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In fleeing fear, an Iraqi risks all

Escape from Baghdad means selling everything and dealing with shadowy smugglers. Then, an anxious journey to a strange but safer land.

March 06, 2007|S. Aziz | Special to The Times

Malmo, Sweden — WHEN we finally reached the Swedish border, the officer at the checkpoint climbed onto our bus and headed toward me, my wife and my daughter all the way in the back.

Our complexions were obviously Middle Eastern, suspicious. My heart jittered. I reminded myself that we had legal passports with legal visas from a European country. But my fears didn't subside. I'd sunk everything I owned into getting me and my family out of Iraq, and I was terrified we'd be sent back.

It was nighttime. The policeman began searching our faces with a flashlight. When he reached me, he stopped.

"Are you alone?" he asked, first in Swedish, then in English.

"No," I answered. "We are a group."

He continued to stare at us. I thought to myself, "That's it, we are finished."

If anyone had asked me a year ago whether I wanted to leave Iraq for good, I might have said yes, but with little enthusiasm. I had a good job as a translator for the Los Angeles Times, my own home, a car, a family and more than enough money.

But since then, violence had become part of my life, just like the darkness that shrouded Baghdad because of the electricity shortage. I walked by bodies that had been left in the streets. I passed burned-out or blown-up cars. I heard explosions and ferocious bursts of gunfire piercing the night, every night.

After the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, I could see the writing on the wall. In glaring red letters it said, "SECTARIAN WAR." A Christian, I had no part in that war.

I had relatives and friends who had fled Iraq, and some of their stories made me hesitate. I heard tales of being lost at sea, walking for days in the mountains to cross borders or being abandoned by smugglers in a no man's land only to be caught and returned to Iraq.

I casually started asking around among friends, distant relatives and even online about escape routes.

It wasn't easy. No one was willing to talk in detail. Every path had its advantages and disadvantages, and you needed to pay a smuggler to lead you in your journey to the unknown.

I contacted a lot of shady people. Some promised me a visa within 14 days for $4,000. But who would assure me that the visa was genuine? I didn't know what a legitimate visa looked like. Who could assure me that I wouldn't be caught and sent back to Iraq?

The questions kept turning over and over in my mind whenever I spoke to smugglers. Despite their reassurances, I knew that their main goals were getting ahold of my money and saving their own skins. I knew they'd abandon us anywhere and anytime.

My anxieties grew. The violence was swelling. Clashes between Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods increased. Men in uniform or in street clothes appeared at phony checkpoints, stopping cars and buses, taking away people of the wrong sect to be tortured and killed.

My Iraqi friends at work noticed my restlessness. I admitted I was trying to get out of the country. They understood. They all had the same misgivings about staying.

When my boss found out I was trying to leave, he was not at all upset. "I don't want to lose any more members of the staff," he said. "But I don't blame you for trying to get out of here."

After months of searching, worrying and running into dead ends, I had a breakthrough. My brother, who has lived for years in Sweden, ran into two distant relatives who had just arrived from Iraq. They had paid a smuggler $8,000 each. Their trip was smooth and they got European visas from an embassy in Jordan.

I got the smuggler's contact number and met the guy. He said he could get visas and transportation to a European country for me, my wife and my daughter. Let's call it Country X, because I've promised not to mention its name. I'd get a legitimate visa for some kind of European training program as an employee of an Iraqi government ministry. From there, because of the borderless European Union, I could go to Sweden and apply for asylum.

The price tag was steep: $25,000 for all of us. But I told him I'd do it. He said he needed a little time to make sure we weren't on any terrorist watch lists.

Ten days later he told me to be ready to go to Amman in two weeks to wait for my visas. He also demanded cash upfront.

Here I faced a problem. I didn't have all the money. I needed more time, maybe a few more months. But I also knew that if I scrapped the deal, another chance like this might not come along.

So I started selling our stuff -- my wife's jewelry, our furniture, appliances, car. I borrowed some cash from relatives abroad. I didn't dream of selling our house, only because if word spread that a sale had gone through, armed men might kidnap me and demand ransom. Instead I found a family to stay in my home and guard it, rent-free.

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