Exiled Voices

A series of LRC dispatches from political refugees in Canada.

Aug 23

A Time to Live in Peace

By Ayub Nuri

Because Canada did not join the U.S. war on Iraq in 2003, not many people here ask me what is going on in Iraq and how I think the situation will turn out. That I find a blessing. When I lived in America for a few years I couldn’t avoid the conversation about Iraq. Everywhere I went I had to answer questions about the sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni militias. I was asked by almost everyone I met if I thought the invasion was the right thing to do.

As someone from Iraq and as a journalist, I certainly had a responsibility to give my insight and offer a truthful account of what I had witnessed. But after a while it was weighing heavily on me to have to talk about Iraq all the time. The flow of questions from Americans never ceased. In Canada however, I am spared those questions. This is one good thing about not joining a war—when one’s government does not wage war against another country, one will not feel obliged to ask about it. One will not feel guilty towards another nation. One can live with an easy conscience.

But nine years on, I take it upon myself to tell readers in Canada—or for that matter anywhere else in the world—what I thought of the war back then and I what I think now. In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, I was elated. I was a supporter of the war and I believed only a powerful country like America could remove our dictator from power.

Iraqi people had tried more than once to rid themselves of him—through revolutions, rebellions and uprisings. But every time he retaliated ruthlessly and killed and imprisoned thousands. The situation had reached a point where many people thought the Husseins would rule over us forever, with Saddam’s sons continuing his repressive regime.

So when the bombs started raining on Baghdad, I saw the end of tyranny and the beginning of a massive change. I was a reporter and therefore witnessed Iraqi army barracks blowing up from U.S. bombing raids. I saw Iraqi soldiers quitting their posts and surrendering to the people. I wasn’t particularly happy to see soldiers who, after all, were human beings like everyone else and who had largely been conscripted into the army against their will, under fire and running for cover. But at least, I thought to myself, this will be the end of all the wars and the new Iraq will be free and prosperous. It is worth it, I kept saying to myself as I stood on a hill and watched bombs falling from the sky.

Many people across Iraq shared my feeling. They had lost their sons and daughters to Saddam’s dreadful security forces. They had been waiting for years for a day they would be able to go and dig up the mass graves, find the remains of their loved ones and give them proper burials. Each person wanted the war for a different reason. But we all wanted a new Iraq where we could live without fear.

It took only three weeks for the Iraqi regime to collapse, and I got to see the freedom on the streets of Baghdad. I traveled across Iraq and listened to people’s stories of heartbreak, of tragedy and of hope. For three decades no one had been able to talk, to express themselves freely or to criticize anything without risking jail. But after the war there were more than 150 newspapers and magazines in Baghdad. People could read whatever they wanted and they could write anything, from satirical poetry to political analysis, without fear of anyone knocking on their door in the middle of the night and taking them away to the police station.

There was a new government and for the first time Iraqis elected their own representatives through the ballot box. They didn’t accept anyone imposing himself as leader with 99.9% of the votes, as was common during Saddam Hussein’s time.

Even traveling became easy and people could go to the passport office, get a new passport and travel abroad without being interrogated by the police about where they were going and why. Passports were no longer for the members of the Baath party only. Anyone could get one.

Whatever the Americans and the international community thought of the war, however the anti-war activists in the west portrayed the regime change, it worked for the Iraqis: Baghdad’s streets bustled with new shops, schools had new textbooks and streets no longer had checkpoints. Everything was going so well that we all thought Iraq was a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Our neighbors envied us for the kind of freedom we had and the fact that we had gotten rid of our dictator—albeit with outside help. For the first time, the world thought that international intervention to change another country’s regime had actually worked.

But unfortunately that sense of freedom was short-lived. It lasted only one year and suddenly, as if Iraqis had woken up from a long sleep, things started to turn nasty. Just as I witnessed the fall of dictatorship as a journalist, I saw the outbreak of a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people.

Shia and Sunni militias across Iraq set upon each other in the most ruthless manner. They kidnapped and beheaded members of the rival sects and they bombed schools, markets, bus stations and restaurants. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t run from the site of a deadly car bomb to another and see piles of dead bodies and the destruction of homes.

Some people tried to blame it on politics. Others—anti-war campaigners—blamed it all on America for invading Iraq in the first place. But I blamed it on the people who tried to settle old religious scores. The Shia and Sunni militias didn’t hide their deep hatred for one another. Throughout Iraq’s history one group had repressed the other, imprisoned their religious leaders, closed down their shrines and silenced their preachers.

