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U.S. Teen Who Slipped Away to Iraq on His Way Home

Farris Hassan escapes harm while in Baghdad, which he visited to see 'the struggle ... between good and evil.' His parents didn't know.

January 01, 2006|Jason Straziuso | Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD — A 16-year-old Florida youth who traveled to one of the world's most dangerous places without telling his parents left Baghdad Friday to begin his journey home, the U.S. Embassy said, ending an adventure that could have cost him his life.

Farris Hassan's mother said she was grateful he was safe and on the way back. Shatha Atiya said she already knew what her first words would be to her son.

" 'Thank God you're alive.' Then I'll collapse for a few hours and then sit down and have a long discussion about his consequences," she said in Fort Lauderdale.

Farris, a prep school junior, decided to see the "struggle ... between good and evil" for himself. He left the United States on Dec. 11 and traveled to Kuwait, where he thought he could take a taxi to Baghdad and witness the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

A strong history student, Farris had recently studied immersion journalism -- a writer who lives the life of his subject -- and wanted to understand better what Iraqis are living through.

"I thought I'd go the extra mile for that, or rather a few thousand miles," he told AP in an interview earlier in the week.

The teenager was able to secure an entry visa because his parents were born in Iraq, although they've been in the United States for more than three decades.

He took his U.S. passport along with $1,800 in cash. He said the money was part of $10,000 his mother had given him for stocks tips that had earned a 25% return.

Farris' adventure captivated two nations when it came to light -- after he walked into the Associated Press office in Baghdad. But captivation isn't admiration.

"This was a thoroughly stupid thing to do," a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, told the Washington Post Friday. "This is an extraordinarily dangerous environment. It's not only his life, but the life of service members responsible for securing him."

"If he wanted a free trip to Iraq, all he had to do was enlist," another soldier told the Post on condition that he not be identified.

Consul General Richard B. Hermann said Friday that Farris "safely departed Baghdad." He reiterated warnings by the State Department and the embassy against traveling to Iraq. Forty Americans have been kidnapped since the war started in March 2003, 10 of whom have been killed, a U.S. official said. About 15 remain missing.

The embassy refused to release details about his travel. It wasn't known when he would arrive in Florida.

Farris spoke to the Associated Press early Friday, several hours before the embassy announcement. He was under the impression that he would be following his personal travel itinerary, which had him leaving the country by himself on Sunday.

He wasn't aware that the story of his travels had been published worldwide, nor that his mother had been interviewed on television.

"I don't have any Internet access here in the Green Zone, so I have no idea what's going on," he said.

Hassan's extra-mile attitude took him east through eight time zones, from Fort Lauderdale to Kuwait City.

Skipping a week of school, he told two friends of his plans. When he arrived in Kuwait City, he called his parents to tell them where he was and what he intended to do: Take a taxi across the border and ultimately to Baghdad -- an unconventional, expensive and dangerous route.

His mother, Shatha Atiya, a psychologist, said she was "shocked and terrified" after his call. "He thinks he can be an ambassador for democracy around the world. It's admirable but also agony for a parent," she said.

His father, Redha Hassan, a doctor, said his son was an idealist, principled and moral. Farris wrote an essay saying he wanted to volunteer in Iraq, e-mailing it to his teachers at Pine Crest School on Dec. 15 while in the Kuwait City airport.

"There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil, between those striving for freedom and liberty and those striving for death and destruction," he wrote.

"Those terrorists are not human but pure evil. For their goals to be thwarted, decent individuals must answer justice's call for help. Unfortunately altruism is always in short supply. Not enough are willing to set aside the material ambitions of this transient world, put morality first, and risk their lives for the cause of humanity. So I will."

"I want to experience during my Christmas the same hardships ordinary Iraqis experience everyday, so that I may better empathize with their distress," he wrote.

From Kuwait City, Hassan took a taxi to the Iraq border 55 miles away. On the drive back to Kuwait City, the taxi driver almost punched him when he balked at the fee, Farris said.

"In one day I probably spent like $250 on taxis," he told the AP. "And they're so evil too, because they ripped me off, and when I wouldn't pay the ripped-off price they started threatening me. It was bad."

It could have been worse -- the border could have been open.

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