September 18, 2003
some Londoners, the war against Saddam wasn't just about
politics. It was about the future of their homeland
- and the chance to return to it. Johann Hari meets
three young exiles who have just had their first taste
of life in 'free' Iraq
In April 1980, there was a knock on the door of Faezah
Hadad's house in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein's police forced
open the door before she could answer, pointed guns
into her face and ordered her to come with them.
was holding her 12-hour-old baby Sama in her arms. This
was no deterrent to the police: members of the Hadad
family had been discovered to be part of the opposition
to Saddam, so they were all now officially enemies to
and daughter were bungled into a rusty old van. They
endured a crunching, bumping six-hour drive. No water.
No food. No light. Faezah began to haemorrhage. Dumped
at the Iranian border, she thought she was going to
die. When she was inspected by Iranian doctors, they
said she was lucky to be alive. Baby Sama left Iraq
that day for the last time, and lived in exile from
her country in Syria, Greece, Canada and, for the past
two years, Britain, always dreaming of home.
this summer. With the Baathist regime that slaughtered
many of her relatives now only a terrible memory, Sama
returned early in July to a home she had known for only
18 hours. I first met her through the London-based Iraqi
Prospect Organisation (IPO), a pressure group she founded
along with her husband Yasser Alaskary (who is also
23 years old) and several other Iraqi exiles, including
my friend Abtehale Al-Husseini.
is small and looks frail, but her life story has not
allowed her to be weak. When she speaks about Iraq there
is a firmness in her eyes. This group of medical students
look and sound like any group of young Londoners - we
usually meet in a Starbucks to discuss the situation
in the Middle East - but they do not have any of the
cynicism or fashionable apathy associated with our age
group. Rather, they have an infectious enthusiasm for
the potential of the new Iraq. This is why, in June
and July, they returned to Iraq to evaluate the situation
IPO was set up to convince the world that the Iraqi
people wanted and needed Saddam's regime to be overthrown,
even if that meant an invasion, and for democracy to
be established. They wanted to persuade people that
the anti-war movement did not speak for the Iraqis or
Kurdish people. After all, their Iraqi relatives were
praying for the invasion to happen.
polls conducted in Iraq since the war - by reputable
polling agencies that have predicted election results
across the world - have vindicated this view, showing
that a large majority of Iraqis wanted the invasion.
And there was therefore reason to hope that this visit
to Iraq would be a happy one. None the less, I have
spent the summer fearing for Sama, Yasser and Abtehale.
Partly I was anxious for their physical safety: they
were very close to the UN headquarters on the day the
building was blown up, for example. But mostly I worried
about their emotional health. All three had spent their
lives pining for home. What if home disappointed them?
What if the Iraqi people saw them as strangers? What
if Iraqis did not want to hear them evangelise for democracy?
returned to London earlier this month. The minute they
arrived at my flat, beaming and speaking at a hundred
words a minute, my fears evaporated. Abtehale began:
"We were so scared that we might have been wrong.
We kept thinking, 'What if we get there and everybody
hates us for supporting the war?' But it was amazing:
almost everyone we met was more hawkish than us. All
over the country, even people who really hated the Americans
agreed it would have been a disaster if the war had
been called off." Yasser said: "One of the
first things my uncle said to me was that his greatest
fear in the run-up to the war was that the Americans
would do what they did in 1991 and leave us to Saddam."
Yasser admits: "The first fortnight, I was really,
really depressed. Everyone in Iraq had been totally
conditioned to wait to be told what to do by the state.
Anybody with initiative got tortured or killed by Saddam,
so people just waited for orders. So even after the
liberation, they couldn't understand that they were
free; they didn't know what it meant. But then I saw
that gradually they were realising, and that day by
day they were sort of defrosting."
IPO people went to Iraq with clear goals. First, they
wanted to establish debating societies and newsletters
in the Baghdad universities. "These are going to
be the seeds of democracy," Yasser explains. "Once
you learn to argue against people instead of killing
them as Saddam did, you're on your way. We explained
to the university students that they could have different
newspapers - and even have different opinions in the
same newspapers - and it seemed totally surreal to them.
They just couldn't understand it. But when they realised
that it really was possible and nobody was going to
punish them, they were so excited that they were just
were in the middle of their exams and supposed to be
studying, but they insisted on writing and photocopying
a newsletter that they distributed everywhere. They
wrote articles on amazing things they could find out
about on the internet - philosophy and art and the difference
between proportional representation and first-past-the-post!
It was the best thing in my life, seeing that,"
the IPO wanted to ensure that young Iraqis had a voice
in the government of their country. Thanks to their
lobbying, there will be a youth body that the Governing
Sama explains: "We took a group of university students
to a workshop arranged by a Washington-based organisation
about how to set up NGOs [non-governmental organisations].
