Rumors were spread by word of mouth. Some of them were exaggerated in the telling, no doubt, but even the most grisly were not, I am sure, so very far from the truth. AIDS, we were told, was a Western disease, an epidemic confined to the relative promiscuity of the non-Arab world. I was walking down 14th Ramadan Street with Hakim one day, however, when we noticed a poster in a shop window. The names of four women were printed in large letters, and text below the names urged anyone who knew these women to report them to the authorities. They were HIV-positive, the poster informed us, and were part of a wicked Zionist plot to spread AIDS around our great nation.
Hakim and I did not know the women, of course, so we thought little more about them, although the posters continued to appear in shop windows across Baghdad. A few weeks later, however, word spread that the women had been apprehended. The authorities had made no effort to arrest them formally, and they certainly had not been given any opportunity to defend themselves through any legal process. Instead they had been taken to Abu Ghraib prison, twenty miles west of Baghdad.
The notoriety of Abu Ghraib was enough to chill the fervor of even the most revolutionary citizens. Thousands of men and women were crammed into tiny cells … abuse, torture, and executions were daily occurrences.
The notoriety of Abu Ghraib was enough to chill the fervor of even the most revolutionary citizens. It was said that thousands of men and women were crammed into tiny cells and that abuse, torture, and executions were daily occurrences. The regime tested chemicals and biological weapons on the inmates, and some prisoners were given nothing but scraps of shredded plastic to eat. Chunks of flesh were torn from the bodies of some prisoners and then force-fed to others. Gruesome tortures involving power tools and hungry dogs were routine, and thousands of people who entered the doors of that fearsome place were never heard from again. It was known that mass graves existed around the country, and it was known in general terms where they were situated; but of course nobody dared to hunt out the final resting places of those poor men and women who had become victims of the enthusiastic guards at Abu Ghraib, for fear of becoming one of their number.
The four AIDS-stricken women were dealt with in a fashion brutal even by the standards of the prison. Stripped of their clothes, they were placed, alive and screaming, into an incinerator so that they and their “vile disease” could be utterly destroyed. In this way Saddam “delivered” our country from the horrific infections of the West and from the inequities of the “evil Zionist state.” I kept quiet about my maternal grandmother’s Jewish heritage. She was one of only a handful of Jews who remained in Iraq during the great exodus of 1950. Before that time there were about 150,000 Jews living in Iraq; now there were fewer than a hundred, and it would have done me no favors if anyone suspected that I might embrace Zionism.
Other atrocities took place more openly. As living conditions became increasingly intolerable, many women were forced into prostitution in order to make enough money to feed themselves and their families. It was an occupation deemed unacceptable by the state, punishable by death. The swift hand of justice was left to officials of the Ba’ath party, who were given orders to seek and behead all those suspected of prostitution. The standard of proof required was low, but the enthusiasm with which these officials carried out their work was high. Accompanied by two “witnesses” from the local community, they forced their way into the house of a suspect then dragged her out into the street, where a specialist executioner was waiting with a sword. He sliced off the head of the screaming women with one deft, well-practiced stroke. The head hung outside the woman’s house for two days, and her front door was branded with the warning “Hathihee Al-Qahba’a.” “This is the Whore.”
I remember a parade down one of the main thoroughfares of Baghdad when I was a child. The road was closed to traffic, and thousands of people joined in the march, which was intended to celebrate the glory of Saddam. As the day wore on, however, a small group of insurgents became vocal in their criticisms of the regime and started to shout anti-Saddam slogans. There weren’t very many—certainly only a small proportion of the crowd—but the Republican Guard was quick to react. A helicopter immediately flew overhead, and white paint was poured over the entire crowd—insurgents and noninsurgents alike. Heavily armed soldiers were then dispatched with orders to shoot anyone stained with white paint. The whole operation took less than an hour. A few lucky souls with paint only on their clothes managed to escape the crowd and change, but people with paint in their hair or bodies, where it was more difficult to remove, fared less well. The military scoured the area and shot dead anybody suspected of being part of the “uprising.”
A helicopter flew overhead, and white paint was poured over the entire crowd – insurgents and noninsurgents alike. Soldiers were then dispatched with orders to shoot anyone stained with white paint.
The town of Balad, north of Baghdad, had long been a place of neglect and oppression. Compared to Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, it suffered unbearable poverty and degradation. The people of Balad extended an official invitation to Saddam to come to town to discuss matters. As a cultural mark of respect, the wife of one of the leading tribesmen arranged for Saddam’s car to be marked with henna. Secretly, the tribesmen arranged for militia armed with RPG-launchers to be stationed on rooftops on the street where Saddam’s fleet would pass; their instructions were to destroy the henna-marked car on sight.
As arranged, the militia destroyed the marked car, along with 19 other cars. They then came down to street level and destroyed all except three of the remaining vehicles, which retreated with great haste. A checkpoint guard who was collaborating with the tribe reported that Saddam was in one of those three cars. His head of security had been suspicious and arranged for him to be moved to an unmarked vehicle.
The entire town immediately fled to Mosul or Samarra: everyone knew that retribution would be swift and uncompromising. Within hours, armed helicopters arrived and laid waste to Balad. The bulldozers arrived to destroy whatever was left of the place. In twenty-four hours, a whole town was turned to rubble; any civilians unlucky enough to have remained in what was left of their homes were bulldozed or burned to death.
During my teenage years, I made no secret to my family of the fact that I wanted to leave all this. As I grew up, I witnessed more and more of my friends in Baghdad—many of whom were older than I—somehow managing to make it across the border. Some made the dangerous trip into Iran, others made it to Kurdistan. I even heard that some claimed asylum in Israel. I longed to do the same. “At least finish your schooling,” my mother would beg me. “Then at least you will have some sort of grounding.” So I persevered at school, but with a certain reluctance: I simply saw it as an obstacle to be got out of the way before I could make attempts to leave the country.
Reprinted from ESCAPE FROM SADDAM by Lewis Alsamari. Copyright © 2008. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.