Saturday, November 08, 2008

It is Bad Everywhere

Iman and her son are new to Damascus, having arrived in October of 2008. She begins by saying she wasn’t planning on coming to Syria as she understood it was a hard life, but she is determined to save her 14 year old son Barath, who she affectionately calls Tootie. Tootie is a bit shy but he is quick to laugh and teases his mom relentlessly. He sits with us, distractedly playing a game on his mom’s cell phone.

As we sit down and i am brought tea, Iman begins to tell her story. "I am the mother of 3 sons and 3 daughters. My oldest, Riadh, 33 years old, was kidnapped in January of 2007. My second, Hamad was kidnapped and killed 4 months later." she tells me, with a calm even voice.

At the time he was taken, Riadh was working with a private American security contractor in the Oil Protection Services unit. Imam immediately began searching for him, visiting hospitals, morgues, jails and prisons throughout Baghdad and beyond- travelling as far as Camp Bucca to determine if he had been arrested by American forces. Hamad, her 2nd son, returned to the spot Riadh was last seen and overheard people talking about the kidnapping. He made a list of several names of perpetrators, all members of Jaish al Mehdi. They took the names to the American base hoping for help. The Americans required six witnesses to come forward, but they only had four and it was too dangerous for any of them to go to the American base. A friend from Riadh's work helped in the search for one day, otherwise the family was left on their own to find there son and brother. Hamad travelled to the Moqtada Sadr offices in Najaf because the local authorities did nothing to help. The only thing he could do was confront the group who took his brother. The police would find his body 4 hours later. Before they shot him, his killers had drilled holes throughout his body and beat him. Iman found his name on a list in the hospital morgue six days later. She offers me a packet that contains the ID badges of her son Riadh and photographs of Hamad’s body when she identified him at the morgue, as proof of her stories validity. The look in her eyes is validation enough. As i force myself to look through the photographs, i am numb, and i carefully put the photos back in the envelope, folding it quietly and placing it on the table. I have nothing to offer this woman in her pain. We sit silently looking at each other.

Iman took the list of names her son had gathered to the police department. She didn’t know that the police had been infiltrated by militia members. She escaped her own death only because another police officer helped her eluded the militia and get home safely. He warned her that she shouldn’t return to the Police department because it was not safe. Three days after recovering Hamad’s body she began receiving taunting phone calls, she turned her phone off. When she turned it back on she had received 50 messages.

The family fled their home and thought they were safe until Iman was spotted by one of her assailants in the new neighborhood. She began receiving messages again. One warned, “We took care of two, Barath is next.” Iman and Tootie left for Syria shortly afterwards. Her husband and daughters all remain in Iraq. They have moved back into their old home which now is in a neighborhood that is closed off by blast walls. The family feels a little more secure, but if the walls come down, the family will run.

Tootie is adjusting to his new life in Damascus. He misses his sisters and his friends back home but has already begun making new friends. He is currently in school but he must produce his school documents from Baghdad within thirty days to stay. There is a glitch. Baghdad authorities will not send his papers out of the country, refusing to acknowledge why the family has become refugees. Imam says she has no plan other than move. She says she only knows they must leave the Middle East, and she is willing to go anywhere that offers an opportunity for her youngest son. As i pack up my notebooks and tape recorder , Iman says, “I hope everyone outside comes inside and sees the crisis our life has become. Iraqi people feel besieged from all sides. It is bad everywhere.”