WASHINGTON — For moral guidance, as well as political counsel, on U.S.-Iraq relations, I have been listening lately to Batul Zubeidy. She has deep experiential knowledge of the death-dealing policies of both violent governments. Each saw her life as worthless, a young life as it happened. Batul is 18.
Since September, she has been one of my students at the School Without Walls, a public high school where I volunteer. Five blocks from the White House -- no school is closer -- the structure has no cafeteria, gym, auditorium, lockers or playing fields. But quality teachers are serving, for which the students are grateful.
Among the school's 68 seniors, none had as perilous a path to its front door as Batul. The youngest of eight children, she was born in 1984 in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Her mother, Salima, was a political prisoner. Her crime was being the wife of Hamza Zubeidy, a risk-taking political organizer who publicly opposed Saddam Hussein during the 1980s when the dictator was a Ronald Reagan ally and U.S. weapons client. In that decade and the next, Hamza Zubeidy spent more than 15 years in and out of Iraqi prisons, ones known to be among the meanest and filthiest torture chambers. Freed in 1990, he returned to his family in Najaf, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad.
Within months, night-raiding U.S. pilots bombed the Zubeidy home, along with much of the neighborhood and bridges nearby, water and electric plants. Had Batul and her family been home during this U.S. killing spree -- the family was away visiting relatives -- they would probably have been among the scores of Najaf's dead or maimed.
Suddenly destitute, and fearing reprisals from Hussein's military, the Zubeidys fled. Beginning in March 1991, they walked more than 200 miles, with thousands of other Iraqis, to the makeshift Rafha refugee camp in northern Saudi Arabia. The travelers were often at the mercy of Hussein's shock troops, who were paid bounties to kill refugees. During the next six years of Batul's childhood, she was one of 32,000 people confined to a camp where death, disease and fear were rampant and water, food and health care scarce. With barbed-wire fences, watch towers and armed Saudi soldiers as guards, the camp was little more than a maximum-security prison. In 1994, a report from Amnesty International told of "the arbitrary detention of refugees, their torture and ill treatment -- in some cases, resulting in death in custody -- possible extrajudicial executions and the forcible return of others to Iraq. Various forms of collective punishment have been systematically used against the refugees."
By August 1993, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had resettled 6,288 of the original 32,000, sending them to Scandinavia and countries including the United States and Iran. The Zubeidys turn would not come until 1997.
On arrival in Washington the following year with her family, Batul spoke no English, had no teenage friends and had not been in a classroom since first grade in Iraq. That she now speaks perfect, accent-free, colloquial English, is a student leader, is thriving in advanced placement courses, is taking three college classes, including one in Hebrew, and volunteers for an antiwar group is a story of gritty resilience and self-motivation like few others I have known in 20 years of teaching.
"Two governments didn't care whether I lived or died," Batul says. "In Najaf, I was at the other end of the U.S. bombing runs. Walking 200 miles through the summer desert to get to the Rafha camp, Iraqi soldiers regularly shot at us."
Politically, Batul is opposed to the Iraqi government. "I would love to see a change to democracy, but I don't believe that a war by the United States will bring that change. It certainly hasn't brought democracy to Afghanistan, where civilians were killed and warlords now dominate. I don't think the Bush administration wants to help the Iraqi people. If I did believe that, I would need to ignore the full story. U.S. officials know that the economic sanctions for the past 12 years have helped kill more than a million Iraqis, especially children. Does the U.S. government really think that's the way to win friends in Iraq? The sanctions aren't hurting Saddam Hussein."
In addition to taking courses in English as a second language, Batul began reading U.S. newspapers and watching television news programs to learn English. She is dismayed by the press' largely uncritical acceptance of Bush's war plans against Iraq. "A war will only cause more destruction, more refugees, more instability, more death."
The solution? "I strongly believe in diplomacy and the work of the U.N. inspectors. I believe in the Iraqi people. [Slobodan] Milosevic in Yugoslavia was overthrown not by U.S. bombing but by student-led nonviolent resistance to his power. At first, few thought that could bring down the ruthless government. But it did."
At the high school, I have turned over my class several times to Batul to educate her schoolmates about the realities of state violence, whether by the government five blocks away or the one across an ocean and a sea. I have taken her to other schools to lecture at student assemblies. She speaks movingly and knowledgeably.
Batul plans to become a physician: "In the refugee camp, I saw too many people die from illnesses and diseases that could have been prevented. I was only a child, but I wondered, where are the doctors? Where is the hospital? Where is the medicine? Someday I hope to be a doctor, and work in the Third World, and maybe among refugees, so at least there won't be another child asking those questions."
For now, other questions persist. Should U.S. pilots bomb Iraqi cities as they did in 1991? How many Batuls will become collateral damage? How many will be in refugee camps for years? How many will be at the mercy of two brutal governments?