In July 1969 I graduated with a degree in Veterinary Medicine from Baghdad University. All through the first four of the five years of study for my degree I stayed in the student hostel as the veterinary college was located in Abu Graib. Four decades later Abu Graib district became very famous for its prison and the allegations against the actions there of American soldiers. In the 1960’s Abu Graib was known for its military camp and the cluster of veterinary and agricultural college buildings.
In July 1968 Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party had taken over the country. In that, the final year of my education, I had to live in the main university hostel in the Bab el Mu’azzam area of Baghdad. The hostel in those days was of four storeys, each floor had long corridors with shared rooms on both sides of the corridors. The hostel was used only for the final year students of the university’s faculties and was a cauldron of political conflict in that first year of the Ba’ath party’s regime, and when they had yet to achieve a firm grip on the country.
The Ba’athists had taken over power in very suspicious circumstances that coincided with many other military coups d’etat in the region. Opposition against the Ba’athists was very strong in those days and violence was used, particularly by one faction of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). Most of the political opposition was divided, including the Kurdish groups, so weakening the stand against the Ba’athists. One year in that hostel, with the situation as it was, made you look forward to graduation and to the end of studies. Graduation, and your degree certificate, was the only avenue to improving your life and getting out of the poverty trap, at least we thought so in those days.
Immediately following my graduation I started looking for a government job and the 36 Iraqi Dinars monthly salary that went with it. I desperately needed a job in order to help my family and to cheer them up as my brother had gone to Kurdistan to join the Peshmerga and we knew that the Ba’athists would be looking for him. In the early days of the Ba’ath regime the security apparatus was headed by the infamous, blood thirsty Nadhim Kazar.
Nadhim Kazar was then the head of the notorious General Security and he became so powerful that in 1973 he attempted a coup against President El-Baker and his deputy Saddam Hussein. When the coup failed, Kazar and his comrades were killed. Kazar and most of his lieutenants were Shia and this was the first evidence of the party’s division on the basis of religious sect. Most of Kazar’s henchmen were originally ICP members who, in the first Ba’ath coup in 1963, had been tortured and had implicated other ICP members and had become pariahs to their former comrades. Now these men, including my cousin Meero, had been recruited by Kazar. I was told by my father that Meero had replaced Nadhim Kazar in a cell when Kazar was in detained by the Arefs’ regime in 1964 or 1965. I still do not know how this could have succeeded as Meero was very fair skinned with light coloured hair while Kazar was a thin man with a dark complexion. I remember that following this incident my father was taken into custody for short periods on several occasions as he had previously paid bail for his nephew Meero.
In May 1969 Meero was shot while in a barber’s shop by the Aziz Al Haj faction of the ICP who also assassinated other ex-members of the ICP who they saw as Ba’athist collaborators. Meero was not killed outright but died in hospital a few days later and, as the eldest member of the family, my father had stayed in the hospital until he died. Nadhim Kazar was very fond of Meero and had been at the hospital too. A few days later Kazar encountered students gathering in the Saba’a area to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of the pro-communist student union. At point blank range Kazar shot and killed several of these young men.
Jobs were scarce in those days and the Ba’athists started to systematically take over the country by appointing their cronies to any post that became available and they even created extra posts as “jobs for the boys”. The search for work took me to Mosel University in the north to work as a teaching assistant yet, before the end of the interview, I knew that the job was not for me as the interviewers knew I was a Kurd, a Shia and from a non friendly (to them) district of Baghdad. I left the interview sorrowing over the money that I had spent on my wasted journey from Baghdad. I had a bit of money left so I decided to buy a collarless, glossy, Mosul dishdasheh, ( so favoured by Arab men), and returned home.
It was very hot in that August of 1969 when I returned to Baghdad from Mosel on the 12th, of the month. (Ten years later is I was to marry Dianne in a village in the valleys of south Wales. I have very bad and a very fond memories associated with the 12th of August.) My family was disappointed that I had not got the job in Mosul and were further upset because my brother had left to go to Kurdistan. Some of our relatives and school friends, all Kurdish sympathizers, had been picked up by Nadhim Kazar’s General Security people and they had been taken to Qaser el-nahaia, (meaning the palace of the end, referring to the massacre of the Iraqi Royal Family in that palace, al-Rahab, in 1958.) It was common knowledge to most Iraqis at that time that the majority of detainees of Kazar taken to Qasar el-nahaia never returned home.
Our house was a typical Baghdadi house that we had bought from an Iraqi Jewish family who had been forced to leave Baghdad for Israel twenty years earlier. The house, like all houses in those days, was constructed of rooms and amenities around an open small yard or hosh. The roof of the house was used extensively, especially in the hot summer months as people used to sleep and even have supper there. As I was tired from the journey from Mosul and I went up onto the roof early and slept on my bed which was near the railing around the roof. I was roused from my sleep by someone roughly shaking me and shouting in Arabic, and I opened my eyes to see a large man leaning over me with his pistol to my forehead. In a distinctive Mosul accent he asked me where my brother was. I was so surprised that I could not answer him and he pulled me out of the bed, dragging me by my brand new dishdasha over to the stairway and down to the hosh. It was midnight. I could see that there were General Security people all over the house. I saw someone with a face that was swollen and bloody from beating, and I did not recognize him as my brother’s friend until he spoke to me. Apparently, under torture, he had informed Kazar’s men about my brother and the location of our house. I could not blame him, he was so badly beaten, I could only wonder what would happen to my family.