To you or me it would seem incredibly basic, but to
them it was a revelation. They hadn't understood that
you could set up your own organisation, without any
orders or permission from anyone. They thought societies
and charities were something the state did to you, something
secretive and conspiratorial, not something people create
for themselves. It was beautiful to see this happening."
most biting disappointment facing the IPO members, however,
has been the fact that when Saddam's vast prisons were
opened, none of the hundreds of thousands of missing
people emerged alive. Abtehale's grandmother suffered
a second stroke when it became obvious to her a week
after the liberation that her missing son, husband and
nephew were not going to appear, traumatised but alive.
Yasser's mother still refers to her missing brother
and sister as "imprisoned". He says: "I
try to tell her that there are no more prisons to be
opened up, that they're gone and she has to grieve.
But she can't bear to hear it."
of thousands of Iraqis are making a weekly pilgrimage
to Kadhimiya, where a human rights centre has been set
up to log on computer the names of all the hundreds
of thousands of people executed by the regime. They
have six million files to work through, seized when
the regime fell. They have processed two hundred thousand
so far. Abtehale went there searching for her grandfather
and uncle. So far, they seem to have vanished without
record into Saddam's vast torture machine.
his vigorous support for the war, Yasser has no doubt
that the occupying coalition made one massive error
when they took charge. "They didn't round up all
the former members of Saddam's security services, and
we're paying the price now," he explains. "My
aunt lives in a slum in north-west Baghdad, and on 9
April [the day Saddam's statue was toppled] everyone
in the security services disappeared. They all ran away
because they knew they would be killed by Iraqis or
captured by the Americans. But after two months, they
began to trickle back. The man who lives opposite my
aunt was part of Saddam's secret police, and he's reappeared
and he's just carrying on as if nothing happened. He
terrifies everyone just by walking up the street.
have to understand, people were conditioned to be fearful
all the time. So even now it takes a huge amount of
courage to report that there's a former member of the
Mukhabarat [Saddam's secret police] living on your street,
but even if you do report it, he just gets questioned
and then the Americans let him go. So people ask, 'Why
should I put my life at risk of a revenge attack to
report somebody if then nothing will happen?' But it's
these Saddam loyalists, I'm certain, who are leading
the attacks [against coalition forces and Iraq's civilian
infrastructure]. If they had rounded them up at the
start, things would not be so bad now. The only people
who can recognise these Bakti and hunt them down now
are the Iraqi people themselves."
even fear that Baathists are again voicing their allegiances
publicly. "When we first arrived," Sama says,
"nobody would admit to being part of Saddam's machine.
But by the time we left, we had people admitting blatantly
that they had been with Saddam, even people saying they
had been in his elite forces." They met some students
who were the children of thugs who had been high up
in Saddam's regime, and "they were going around
one of the Baghdad universities writing things on the
walls, like 'Long live Saddam Hussein, may he return'.
Now, only a tiny number support this kind of thing [less
than 5 per cent of Iraqis, according to all available
opinion polls], but it is absolutely terrifying everyone."
have been moments of great joy this summer, too. "When
it was confirmed that Saddam's sons were dead, Baghdad
was like a big party," Sama says. "So many
people were firing into the sky [a traditional Arab
form of celebration] that it looked like a firework
display." Yasser adds: "My aunt's husband
was killed by Saddam. That morning, she was sitting
on her own, very quietly, and she just said to me, 'Now
that bastard knows how we felt,' and she cried."
day was almost as great: 17 July, the anniversary of
the founding of the Baath Party. "A rumour went
all over that Saddam had been caught," Abtehale
says. "It was incredible: Baghdad came to standstill.
There were parties, celebrations everywhere. It was
funny, really: a rumour would start that he had been
captured in one area, so everyone jumped into their
cars and drove there. That's what we did. But when we
got there, they said, no, it's the next area along,
so we drove there. And they said, no, it's in east Baghdad
- so we all drove there. And so it went on. But when
we found out that it wasn't true, it was terrible."
has been a boom industry in Iraq of videos showing real
footage of Saddam's crimes. They include horrifying
scenes of his acts of torture. "People watch it
compulsively because they feel they need to know what
happened," Sama told me. "Here in Britain,
people know more about what happened during the Saddam
years than Iraqis do, because they had no way of finding
out the truth."
says quietly: "The day after the liberation, my
aunt put out a black banner [an Arab mourning ritual]
with the names of all her relatives who had been murdered
by the regime on it. And she looked down her street,
and there were black banners on almost every house.
On some houses it looks like a long shopping list. She
said to her neighbour, 'You too?' Under Saddam it was
a crime to mourn people killed by the regime - it made
you seem suspicious too. Everyone was suffering terribly,
but they were suffering alone. They just didn't know
that everyone else was hating it too." Even now,
people are only just coming to terms with the massive
crimes thathave been committed against them. Sama talked
to a group at a university about her family's experiences.
