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Disclaimer: Some may find the content of this story to be distressing. It includes details relating to abuse, torture and many injustices faced by an innocent woman over forty years ago in Iraq. Reader discretion is advised.
17 July 1982. It’s late afternoon and I am on a mini-bus (or “Coaster” in Iraq-speak), heading home from college. The journey is a familiar one. We’re at the main checkpoint; a routine part of the trip. Some moments pass by at the checkpoint and people on the mini-bus begin to check their watches with unease. The lady in front of me turns to give me a quizzical look. This wait seemed to be taking longer than usual. I edge a bit forwards in my seat to glance outside – I can see a row of armed police officers, but today they seem to be in deep discussion with four men in regular clothing. Soon, the four men approach the mini-bus and ask everyone to hop off. We line up to get down, preparing our bags for what we know would be a search of our belongings. Sure enough, they begin a search.
My turn approaches and I zip open my handbag and hold it open for the officer to look through. He peers inside very quickly and grunts. “Wait behind,” he says before moving on to the next person. In the distance, I notice a masked man. One of the four men gestures towards me, and the masked man nods before disappearing.
My heart beats a bit faster as they signal the search complete and the bus driver motions everyone else to climb back in the mini-bus. I swallow and ask one of the officers why I’ve been asked to stay behind. It’s getting darker, and I think of my mother getting ready for dinnertime. ‘We would like to ask you a few questions. It will only take five minutes, we will get you home safe,’ one of the four men says. His tone is polite but I know something’s wrong. I swallow again, trying to think straight and make sense of the invading thoughts in my head. These men were not in uniform and that could mean only one thing. They belonged to the regime’s secret service, notorious for the many violations I had heard narrated to me in whispers.
I decide I am going to do everything in my power to avoid leaving with them. I tell them I can’t go. They ignore me, unfazed. I repeat that I can’t go, this time in a louder voice. ‘If you have questions to ask, I will give you my home address and you can see me there.’ I resist with excuse after excuse. They look at each other, clearly wondering how to deal with my unexpected resistance. I carry on: I say my mother and brother are at home expecting me soon. My voice gets louder and louder, despite their efforts to quieten me. I am hoping for a bystander to hear me and step in to help.
But their patience soon runs thin. Within moments, they drag me forcefully across the road and into a parked car. I try to release myself but their grip is tight. Inside the car, they blindfold and handcuff me. I feel the car start. The men were shouting at me, swearing and throwing angry threats in my direction. The abuse went on until the car stopped and they dragged me out again and into what I later came to know was a stolen house converted to an investigation centre.
My crime? I was displaying ‘suspicious behaviour’. I had been handing out food to families orphaned by the regime. I was not part of the regime’s compulsory ‘support groups’ either, the ones designed to support each other by spying on our peers at college.
The night feels so long. I am interrogated in a large, empty room. When the questions are over, they leave me to sleep in there saying I would face their chief interrogator in the morning. I am exhausted but of course, I cannot sleep. Throughout the night, I hear the sounds of women screaming. I later found out they were not women, but men being tortured in the courtyard, just outside the room I was kept in.
When the sun rises, a couple of the men from the previous night unlock the door and pull me up. I am taken to the Chief’s office. The Chief has an enormous frame. The palms of his hands are the largest I have ever seen. Palms that would later leave my ears ringing. As he barks questions at me about my friends at college, my family and my ‘crimes’, it becomes clear he knows every detail about my life. He calls me a liar with every word I utter and follows each of my responses with abusive language. He then orders his men to take me to the torture courtyard.
The day turned into three months. Three months of daily torture including: electric shocks, hanging off the ceiling on a rope, whipping with a rubber tube…. The others being interrogated with me faced the same treatment everyday. Our food was placed for us on the floor, on a piece of paper. We had no water, despite the scorching July heat. We could only use the toilets once every other day. When I think back to that dark time in the ‘Centre for Investigation’, it was the threats and the emotional abuse that wounded the most. One of the days, I was told I would face sentencing in court. There, some of us were sentenced to death, others received life sentences. A handful of others and I were handed a much shorter sentence. And that’s how I ended up in prison.