And now that Saddam Hussein was gone, it was time to settle those scores and avenge deaths that had occurred, in some cases, centuries ago. During my travels I came across people who would tell me: “It is all America’s fault. Under Saddam Hussein we used to live together peacefully like brothers. America is dividing us.”

But I had a hard time believing that, especially after I saw with my eyes that it was Iraqis who drove car bombs into crowded markets and it was Iraqis who kidnapped people on the streets or executed innocent families, only to claim their home and property. During Saddam’s reign it all sounded peaceful and quiet only because he kept the lid on resentment and distrust with his iron fist. They always simmered underneath the surface.

Every time I interviewed the family of someone abducted or executed, or a family driven from their home, they pointed to a Sunni or a Shia insurgent group. It was always someone from a few streets away who had shot their father on his way to work. Someone from a few blocks away who had kidnapped their son and called them a few days later to go and retrieve his decapitated body. So why throw the blame on someone else—on America or the international community—for what was conducted by Iraqis themselves?

When this sectarian war broke out I became disillusioned. I thought my hopes for the war were misplaced. But in the meantime I knew the war couldn’t be the reason for the never-ending bloodshed that followed. I believed that Iraqis could have used the war and the regime change as the beginning of a new era. It was time to turn a new page. But unfortunately that did not happen.

It came to a point where I thought the war to topple a murderous regime was in vain if Iraqis kept murdering and torturing each other. It was a major disappointment for me. My dreams for a new and democratic Iraq were dashed. The new rulers seemed to walk the path of Saddam Hussein. They still do. Secret prisons, torture and fear are still prevalent in Iraq.

Soon we will be marking the anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. America was in Iraq for eight years and they said they were there to help Iraqis build a democratic and free country. I am not sure if they succeeded in that, or if any country can tell another country how to build its government and social structure given the different mentalities, beliefs and world views. But still, I think the Iraqi people could have used the time when U.S. soldiers patrolled the borders and battled insurgents every day to build a modern government, rebuild the destruction caused by war and embark on the right path to freedom. Iraqis could prove to the world that the war was worthwhile and that by removing Saddam Hussein a huge barrier in the way of human dignity was removed.

But that never happened and the U.S. troops eventually left. They said it was the Iraqis’ responsibility to put their own house in order, and I agree with them. Now that Iraq is more open to the outside world, there are great lessons the country can learn from other nations’ successful experiences. The Iraqi people are tired of war and it is time they lived in peace.

Aug 15

Echoes from Exile: Claiming difference

By Ava Homa

Living in a condition of censorship and suffocation, trapped in an abusive relationship where I had no rights as a woman, being harassed socially, politically and emotionally, living with the inevitable horrors of arrest, torture and the perpetually threatened invasion by the United States which had already attacked our neighbours: Iraq and Afghanistan, I fled the country in which I was born and raised. It was August 2007, and during my 20-something-hour Aeroflot flight from Tehran to Toronto, with nine hours transit in a Moscow airport, I was robbed—a passenger had stolen my wallet from the overhead compartment—and my Iranian passport was taken away from me by the Russian pilot, to be returned when I arrived at the destination. None of this mattered much because I eventually landed in Canada, the land of my dreams, ostensibly to be a student but in reality only to seek asylum in a less stereotyped, quicker and safer way.

After two years, I defended my master’s thesis in English and Creative Writing from my beloved University of Windsor. Echoes from the Other Land, my collection of short stories on modern Iranian women—the generation born and raised after the 1979 Islamic Revolution—was published in 2010 by TSAR Publications. Echoes from the Other Land was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and brought me joy and pride. Canada, my treasured country, generously allowed me to experience what it means to be terror-free, to breathe, to write freely, to laugh, to let my scalp feel the breeze … to live. In this country, I met the love of my life and I have been living with him now for three happy years.

I no longer needed to fight to prove that the treatment of women in Iran was unjust and humiliating; kind and gentle Canadians sympathized with the fictional females of Echoes from the Other Land who had to tackle patriarchy while treating the wounds of circumcision, cross-dressing, divorce, cancer, deception and seduction. But…

In May 2012, I read part of my new novel-in-progress, Love and Peace, at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing conference. An audience member asked me if I do any research, if literary merit matters to me! It took me awhile to see that for mainstream readers I am a poor Iranian girl who is supposed to remind them not to take their freedom for granted, and for intellectuals I am the stereotypical exile who gains recognition for a life story without literary merit.

