cover missing

Contents

About the Book

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Author’s Note

Prologue

Part One: The Escape

1. The Interrogation

2. The Shadow of a Tyrant

3. The Road to Al-Mansour

4. A Shot in the Dark

5. Baghdad

6. A Journey at Night

Part Two: No Going Back

7. Amman

8. The Comfort of Strangers

9. Caught

10. The Smuggler

11. The Kiss

12. A Knock at the Door

13. The Devil, Iblis

14. Going Back

15. The Genuine Man

Epilogue

Picture Section

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Copyright

Out of Iraq

Lewis Alsamari

For my family

About the Book

In his eighteenth year, Lewis Alsamari was conscripted into the Iraqi army. Once his superiors discovered his ability to speak English, things went from bad to worse. Lewis was selected for Saddam’s elite, top-secret intelligence service, an offer he literally could not refuse. Only one option remained – to flee from his native land, leaving his family behind ...

Making his escape from the army compound where he was posted, Lewis was shot in the leg. A gruelling journey ensued, across the desert at night with a group of Bedouin and at the mercy of ravenous wolves. Against the odds, Lewis made it over the border into Jordan and eventually sought asylum in the UK, where he had spent his childhood.

Now Lewis had to work out how to rescue his mother, brother and sister, who had been left behind in Iraq and jailed once his escape became known. The only thing that could help was money – and lots of it. At which point Lewis hatched the most audacious plan of his life ...

About the Author

Lewis Alsamari was born in Iraq and spent a few years of his early childhood in the UK. He is now an actor and recently starred in Paul Greengrass’s massively acclaimed film United 93, in which he plays an Al Qaeda hijacker. He now lives in London.

Author’s Note

Throughout my life many people have helped me enormously, and an almost equal number have hindered me. Some of these people operated within the law, others didn’t. As a result, I have changed certain names to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

When I arrived in England, I took the name Lewis. My Arabic name is Sarmed, which is how I refer to myself throughout much of the book.

Prologue

August 1994. The Iraqi desert, somewhere near the Jordanian border, several hours before daybreak

I stood perfectly still and tried to accustom myself to the solitude and the silence.

It took me some minutes to compose myself, but eventually I started to make my way towards the road. Now that I was alone my senses became heightened as I strained my eyes and ears to judge if any unknown danger was close by. Occasionally I would look back and think I had caught a glimpse of the patrol cars’ headlights; but if I did, they were distant – they would not be able to see me from so far away. I could just make out the road from where I was, and there were no patrols ahead; I would be very unlucky to meet anybody now – unless I was forced to fire the Beretta, and as all seemed reasonably silent around me I decided not to do that.

I soon realized, however, that in the desert sounds could be deceptive. More than once I stopped still because I thought I heard a noise alarmingly close, but I told myself over and over again that it was a faraway sound carried to me by the fickle night breeze. I kept the pace as fast as my wounded leg would allow, with my eyes fixed on the occasional light from the road ahead, and I realized that it was not only sounds that could be deceiving, but distances also. Although I had no conception of time, the road did not appear to be getting any closer, and the longer I hurried through that dark expanse, the more unnerving my solitude became. As I walked, I could feel the swab around my bullet wound become wet – clearly the stitches had opened slightly from the movement.

Then, out of the darkness, I heard a sound that immediately stopped me dead. It was not new to my ears – it was unmistakably the same howling that I had heard earlier that evening – but it was shockingly close. I stood still for some moments, aware only of the trembling whisper of my own heavy breath, before hearing another howl that made the blood stop in my veins. It was as loud as the first and no less desperate, but it was not its closeness that filled me with a sickening sense of horror: it was the direction from which it came. The first wolf had been somewhere to my right, the second to my left.

I have never known fear like it. A cold wave of dread crashed over me; I felt nauseous and all the strength seemed to drain from my body. I know I should have fired my gun in the air, but in that minute some other impulse took over, an impulse that forced any faculty of reason from my head and replaced it with blind panic. Foolishly, I ran.

I could never have outrun them. They were lean, desperate with hunger; this was their territory. I was limping and terrified. The more noise I made, the more I attracted their attention. I became aware of more wolves around me – I don’t know how many, but it was clear they were hunting as a pack and I was their quarry. Blinded by my tears, I stumbled, and their baying became more frenzied.

Then, as if by some prearranged signal, the pack fell silent . . .

1

The Interrogation

Baghdad, nine months earlier

BAGHDAD MILITARY TRAINING centre lay by a main road on the outskirts of the city. It was large and utilitarian, and I felt dwarfed by it as I approached the main entrance. The sun was burning, and the cars in the busy street had all their windows wound down, their drivers crumpled and oppressed by the midday heat. I wiped a trickle of sweat from my forehead and looked up at the high walls of the building: a huge picture of Saddam Hussein returned my gaze. It was a familiar sight, one that had been commonplace in my life for as long as I could remember. The gates of Al-Zahawi primary school, which I had attended as a child, were colourful, painted with a huge yellow bumble bee to welcome the children; but on the walls on either side of the bumble bee were paintings of Saddam. His Excellency smiled down benevolently upon us, and around his head flew birds painted in the colours of the national flag. Inside, high up on the walls, were more pictures of Saddam and the slogans of the Ba’ath party – ‘One Arab nation with an everlasting message’, ‘Unity, Freedom and Communism’ – as well as one of Saddam’s favourite sayings: ‘Always look your enemy in the eye’.