Afterwards, a girl approached her and whispered: "You
were deported? I have never told anyone this before,
but my uncle was deported too." Sama explained
that more than two million people had been deported
by the Baathists, and there was no shame in it. The
girl had had no idea.
their joy that Saddam's tyranny has ended, the IPO is
not blind to the huge problems that have resulted. "The
electricity is a massive problem, and people are really
angry in Baghdad," Abtehale says. "In some
places, like Nasiriyah, it's better than under Saddam,
but in Baghdad it's much worse. The looting is terrible,
too. People have even stolen the road barriers because
they are made of iron and can be melted down."
hope was restored by their trip to Northern Iraq. "It
was like going into a different world," Sama says,
her eyes welling up. "It's beautiful. It looks
like part of Europe. It's totally free and efficient
and secure and democratic. It was so encouraging, because
at the end of [the first] Gulf War it was just like
the rest of Iraq. We could make progress like that in
the next decade. We brought one of my cousins with us,
and he cried and said: 'Is this my country? Is this
really part of Iraq?'"
is a terrible fear among many Iraqis that they will
not be able to match the Kurds' achievement if they
are abandoned by the Americans once again. "The
memories of 1991 are so vivid," says Sama. "People
still fear that somehow the Americans will abandon us
and Saddam will claw his way back from the grave. They
say, 'It happened in 1991, it could happen again.' That's
one crucial reason why people are reluctant to cooperate
with the coalition." She adds: "I find it
absolutely incredible that the anti-war people are now
calling for the coalition to leave straight away. Nobody
in Iraq wants that. The opinion polls show it's just
13 per cent. Don't they care about the Iraqi people
and what they want at all? This isn't a game. This isn't
about poking a stick at George Bush. This is our lives."
for those who blame every problem in Iraq on the legacy
of sanctions, Sama has little time for them. "Iraqis
aren't stupid," she says. "They know that
Northern Iraq was under sanctions, too, and none of
the terrible things that happened under Saddam, like
dying babies, went on there. Most people call them 'Saddam's
sanctions'. The real issue was Saddam's tyranny, and
the way he used sanctions like he used everything else
to strengthen his rule."
her legs, happy and relaxed like I have never seen her
before, Sama says: "If we hadn't been to Iraq,
we'd be really depressed right now. I came back, saw
the news and thought, 'Are they talking about the same
Iraq?'" Is this, I wonder, because the media can
only deal with Arabs as victims or terrorists? The IPO
members don't think so. Rather, Yasser says, there are
several reasons why the reporting from Iraq is stressing
the negative over the positive. "First, buildings
being bombed is a much better story than the formation
of the Baghdad city council to clear up the rubbish
and sort out the sewers. Angry Iraqis make a better
story than hopeful Iraqis."
a lot of the media was openly anti-war, so now that
there are hundreds of thousands of mass graves being
opened up and all the evidence shows that the Iraqis
supported [the war], the media are latching on to the
few things, like the looting and, of course, the weapons
issue - that was always a red herring - that seem to
vindicate their position. And third - I know this sounds
like a petty point, but it's very important - a lot
of journalists are using the same guides and translators
that they used before the war, because they know them.
They don't seem to realise that those people were carefully
selected by the regime because of their loyalty to Saddam's
line. So most journalists are getting a totally distorted
super-smart medical students here in London, my three
friends are exactly the kind of exiles the new Iraq
needs to attract back. Iraqis need have no worries there.
"We seriously considered ditching our courses and
just staying. For the last few weeks we were there,
we felt sick because we didn't want to leave,"
Sama says. "It's strange, but I never felt at peace
like I do in Iraq. The minute I arrived, I knew I had
IPO will be starting a campaign calling for a mass movement
across Britain and America that does not call simplistically
for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, but instead urges
the coalition to begin a steady transition to democracy,
alongside the cancellation of all Iraqi debt. This will
be launched in opposition to the End The Occupation
rally on 27 September being organised by a coalition
of Trotskyite and Islamic fundamentalist organisations.
Yasser describes this demonstration as "totally
unhelpful. If the occupation did end tomorrow, Iraqis
would be traumatised and appalled." (For information
about the IPO campaign, see www.iprospect.org.uk.)
adds: "There's something I'd like to say to your
readers. People who really care about Iraqis should
join us in fighting for democracy in Iraq and for the
debts accumulated by Saddam to be cancelled. Join Jubilee
Iraq [a group campaigning against Saddam's debt, contactable
at www.jubileeiraq.org]. Argue for the Governing Council
to be strengthened. Support us. Don't spend your time
hoping that Iraq fails just so you feel better about
opposing the war."
is holding Sama's hand. They smile. Suddenly, I have
a strong sense that they - and perhaps Iraq - are going
to be OK.