Writers-in-exile have compelling stories, but how valuable are these people in this competitive job market? I have left the supportive English department at the University of Windsor and now work as a part-time teacher in a few private high schools and colleges. I have learned not to let my bosses, colleagues or students know that I am a writer-in-exile, that I have escaped persecution and that Canada is my refuge. I have seen how it exposes my vulnerability, how it turns me into an easy target for bullying. A previous chair tried to get me involved in a pyramid scheme. Maybe it was not a scam, but it was definitely unethical to put such pressure on a contractor striving and struggling to become full-time. When I politely refused, she told me that I did not understand. A couple of months later, she yelled at me when a student complained about her grade. This chair, of course, does not treat other teachers like that. Her primarily pitiful looks changed to contemptuous treatment. I cannot explain how much stress she put me under. I no longer work for that school.

Is being a writer-in-exile an advantage after going through so much pain? Is claiming difference supposed to incite admiration or is it a source of humiliation? Or is being a writer-in-exile a strange combination of both?

Jul 31

Echoes from Exile: Behind the glass

By Ava Homa

By 2006, my bashful partner had turned violent because of my sexual disinterest. It did not occur to either of us that he might be simply unattractive; I was either asexual or some sort of pervert. The intelligence service of the university I taught at would harass me regularly, never short of excuses: why did I teach Animal Farm? Why did I dress “inappropriately” or talk too long with a male student? Why didn’t I go to prayers or stop my teaching to send my students to group prayers? Why this, and why that? Eventually, I was warned, I better watch my non-Islamic behaviour or else…

Back in Kurdistan, my father became clinically depressed and disowned me for being the same bad girl I had always been. My brothers were saved from such cruel treatment. But I was a girl. I was a girl, and I was close to a nervous breakdown. I had no family, career or partner to rely on. I wanted to get out of the country that I called a pigsty, but applying for refugee status meant an illegal escape, meant years of waiting for the United Nations to decide whether to accept a case that did not include physical torture and, if accepted, another indeterminate amount of time to wait for a country to admit me, meant being on my own as a vulnerable girl who viewed men as predators. My education, linguistic fluency, work experience and age qualified me to apply to Canada as a “skilled worker,” but for Iranians this was a five-year process.

But Canada was known to be the friendliest to immigrants. Surfing Canadian university websites, I applied to study creative writing in Windsor and Calgary. What did I know about Canada and the difference between the two cities? What did I care? I only wanted some soil, regardless of where it was located and what was waiting for me. Since my writing, ethnicity, gender and family background had made me a nuisance to IRI, I worried that I could have been listed as mamno’l-khorooj—people whom IRI would not allow to leave the country (IRI, as in any authoritarian regime, has such a list and rationalizes it). I let only a few people know of my plans.

With slow, filtered, dial-up internet, I searched and searched for ways to get into Canada, grateful that my English allowed me to rummage around freely. I worked arduously and secretly for two years to find a university, prepare and raise the money for the required documents, translate and mail them, gain admission, win a scholarship and, most difficult of all, obtain a student visa. I took a deep breath, one deep breath. I would run anywhere that was not “here.”

That is how, in 2007, I packed my life into two suitcases, left all my dear books, journals and photo albums behind, and flew away to a land I did not know anything about and in which I did not know a single person. I did not shed a single tear and did not let anyone else do so either. But as soon as my passport was stamped and I touched my boarding pass, as soon as I was behind the glass where nobody could reach me anymore, with perspiration covering my face, my heart palpitating and throat constricted—worn out, dying and reviving at the same time—I looked up at the high ceiling of the airport, sighed and said out loud, “It’s over!”

A tear dripped down the side of my face.

Jul 24

In Another Country

By Ayub Nuri

Since my arrival in Canada three years ago, many major events have taken place in the world. The death of Osama bin Laden. The Arab Spring. The royal wedding of William and Kate. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. As a news junkie, or news freak—whatever you call someone like me—I have followed these events with rapt attention.

I have also followed news of the floods in Australia, the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the entrapment of 33 Chilean miners underground. But none has so captivated me as the independence of South Sudan. That was the greatest news—and I congratulated them from a distance!

I am not from South Sudan and I have never been there. So why was I so happy for them? What difference could it possibly make in my life, especially here in Canada, if the people of South Sudan live with the rest of Sudan or independently? The answer is: Yes, it makes a difference. At the least, it gives me hope.

