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Iraqi widow finds solace in school

COLUMN ONE

Sarah, a former interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, found her life torn apart when her husband was slain. For her, picking up the pieces has meant raising two boys and completing her undergraduate degree.

June 14, 2011|By Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • Sarah, right, visits an Iraqi school while serving as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in 2007 and 2008.
Sarah, right, visits an Iraqi school while serving as an interpreter for…

Reporting from Baghdad — Sarah cries less now. The tears lurk just beneath the surface and anything can prick the memories. It can be a word that tugs her back, a word that leads to another word and all kinds of memories. But she cries less.

When the minibus passes the jail where she was held for nearly two months, she tries not to look out the window. She bows her head and prays for friends who are still inside.

It was there she often sat alone and thought to herself, "If I ever get out of here, the first thing I will do is finish my degree."

She had dropped out of college when she was 21, married and pregnant. Such a long time ago.

Now, she has grabbed on to a new life, a life beyond the Americans and the militias and the war that scarred her, saved her and then scarred her again.

"I know it's not easy," she said, "but I choose to live."

*

The campus in east Baghdad, with its lawn, palm trees and gardens, is her sanctuary.

In German literature, in her beloved Schiller and Lessing, Sarah finds solace — and connects with her old self, the one she left behind 20 years ago when she gave up her studies to become a wife and mother.

Her husband, Ahmed, was a mechanic. They were Sunni Muslims who lived in a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood. Theirs was a traditional marriage. She was expected to submit to his authority, manage the household, raise their two sons.

In 2003, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation tore Iraq apart. Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party, the only authority Iraqis had known for a generation, were gone. Long-simmering sectarian tensions exploded.

A firebomb destroyed the family's home. Ahmed lost his business. They had to flee the neighborhood, and for the first time in 18 years of marriage, Ahmed encouraged Sarah to get a job. They needed the money.

The Americans needed interpreters, and Sarah had a gift for languages. She had picked up English from movies like "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" and songs by ABBA and the Bee Gees.

In 2007, she was hired at Camp Falcon, a giant U.S. Army base in southeast Baghdad. All the "terps" took an American name to hide their real identities. She became Sarah.

She was terrified at first but quickly proved herself invaluable. She had a knack for getting people to open up. She translated for Army officers during their meetings with tribal sheiks and informants. Then she was asked to help smuggle sources into the base. She was instrumental in helping the Americans gather intelligence on the Mahdi Army, the main Shiite militia in the district.

Before long, Sarah was joining in interrogations of Iraqi detainees. She bragged that she could bring them to tears. The Americans dubbed her the Iron Woman. She wore fatigues, a bulletproof vest and wraparound sunglasses. The base became her second home.

Then, in 2008, her husband was shot dead at a checkpoint, probably by militias in retaliation for her work. She decided to take her two boys to America, and began the wait for a visa.

But in a cruel twist, unnamed informants accused her of having betrayed the U.S. by passing intelligence to the same militias that had killed Ahmed. She spent nearly four months in U.S. and Iraqi jails, including a crowded women's lockup that she described as "the lowest depth of hell."

Finally, an Iraqi judge cleared her.

A U.S. officer who reviewed her dossier said there was no evidence Sarah had done anything wrong. But the incident sabotaged her chances of leaving the country.

She had lost her home, her husband, her job and her hope of escape.

*

It was December 2009 when Sarah finally returned to Baghdad University. She was a third-year undergraduate, and at 39, twice the age of her classmates.

She sat in her first class and waited to see whether she could remember anything. It was a lecture, in German, about how archaeologists had transferred ruins from ancient Babylon to Berlin. She understood the teacher's words. "This is good," she told herself cautiously.

One of her professors, Nasir Rabia, a roly-poly man with a patented scowl, remembered her from 20 years earlier.

"She wasn't the best of students. She was in the middle," Rabia said. "I offered to help her immediately with anything. It's too long to come back."

The foreign languages department had suffered horrible blows in the years after the U.S.-led invasion. The department's beloved dean was shot dead in his car in 2005. A top student had just defended his master's thesis when gunmen pulled him from a minibus and executed him in 2007. Their pictures hung on the wall.

The professors welcomed Sarah, none more than Ali Salman Sadeq, 44, an old classmate. He had heard that her husband had been killed. He too was burdened by bad memories.

On his wedding anniversary in 2006, Sadeq was abducted by men in uniform, part of a mass kidnapping. Six friends were killed. He felt lucky to have survived.

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