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Tales of Daily Injustices Flow Like Wine at Lawn Party

Free to speak candidly now, a middle-class neighborhood's residents recount the indignities of life under Hussein's Baathists.

June 08, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The call to prayer from a nearby mosque drifted in the air as Furat Ali set up a dozen chairs on his front lawn. It had been a while since he had entertained, and tonight friends and neighbors were stopping by.

Talab Rashid was one of the first to arrive. He's in his 60s, short with thin gray hair combed straight back over his head. His face is weathered and his voice scratchy from years of cigarettes.

The men hugged and kissed, twice on one cheek, once on the other, then sat down smiling. About a dozen men had gathered to talk, and to listen. This is part of the new Iraq. Talking. When Saddam Hussein was the ruler it was impossible to sit and speak candidly with neighbors or even with family.

Rashid had a small clutch of papers in his hand. They were worn and wrinkled documents that he said proved his family was forced to sell a portion of its orchard to Uday Hussein, the former president's eldest son, for a price far below market value. Uday paid $20,000 for a parcel that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I want my land back, or I want compensation," he said.

The evening was warm and the sun began to set over Jadiriya, a middle-class neighborhood with spacious if modest one-family homes, green lawns and fruit trees reminiscent of the days when this was all farmland. The friends seated themselves in a circle as bats began to dart overhead.

Saddam Hussein coveted this neighborhood. He and Uday sought to buy as much of the property as possible here, to force out the locals and resettle clansmen from their native city of Tikrit to one of Baghdad's most desirable neighborhoods. That is the story the friends tell. They are angry and yet relieved that they are still here and Hussein is not.

It is not a tale of executions, though almost everyone in the circle had a relative who was executed. There was no talk of mass graves, torture or any of the now well-documented abuses Hussein heaped on his people. There was talk of the everyday indignities that the middle class endured under the Baath Party. These were doctors and lawyers and engineers. They were not party members, but they were by no means dissidents. They kept their mouths shut, went to work and lived comfortable lives.

Ali Salam, 56, is a tall man, with short graying hair, striking blue eyes and an infectious smile. He clicks his blue worry beads and sits forward in his chair as he talks. He was an Arabic teacher, he said, well known and well respected for his work with high school students.

In 1994, Hussein launched what he called a faith campaign. The country was crumbling after two devastating wars and international sanctions that made food and medicine, indeed just about everything, hard to come by. Hussein turned to religion, infusing it with the cult of personality he built around himself. As part of the campaign, the government announced that he had donated his own blood to be used to write the 600 pages of the Koran.

Salam got a call. He was asked to teach religion to young people. But Salam is not a religious teacher, so he refused.

"After refusing, there was an investigation from the Ministry of Education," he said, betraying a bit of the bewilderment he felt at the time. "They investigate why I refused to do this when President Hussein himself was leading the campaign. It was very serious."

For his refusal, he lost his job working with secondary school children and was put in an intermediate school. He felt humiliated, and so he retired. His monthly pension was 300 dinars, or about 15 cents.

By now the men gathered on the front lawn had broken into small groups, some whispering to each other, leaning close, as Ali served chilled orange drink in glasses. The din paused as people refreshed themselves. At this time of year it is still warm even as the sun is setting.

Ali put his tray down on a small plastic table, then sat down and began to tell his own story. The gathering seemed like group therapy, a spontaneous cathartic outpouring.

Ali was a lawyer. But in Hussein's Iraq, being a lawyer meant having to be the first to give a bribe. First came the police investigator. The bigger the bribe, the more favorable the report. Then came the judge.

"For these reasons I stopped doing my profession," he said. "I respect myself too much for this." Iraq is a very complicated land, divided between ethnic and religious groups, occupied by a foreign power and forced now to reinvent itself after three decades living under despotism. The people are tired, scared and uncertain. All of that came out, not in dramatic hand-wringing stories, but in simple recounting of the past and present lives of this small group of men.

Their troubles did not end when Hussein's government fell. Yes, the men are free, for the first time, to be honest with themselves, to discuss their treatment among themselves. But now they must deal with it. For some that will mean learning to come to terms with their own deeds, for others learning to forgive their neighbors.

In some cases, it will fall to the Americans, or the next government, to try to sort this all out.

Omran, 48, Samir, 42, and Ali Essan, 45, are brothers. Their family owned a vast fruit orchard in this part of Baghdad for 260 years. The family lost much of their land to the Hussein family.

It's a long story, filled with the details of Iraq's impenetrable bureaucracy and a legal system that set the Hussein family apart from everyone else. But the bottom line was the Essan family was forced to sell its land for $100,000 to Hussein's son Uday. That sounds like a lot of money, and it was in Hussein's Iraq. But it was about one-tenth of the value of the land, he said.

The family has since reclaimed its land.

Omran is a large, beefy man who had worked for three years as a school principal in Hussein's Iraq but never was formally given the title because he said he refused to join the party. He says he lost his land and his dignity.

So far he has recovered one. He is still looking for the other.

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