As a Kurd from Iraqi Kurdistan, I understand the suffering and the ambitions of South Sudan. In Iraq, we too used to live under a dictatorship. We too were killed in our thousands. We too were bombed, gassed and deported by a government that wasn’t ours, by a state with which we had to live against our will.

That is why not only I, but millions of Kurds around the world, couldn’t wait to see South Sudan gain its independence.

Even though they are in Africa and my people are in Kurdistan, we consider them part of our family. Here, I am not being a philosopher or humanist or one of those people who say all of humankind is one family. No, I only consider as members of one family a people who, like Kurds, are forced to live in another country, carry another country’s passport and adopt the culture and language and identity of another nation.

Someone who hasn’t undergone that kind of suffering—someone who hasn’t lived in the shadow of physical and cultural annihilation—wouldn’t necessarily understand someone who has. I am not exaggerating and I am not generalizing. Often the people of the western world laugh at the aspirations of downtrodden people and go around telling them to live peacefully, like brothers, and share their natural resources—and enough with the bloodshed and war! In the case of Kurdistan, we hear it every day.

“There are no more borders. Look at Europe,” they say. “The world is coming together every day.” This kind of talk works for them. In Europe, there are no borders, but they have chosen that voluntarily. Their people have voted for it.

In our case, and in the case of South Sudan—both joined with other countries and regimes by force, terror, torture and imprisonment—we can’t live with those regimes and we don’t want to. From Baghdad we got nothing but tragedy upon tragedy. The people of South Sudan got nothing from Khartoum but the destruction of their villages, the burning of their huts and mass killings.

No one in his or her right mind should tell a nation that is being repressed and denied even the most basic rights to not think of marking their borders, to forget about the past and to live with their torturer peacefully as brothers. Only in one’s own country, with clearly defined borders and the freedom to speak one’s own language without shame, can one live peacefully and proudly.

July doesn’t just see the anniversary of South Sudan’s independence. The United States and–at least since 1982–Canada also celebrate their independence. So, would it be fair for the Kurds, or South Sudanese or Kosovars to blame Canada or the U.S. for declaring independence, for wanting to gain sovereignty? We will not say Canada should have remained as part of Britain even though we know that the Britain of the 18th century was a million times better and more humane than the repressive regimes of the 21st century we Kurds and others in Africa and Asia have to live with today.

Jul 12

Echoes from Exile: Writing is a haven

By Ava Homa

Literature, music and art were my friends and shelter, my hope and my salve. The rebellious poetry of Ahmad Shamlou and Forough Farrokhzad, the mystical writings of classic Persian poets Rumi and Hafez, the enchanting short stories of Hedayat, Choubak and Golshiri healed me, despite the corrosive environment in which I was living. Writing was and is a necessity of my life; more than theme and content, the beauty and uplifting nature of literature, its power to humanize, mattered to me. Literature, art galleries and the classic Persian music of Nazeri and Kamgarha helped me feel less bitter and isolated and more forgiving and compassionate. Writing was also a haven, a type of therapy; it gave meaning to my existence, it was a means of reflection, discovery and joy.

While I was studying for my master’s in English language and literature, I attended many fiction and screenplay writing workshops. After two years of weekly writing, Siamak Gloshiri, my knowledgeable, charming, but picky, instructor, singled me out to tell that I had a gift for crafting fiction, and if I continued working at it, I would make it big one day. That day was a turning point in my life. I felt blessed.

While striving to master the art of fiction, I became less engrossed in my own life and more observant of other women’s pains and struggles. I remember, for instance, that my aunt told me of the unstoppable sobbing of a neighbour who had returned home, after visiting her parents, only to find a woman living in her house with her husband. The IRI law believes any husband has “the right” to temporarily “marry” another woman if he feels like it. This is, of course, not prostitution because the temporary wife is a good Shiite divorcée or widow who needs the “financial support” she gets from the temporary husband. The permanent wife, in the meantime, has to shut up and obey. My aunt’s neighbour, whom I never met or whose name I never knew, haunted me and appeared in my stories. Because such stories, obviously, criticized one of many oppressive family laws, IRI wanted the writer to shut up.

