Iraq war 13 years on: 'I was lucky to stay alive'

Iraqis reflect on how the US invasion and occupation changed their lives for ever.

    Iraq war 13 years on: 'I was lucky to stay alive'
    Thirteen years since the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the costs are still accruing [Getty Images]

    As Iraq marks 13 years since the US invasion and occupation, the costs of the war continue to accrue, generation after generation.

    While Iraqis continue to live with the legacies of the war, this is not the Iraq that so many of its people once knew. Here, Iraqis reflect on the indelible marks this conflict has left on their lives. 

     'Before, no one paid attention to who was Sunni and who was Shia, but the war changed all that' [Getty Images]

    'I do not know what my daughter looks like now'  

    Shaimaa, 46, could not hold back tears as she recounted how her life changed after the United States-led occupation of Iraq in 2003. She lost many loved ones and has not seen her daughter for years. 

    Shaimaa, who currently lives in Erbil, met her husband, Ismail, in 1998. Within a few months, they were married. "Our life was simple, but we were happy," she recalls. "Not in my worst nightmares could I have imagined that everything would change within a few years."

    My husband was a good man before the war, but the militia changed him. He became a cruel husband. He took my child away, and he wouldn't let me see her.

    Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, Ismail, a Shia Muslim, decided to join a militia. At first, he kept it a secret, but one day he came back home wearing a uniform.

    Shaimaa could do nothing to convince him to defect. "My daughter, Yasmine, was three at the time. It was hard for me to see Ismail become a fighter, but I had to accept that fact; I could not leave him," she said.

    The couple went through three turbulent years of family disputes. In 2006, events took a dramatic turn for Shaimaa when her brother, Mustafa, was abducted. Three days later, he was found dead on a deserted road in Baghdad.

    "We could barely recognise him. His body was [swollen], with holes in it. It was obvious that he was tortured, then killed," she said. Shaimaa mourned the loss of her younger brother for days on end. They were very close.

    At the time, Iraq was hit by a wave of sectarian violence in which thousands of people were killed.

    Barely three weeks after her brother's death, Ismael told her that "her brother deserved no mercy". Torturing and killing him was meant to set an example for all Iraqis who oppose the government, he said.

    "I realised then that my husband had something to do with the murder of Mustafa," Shaimaa said, noting the realisation led her to have a nervous breakdown. "I was locked [by my husband] in a room with neither food nor water for days, but the worst part was when Ismael took Yasmine, who was six at the time, to live with his mother and father."

    Shaimaa begged her husband to bring Yasmine back home. "I promised to say nothing about what he did. He threatened to take Yasmine away from me. I couldn't leave her." In 2008, Ismael ended the marriage and forced Shaimaa out of the house, but kept their daughter.

    Shaimaa said the lives of many Iraqis changed greatly after the invasion, before which little attention was paid to who was Sunni and who was Shia, and mixed marriages among Sunni and Shia Muslims were common. 

    "My husband was a good man before the war, but the militia changed him," she said. "He became a cruel husband. He took my child away, and he wouldn't let me see her."

    It has been eight years since Shaimaa last saw her daughter. "I don't even have a picture of her. I don't know what she looks like now. She is 16 years old."

    At times, Shaimaa imagines talking to Yasmine: "I have missed your childhood; I was not there for you when you needed me most. I have tried to see you and I will keep trying, and if we meet again, I hope that you will forgive me."

    'I was lucky to stay alive. Others died under torture or due to medical neglect' [Getty Images]
    'What happened in that shelter was horrible'  

    Baraa H Ali, 41, is adamant that he does not want to return to Baghdad. His memories of the city are mostly reduced to his kidnapping experience. "I was abducted, humiliated and tortured for four months. I can't imagine myself going back there again or even to al-Adhamiyah, where I grew up."

    I was raped, electrocuted. They would beat me for hours, and they would not stop until I lost consciousness. They did all that because of my religious identity.

    Ali, an engineer by profession, says he would rather stay in Amman, Jordan, where he works with a local NGO. 

    Although almost 11 years have passed since his abduction, he still recalls it vividly. "I was taken away from my house for no reason. Armed men came into the neighbourhood on the evening of July 17, 2005. They raided houses searching for men and male teenagers, and they took all those whom they could find, leaving only women and children."

    Ali recalls being taken into a building facing the Babylon Hotel, where he was detained for four months.