Today, however, the images seemed more threatening than ever – the very embodiment of everything from which I had been trying to break free.

‘I don’t want to be in the army,’ I had told my uncle Saad petulantly when it had become apparent that no other option was open to me.

‘You haven’t got any choice. You’ve been called up, and if you don’t go they will consider you to be an absconder. When they catch up with you – which they will if you are still in the country . . .’ He made a deft flicking sign by his right ear to indicate its removal, the standard punishment for anyone who went AWOL. ‘I’ve seen people selling these ears on the black market so that absconders can have them sewn back on. Trust me, they are not a pretty sight.’

For a moment I thought he was joking, but one glance at his face told me that he wasn’t. ‘Will you keep looking for someone to help us?’

Nervously Saad checked that no passer-by – no matter how innocent they seemed – could overhear our conversation. Idle talk tended to find its way back to the intelligence services, and the consequences could be severe. ‘I don’t know, Sarmed. The stakes are higher now. Not attending university is one thing, but running away from the army is quite another. If any of my colleagues were caught absconding twice during the Iran–Iraq war, they were shot in front of their relatives. They were told it was their fault their sons were being executed, because they had allowed their children to grow up into opponents of the regime.’

‘I know,’ I insisted quietly. ‘That’s why I want to leave. I don’t want to be part of it. Please, keep looking for me.’

I stepped down from the truck with my fellow cadets and approached the entrance to the centre.

Inside, everything was painted an austere military green. Huge metal structures around the edge of the main parade ground housed the various quarters, and nowhere was there any decoration – apart, of course, from the ubiquitous pictures of Saddam in military uniform. In some pictures his military medals were on display; others showed him firing an RPG or an AK-47. I was handed my military ID, given my uniform, boots, beret and belt and shown to my quarters. I was in a huge dormitory with metal beds neatly arranged along its length, and a thin strip of window along the top of the wall let in only a small amount of light. Once I had stowed my few belongings under my bed, I was taken off to have my hair shaved. There was no time after that to get settled in: my training began that very day.

The first month at the centre was an extension of the national education programme I had undergone at school. We were taught all about the army: how it was split into divisions and what the responsibilities of each division were. We were told about the facilities of the compound, and it was explained that we would be expected to undergo a very tough regime of physical and military training to ensure that we were fit enough in three months to join our unit – wherever that might be. We were taught how to salute superior officers, how we should store and look after our weapons once they were issued – all the little nuggets of knowledge that would start to make this mismatched bunch of citizens look a bit more like soldiers.

But the officers were not much fussed about prolonging our mental education; it was our physical education that mattered to them. We were rudely woken one morning at first light – about six o’clock – and taken to a canteen area where we were given a glass of milk and two hard biscuits. We were then led to the parade ground, where an officer shouted, ‘Darwim bil-tadreeb! Start your training!’ We were instructed to form an orderly line by a bed of evil-looking barbed wire. Two arifs – not officers exactly, more like NCOs, who were in charge of our training – stood stony-faced, AK-47s at the ready. We stood silently as they examined each and every one of us, checking our nails and our hair, and making sure our uniforms were spotless. Then the training began. ‘You each have sixty seconds to crawl under the barbed wire and come out unscathed at the other end,’ one of them barked. I looked at the barbed wire more carefully. It was spindly and knotted and raised little more than a foot from the ground. To crawl underneath it without being horribly scratched, you would need to take it slowly. ‘You,’ the arif shouted at the first recruit in line. ‘Go!’

The recruit crouched down on all fours, then flattened himself on his belly. As he crawled gingerly under the barbed wire, the two arifs started firing their Kalashnikovs into the ground. The guns were clearly shooting blanks, but the poor recruit was not to know this. As the first shot was fired, he jumped almost out of his skin; a piece of barbed wire tore into his trousers, and the rough cloth was briefly soaked red. He scurried faster and sustained a few more wounds; but he made it out the other side in the allotted time, and was packed off to tend to his injuries.

I was next. Reluctantly I crouched down in front of the barbed wire with my gun in my hand and, trying to ignore the explosions of the nearby AK-47s, I gently wove my way to the other side, managing to emerge unscathed. As I stood up, the first arif looked at his watch. ‘Sixty-eight seconds,’ he announced with menace in his voice. ‘Come with me.’

He grabbed me by the shoulder, pushed me in front of him and kicked me hard from behind. I fell to my knees. ‘Over there,’ bellowed the second arif.