My stories were considered “publishable” in their sophistication but “unpublishable” due to Iran’s censorship: the forbidden topics of desire and the subtle criticism of the political situation meant that I received many rejections. By the time I left the country, I did manage to get one book and five stories published, but still had two unpublished books and ten unpublished stories. I was partly surprised and partly relieved when I found out recently that some of those literary journals, such as Jen o Pari, have been shut down despite their caution and conservatism in what they published. Stories of modern Iranian women followed me to Canada and TSAR Publications published some of them here in a collection titled Echoes from the Other Land.

Jul 04

Echoes from Exile: Living in fear

By Ava Homa

I grew up seeing lash scars on my father’s back. I was a toddler when he was incarcerated and tortured. Why? For possessing banned books, for being Kurdish, for not approving of the nefarious Iranian government. Since the only documents against him were his books, he was not executed; instead, he was left to deteriorate gradually, left to struggle with the never-to-be-healed and invisible traces of torture. The abhorrence he felt toward the injustice consumed my father; the damage turned him into a person he would not like had he met him before the imprisonment—irascible, reclusive, insufferable. Unless one has been tortured for one’s beliefs and stayed the same person as before that incident, one is not in any position to judge my father.

I was the neighbourhood’s “bad” girl in Sanandaj, in the Kurdistan province, located on the border of Iran and Iraq. I was a bad teenager because I liked to put on colourful dresses and shoes, wear perfume, walk with my friends and sing popular love songs, laugh with them and enjoy the magical nature of Kurdistan. But those actions would—God forbid—make me visible and attract a male stranger’s “attention”: what a sin, what a scandal! Good girls hide themselves from men, they do not leave home unless they have to and only when accompanied by their mothers, they keep their heads bent while they walk, and they wear dark, loose manteaus and headscarves large enough to conceal their curves. It did not matter that my bosom had not developed until well into the last year of high school; ever since grade one, I was required to comply. But I did not. I was warned repeatedly in school about wearing white shoes, a short manteau or a pony tail that would show under my scarf. I was, of course, horrified by men; why wouldn’t I be? The law would not forbid them from harassing females of every age on the streets. In fact, it is the woman’s fault if she is harassed. But good girls prepare only to become a good servant for one of these scary marauders who would turn into a husband one day.

So, it should not be surprising that I did not have a boyfriend until I was a graduate student, in 2002, and that I chose an unthreatening man: a shy, “dickless,” confused virgin who would masturbate like a maniac and feel guilty, but who left me untouched, as I wanted to remain—chaste and pure. He was kind and caring but because I was not sexually attracted to him, we assumed something was wrong with me. He later suggested that I should try women, just in case!

In 2003, I became a correspondent for Asia Daily Newspaper, the only newspaper in Tehran that published in English and Farsi. The paper was shut down for publishing the news of Maryam Rajavi’s release from a prison in France. She was the head of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Islamic group in opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). I had only translated the news and had no say in what may or may not be published. But when the paper was closed, while the editors were being arrested and the computers confiscated, I knew that the English version of the news was saved under my name in the intranet.

Arrests continued. Since I was living at a residence at the Allameh University in Tehran and my family was back in Kurdistan, I left for the distant small city of Zanjan. The government of Iran became so busy closing down more papers and arresting more and more journalists that they did not have the time or a plan to track down every single person working in every single newspaper.

After almost a month, I returned to Tehran to catch up with school. It was at that time that the dormitories were raided and students beaten up by unidentifiable religious groups made up of men who were twice the size of an average Iranian man. These combatants had been specially picked and trained by the government to beat up protestors. It was IRI’s way of quelling the students’ movement. For years, university students have been subtly but strongly resisting dictatorship; they had to be punished every now and then. Thanks to “Islam,” female residents were unscathed. But that did not mean we did not spend every night living in fear.

Apr 26

The Best Days of Your Life

By Ayub Nuri

I am several thousand miles away from Iraq. Between me and over there are one ocean, one continent, many rivers and lakes—and a lot of history. There are more things that separate me from that country than I can count. But I feel that I am there. That nothing can separate me from that place. I don’t necessarily want to think about it, but Iraq and its situation impose themselves on me. It’s strange. Despite its troubles, despite its bloodshed and violence, I cannot help but think about it.

The Kurdish word damengir probably best describes a place like Iraq. Damen is the hem of trousers or a dress. Gir means “grabbing.” Iraq grabs one by the hem. It is easier to yearn for Baghdad—with its bombs and fear and uncertain streets—than it is a beautiful, quiet city where there are only birds and trees.

