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Iraq wedding fire: Man who lost fiancee remembers painful final call

Christian town in northern Iraq still in shock and mourning one week after a tragic fire at a wedding left over 100 people dead
Steven Nabil holds a photo of his fiancee Maryam Naeem who died in the Hamdaniya wedding fire on 26 September (MEE/Ismael Adnan)
By Ismael Adnan in Al-Hamdaniya district, Iraq

DJ Steven Nabil stepped outside the al-Haytham wedding hall in northern Iraq for a 10-minute break. 

Moments before he left, he had stopped by to see his fiancee, Maryam Naeem, who was among the guests. 

They talked briefly, shared a joke, and he brought her younger brother a small ball. 

He did not think it would be the last time he saw her, and did not expect her next call. 

“I am going to die,” Naeem, 21, told him over the phone. “Take care of yourself, I love you.”

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The main wedding hall, where Naeem was, had caught on fire minutes after Nabil left.

As soon as he learnt about the inferno, the only thought in the 23-year-old’s mind was saving his bride-to-be. 

“I quickly went to the hall, and when I arrived, it was burning,” Nabil told Middle East Eye.

'Maryam is gone forever and I am left alone'

- Steven Nabil, fire survivor 

"The smoke was too much. I tried to enter from the bathrooms because she was there and broke the window, and I could not enter either because of the smoke,” he said. 

"Here I began to feel despair and extreme sadness. I did not know the fate of my fiancee while the hall was burning."

Naeem was among 107 people who died in the fire that day, which left an additional 166 people wounded. 

She had taken shelter in the bathrooms with dozens of other women. The fire didn’t reach them, but the thick, toxic smoke emanating from the blaze suffocated them to death.  

“I did not see Maryam when they took her out,” Nabil said. 

“But I learnt that when they took her out she was lying on the ground with her phone in her hand.”

Morning coffee 

Naeem was at the wedding as a guest, along with her parents and three brothers. 

They sat among the crowd of nearly 900 people in a venue that was designed for a capacity of 400. 

The blaze started after prohibited and highly flammable ceiling decorations caught fire from celebratory fireworks used during the slow dance of the bride and groom, according to the interior ministry

Officials said the fire trapped people inside the hall and rescue teams struggled to reach them due to there being only a few small doors. 

Poster of condolences for Maryam and her uncle Asem Naeem adorn a wall in Hamdaniya district (MEE/Ismael Adnan)
Poster of condolences for Maryam and her uncle Asem Naeem adorn a wall in Hamdaniya district (MEE/Ismael Adnan)

Moatasem Naeem, Maryam’s father, described a scene of chaos when people spotted the first flames. 

“We tried to leave through the main door but it was very crowded. We went back to the kitchen door and before we arrived, the electricity went off,” Moatasem recounted. 

In the dark, people couldn’t see each other. When the family arrived at the kitchen, they realised Maryam was not with them.

"Maryam's mother started shouting her name. I tried to go back to look for her, but I couldn't because of the fire,” Moatasem told MEE. 

“We did not realise that this hall, which we go to from time to time, would take Maryam from us.

“Maryam was beautiful and very affectionate. One of her daily routines was to make coffee in the morning and drink it with her mother and myself.” 

'Left alone'

The tragic incident has devastated Hamdaniya, also known as Qaraqosh, a district in the northern province of Nineveh where it took place. 

The town, about 32km southeast of Mosul, is home to more than 25,000 people, the vast majority of them Christian. It’s one of the main centres of Iraq's Christian community.

One week after the disaster, most shops remain closed and life is at a standstill. Signs of condolences adorn walls in almost every alleyway. 

Like many in the town, grief and trauma still grip Nabil, who spends his days looking at photos of his fiancee, and his nights visiting her grave. 

“We got engaged on Valentine’s Day 14 February 2022,” he told MEE. “We chose this day to be a beautiful memory.” 

Steven Nabil spends most of his days looking at photos of his fiancee Maryam Naeem (MEE/Ismael Adnan)
Steven Nabil spends most of his days looking at photos of his fiancee Maryam Naeem (MEE/Ismael Adnan)

The duo initially planned their wedding for early September and booked the now-destroyed al-Haytham hall for the occasion. 

“Our engagement period was very exciting. We always went out and enjoyed our time, bringing gifts to each other,” he said 

“The last gift I brought to Maryam was on 9 September and it was a hand bracelet.”

Eventually, they decided to postpone the wedding until early October, as Nabil was waiting to start a new government job before tying the knot. 

“We bought all the equipment and clothes. We were going through happy and joyful days.

“I postponed our marriage then what happened, happened. Maryam is gone forever and I am left alone.”

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