About twenty metres from the barbed wire was a muddy pit, perhaps four metres in diameter and a couple of metres deep. The two arifs pushed me towards it while my comrades looked on. Once we were beside it, one of them struck me a blow in the pit of my stomach with the butt of his Kalashnikov. Winded, I collapsed to the floor once more. Gasping, I felt a heavy boot kick into my ribcage as the two proceeded to beat me with their hands and feet until my body was bruised and bloodied. At no point did they touch my face, however; I later found out that this was because I had to look presentable when I was on display, and bruises or cuts to the face were not acceptable. But any parts of my body that could be covered by a uniform were fair game.

The beating felt like it lasted an hour – in fact it probably lasted only a minute – and when they had finished making an example of me, I was pushed over the side of the pit. I fell into a pool of cool mud at the bottom, and felt it seeping through the coarse material of my uniform. ‘Stand up!’ one of the arifs shouted at me. Painfully I pushed myself up off the ground. ‘Now,’ he shouted, ‘climb out of there, and next time I tell you to do something in sixty seconds, do it in sixty seconds. Understood?’

It had been my first encounter with the pit, but it was not to be my last. Whenever one of us failed to fulfil a task – maybe we had not climbed over a wall as quickly as we had been instructed to, or not let ourselves remain suspended at the top of an obstacle course for long enough – we were beaten and thrown into the pit. The beatings varied in their intensity, according either to the gravity of our misdemeanour or to the whim of the arif in charge, but they were always brutal enough to persuade us to pay very close attention to what we were told to do, and carry it out to the letter. We soon learned to make every attempt to land on our feet when we were thrown over the side of the pit: if our uniforms became too muddy, we would often be forcefully hosed down and left to complete our exercises in sopping wet clothes. The soaked material chafed unpleasantly against our torn skin, and if the hosing-down happened to take place in the heat of the day, the wet uniform would turn boiling hot and scorch our skin before the water evaporated and dried.

Nobody was spared these beatings, even those who performed well. The arif wanted everybody to know exactly what sort of brutality they could expect if they stepped out of line. Gradually, however, as our skill at the various tasks increased, they became less frequent – although when they did occur they were inflicted with much greater vigour, and with a larger dose of humiliation, as the arifs knew it would reflect poorly on them if they delivered sub-standard recruits to the unit bases at the end of the three-month training period. Instead, we would see the more recent recruits at the other end of the parade ground receiving the same treatment that had been meted out to us only weeks earlier. Some of our group would laugh when they saw this – it was only natural, I suppose, that having been treated like animals, some of them would turn into animals themselves; the rest of us just looked on grimly as we did our best to get on with the job in hand.

Once a week, a graduation ceremony would be held at the training compound, where those recruits who had completed their training period would be assigned to the unit that would be their home for the next three years. The ceremony would be held on the parade ground: we would salute the flag and the name of each departing soldier would be read out, along with his destination. I awoke on the morning of my ceremony with a dreadful feeling of foreboding. I had only endured the hardships of the training compound in the vague hope that I would be able to get out of Iraq, away from the brutality and the torment, before being assigned to my unit, and comforted by the knowledge that my family were only a few miles away. How would I cope if I were sent to one of the further reaches of the country, where my family and my hopes of freedom would seem even more remote?

We lined up in front of the whole population of recruits and saluted the flag. Then, one by one, our names were called out. When I heard mine, I stepped forward to be told my fate. ‘The brave and courageous soldier Sarmed Al-Samarrai will be leaving to join our glorious regiment in Al-Amarah!’

My heart sank. Al-Amarah was a good 400 kilometres from Baghdad, more than halfway to the southern city of Basra and close to the Iranian border. I was to join the Third Brigade in this region. The road there was slow, and getting back to see my family on leave would be difficult. But I did not let these thoughts appear on my face as I received my honour. I stood back in line – the camp officers were eyeing us all carefully, and a look of disappointment would have been insubordination if they were of a mind to make it so. The news had bruised me enough as it was; I felt no desire to add physical pain to my mental turmoil.

I couldn’t believe it. I had never been to the south before, and now I was being packed off to a military unit miles from anywhere for three years. I called my uncle to see if there was anything he could do, any favours he could call in or bribes he could pay to keep me at least in Baghdad. But there was nothing to be done, and when the day came I prepared to be transported to my unit.

We piled into the green-painted Russian-built eva truck covered with thick green canvas that was waiting outside the compound. There were perhaps twenty other recruits who were going to Al-Amarah with me, but we would be dropping off other soldiers at various units along the way. The front seats were already taken up by the arif and some of the more thuggish recruits – as the rest of their contemporaries walked on, they eyed us threateningly, as if daring us to complain about the seating arrangements.