Many of the people who were beheaded there were there because they were in love with that city and country. Many journalists kept working there because they simply couldn’t leave. They would justify their decision by saying that they needed a job or that they had signed a contract. But the real reason was that they were under a sort of spell and couldn’t get out from under it. They had sunk too deep. They had become immune to the danger—not because they took precautions or had experienced guides or wore helmets and flack jackets, but because they had seen too much of the danger to feel it anymore.

Those who used to watch Iraq’s violence in the news would say to themselves, “If it is so hard to watch on TV, imagine how it must be for people over there.” But in reality that is not the case. It is never that painful or shocking for people over there. They don’t even see it. And if they see it, they don’t think about it. Too much blood blinds one just as too much snow does. Iraqis are used to blood. They don’t necessarily want it, but it imposes itself on them. Even after you leave, you miss it as if those had been the best days of your life.

Go and speak to Iraqis who live in the US, Canada, Europe or Australia and ask them about Iraq. They will talk about it as if they have been expelled from paradise. You will feel badly for them for having been taken away from that beautiful, sweet place. Even if you know Iraq’s true and bitter reality, you may begin to have doubts.

They will try to attribute their nostalgia to some nice memory from the past—a kind neighbour, an old friend or some local dish. But that is only illusion. That is an escape to the past that has nothing to do with the country. Iraq hasn’t experienced many nice days. For centuries, blood has been flowing in Iraq. So what is it that makes people miss it so badly? A spell. An invisible hand that grabs you by the hem.

You may resist and stay away from it, but it will not leave you alone. It will haunt you every second of every day. In this quiet coffee shop, I sit near people who are respectful of my space and privacy, yet I miss a teashop in Baghdad where I was never sure who the people around me were and what intentions they harboured in their heart. There are a hundred types of tea here, yet I think only about the thick and full-of-sugar tea of Iraq that often had more flies on the glass than I could chase off. Once again it is because I once lived there.

The Internet doesn’t make it any easier. It brings the news everyday, and unless you break your laptop, throw away your smartphone, move to a little town in the middle of nowhere and do a job unrelated to media, there is no escaping Iraq and its never-ending turmoil.

It is twice as bad for people who are born there. True, you may live a slightly more peaceful life in one part of the country than another. Depending on the political circumstances at the time, your town may survive destruction, and the bombs may skip your home. But in the end it is all the same. You are born in a country that is called the cradle of civilization, a place which could  since have become the graveyard of humanity.


Mar 15

Missing in Iraq

By Ayub Nuri 

Last summer, I received a message on Facebook from someone in Iraq. He said he was a former high school classmate and mentioned a few details and names to trigger my memory. At the end of his message, he said he wanted to talk to me about something. I didn’t know what he might possibly have to talk to me about, nor could I remember who he was.    

I wrote him back, “Please email me, I am at your service.” At first I wasn’t sure about using “at your service,” since his Kurdish way of expressing his request was “I have some business with you” or “I need you for some task,” but I still went traditional and put myself at his disposal. I thought if it were something bad, I would be safe here in Canada and could apologize to him from a distance.

I forgot about this encounter until a couple of weeks later when I received another message from him that was only a few sentences longer than his initial one. First he thanked me for expressing my willingness to help. Then he said that his 17-year-old brother has been missing since 2004. His brother and a friend three years younger had left home, telling their friends that they were going to Baghdad. They haven’t been seen or heard from since. The family had visited every prison, morgue, hospital and cemetery in the country but to no avail. Now, they hoped I could help them find him through “your media connections,” as they put it.

I have been working as a journalist since I graduated from Teachers Institute in Kurdistan in 2001. Also, for two years I was involved with Human Rights Watch and reported on the situation of human rights and conditions inside Iraqi prisons. In the past two years, since I started living in Canada, I have been active as an online news editor for Rudaw newspaper, focusing primarily on the uprisings and current political turmoil in the Middle East. 

I felt sorry to hear that two teenagers disappeared without a trace. The two had told their friends, and not their families, where they were going. I did the same when I was young. I never told my family if I wanted to do something that I knew they wouldn’t approve of. I knew they would get upset and do everything to stop me. So I told my friends, and I knew they would tell my family once I was gone.

After I read this short, heartbreaking message, I sighed and said to myself: “Here I am again, a source of hope to someone else.” I had been in the same exact situation in the past, more than once, with people asking me to look for their missing family members.

