eyes, that only her lips, not her throat, had been slit open. He swept her up and took her to a plastic surgeon, a family friend, who immediately treated the girl. Eventually, the scars would disfigure only Ula’s skinny arms.

“That day,” Balsam said, “she blamed me because she didn’t want to go to school but I had forced her to go.”

Ula’s nightmares, which she often remembered the next morning, added to her mother’s feelings of guilt.

“During the first month, every day she would give us a segment of the incident, a phrase here and a phrase there,” Balsam said. “She used to say: ‘There was a tank beside us, and the tank was hit. The driver was injured.’ In another segment she said: ‘The girl beside me was silent. Why was she silent? Did she die or not?’ ”

Although some were seriously injured, all seven girls survived.

Later her daughter told her, “ ‘I don’t want to remember,’ ” Balsam said. “ ‘I don’t remember and I don’t want to remember.’ ”

Baher let his daughter be. Better that she forgets, he thought, even if he could not.

On a recent spring day in Baghdad, traffic was at a standstill as trucks unloaded mountains of generators and washing machines -- goods once unobtainable in Iraq.

A hot dog vendor did brisk business underneath a sign advertising the South Korean company LG and its slogan, “Life’s good.” Down a side street, a group of boys played soccer in a dusty field.

Around the corner in a garden, six female doctors and healthcare workers sat in the shade, talking shop. Baher Butti was listening in on their discussion. Behind him, a sign spelled out “Al Janna” -- Paradise.

He had finally built it.

An Iraqi advertising executive, looking for publicity, had donated $10,000. Baher used the money to buy a modest house, creating a refuge for the afflicted. Upstairs, in an empty studio, a patient had been working on a painting as part of his therapy. The half-finished piece on the aisle showed soldiers on horseback attacked by lions.

“It’s a small place, but it’s just the beginning,” Baher said, mixing pride and apology.

For him, however, it was the end -- a seed of hope he could no longer sustain. After Ula’s school bus was hit, the Buttis decided to leave Iraq. As soon as Sarmad finishes his exams, they will join relatives in the United Arab Emirates.

But that decision ruptured the family bond that had strengthened during the last three years of violence.

The older son, Fadhil, has refused to leave, convinced that he and his friends will be able to change Iraq for the better.

“It’s my country,” Fadhil said. “This is the place I was born, and I want to die here. I don’t want to go outside. We -- the students -- we will change it. It’s our duty.”


Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi and Shamil Aziz in Baghdad contributed to this report.