We left Baghdad behind us, and as we did so I felt as though I was leaving civilization. The roads became rougher, and the villages we passed seemed more ragged the further south we went. Villagers would stop and stare at the convoy of eva trucks as they passed through, making me feel like a curiosity. I had become used to acting around soldiers with a care born of suspicion; now, I suddenly realized, I would be treated with suspicion by others. At each checkpoint we were stopped and thoroughly searched by Al-Indibaat – the military police or Red Berets – but as we headed further south our numbers dwindled as the soldiers were dropped off at their respective units. By the time I alighted at Al-Amarah, only the few poor souls who were to be stationed at Basra remained.

The unit building was practically identical to the military training compound, both inside and out. Observation posts covered with scrambled barbed wire stood at each corner, and a heavy military presence was on display guarding the entrance. On the front wall was yet another massive picture of Saddam in military uniform. One of the arifs from the training camp lined us up inside the barracks and barked at us to stand quietly as we waited for the head of the unit to come and take charge of us. After perhaps half an hour he came out of his office and looked us up and down, disdainfully. ‘I hope you have all come prepared,’ he called out in a teacherly tone of voice. ‘If any of you feel you have not come prepared, tell me now and I will arrange for you to be sent back to the training camp.’

Not one of us moved a muscle. We didn’t want to make any gesture that could be interpreted as a desire to go back to that godforsaken place.

‘Good,’ continued the officer. ‘You are now under my command. Any action that brings shame upon this regiment or upon our beloved leader, may God protect him and bless him, will be dealt with swiftly and severely. If you are called upon to fight for the great and glorious Iraqi army, it will be an honour. You will therefore keep yourselves in a state of utmost readiness. You will continue to train in the art and techniques of warfare, and I advise you to pay close attention at all times – you never know when our leader, may God protect him and bless him, will call upon you to make use of them to serve and protect our glorious country from our cowardly enemies.’

He gave us a look of barely concealed contempt as the arif shouted, ‘Attention!’ We saluted; he saluted back before turning on his heel and retreating to the comforts of his office.

We were taken to our quarters. I had been allocated a bed in a large dormitory that housed about sixty people; one white sheet had been supplied, and the rest of the bedding was a dirty army green. I stowed away my few personal belongings – a pen and some paper for writing home, and a small portable cassette player with a few Western tapes. Western music, unlike the music of Israel or Iran, was allowed in Iraq, with a few exceptions. ‘By The Rivers Of Babylon’ by Boney M was one of those exceptions, though I remember that Saad and I would blast it out in his car when I was young – a small gesture of defiance. But in the army, Western music was banned, so those of us who wanted to bring it in were forced to use subterfuge. On one of my short periods of leave from the training camp, I had placed tapes of the music I liked to listen to – Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Wet Wet Wet, A-Ha – in cassette boxes on which I had written the names of Middle Eastern singers so that they would not be confiscated.

I took a shower before changing into more comfortable clothes. A number of people tried to phone home from one of the communal telephones. A stern-faced arif sat next to the telephone, listening intently to everyone’s conversations and making a note of how long each person spent on the phone so that they could be charged appropriately. The queues for the telephone were long, however, and I was not in the mood to hear the playful laughs of my brother and sister in the background. I decided to rest before the rigours of the next day.

The following morning we were each assigned a weapon – an Iraqi-made AK-47 – plus three magazines. Each gun had a number scrawled on it in white paint so that the quartermasters could keep track of who had been issued with which weapon. I soon found out that, although our training period was at an end, there was much that we were still expected to learn. At the training compound, we had been taught how to handle weapons on the most basic level; now our skills were to become honed and specialized. A special unit came in, for example, to teach us how to plant landmines. We were each given a box containing several heavy, defused landmines; as I slowly took one of the weapons from its packaging, I was very aware that this was the instrument that had almost killed my uncle during the Iran–Iraq war.

Stationed on the front line, on Iranian territory near Basra, he had been instructed to lead his men into a minefield. Saad was one of the lucky few to escape with his life – debris from a nearby explosion detonated a cluster of mines and he was blown unconscious. He awoke to discover that he had been blown one way, his leg the other. His remaining leg had been cut deeply enough to expose the bone of his knee joint, and his whole body was splintered with sharp, angry pieces of hot shrapnel. How he survived is a mystery even to him. The day I went with my family to visit Saad in the hospital is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. We all packed into his tiny hospital room, and had I not known it was Saad I wouldn’t have recognized him. His face and body were bandaged up – the outer layer of his skin had been burned and peeled away by the force of the blast; what remained was red and sore. His leg had been severed below the knee, but the remainder of the limb was so riddled with shrapnel that it had to be amputated several inches above. The other leg was little more than a patchwork of skin grafted from different areas of his body. You could place a magnet on certain parts of him and it would stick because of all the shrapnel embedded beneath his skin. He was unconscious when we saw him, and my mother and grandmother wailed tearfully at the sight of their beloved Saad in such a state. I remember my father standing emotionless in a corner of the room. ‘I told you this was what would happen if you ran off to war,’ the look on his face seemed to say. For a six-year-old it was a stark introduction to the realities of battle.