    He was put in an underground prison called the "Shelter" by guards. Later turned into al-Jaderiah prison, it was originally built as a bunker during Saddam Hussein's rule. Part was above ground, but it also consisted of offices and underground facilities.

    "They would keep all prisoners underground," Ali said. "Three or four of us were put together in small rooms. We had no access to toilets; we did not see the sunlight and were poorly fed."

    The worst time for Ali was when prison guards called on him, because it meant they were taking him to one of the interrogation rooms. Ali accuses the Badr militia, a Shia group, of kidnapping him and running the secret prison. He still remembers the horrific torture sessions he went through: "I was raped, electrocuted. They would beat me for hours, and they would not stop until I lost consciousness. They did all that because of my religious identity." 

    Ali did not pursue psychological therapy after his release. He left immediately for Amman, vowing never to return to Iraq. "I still cannot grasp how people can do this to each other. What happened in that shelter was horrible. I was lucky to stay alive. Others died under torture or due to medical neglect."

    In November 2005, US occupation forces raided and closed Jaderiah prison, finding 169 prisoners in serious condition. All had been subjected to torture and were suffering from malnutrition. Some were released, but the majority were transferred to other detention centres. 

    Following the shutdown of the "Shelter", former Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Soulagh held a press conference in 2005 acknowledging that Jaderiah prison existed, but claiming that all the detainees were "terrorists" and interrogation sessions were held in the presence of a judge.

    The ministry said at the time that it would conduct an official investigation into the claims of torture, but no official report was ever publicised.

    The mass killing of Iraqi scholars lasted for almost a decade [Getty Images]
    'The government could not protect the scholars'  

    It was 9:30am when several cars arrived at one of the buildings of the Iraqi Education Ministry in Baghdad on November 11, 2006. Nothing was suspicious about the convoy, and the guards simply allowed the armed men inside, assuming that a high-profile official was visiting.

    Soon, the guards were all handcuffed and put in a small room along with other employees. The armed men then raided the offices and abducted 150 employees, put them in buses and drove away.

    Tens of professors were kidnapped and tortured and killed, and their bodies would be found in the streets.

    Abed Diab al-Oujaily, 56, the education minister at the time, vividly recalls what happened on that day. 

    "I was in my office when I got a phone call about the attack from one of the employees. I immediately called the Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, and the Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr Soulagh, hoping that they could do something to stop the attack," Oujaily said, noting on that same day, he delivered a speech demanding immediate action, but "nothing was done".

    The 150 employees were taken to a residential area in Baghdad, some of the survivors testified later. The kidnappers split the abducted employees into groups and put each group in a different house.

    Thirty-five of the 150 employees remain missing to this day. Oujaily says he cannot name the militia that carried out the attack. He insists, however, that "the armed men belong to one of the militia groups that was affiliated and protected by some ministers in the Iraqi government then".

    Although information about that incident - provided by those who survived - is available in the interior ministry's archive, Ali says no official investigation was opened.

    The attack on the education ministry was not an isolated incident. In 2006, Iraq drifted into a civil war after the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, one of the holy places for Iraqi Shia. A wave of violence followed the attack, and the country was torn apart during two years of sectarian fighting.

    There is no official number of civilian casualties during those two years. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) estimates that more than 2,600 civilians were killed between November and December of 2006 alone.

    Iraqi academia in particular paid a heavy price. According to Oujaily, who served as education minister from 2006 to 2010, more than 500 Iraqi scientists and academics have been assassinated since 2003. "These academics were targeted by armed groups," Oujaily said.

    The mass killing of Iraqi scholars lasted for almost a decade, mainly targeting scholars from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. "The government could not do anything at all to protect the scholars, and as a result Iraq has lost hundreds of its elite scholars," Oujaily said. "Tens of professors were kidnapped and tortured and killed, and their bodies would be found in the streets, and that led to a large wave of emigration among the scientists and scholars."

    In 2006, Oujaily submitted what he describes as a "temporary resignation" from the cabinet and the Iraqi Islamic party, one of the main political forces comprising the government at the time, in protest against the mass abductions of scholars and official employees.

    The consequences of the brain drain, Oujaily said, can be clearly noticed in Iraq today, as the education system is fast deteriorating and the technological sector exists no more.

    "Before the invasion, Iraq was able to be self-sufficient in some industries; now, we import everything."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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