The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] The homecoming

[ Presenting plain-text part of multi-format email ]

      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
      18 September 2003

      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

      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]. 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.

[ trans.gif of type image/gif removed by -
   attachments are not permitted on the CASI lists ]

[ trans.gif of type image/gif removed by -
   attachments are not permitted on the CASI lists ]

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]