Now I was learning how to plant the same weapon so that it could mutilate some foreign soldier, or maybe an unsuspecting civilian. A circle of grey metal perhaps two inches thick, it had a second, smaller circle protruding from the top. The mine was to be placed in the earth, or underwater in the mud, so that it was not visible, and then a small pin removed to arm it. Even the slightest movement above the mine would detonate it, and the results would be devastating. We were not taught how to defuse them – that knowledge, we were told, was not for regular soldiers.

We were taught how to arm and fire heavy BKC machine guns that could hit targets over two kilometres distant. It required two soldiers to operate them, one to fire the weapon, the other to feed the long chain of ammunition into it. On the grounds of the unit was the shell of a Russian-style tank. We were not taught to drive the machines – that was a specialized job not suited to such low-ranking soldiers as ourselves. Instead we were taught how to fire the machine gun at the top. In a battle we would be on full display – cannon-fodder for enemy troops who could pick us off with ease.

I remembered the maxim I was taught at school, a favourite saying of Saddam’s and one that we were forced to commit to memory: ‘He who does not sweat to build his country will not bleed defending it.’ We had been trained since childhood to see weaponry as part of everyday life. Guns were commonplace, of course, but even when I was young I had come into contact with weapons of far greater destructive power. As a boy I lived with my father for a few years in the northern city of Mosul, in the semi-rural surroundings of the College of Forestry and Agriculture. One day my friends and I decided to go hunting for the foxes that had been terrorizing my beloved chickens that I kept in the yard, so we set off along the road that led into the forest.

After walking for an hour or so, we came across an area enclosed by barbed wire. We had all been into the forest before, but none of us had stumbled across this enclosure. Not far inside, we saw a huge mound covered with army camouflage material. Peeping out from under the camouflage were large metal objects with pointed tips; they were clearly either Scud missiles or some other form of rocket-propelled weapon. A family of foxes were playing among the missiles, or nestling peacefully under their tips. We stood in silence for a few moments, staring at our discovery, when suddenly we heard the sound of an engine. A red Chevrolet approached slowly; not wanting to be caught in such a place by a member of the security forces, we ran away as quickly as we could, vowing to return the next day.

Every time we went back to spy on the missiles, the red Chevrolet was always nearby. We never got close enough to find out who was in it, nor did we want to, for fear of being seen. Gradually, though, we began to work out the times that it disappeared – presumably so that the driver could get something to eat or hand over to somebody else – and so we formulated a plan. We took an old wheelbarrow to a part of the wall surrounding the compound that had either crumbled naturally or been destroyed by villagers trying to get in, and filled it with small pieces of rubble. We then took it to the weapons dump, waited for the Chevrolet to disappear, and rolled it close to the barbed wire. If we could throw the rubble at the missiles, we naively thought, and explode one of them, we could launch our first strike in the battle against the foxes. They would be painlessly dispatched, and we would be far enough away to avoid hurt.

Of course, the missiles were too deep inside the barbed-wire area for us to score many direct hits, and our aims were not that true. Occasionally a small stone would rebound off the metal with a satisfying clunk, but after about forty-five minutes we saw the red Chevrolet approach, so we scampered away. The foxes lived to scavenge for chickens another day.

The next time I spoke to Saad on the phone, I casually told him about our exploits. He listened attentively and then spoke very quietly but with the full weight of his authority. ‘Listen to me carefully, Sarmed,’ he told me. ‘You must never do that again. The chances of exploding one of those missiles with a piece of rubble are minuscule, but if you did manage it, you wouldn’t just be wiping out your foxes – you’d be wiping out your home and probably the surrounding villages too.’

I fell silent as the implications of our stupidity were spelled out to me.

‘Promise me you’ll never go back there, Sarmed,’ Saad continued, ‘even just to look. It’s not the sort of place you want to be caught snooping around.’

‘I promise,’ I replied quietly.

Back at my unit, we learned how to use different types of grenade; special honour was reserved for those soldiers who threw them the furthest, and the day after a training session our arms would be bruised from the effort of several hours of hurling these heavy weapons into the desert surrounding the camp. We practised disassembling and assembling AK-47s – as a child I had learned to use these weapons on the wasteland outskirts of Baghdad with my uncle so I required no instruction, but none of my superiors questioned my ability with the guns. My sharpshooting skills went from good to excellent.

There were, however, plenty of instances when I elected not to use my skills with a gun, and I was not the only one. Our unit was close to the Iranian border, and although the Iran–Iraq war was long finished, there were still skirmishes. From time to time we would come under attack from the forces of Al-Badr Brigade, an army made up of Shiite Iraqis who had fled Iraq because they had been persecuted by Saddam. They would cross the Iranian border and approach the area where our unit was stationed under cover of the tall reeds in the marshlands that separated us, before opening fire on us – sometimes with AK-47s, sometimes with RPGs, sometimes with mortar fire when they had it. Their goal was simple: to kill as many of us as they could. They were often successful: when Al-Badr attacked, soldiers would die.

