Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Dissident Recalls Two Decades in Hiding

Despite trying to lead a normal life since 2003, Amir al-Shimmari remains scarred by years secluded in a cell he built himself.
By Emad al-Shara
  • Amir al-Shimmari spent 22 years entombed underground. (Photo: Emad al-Shara)
    Amir al-Shimmari spent 22 years entombed underground. (Photo: Emad al-Shara)
  • The secret hatchway down to Amir al-Shimmari’s basement hideout. (Photo: Emad al-Shara)
    The secret hatchway down to Amir al-Shimmari’s basement hideout. (Photo: Emad al-Shara)

Amir al-Shimmari became a strange kind of celebrity after the fall of Saddam Hussein, as he emerged from 22 years hiding in a bunker under his house.

Fearing arrest – and worse – as a Shia political activist, Shimmari built the underground hideout and lived there continuously from 1981 to 2003.

His only visitors were his mother and his brother, who brought him food via a small concealed hatchway, and a radio provided his only other form of contact with the outside world. His brother was killed in the war with Iran in the 1980s.

When he reappeared in 2003, I reported on the story for the national and international media, but I never actually got to meet him.

After hearing that he had written a book about his ordeal underground, I set out on the four hour journey from Baghdad to the farming village of Al-Juba, to meet this symbol of a past era.

When Shimmari opened his front door, I saw before me a frail-looking old man. Two decades of living underground had taken a heavy toll on him – he was hunched and thin and had lost his teeth to malnutrition.

Over tea and biscuits, he told me his story.

During the 1970s, Saddam’s ruling Baath Party carried out a bloody campaign against political dissidents, imprisoning, torturing and killing them by the thousands. In 1980, Shimmari, then aged 25, was sentenced to death for belonging to the Islamic Dawa Party. Its founder, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, was executed later that year and the regime went after Dawa members wholesale.

Shimmari was sure he would be captured if he attempted to get out of Iraq, so he decided to stay put.

Initially, he was expecting to hide out for a few months, but as the years went by, he was still unable to leave the bunker because he would be caught, tortured and killed and his family persecuted for sheltering him. In his 366-page memoir, he recalls his despair at being cut off from family members, and in particular at not being able to come out and mourn the death of two of his siblings.

It took me two attempts just to get through the hatch, and once inside the room, I immediately felt claustrophobic. Even calling it a room is over-generous – it is three metres long by 75 centimetres wide and three metres high.

Although there was a ventilator in the corner, it was stuffy in there. A hole in the ground at one end was connected to the plumbing of the house above.

Running along one side of the room was a shelving unit containing cooking utensils, tinned food, rice, and cooking fat. I noticed a Koran, prayer-beads and a little metal box where Shimmari collected his teeth as they fell out.

Shimmari always listened to the BBC World Service in Arabic on his radio, to follow football – he idolised the Argentinian star Diego Maradona – and to keep up with current affairs. He recalls in particular the story of Dolly, the cloned sheep, from 1996.

These days, he watches television as much as he can. He has married a woman from his village and they are raising a family.

He is disappointed with the post-Saddam Iraq – the new politics have not lived up to his hopes, and he says he has received little help in rebuilding his life.

His book about his life, hopes and future ambitions for Iraq is now finished, and he is hoping a publisher will take it up so that the world can read about his experiences. The title alone gives some indication of what he went through – “Secret Life After Death”.

Emad al-Sharaa is an IWPR editor in Iraq.

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