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'They Don't Speak for Me'

An Iraqi refugee says stars who decry action against Hussein prolong the abuse of a people

March 17, 2003|Esra Naama | Esra Naama of San Diego is a member of Women for a Free Iraq. Web site: www.womenforiraq.org.

I am a refugee from Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

When Martin Sheen, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand speak about the Iraqi people, they are not speaking about people like me, who are Shiite Muslims -- the largest religious group in Iraq that is nonetheless forced to live as second-class citizens under the Sunni regime of Hussein and his Baath Party.

When I was 10, I fled Iraq with my mother and four siblings after the failure of the 1991 uprising against Hussein. My father, a former Iraqi army colonel, was one of the leaders of the uprising and helped organize the resistance forces that fought against Hussein. As a pharmacist with knowledge of military bases in the southern part of Iraq, he took crates of medicine and supplies from army hospitals to the local civilian hospitals. And he attacked every vestige of Hussein's control in my hometown of Al-Diwaniya; he tore down posters of Hussein and restored the old names on the hospitals and public buildings that had been named for Hussein.

At that time, we believed that the coalition forces would come to our assistance. But within a few short days, Hussein brutally crushed us. In the months that followed, tens of thousands of my fellow Shiite Muslims were executed. Entire families were killed. Bodies were left to hang on trees and men were tortured in public. These are the scenes that I relive in my nightmares.

My father went into hiding to escape execution. My mother had no idea whether he was dead or alive. She knew that if Hussein's security forces could not find him, they would come after her children, and we would be imprisoned and tortured to lure my father out of hiding. When they took away my 18-year-old cousin, my mother decided we had to leave. We set off on a long journey, moving to new safe houses every night, until we finally reached the Rafha refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. The camp embodied all the indifference and cruelty with which Arab dictatorships treat their people. We stayed there for nearly two years. We were lucky.

Eventually, my father found his way to the same camp and we were blessed to receive refugee status in the United States on Sept. 17, 1992. My family celebrates this date as our new birthday, the day that we were able to begin our lives as full human beings, with dignity and hope. Growing up in the United States, I often thought about the people we left behind. We lost three relatives. My best friend's father, an army general, was executed for unknown reasons. I have friends who have lost 50 relatives.

Like many others, I am dedicated to ending the suffering of the Iraqi people. They are prisoners in their own land and they yearn for freedom and the simple things that we take for granted -- democracy, freedom of speech, the right to vote. America is their model for the future of Iraq, if only America and the world would help them build it.

I am an American now, and I have been educated to respect the right to free expression by any citizen, a right no member of my family enjoyed when we lived in Iraq. I know from personal experience that the Hollywood actors who decry action against Hussein are really opposing the liberation of the Iraqi people. I wish they would praise the American troops in the field or just stay silent.

There is only one measure of comfort to be found in their statements: When Iraq is finally liberated, these actors will learn that they have never spoken for the people of Iraq.

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