An Iraqi Odyssey (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A Baghdad family flees the bloodbath in their native city and seeks asylum in Sweden The horror began in 1986 with a summary execution. More than twenty years later it has come to an end, at least temporarily. From Baghdad to Stockholm, via Damascus, Alleppo and Kuala Lumpur, the ghosts of another life still haunt Wassan Al-Husseini and her children, son Mohammed, 28 and daughter Malik, 22 (not their real names), Shi'ite Muslims, as they wait for asylum in Sweden. Here in the frozen wastes of Swedish suburbia, Wasan, a lovely attractive vibrant Iraqi woman, with long brown hair, originally from Karbala about 50 miles south of Baghdad, feels safe, but also homeless, powerless and depressed. Wasan tries to mask her feelings with a jolly demeanor and an intense interest in all things Swedish. Her heroine is double Nobel prize winner Marie Curie, whom she first learned about in her Swedish classes and she takes great delight in seeing Curie's artifacts at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. But her sense of hopelessness is close to the surface. At 2:30 a.m. on January 15, 1986, Wasan was preparing breakfast, as she sometimes did in the very early hours of the day, her 11-month-old baby daughter sleeping nearby. Her husband, Ibrahim, was also sleeping in the living room. Officers of Saddam Hussein, then the almighty rulers of Iraq, broke into their home, waving their guns wildly. Threatening and screaming, they accused Ibrahim of being a traitor and helping the seccessionist Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein. They put a pistol to his head. Wasan, then a young woman with two small children, pleaded with them to show mercy. She screamed, she pulled her hair. She ran out of the house, begging for help on the empty streets. But the man called Ibrahim a coward, pulled the trigger and shot him dead. "I remember the sound of bullets," says Mohammed, who was 7 years old at the time. "I was crying, my mother was crying, begging them to stop, tearing her hair. Then he just fell like a mountain, and I saw a lake of blood flowing out of his head. My mother just screamed and screamed." Wasan was not physically or emotionally able to attend Ibrahim's funeral and, for two years, she rarely left the house, unable to return to normal life. Her own mother took care of her and her children. To this day, the family has few other connections. And now in Sweden, they remain a tightly knit family, packed into a characterless, utilitarian one-bedroom apartment they rent in a distant and Soviet-style suburb of Stockholm, a safe and sterile city, so different from cacophonous, bustling and deadly Baghdad. Few people walk the streets in the below-freezing winter. They have sought asylum in this snowy, icy land with tens of thousands of other Iraqis. But the Swedish authorities have rejected Wasan and Malik's requests, on the grounds that their lives were not in danger. Mohammed, it appears, has a stronger case, since the Swedes have accepted his contention that he became a marked man "for collaborating with the Americans," having worked for Titan, a defense contractor that provides translators for army and marine corps units in Iraq and other countries under a linguistic services contract with the Army's intelligence and security command. According to information provided by the company, Titan has more than 4,000 employees in Iraq, including more than 3,000 Iraqi nationals working as translators with U.S. military units. In 2005, Titan Corp. sustained the highest number of casualties of the 119 U.S. companies operating in Iraq, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Labor. Wasan and Malik, who wraps her hijab (scarf) tightly around her pretty face and, in apparent contrast, wears the same clothes as any of her Western contemporaries, have appealed the rejection, but it is unlikely that their requests will be granted. And so they wait, tense and frightened that they may have to return to Iraq, where, they believe, they will be murdered. Malik is smart and determined like her mother, yet keeps her stuffed animals around her room, a reminder of home. A small, paper Iraqi flag has been pasted high on the wall of their apartment. After the Americans came to Iraq in 2003, Mohammed, like most other Iraqis in the war-torn country, needed work. The Americans were looking for translators, and, even though Mohammed's English, learned on the streets and from the media, wasn't very good, the Americans believed they could trust him - his family is dependent upon him and needed the good salary that American companies could pay. So they taught him English and gave him on-the-job training. Today, his English is fluent and colloquial. But even with a secure job, Mohammed soon knew he would have to leave Baghdad. Hundreds of Iraqi translators have been killed. These translators may be the eyes and ears of American soliders but their own countrymen view them as traitors, hunt them down and kill them. Only a handful of special visas has been granted by the American government who promised them protection. The fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein has led to cataclysmic changes in Iraqi society, upsetting previous social orders. From their position as a privileged minority, the Sunnis have been relegated to a threatened minority. Although heavily outnumbered by the Shi'ites, the Sunnis had long ruled Iraq. And now in ascendance, the Shi'ites have established two paramilitary armies: the forces of the Badr Brigade, controlled by the Iranian-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Mahdi Army, that worships the fanatical Muqtada Al-Sadr. As the internecine violence persisted, during the years between 2003 and 2006, Mohammed couldn't sleep at night because of the shrieking of the mortar shells that rained down on his Shi'ite neighborhood. For nearly six months, Wasan and Malik remained imprisoned in their home, afraid to go out. And each night at 10 p.m., the Shi'ite Mahdi army, ignoring the Iraqi police, would brazenly set up checkpoints looking for Sunnis, and then melt into the background when American patrols showed up. Mohammed kept a low profile, attempting to hide his place of work from his Shi'ite neighbors, since this would have invoked immediate retaliation in this violently polarized society. He would stay away from home for days or weeks at a time, remaining at the company compound in the so-called green zone, the heavily guarded diplomatic-government area of closed-off streets in central Baghdad, where U.S. occupation authorities live and work. He would change cars and routes when he did return home to ensure that no one would know where he was working. Mohammed didn't think of himself as a traitor or collaborator. He thought of himself as a man who needed a job to take care of his mother and sister. And he also believed that he was actually helping his people, by explaining the situation to the Iraqis - preventing any misunderstandings that could lead to tragic deaths and unintended consequences and preventing misunderstandings. That way, he hoped, no one would get shot. But neighbors starting coming to the house, asking where Mohammed was, what he did, where he worked, why he was never around. Then they began to leave annonymous notes. "Your son works as an interpreter," most of the notes said. The Mahdi army began to be suspicious. "They were ready to execute anyone," attests Wasan, who was stopped and searched when she did venture outside. Mohammed would watch Mahdi militiamen drive around with Sunni men stuffed in the trunks of their vehicles. Their mutilated, beheaded bodies would be discovered soon after. "Not a day passed in Baghdad that someone you had known wasn't killed," says Mohammed. Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.