By Uthman al-Mukhtar in Ramadi (ICR No. 318, 05-Jan-10)
For 30-year-old Anbar resident Halema Hashem, December 30 began with the promise of a family feast.
In the morning, she told her four children she was going to cook a big dinner after buying groceries with the widow's benefit she was due to pick up that day. She also borrowed her neighbour's new gown to wear when she visited her husband's grave along the way.
Less than an hour later, Hashem was waiting to collect her welfare payment when a truck bomb struck Anbar province's main government compound, where people were queuing to receive their benefits.
A short while afterwards, she was lying in hospital, wrapped in bandages and strung about with intravenous tubes.
The double bombing in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, killed 30 people and wounded more than 100. Although the attacks targeted high-ranking officials, civilians including at least seven women and three children were also killed.
The government compound includes the provincial council building and a benefits centre that distributes subsidies to low-income families that have lost breadwinners.
Hashem has made a living by selling bread in central Ramadi since her husband was killed by al-Qaeda in 2006.
She was standing in line when a truck filled with four tonnes of explosives blew up some 30 metres away.
In addition to the seven women who were killed, ten more were severely injured and remain in hospital in Ramadi and Fallujah, according to Dr Abdullah al-Dulaimi, a trauma surgeon.
All 17 of these casualties were widows whose husbands were killed during the insurgent violence that devastated Anbar from 2004 to 2006.
The women, some of whom had their children with them, had been waiting since 8:30 am to receive a monthly allowance of 100,000 dinars, worth 90 US dollars. The blast killed three children under six years old and wounded six others.
"I was sixth in line. I had a little chat with the women standing in the queue because we meet every month. A policeman was standing near us organising the queue; I think he was killed in the bombing," Hashem told IWPR as she lay in bed in Ramadi General Hospital on December 31. As she spoke, she struggled to cover her legs with her bloodstained dress.
"We were getting ready to enter the building at around 9:30. All I remember was a wave of heat and a powerful sound. We flew in the air like a shirt falling from the clothes line. Shrapnel and glass fell on our heads. There were screams and groans all around us."
At this point, Hashem was sure she was going to die, and she says only the thought that her children would be orphaned gave her the strength to stay alive. She finally lost consciousness when a chunk of burning-hot metal landed on her chest.
"I woke up in the hospital with doctors around me," she said. "The neighbour who'd lent me the gown brought my children in. The doctor has told me I will be able to leave after a few days, but I will have to come to the hospital every week to check for infection from the shrapnel."
Dr Mohanad Faris said Hashem suffered serious injuries to her head and back in addition to an extremely serious wound to her chest which may require extensive surgery.
Against strict doctor's orders barring physical contact, Hashem's seven-year-old daughter managed to reach her mother's side. As she planted a flurry of kisses on her mother's head, she whispered that she would study hard and do her best to keep the bread-selling business going along with her siblings.
"We've been sleeping alone for the last two days. We get scared when the power goes off at night," said Ahmed, Hashem's 13-year old son, as everyone in the room broke into tears. "I don't want her to leave us like my father did. We need her."
Another victim of the bombing, Sabiha Fadel, was in the next room. The 30-year-old seamstress from Fallujah suffered severe burns to her face and needed surgery to remove a three-centimetre piece of shrapnel that had lodged next to her spine.
"I was trying to collect benefits along with the rest of the women," she said. "Then the explosion came, and it mowed people down like a machine. There was a big truck, and I heard police yelling at the driver to stop. I heard one of them firing in the direction of the truck before it smashed into the checkpoint and exploded only 30 metres away from us."
Fadel, who lost both her husband and her father in a US rocket attack during the battle for Fallujah in late 2004, lives in her late father's house. The only consolation, she said, was that she had left her son with her mother the day the attack happened because he had flu.
Now she is worried that her injury will leave her disabled.
"I wish I could die rather than be disabled for the rest of my life. My dream of getting married again and starting a new life has come to an end. Who would agree to marry a woman with a large scar down her back or a crippling injury?" she said.
"It seems it is this family's destiny to die in terror attacks, and now it is my turn."
On the same day, in central Ramadi's al-Suffiya district, six-year-old Omar Jamal greeted mourners at the funeral of his mother Khadija Suhail, 28, another of the widows who died in the bombings.
Khaled Suhail, 40, Omar's uncle and Khadija's elder brother, said, "My sister went to collect the monthly allowance and came back to us a dead body. Frankly, there is no way to describe what we are going through."
Khaled said he was frustrated by the lack of attention given to casualties among civilians like his sister.
"The media didn't mention the civilian casualties and only focused on the injury and death of officials. The dead women were just numbers," he said.
Dr Dulaimi said three of the ten women still in hospital were in critical condition, and could die because their injuries were serious but their relatives could not afford to send them abroad for treatment.
"None of the officials has visited these women, as opposed to what's happened with the rest of the police and officials injured in the bombings," he said.
Mizher Hassan al-Mullah, a representative of the Anbar governor's office, pointed out that the December 30 attacks were not the first bombings to kill women and children in Ramadi.
"The spectre of violence has returned to complete its purpose of eliminating entire families. In this instance, the bombs destroyed whole families because the mothers who died were filling the role of father as well," said Mullah.
Saadi Rajab, who works for the Anbar's welfare department, said 47,000 widows, divorcées and disabled women are enrolled in the same benefits programme as last week's victims.
"Thank God, the welfare department has opened offices in other towns [in Anbar]," he said. "It would have been a worse disaster if hundreds had been waiting when the explosion happened."
Uthman al-Mukhtar is an IWPR-trained freelance journalist in Fallujah.