Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ammar Al Shahbander. (Photo: IWPR)
When Ammar asked me to marry him, we were just sitting quietly together in the university library. I was happy, but shocked. It all seemed very sudden to me – as far as I was concerned, we had only known each other for a few months, working together with friends in a youth NGO.
We both grew up in Iraqi exile families in Sweden, part of a small expat and conservative community where young people didn’t take this kind of initiative with their love lives.
Ammar saw things differently. He later told me that a few years earlier, we had both been guests at the same wedding. He caught sight of me – I have no memory of this at all – and there and then, he decided I was the woman he was going to spend the rest of his life with.
That was Ammar all over. He was a dreamer, but with perfect faith that his dreams could come true. He had this crazy confidence, this belief that he could change the world if he dedicated enough effort.
When I told my friends and my sisters about the marriage proposal, they said, “You and Ammar? No way! You’re too different.” And we were. He was quiet, thoughtful and reserved – a very caring person, but not demonstrative. I am very sociable and outgoing. And crazy – so I said yes.
We were married in August 2000 and moved to London a month later. It was tough. We were university students without much money. I studied in the morning and worked in the afternoon, and Ammar worked in the morning and studied in the afternoon. We hardly saw each other.
But London gave us the opportunity to learn more about the situation in Iraq. Both our families used to talk a lot about life back home, and we both had relatives who had been executed by the regime.
Ammar had always been interested in politics and in London he began to spend more time with members of the opposition, with writers, dissidents and former prisoners.
He quickly became quite active in these circles. I wasn’t too happy – Middle Eastern politics is not a safe area to be involved in.
But he always had a dream of going home to Iraq, and that’s what he did. In February 2003, he sat his final exams and left London before even finding out the results. He travelled to northern Iraq with a BBC film crew.
On the Friday, he told me, “Angela, I am going to go.” By Monday he was there. We knew something big was about to happen.
When the United States-led invasion came, he travelled to Baghdad as soon as he could, and I met him there in April 2003. We were part of a group of young people from Europe, Canada and the US who had come back in the belief that we could rebuild Iraq. It was chaotic; there were still burnt-out vehicles and bodies in the streets. We worked with the Iraqi Red Crescent, we led seminars at universities, and we went through the streets knocking on doors and asking people what they needed.
It was really tough at the beginning. People told us, “You say you are Iraqis, but really you are foreigners. You weren’t here under the Baath regime, under the sanctions – you were living a life of luxury in the West.”
Still, Ammar was absolutely over the moon to be back home. He felt he was building the Iraq he had always dreamed of.
Of course, those who promised us a liberated, non-sectarian Iraq never delivered on that, and things got worse and worse.
The exiles proved the biggest disappointment. As soon as they were in power, they changed.
Between us, Ammar would admit to doubts and disappointments, but in public he always stayed positive, exuding optimism and always insisting that obstacles could be overcome.
Family life was difficult because he spent most of his time in Iraq. He wasn’t here when our eldest son Adam was born. I was upset, but I understood, and we used to talk every single day.
When he was home, Ammar would do anything for our four kids. He was happy to stay up all night if they needed him, to change nappies, to play and read and talk with them. He loved having a big family and always wanted six children. “When we are old, they will take care of us,” he used to joke.
He visited whenever he could, but by the time we all got used to each other again, it would be time for him to go back.
I went to Baghdad for six months and thought about staying. We even applied for nursery places for the kids. Then the bombings got worse and the kidnappings made life there too dangerous for us.
Ammar was very driven. He believed he was doing this for our kids’ future. “We missed this opportunity,” he used to tell me. “I don’t want our kids to miss it too.”
On his last trip, we both had this strange feeling, like a premonition.
Ammar usually took a taxi to the airport, but this time, for some reason, he asked me to drive him. We left early, but we got stuck in a traffic jam for two hours. That was wonderful. During his visits, we would run here and there, seeing friends and family and taking the kids out. Stuck in that traffic jam, we had time just to sit and talk about everything.
He told me that had never been so happy. “I feel complete, happy with work, our relationship, our kids. I can see their future somehow and I know they will be successful. I have a vision that everything will be ok.”
When we said goodbye at the airport, he hugged me, I still remember. He kissed me on the lips. I was scandalised. “Ammar, we are in public!” I said. “So what?” he said with a smile.
He told me to take care of the kids. I told him to relax, as it wasn’t the first time he was leaving for work.
“Just take care of the kids,” he said.
We spoke for the last time on the day he died. He called and told me he was going for lunch, “but it won’t be as good as your food”. He spoke to all of his kids, even Jenna, although she was only four months old. He spent an hour and a half on Skype with us.
Later, he texted me to say he was on his way home. But then I heard nothing more for hours and hours. That was so unlike him. I called but his phone wasn’t connecting. I put the kids to bed, and waited.
And then Ammar’s brother called to tell me what had happened.
I am so angry that I lost Ammar at such a young age. I lost my husband, my best friend, my teacher. Ammar is irreplaceable.
But I’m also so proud of him. When I went to Iraq I met many people who told me that Ammar was the person they could turn to with their troubles, their problems and their dreams. I am happy that he still gives hope to so many people.
I talk to the kids about him every day. Adam is quiet, like his father. Lara is cheeky, like her dad. Zack is only two but already walks, talks and eats exactly like his father. Jenna is just nine months old, so who knows? They will all know that their father left them a legacy that they can be proud of.
On April 27, just a few days before he was killed, Ammar participated in a conference focused on young people. He told them that that they had a future in their homeland. “Even if we cannot manage to build a new Iraq, you will,” he told them, “You are going to find a different way to fight.”
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