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

Memories of Saddam

An exile remembers a childhood in Iraq, and the fear that followed his family well beyond the country's borders.
By Raied Jawad

My earliest childhood memories are of portraits of Saddam Hussein, the great leader, the father, the conqueror of the Arab world, adorning every wall in our house. My parents told me stories of the greatness of Saddam. They kept the truth about Saddam from me until we were thousands of miles and many years away from Iraq . . .


When I saw the statue of Saddam being pulled down in central Baghdad, on a television screen in Britain, I cried. I am 25 today, and have been denied the right to live in my country for the past 22 years. Iraq is an obsession for me. I breath its air as if I never left it.


My mother tells me stories of how Saddam, before becoming president, used to stroll through her neighbourhood, surrounded by bodyguards. He mingled with the people, asking how they were doing and what they needed. He tried to project an image of a man of the people, an Iraqi who cared about his fellow Iraqis. My mother used to stand on the street with her sisters, all shrouded in their abayas, to get a glimpse of Saddam. No one knew what he was like back then.


One day Saddam paid a surprise visit to our nursery school. He sat me on his knee, gave me a present and asked if I liked him. I said: "Of course. I love you. You are the great leader". He asked me what my parents thought of him and I told him: "They love you too. We have pictures of you all over the house and they praise you whenever they see you on television".


Then it was the turn of my friend. When Saddam asked "What do your parents do when I appear on television?" my friend said: "My father spits on it!" I never saw my friend again: he disappeared the next day, with his entire family.


No one could criticise anything in Iraq, not even the eggs. My father recalls that our neighbour in Baghdad, a well-known member of the security police, would quiz him every time he saw him to assess whether he was pro-regime. If my father had bought groceries, our neighbour would ask him: "How fresh were the vegetables in the market? How good were the eggs?" My father would respond: "Everything is great, thanks to Saddam". Anything else could land you in the headquarters of the dreaded mukhabarat, the secret police.


In 1980, Saddam started a war with Iran and my father was sent to Algeria to teach. The Saddam posters adorned our house in Algeria just as they had in Baghdad. A few other Iraqi families lived close by, some of them under the pretext of teaching. Now my parents tell me they were members of the mukhabarat, sent to keep an eye on us.


At the end of my father's contract we didn't return to Iraq. This was a crime punishable by death and, in case the regime guessed our intentions, we had left Iraq with only the barest necessities. So my parents do not have the pictures of their wedding; they left them on the fireplace in Baghdad. I do not have any pictures of myself until the age of three. I have nothing of my life in Iraq.


When we arrived in Britain, my father had to rebuild his life from scratch at the age of 40. Once a respected teacher, he now became a laundry man, a minicab driver, a builder and a delivery driver. My mother, who grew up having a nanny, a driver, a cook and a backyard so big she got lost in it as a child, now lived with only the most basic possessions. But we were the lucky ones: we had our freedom, we didn't live in fear, my sister could walk down the street without running the risk of being taken by the secret police and raped.


I know the "coalition" is following its own interests in Iraq. I know the removal of Saddam is only one item on its agenda. I know that East and West helped Saddam develop his weapons of mass destruction. I know that no country really cares about the Iraqi people: Australia sits and watches Iraqi asylum seekers drown in the darkness of the ocean; Iraqi asylum-seekers are caged like animals. But I have been disgusted by Arab reaction to the war. Seeing people in Jordan so pro-Saddam, calling their babies Saddam, presenting the war as if it was a crusade between Muslims and infidels . . .


You can oppose the war; that is your right. But to support one of the most brutal dictators the world has ever seen goes beyond all human comprehension. In doing this, you are supporting a man who has killed nearly two million Iraqis, gassed and poisoned his own people, drained the marshes, destroyed the history and heritage of Iraq and let his people suffer under sanctions while he built palaces and monuments.


Saddam becomes religious for the cameras, but he has so much Muslim blood on his hands. In 1991 he shelled the holy shrines in Karbala and Najaf in which civilians had taken shelter. After the 1991 uprising, he killed half a million people in two weeks. No one spoke up about that. There were no demonstrations. The Arabs were silent.


The onus is now on the coalition forces, on Bush and Blair, to keep their promises. They must honour the notion of giving Iraq democracy; they must rebuild Iraq and bring back law and order. Iraqi people must have a real democracy - not a puppet regime. Mr. Bush, Mr Blair, I urge you, I beg you to keep your promises.


Raeid Jawad is a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University.


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