Whenever I come across a family who has lost touch with a loved one, I wonder if they know how difficult it is to find a missing person in Iraq. I wonder if they realize that in a country where life is cheap and it is easy to get away with murder, it is impossible to find anyone. I tell myself that they must know. They are Iraqis too and therefore must know the country as I do. So why do they search? Why don’t they stop looking and asking? The answer is simple. They still hope. They don’t want to give up.

Iraq has a long history of people going missing. There has never been an accurate figure. Sometimes people are afraid to report a missing person to the police. Sometimes abductors threaten the family. Other times people get killed in a blast and their bodies are torn to little pieces. Saddam Hussein’s regime snatched tens of thousands of people, mainly Kurds and Shias, and buried them alive in the deserts of the south. I cannot tell how many have gone missing exactly, but the number is in the tens of thousands. Men and women go missing in Iraq almost every day, but it is mostly men for their political activity, their membership in various parties and the nature of their jobs. However, during Saddam’s regime, no one was safe. Just as men in the city were taken by the army, so too were women in remote villages.

No matter how many people die before their eyes and how many of their loved ones have lost their lives, Iraqis still hope that this time is different and that their brother or son is alive and well somewhere. To them I am just another stone to throw at a tree, which may bring down some fruit, as the Kurdish saying goes.

I never say no to these people. I never discourage them from hoping. Days and nights go by anyway, so why not live with hope? I only wish I could tell them that our country stands on bones, that everywhere you walk there is a grave, if not a mass grave. So how can I find and identify someone among so many bones? I know the family wants me to find the person himself, and not his bones, but I am sure that in their hearts they are thinking what I am thinking. I have no doubt that if I come back to them with a bag of bones with a bullet hole in each limb or the skull, they will still be happy. But neither I nor the family wants to show that degree of hopelessness.

It is not easy to mourn the death of someone you are not sure is dead. How can you hold a funeral for someone who walks out the door in the morning saying he will be back in the evening but who never returns? At the same time I know it is not easy to live with hope, to stare at the door expecting your son’s familiar knock.

Fifteen years ago, a cousin of mine crossed the border into Iran to find a job. He never returned. He was with my older brother and they ran out of money and food in a big city in southern Iran. They stood on the lawn of a roundabout. My brother told my cousin, “Let’s go home, to hell with jobs. We will starve here.” But my cousin, lying on the lawn, said to my brother, “You go. I will stay here. I am expected to work, to make money and get married. Going home penniless like this? I can’t stand the thought of it.”

My cousin has been missing since that day. We don’t know if he is alive or dead. We don’t know if he is still in the same city or if he has moved to another part of the country or the world. His family went looking for him. They searched prisons, hospitals and morgues. My uncle’s family came to me for help, but all I could do was to suggest they take out a classified ad in the Iranian newspapers. His photo was published, but there was never a phone call from him or anyone else. I even doubted a photo in a black and white newspaper would yield any results. The picture of someone taken before his disappearance would never look like him now. Back then he may be smiling and happy and now he may be old, tired, frail and greyhaired. He may even be a newspaper deliveryman and still fail to recognize himself and his family’s desperate search for him. 

My cousin’s older brother went twice to the city where his brother had last been seen. He went back to the same roundabout many times hoping to bump into him as if his brother were a tree planted in the roundabout or he were a streetlight to be there all the time. 

Four years ago, when I was in Kurdistan for a visit, another man came to me. He was once my own teacher in elementary school in Halabja. His son, who was my age and once my classmate, was missing. He had joined an extremist jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda. The local security forces had detained him and presumably handed him over to the American troops in Iraq.

My former teacher came to me almost in tears, asking me to do something for him in my capacity as a journalist and through my connections with local politicians and international human rights organizations. I felt very sorry for my teacher. When I was a child he was my role model. I liked his class and his assertive personality. He lived not far away from our house and I saw him almost every evening on my way home. We would stop, shake hands and ask after each other’s family just like two friends. That was many years ago. Now he was a completely different man. Every hair on his head and beard had turned grey. His skin was less radiant. He even looked shorter. I knew he wasn’t that old. It was the sorrow and grief of his missing son that had affected him so profoundly. 

I felt sad and uneasy to see him so powerless. His name was Awat, the Kurdish word for hope, dream, wish, ambition, and that is exactly how I always perceived him. He loved life. He was a teacher; he had a farm, a garden and animals. But now he was dried up like a tree. I doubted he cared about anything anymore.