Kazar’s men insisted on taking my father as a hostage until his son surrendered to them but I kept insisting that they took me to go with them instead and they eventually agreed. There must have been more than a dozen of them and I realized then how much they wanted to catch my brother if so many General Security men were in our home. I must admit that regarding Kurdish student activities in Baghdad I had been involved before my younger brother was, but our group had not been uncovered. I was grabbed again by my new dishdasheh and taken out of the house to the sound of the screams of my mother and the rest of the family. Cars were parked at the top of the alley way and there were more security people there too. I was put on the back seat of one car between two men. On the main road they turned left towards east Baghdad. Then they suddenly stopped the car and started arguing among themselves in their distinctive Mosel accents about the direction to take. I naturally volunteered my opinion, telling them that we had to go in the other direction but the only thanks I received were synchronized blows to the lower ribs from each of my companions. When I had been pushed into the car they had loosely covered my eyes and I was therefore aware of where we were going. By passing Nahdah square they stopped in the middle of the roundabout and getting out of the car started to beat and kick a solitary policeman who was standing there. They attacked him because a banner to mark the first anniversary of the Ba’athist government was dangling from only one of its ropes and the poor policeman was standing under it on that hot, dry night. That poor policeman had to take a beating for something he had nothing to do with. That sent me a clear message to me that I would have to give the answers they wanted when we arrived at the Palace of the End.
It was well past midnight when we arrived at our destination and I was pushed into the building and the blindfold removed. I entered a very large, high ceilinged room with seats and chairs arranged all around its walls. There were a few people in the room and to the left of the entrance was a desk behind which sat a thin man wearing a pair of thick glasses, Nadhim Kazar! When I entered the room a man got up from a chair in the far corner and came and tied a long rope around my hands and pulling it tight he returned to his seat still holding the end of the rope. Kazar called me to his desk and asked me where my brother was. When I said that I did not know I received a quick, hard, sideways blow to my right ear. It was not a western, boxing blow or an Iraqi slap to the face, it was a sideways blow from his fist. In 1981, when I had surgery in Wales to try to correct my damaged ear I suddenly realized that as Kazar had hit me on my right ear as he faced me then he must have been left handed, I think in boxing they call such a person a ‘south paw’.
I reeled from the unbearable pain in my ear. My eyes were now covered with a tight blindfold and I was taken to another place where it was cooler, my hands were tied behind my back and the rope was pulled to lift me up until my toes were just off the floor. The pain in my arm joints was unbearable and the tips of my big toes scrapped the floor. I was kept in that state for more than two or three hours, the cool air making me sleepy but the pain too unbearable to allow me to slip into unconsciousness. I was then taken down and hustled back to the big room and to Kazar’s desk. I was asked the same question and gave the same answer but this time I was on the receiving end of a slap to the face that was so strong and violent that Kazar’s thick glasses fell from his face and I think that they broke. I was asked the same question again and Kazar told me that I if I did not tell him what he wanted to know I would be taken back to the room and that they would know what to do to me there. I then told him that my brother was not in Baghdad but in Kurdistan, they were wasting their time to look for him in the city. Kazar then looked at me closely and said, “You are a Faili, aren’t you?” I said yes, and he then asked me where exactly I lived and I told him the name of our alley way. Then he asked me if I knew Sabah Mara’aee, a well known ba’athist in our area, and I said that Mar’aee lived not far away from our house but I did not know him.
The next question was, “Do you know Meero Ali?”
I answered, “Yeah, I know him, he is my cousin and my father is his uncle.”
Kazar asked, “Did your father visit Meero in hospital?” I replied that he had and the next question was, “Does your father wear a charawiah (traditional headdress of men in Baghdad)?”
All eyes in the room were directed towards where I was standing. Kazar told me, “Go home. But when your brother Adel returns come and tell us.” Later that night I was told not to reveal ‘this little matter’ to anybody and was taken in the car they had brought me in and dropped some streets away from my home. So I arrived back in my home very early in the morning with my new disdashe that was now grubby, but with a throbbing ear that would lead to deafness and tinnitus I did did as Kazar told me and kept silent over what happened in Qaser el-nahaia, though naturally I never told him that my brother had returned home in the afternoon of the very same day that Kazar’s men took me home. Next morning the whole family made sure that my brother Adel returned to Kurdistan as fast as possible, this time with our blessing! Forty two years later my family has been shocked to read this account that I have typed as a record of my encounter with one of the most feared men in Iraq and how the name of my dead cousin Meero saved me. This is a tiny episode in the huge catalogue of horrors that Iraqis faced under the Ba’aathist regime and I regard every year of my life since that day as a bonus. As to the man who wore the charawiah (my dad) he was killed in front of his home, in the very early hours of the morning of January 1st 1974 in a ‘hit and run accident’ arranged by Saddam’s thugs.