It was with a word that this story began, a word I’ve often heard since tossed about with casual ignorance. That night it was spoken with the longing the Arabs call haneen - a longing that haunts the imagination like the sound of water in the desert.

Part I: Leyla

Kamaran remembered little of his early life: an airless room blacked out against the heat, the yelping of jackals in the night, a sweaty crone with a gold tooth who called him ‘the Unfortunate Jamila’s boy’.

A little girl was standing on the steps outside, leaning against the wall, one foot tucked behind her. She twisted shyly on the other, turned her face away and meowed like a cat.

As the children headed north the alleyways began to fill with people. A young woman stood on the bonnet of a car, waving a flyer above her head. ‘To the streets! To the streets!’ she cried. ‘We must defend ourselves against the fascists! Defend our beloved Iraq!’

Part II: The White City

In November he watched the last of the geese trawl across the wintry sky and the thump of their wings seemed to cry Baghdad! Baghdad! Rusty leaves hopped along the pavements like sparks from a dying fire and Helsinki, marooned by the sea, braced itself as darkness fell once more.

After the fireworks finished they stumbled from one pub to another like a bad joke - a Latino and an Arab walked into a bar - and Kamaran began to feel as if he was tailing a rampaging bear that had escaped from a zoo.

‘You’re a journalist,’ he said. 'You know about the ruthlessness of the regime. But,’ Kamaran leant into the firelight so she could see his face, ‘perhaps it’s hard for you to understand what fear alone can do. I mean fear that makes you think about everything you say.'

Part III: Majnun

Day after day they toiled, carving out a system of trenches which looked like the unearthed burrow of a desert rodent. Their bunkers were little more than caves scraped in the ground. A sheet of canvas held down with rocks masqueraded as a roof and in each of these dugouts, no bigger than a tomb, three men lived.

Leyla groped for the lighter but knocked it to the floor. Cursing, she crouched down and fumbled on the ground. At that moment another explosion shook the house and sent plates crashing into the sink. She ran back across the courtyard as the sky turned white above her.

Every position told the tale of a doomed and frantic flight. The tyre marks which scarred the mud led inexorably to the charred carcass of a truck or tank, some still ensnared in their own camouflage nets.

She passed a row of bombed out houses - a low mound of rubble, criss-crossed with paths where people had taken a short-cut between two alleys. A flock of white pigeons clattered over the rooftops as she emerged from the passageway, and she found herself in the square.

Illustrations by Adela Ryle