الواجهـة العربيـة

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Iraqi Voices

September 18, 2003

The homecoming

For 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.

She 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 be removed.

Mother 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.

Until 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.

Abtehale 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 for themselves.

The 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.

Opinion 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?

They 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."

Yet, 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."

The 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 obsessed.

"They 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," Yasser says.

Second, 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 Council consults.

Third, 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."

The 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."

Tens 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.

Despite 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.

"You 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."

They 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."

There 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."

One 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."

There 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."

Yasser 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.

Despite 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."

Yet 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?'"

There 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."

As 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."

Swinging 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."

"Second, 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 picture."

As 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 come home."

The 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.)

Yasser 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."

He is holding Sama's hand. They smile. Suddenly, I have a strong sense that they - and perhaps Iraq - are going to be OK.


© 2007 Iraqi Prospect Organisation