The attacks of Al-Badr did, however, vary in their severity. If it was a major attack, we would have no option but to defend ourselves by shooting to kill. If it was more of a skirmish, an exercise for Al-Badr rather than an all-out attempt to capture the unit, we would be more sympathetic. We would be ordered to shoot them, of course, on pain of being sent to a military tribunal. But despite the fact that these men were trying to kill us, there was a sympathy for them. They were Iraqis, after all, who had fled for reasons most of us understood only too well. We might have been on opposite sides of the battleground, but we were joined in our hatred for the regime. We would aim our guns to fire just above the attacking soldiers, rather than directly at them.

We were taught basic martial arts movements for use in hand-to-hand combat, and we learned how to fight with the dagger from the end of our Kalashnikovs. After only a few weeks’ training I had learned how to break a man’s kneecap with one solid kick, and I had mastered several different methods of rendering an opponent helpless so that I could plunge my Kalashnikov dagger deep into his throat. I learned how to approach someone from behind and kill them in one swift, simple move. Gradually, and despite my reluctance to be there, I was being proficiently instructed in the mechanics of killing. There was an unspoken acknowledgement that, as simple soldiers, we were the pawns in Saddam’s bombastic shows of military bravado. Iraq was never far away from war, and everybody knew somebody who had been killed or horribly injured in one of the leader’s campaigns: should we find ourselves on the front line, our ability to kill the other man would be the only thing that might save us from a similar fate.

A couple of months into my time at the unit, I looked at the noticeboard that listed everybody’s duties and training sessions for a particular day. ‘Al’Tadreeb ala Al-Istijwab’, announced one of the sheets, ‘Interrogation Training’. My name was one of four on the list.

Certain units – especially those in Shiite areas like the one I was in – would have visits from a high-ranking Ba’athist civilian. This individual would be part of Al-Tawjee Al-Siyasi Lil-Widah – the Unit for Political Guidance. He would come every couple of weeks to give us interrogation training.

At the appointed time, I made my way to the prison cells. At the training centre, misdemeanours were punished by the pit; here they simply hurled you into prison if you refused to toe the line. Next to the cells were small, bare interrogation rooms. The room in which my interrogation training was to take place had nothing but a dull lamp, a metal table and three metal chairs. The Ba’athist and an arif sat at the table with clipboards and pencils; the third chair had been placed in the middle of the room, directly under a fan that did not so much provide ventilation as simply recycle the stale air. I stood to attention against one of the walls and waited for my colleagues to arrive.

Once we were all assembled, the Ba’athist addressed us. ‘You,’ he pointed at the burliest of our number, ‘sit down.’ He was from the south. Until now I had avoided him, as did most of the camp; I had noticed in the dining room that he had a habit of spitting copiously into the qastah – our main meal – to put people off eating it. He fraternized only with those members of his own community who also found themselves at this unit – all of them large and thick-set, with an arrogance bordering on contempt for anybody who was not part of their clique. Despite his overpowering self-confidence, however, he could not hide his nervousness as he took the third seat. His hands were bound tightly with rope behind the back of the chair. ‘You have been captured,’ the Ba’athist continued. ‘Your regiment is moving north, and this is the information that your captors are trying to force you to reveal. They will use any means to get it, but you must reveal nothing.’ He turned to the three of us still standing against the wall. ‘Do what you must to extract this information,’ he told us, ‘with two exceptions: you are not to cut his face, and you are not to break his bones. He needs to be presentable for lineout. Anything else is acceptable.’

The three of us remained silent; the only noises in the room were the regular whirr of the ceiling fan and the heavy breathing of the soldier tied to the chair. We looked at each other apprehensively, unwilling to attack our colleague but uncertain how to avoid it. ‘You!’ The Ba’athist pointed at me. ‘You start.’

I stared into the eyes of the prisoner; he looked defiantly back at me. Slowly I approached him and then, with a brief look back at the Ba’athist, struck him a blow in the stomach. It was as gentle as I dared make it, although it was enough to make him cough sharply and catch his breath. As he did so, the Ba’athist raised his voice. ‘Harder!’ he shouted.

I looked apologetically into the eyes of my victim, and punched him more forcefully. His eyes bulged as he struggled to breathe. ‘Harder!’ the Ba’athist shouted again. He took hold of a thick cane and hit me hard across the back of my legs.

I found myself shaking as I prepared to deliver another blow; my breath trembled in my lungs. Suddenly I heard scuffling behind me. I turned round to see one of my colleagues hurl himself at the chair, knocking the victim sideways on to the ground. His head cracked as it hit the floor and he cried out; almost simultaneously my associate started to kick him violently in the stomach and the genitals, screaming as though he himself were being attacked. Each time the victim tried to say anything, he received another sharp blow that knocked the speech out of him. After a minute and a half of severe kicks, however, his attacker stopped for breath himself. His victim took the brief window of opportunity to whimper, ‘North. My regiment is headed north.’