I wished I could search every secret or public prison in Iraq and find his son for him. But in a country where car bombing, abductions and secret prisons were so common, how could I find my former classmate whom I hadn’t seen for many years? I didn’t know if I should blame his son for bringing this unbearable grief on his father. I didn’t know if I should blame Iraq for breaking everyone’s heart or if I should simply blame myself for my inability to help. 

I have not only been asked by people from my town who know well that I care about them and would spare no effort to help. I was in my New York office, where I worked, when I received a call from someone in Syria who introduced himself as the son of Iraq’s former defence minister.

His father was in jail in Iraq and there was a chance that he would be executed by the Iraqi authorities. This was only a few months after the execution of Saddam Hussein, so the son who called me was distressed. He was deeply worried about his father’s fate. He said his father was a good man and he hadn’t committed any crimes. I said I would try to see what I could do.

After the phone call, I felt stunned—for days. I, a boy from Halabja, a town where the Iraqi army dropped chemical bombs in 1988 and killed 5,000 people in just a few hours, a town where the Iraqi army dynamited every house to erase every sign of life, was being asked to save the chief of that army. My own father was injured in the neck by shrapnel; my sister and her husband were unconscious when they were rescued. 

Yet I sympathized with the son of the former army chief.

I understood his distress. I felt his pain. The pain of seeing your father in jail and his former colleagues hanged one by one. I knew the son who called me wasn’t alone. He had a mother and sisters and probably grandchildren who wanted their father back. But once again there was nothing I could do. I am not sure if I would have helped get him out if I could, but there was nothing I could offer anyway. I only wished I could say to him, “You are not the first one trying to get a jailed father out; you are not the only person worried about the life of a family member.” I wanted to tell him that almost every family in Iraq is scarred by a loss thanks to a legacy created by men like his father. But I didn’t tell him that. I didn’t want to add to his sorrow. His father wasn’t executed in the end, but he is still in jail and will probably be for the rest of his life.

Iraq is such a strange place. One day you are in charge and people go missing and homes get demolished on your order. The next day you are a captive and beg for mercy. A war minister becomes a prisoner and his former captive becomes his prison guard, his torturer and his executioner. Things change rapidly in my country, but one thing always remains the same: people still go missing; hearts still get broken and as we say in Kurdish, mothers’ livers still burn with grief. 

In the mid 1990s, a married cousin of my father, a pious man who loved God and practised Islam devoutly, was taken from his home in the middle of the night and was never seen again. A group of unknown gunmen  showed up at his door, charged him with membership in an Islamic group with which they were at war and dragged him away in his pyjamas. His family did everything they could to find him. They visited prisons and graveyards. They lobbied political and powerful leaders, but disappointment was the only outcome of their search.

Eventually they came to me and asked me to go to Iran and speak with a hypnotist who was supposedly able to hypnotize people and send them searching inside prisons and secret locations. I was chosen for this task after a long meeting with the family elders because I knew my way around Iran and I had gone to school there as a kid. I was entrusted with a nephew of the missing man, a boy a few years younger than myself, whom I was to take to the hypnotist.

One hot summer day we travelled on foot and by car until we reached the town where the hypnotist lived. He had a small music store. I spoke to him on behalf of my family and mentioned the name of the person who had recommended him. 

I said that the missing cousin was a pious man, he was harmless and he had a wife and three children. I pleaded with him to help us. I then pointed to the younger boy, put my hands on his shoulder and said, “You can hypnotize him.” I felt like I was putting my hands on an innocent lamb and saying, “You can sacrifice him.”

The man sympathized with us, but he refused to help. He said he had stopped the practice because it didn’t resonate with his religious doctrine and his morals. He said that it was only with the help of Satan that he could successfully hypnotize someone and get hold of any information. “I am a changed man now,” he said. “I don’t want to work with the devil anymore. Besides,” he said, “the devil never wants good for us. Suppose I hypnotize the boy and he finds out who has abducted and killed his uncle. It could be the devil leading him to a wrong person only to cause trouble.”

He convinced me and my young cousin to leave him alone. It was sad how even a pious man wasn’t able to help another. Back home when I told the story to my family, all devout Muslims, they all agreed with the hypnotist and praised his honesty. It also made sense to me. But if I were to meet the hypnotist today, I would say to him, “My cousin was taken in the middle of the night by a devil, and if it takes another devil to find him, please call on his help.”  

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