The first prison became my home for the next nine months. I was in a room packed with about a hundred women, in a space built for a quarter of that capacity. The women had a ‘shift system’: we took turns to lie down and sleep. Amongst the crowd of faces was an excited child who ran towards me with an innocence unworthy of prison walls. She spoke quickly, like she had so much to say and time was running out. “Aunt has arrived to visit” she said repeatedly. My daunting arrival at prison was dwarfed by my confusion at who this little girl was. I was distraught. What was she doing in a place like this? Or why was she so excited to see me and calling me her Aunt? I had just met Noor.
Noor was only three years old, and she was our light inside the prison walls. All of us played with her and helped her mother care for her. I taught Noor nursery rhymes, and she proudly sang them to the rest of the prisoners. Noor was born orphaned and a prisoner. Her father was killed by the regime on false charges and her mother had been imprisoned while pregnant with Noor.
I spent hours thinking about how Noor only knew these four walls. Alongside the tragedy of having never met her father, I thought about the little things. Noor had never tasted biscuits or smelt fresh air. I didn’t know how to comprehend her unique suffering. One day, I asked her mother, why had she told Noor I was her aunt when I arrived? She explained that it was important to her to make the most of the harsh situation and give Noor a sense of normality where she could. She would use the arrival of new prisoners to spread joy to Noor. Noor knew that when the metal gate opened, a new friend would arrive, a friend to break the otherwise stagnant prison routine where day and night passed by with the same abuse and suffering. Noor’s mother was doing her best despite the circumstances.
Forming a sisterhood
One of the worst ways they tortured us would be through continuous regime propaganda playing loudly and continuously from speakers throughout the prison. The sound was deafening and started from the very early hours of the day. If one of us fell ill, it would be a lucky day if we received any form of medical help. If we dared to defy the smallest of orders, the guards appeared to apply a form of punishment of their choosing. The worst was a one-square-metre cell they would leave us in for days. Religious expression was banned in prison, so we had to work extra hard to hide our prayers from the prison guards. We collected pieces of mud over time, crafting them into prayer beads that we would hide and only use when the prison guards were on a break.
Each of the women had their own stories of suffering and sacrifice. Yet, we stayed positive and strong for each other, reminding ourselves that with hardship comes ease. During the nine months in prison, we connected together spiritually. To each other, we were more than friends. We became family that continue to be a part of each others’ lives. They didn’t make it easy. But we made it work.
A door opens
After having spent four years in various prisons, I continued to receive threats. One day I found the secret service at my door. I was facing re-arrest. They were sat in the living room waiting for me. I braced myself: silently praying, with full conviction of the strength of my prayers in my heart, I got onto my knees to avoid them spotting me through the window. My home had a kitchen door that led to the back of the house, but the door had been jammed for years. Still on my knees, I grabbed the kitchen door handle. The one that hadn’t opened for years. I pulled on the handle. The door opened.
I ran. My first stop was to a local shop where I bought thick-rimmed glasses to disguise my face and wore new clothing. Then I got onto a bus beginning a long journey. I went from city to city, living in hiding. Eventually, I left Iraq.
The power of hope
During this time, I married a wonderful man. He had been a prisoner of the regime himself, and had insisted on finding an ex-prisoner for a life partner. Years later, after the fall of the regime, I located my prison records and was shocked by some of the information in my personal case files. I was shocked to know that the masked man who had identified me to the four men that afternoon was a neighbour, a few houses down from my family home. The crime that led to my imprisonment was my mother and I’s support for our next door neighbours: a widowed mother living with her five children, orphaned following the regime’s murder of their father. We would take warm meals to them, and help with their day to day needs. I remember my mother purchasing a sewing machine so that our neighbour could use it to earn a living. All of this was written in my personal records as evidence of criminal behaviour in support of a family who were also unjustly accused by the regime. I could not believe that this was my crime.
Despite the difficult chapters spanning decades, I am grateful for having served orphaned children then. I do not regret my actions. I am even more grateful that I can continue to serve orphaned children now. I find hope in organisations like Al-Ayn who I am blessed to volunteer with. I will never forget how a friend who was visiting me in London a few years ago told me “Al-Ayn suites you”. It symbolises the meaning of orphan sponsorship, comprehensive care that goes beyond financial aid. It reminds me of the hadith: “He who sponsors an orphan, and takes care of his sustenance, then he and I will be like these two in Paradise” – he then joined his middle and index fingers. Prophet Mohammed (SAWW).