Suddenly the arif and the Ba’athist were on their feet. Still carrying their clipboards they placed themselves in front of the chair. ‘You,’ the Ba’athist pointed at the attacker, who stood shaking with suppressed rage, ‘good.’ He looked round at the victim: he was still on his side, his hands still bound; tears of pain and humiliation fell directly to the floor and the chair clattered against the ground as his body convulsed. ‘The rest of you niswan, women, unimpressive. I hope you will act in a manner more befitting your uniform at our next session.’ He looked directly at me. ‘Untie him.’

I bent down and fumbled at the knot, managing finally to loosen it and free the battered body of my fellow soldier. Slowly he stood up; as he did so he gave me a look of absolute venom, and without waiting to be dismissed by the arif he stumbled from the room.

I had been totally shocked by what had just happened: not so much by the fact that we were expected to do this to our fellow soldiers – once random brutality becomes the norm, you start to accept it almost without thinking – but rather by the effect the situation had had on my colleague who had gone on the attack with fire in his eyes. When I saw him around the base over the next few days, he walked with his head held high and an arrogant bearing that seemed to suggest his actions had bolstered his own opinion of himself. I saw our victim too, although I tried to avoid him. He refused to speak to me, but every time we met his eyes seemed to say, ‘Just wait.’

My time was to come quicker than I thought. Only a couple of weeks later, the four of us were called to the interrogation room once more. On this second occasion, the Ba’athist directed me to the chair. The rough rope dug into my skin as he tied my hands tightly; if I tried to move my wrists I felt them burn even more. ‘This prisoner has recently been caught. He was wearing a white T-shirt under his coat with a picture of Saddam Hussein. He claims to be a civilian, but we know that he is a member of military intelligence. You need to make him admit this.’

Sometimes the threat of violence is more terrifying than the violence itself. The air was tense with what was to come; even the Ba’athist sensed it. ‘When you undergo interrogation or torture at the hands of the enemy,’ he told me quietly, ‘you must think of your family and your country. Remember, the pain will be transitory, but Iraq and her glorious armies will live for ever. They will soon come and rescue you in repayment for your loyalty and your silence.’

There was an eagerness in the eyes of both the soldier who had performed the terrible kicking during our last session – he had clearly developed a taste for this part of our education – and the victim I had been forced to attack. He even smirked vaguely as he stood before me, waiting for the Ba’athist’s permission to start the questioning. My body went weak with dread. Involuntarily I shook my head as I looked up at my two inquisitors, and those few moments seemed to last an age.

There were no shouts this time, neither from me nor from my attackers: they went about their business with a ruthless silence. Having already witnessed one of these beatings, I was vaguely prepared for what was in store, so when my chair was pushed over on to its side I had the foresight to tilt my head so that it did not slap against the ground. Nevertheless, my right arm was crushed between the back of the metal chair and the concrete floor. I tried to shuffle the weight away from my bruised arm, but before I could move I felt the first kick to my ribs. The force of the blow seemed to thud through my whole body, and I barely had time to let out an involuntary grunt before a second kick to my genitals sent a shriek of pain down my legs. Who did what in the melee that followed, I have no idea. I vaguely remember trying to shout out the information that they wanted, but the blows were incessant and utterly debilitating. After a while I even stopped feeling the pain – my body became numb as the kicks and punches merged into one brutal cocktail.

The last thing I remember seeing was the face of the Ba’athist, looking on approvingly. Then I blacked out.

2

The Shadow of a Tyrant

IT WAS IN December 1982 – when I was six years old – that I was taken to England. My father had a government scholarship to study in England for a PhD, so my mother, my brother and sister and I went with him. He attended the University of Manchester, so we lived in the Manchester area – Poynton Fallowfield and Moss Side – where my father became deeply involved in the Middle Eastern community centred around the local mosque. My mother, however, pined for Baghdad and the family that she had left behind. Her reluctance to embrace the increasingly religion-orientated world my father was making for himself led to terrible tensions between them, and our little family unit, so far from home, became volatile. Eventually my parents’ marriage failed and my mother, along with my brother and sister, returned to Iraq. My relationship with my father, even as a young boy, was not good; but I loved England, where I would spend five of my formative years, so I was pleased to remain.

By 1987, the Iran–Iraq war was coming to an end. It had been devastating for both countries. It cost more than US$250 billion in total damages and, thanks to the fact that both armies had launched massive air strikes against each other’s oil infrastructures, the economies of these two once-wealthy nations were battered almost beyond recognition. But the human cost of the war was more shocking than any economic effects. More than 1.5 million people lost their lives, victims of forms of warfare that horrified the civilized world. Chemical and biological weapons killed and mutilated soldiers and civilians on both sides; almost every family had someone involved, so no one remained untouched by the horrors of that conflict.

Saddam was faced with an unforeseen social and economic quandary: so many men had lost their lives in the war that Iraq suddenly found itself with a surfeit of widows. Their lives destroyed, and with most having no means of supporting themselves, they became an intolerable burden on the already shattered economy, and the government had to decide what to do with them.

