When the gunmen came to the gate of their Baghdad home, the lives of the sisters-in-law Huda, 16, and Sajeeda, 24 - the names they wish to be known by - were about to change for ever. It was 17 September 2003. "We were cleaning the front porch when five armed men came in, seized us and put a cloth over our mouths," recalls Huda.
After losing consciousness, she remembers waking up in the house of Um Ahmed, a female pimp, in the Saidiye district of Baghdad. "At first, I thought it was a nightmare, then I realised I was on a bed that was not mine, my sister-in-law Sajeeda was with me, and we were alone."
Sajeeda had been married only five weeks earlier.
Then came the beatings and the journeys between different houses and apartments in the city, orchestrated by Um Ahmed and her husband. Huda and Sajeeda were hidden in different locations across Baghdad, without food or water. "We tried to escape many times," Sajeeda says. "But they hit us and threatened to kill us. There was nothing we could do."
Meanwhile Huda's mother, Aisha, was searching for them. She went to her local police station, to the Baghdad police anti-kidnapping unit, all to no avail.
Ten days later, Um Ahmed sold the girls to an Egyptian man called Mohammed Hassan Khalil. "Because I was not married, I was sold for $6,000, and Sajeeda for $3,000," says Huda. "My hymen had a price - this is when we realised that we were going to have to do bad things with men. We were terrified."
The women's new "owner" drove them, with another Iraqi woman, to Syria. All were given new names and passports to cross the border. With no American soldier in sight, Huda and Sajeeda - renamed Haura abdel-Hamid and Rent Laith for the occasion - left Iraq. They arrived at Damascus airport to fly to Yemen.
"When we passed through customs to take a flight to Yemen, we told a Syrian official that we did not want to fly, that we had been abducted," says Huda. Khalil was beaten and taken for questioning, to the relief of the three women. "We thought we were going to go home, but then he was released. He beat Sajeeda so much that evening that she could not walk any more, she was in so much pain," recalls Huda. "He left us in a flat in the city centre, and went to see a Syrian customs official that he knew he could bribe. We had to wait a week for Sajeeda to get better, then we flew to Yemen."
When the women arrived at Damascus airport, the corrupt official was present, and accepted Khalil's claim that the three were willingly travelling with him.
Khalil's version of events has been accepted by Colonel Faisal, head of the Baghdad anti-kidnapping unit. In an interview given in March, Col Faisal dismissed the girls' ordeal by saying that "those girls eloped with two young men who offered to marry them". He added that "there is no widespread abduction wave in Baghdad".
Khalil's wife, Um Issam, an Iraqi, met the women at the airport in Sana'a. She took them to the el-Diafe Hotel in Aden. There, Huda looked after her sister-in-law's beating injuries and both were assigned cleaning tasks in the hotel until Sajeeda was able to do other work. "One day, Um Issam came to my room. She said that she had paid a good price for us, and that is was time to do real work," Sajeeda says. It meant what the other 180 Iraqi women and girls were doing in the hotel, selling sex. Huda says: "All those Iraqi women and girls, the youngest of whom was only 11 years old, were forced to have sex with men from Yemen, America, and the Gulf states. They worked day and night, for no payment, and when they refused, they were locked up in a toilet for 10 days, forced to drink water from the toilet bowl to survive."
The women challenged Um Issam's orders. They were beaten so badly that Sajeeda had to have hospital treatment. After this episode, unable to do "other" work, both girls were permanently assigned cleaning duties in the hotel.
Tips from customers allowed the women to save up money to call their mother, Aisha, in Iraq on a neighbour's satellite phone. "They were begging for me to save their lives," Aisha says. "I told her that I would save them, no matter what."
After receiving no assistance from the Baghdad anti-kidnapping unit, Aisha turned to the Americans for help. She found a sympathetic ear in the person of Sergeant First Class Troy EStewart at the headquarters of the 1st Armoured Division Artillery in Baghdad. He could not do much, but wrote to the Yemeni embassy urging it to facilitate Aisha's travel to Yemen. She recalls that Sgt Stewart was so moved by her story that he took her picture to show his wife and daughters in the US.
"When I collapsed in despair one day, he dispatched a car to drive me home, he was always so kind to me," she says.
Week after week, Aisha went to the Yemeni embassy and to members of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council until a deal was finally negotiated with the Yemeni government for the release of all the women detained in the el-Diafe Hotel. The scandal was embarrassing the Yemeni government.
"One day in early April, they raided the hotel and put us all in a bus to Sana'a," Huda says. "When we arrived at the airport, the police said that the women who could afford a plane ticket could go back to Iraq, and that the others would have to marry and stay in Yemen." These 180 women had never been paid, had been abducted from their homes and trafficked out of Iraq with fake passports. None had the money or any identification to fly out of Sana'a that day, nor any other day.
Huda and Sajeeda rang the Iraqi "madame" in Yemen, Um Issam, and begged for help. "Some women were married off by Um Issam, for a large sum of money, under the promise that they would get back to Iraq at a later date, but we decided to get back to Iraq, and promised to work for Um Issam there," says Huda. "Mohammed sent us passports, and two days later we came back to Baghdad through Amman." When they arrived in Baghdad, the girls were scared to go home. "Um Issam told us that we had tarnished our family honour, that our families would kill us," Sajeeda says. "We then realised that we would have to work as prostitutes, and we would have rather died. So we escaped and came back home."
The two young women talked to The Independent at Huda's home in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. Huda was welcomed with open arms by her parents. Sajeeda, however, was in hiding from her family after her own brother vowed to kill her if she refused to divorce her husband. In her brother's mind, she had cast shame on to her family, and had to be kept under lock and key for the rest of her life. When asked if the US-led occupation was to blame for their ordeal, Huda, Sajeeda and Aisha all answer that organised crime existed long before the arrival of the US in their country. Aisha explains: "I wanted to meet US soldiers again to ask for help but the Iraqis refused that; no one but the Americans had helped me."
Mohammed Hassan Khalil, who took the girls to Yemen, was arrested in Baghdad in April but released without charges. Um Ahmed and her husband fled to Jordan, and Um Issam is still in Yemen, her business flourishing. As Aisha puts it: "The criminals who took my daughters are Saddam's heritage." So is the New Iraq legal system, it seems.