Saddam’s answer was novel: he decided to bribe men to marry them. Iraqi men were offered a payment of 10,000 Iraqi dinars – at the time about US$33,000 – if they would marry a war widow, and so shoulder the economic burden that they presented to the government.

Word of this tempting offer reached my father’s ears in England via his brother. Unbeknown to me, a widow was found for my father, and he travelled back to Iraq to meet her, with me in tow. Ostensibly it was for a holiday; I had no idea that I was returning to Baghdad for good. I formed no part of my father’s plans for life with his new wife back in England; without warning I was left with my mother and her family in the middle of Baghdad. I was twelve years old, and the culture shock was massive.

My young friends in the West were cajoled into good behaviour by threats of an imaginary bogeyman. In Iraq, there was no need for invented horrors.

I was not yet a teenager and had been back in Iraq only a couple of months when, in 1988, I saw a cavalcade of black Mercedes with blacked-out windows sweep up the length of Al-Mansour Street. They had no number plates. Iraqis from all walks of life turned to stare, but not too hard: nobody wanted to draw attention to themselves, especially when they did not know who these official cars were carrying. My friend Hakim and I, perhaps emboldened by our youth, stared more intently than the other pedestrians as the sleek, expensive vehicles pulled up, not outside one of the fashionable shops that lined this desirable road in Baghdad, but in front of a fast-food restaurant, Al-Multaqa. Its insignia – a familiar golden M – gave an impression of the West, even if it was not quite the same thing.

After school that day Hakim and I had met at the beginning of 14th Ramadan Street, by Souk Al-Ghazi. Shopkeepers stood guard as passers-by examined their goods: watermelons, baklava, material for dishdash – the same wares that could be found at any number of similar places across the Middle East, and items that were of no interest to my twelve-year-old mind. The few coins in the pocket of my prized black jeans would be spent on something far more precious: Coca-Cola.

Chatting happily, we turned into 14th Ramadan Street and visited a run-down kebab shop. Its rusting, corrugated-iron roof protected the owner from the fierce rays of the afternoon sun, but the large shop windows – plastered in garish Arabic letters – along with the grills that burned all day long and the crush of people constantly congregated there meant that it was at least as hot inside as out. I caught the eye of the shopkeeper and he smiled. ‘Sarmed, my young friend,’ he called. ‘Falafel?’

‘And a bottle of Coca-Cola,’ I nodded. ‘Put it on my tab,’ I added nonchalantly.

The owner raised his hand dramatically as we continued the little play that we performed several times every week. ‘Are you trying to put me out of business?’ he shouted in mock indignation. ‘The falafel I’ll put on your tab – but you pay me next week, otherwise I shall be having words with my friends at Abu Ghraib.’ He winked at me. ‘The Coca-Cola you pay for now.’

I handed him a coin and watched him fill a piece of flat bread with a generous helping of falafel and the fiery sauce of which I was fond. Then he turned to the fridge behind the counter and removed an icy bottle with the famous logo written in red Arabic letters along its length. He turned to Hakim. ‘And for you, sir?’

Laden with our treats, we started to walk the length of 14th Ramadan Street, holding our bottles like status symbols, smiling at any girls who passed, and talking animatedly. As we walked, the shops became gradually more sophisticated, catering to the expensive tastes of the rich families who lived in the vicinity of Princess Street. Computer shops, clothes shops, antiques shops: it would be another couple of years before the sanctions against Iraq made these small but expensive luxuries a thing of the past. Then the Coca-Cola that was one of the few remaining links I had with the West would disappear for good, to be replaced by a poor approximation made of dates. When that happened, though, the lack of Coca-Cola was the least of our worries. When the water tanks were bombed during the first Gulf War, water itself became scarce. Families had to concentrate on what they needed to survive; luxuries such as hair-washing became a thing of the past. After a few months, however, children began to develop head lice. Petrol was considerably cheaper than water – you could fill up your car for the equivalent of a few American cents – so this was used to wash the hair of young Iraqi children. Scrupulous mothers would then apply rough washing powder to remove the petrol. You could always tell who had had this treatment – the strange cocktail put ruddy orange flecks in their hair when they went out in the sun.

For now, though, I could pretend: pretend that I lived a life that bore at least some resemblance to that which I had enjoyed in England; pretend that hanging around the stalls where unscrupulous merchants made a living out of pirating cassettes of Western music to order was a good alternative to being able to turn on the radio at will and listen to Michael Jackson; pretend that I was not living in a world where, at every turn, I was being told by a domineering regime what to do, what to say and what to think.

We did not intend that afternoon to be different to any other. Perhaps we would wander down Al-Mansour Street and I would visit the animals in the pet shops I loved so much, only to be chased out by the shopkeepers when they saw me: they knew that I seldom had any money to buy anything. Perhaps we would loiter near one of the pirate cassette shops, hoping to hear some Western music. Occasionally I would have enough money to buy a cassette myself; but not today.

If we found ourselves in a residential area, we would