[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/10/29/al.badree.2_horizontal.jpg caption="Hana Al Badree in her temporary home in Amman, Jordan." width=292 height=320]
Hana Al Badree, not her real name, a 57-year-old Iraqi refugee living in Amman, Jordan, had just received a message from Iraq when I called to check on her. Al Badree’s 12-year-old nephew had just died.
He jumped over a fence attempting to retrieve a ball in his Baghdad neighborhood when he fell on his head. Her last surviving brother, his father, then went into cardiac arrest due to the shock of his son’s death.
Al Badree’s life has spanned two wars. She has lost nearly a dozen family members to violence. She said this was her “fate.” This was not the first time Al Badree had said this. Now, her gravelly voice struggled to conceal the onslaught of emotions that threatened to overwhelm her.
One week earlier, I had served her hummus and black tea garnished with mint at my apartment in downtown Amman. She had been working with me as an interpreter for five weeks while I interviewed dozens of families for a documentary. She translated my questions and lent her credibility with the community to the project. Families, who otherwise might have been less open, welcomed me and shared their stories and pain. Now it was time to interview Al Badree about what had driven her into asylum.
Because of threats of violence, we agreed to change the names of the family members for the purpose of this report.
The “fate” Al Badree talked about began in the early 1980s when her husband was arrested and imprisoned during the Iran-Iraq war. The war began in 1980 and lasted eight years. It claimed an estimated 1.5 million lives, according to various estimates. Thousands of Iranian soldiers suffered from Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons and 60,000 Iraqi troops were imprisoned.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/28/art.vert.charity.hanaalbadree.jpg caption="Hana Al Badree making lunch in her Heshmi Shamali temporary home in Amman, Jordan." width=292 height=320]
Al Badree’s husband was one of them. He had joined the Public Army in Iraq out of obligation after receiving his bachelor’s degree in Europe. He spent a month in Northern Iraq and after completing his tour he decided to become a guard for the Baath party. Al Badree said her husband wanted to serve his country before leaving for the United States to pursue a PhD in pharmacology. “He was a patriot,” she said.
After several months of wondering where her husband was, Al Badree received a letter from the Red Cross stating he was in prison in Iran. She asked everyone if they knew what happened to him. Each person she asked denied knowing anything about him. Eight months later she received her first letter from him. She savored a few letters and then they abruptly stopped.
As she told me this, Al Badree wiped away tears that began flooding her face, her rounded fingernails stopping the eyeliner from betraying her well-sculpted eyes. In 1986, four years after his disappearance, Al Badree said she received a letter from Iraqi military informing her that he had been tortured and executed.
She didn’t want to believe it. For two weeks Al Badree didn’t speak, eat or cry. “I neglected my sons completely.” Her children stopped attending school to be with their mother. “I must be subjected to my fate – this is the will of Allah,” Al Badree said.
Fate’s Vengeance II
When American troops invaded Iraq in 2003, the dark shadow of Al Badree’s fate would again knock her into a tailspin. Her eldest son, Mohammad, worked in the security forces protecting the Ministry of Health – he worked for Saddam Hussein.
One day, three men knocked on her door and said they needed to speak to her younger son, Ali. “They said they were friends of Mohammad’s.” Al Badree said she listened as the men explained that Mohammad had been shot and was in the hospital. She said she burst onto the porch, pulling out her hair, demanding to know what happened. Al Badree said the men convinced her to allow Ali to accompany them to the hospital.
Hour after hour passed and neither son returned. Finally, her eldest son, Mohammad, came home. “Where is your brother?” she says she demanded. They realized, as the sun began to rise, that Ali had been abducted. This was not the first time Ali’s life was in danger. Earlier that year, he had started his master’s degree in computer science at the University of Al-Mustansiriyah when militia members attacked the school and attempted to kill everyone. He hid under the dead bodies of his classmates to survive.
This was the second attempt on his life. She said days passed and there was no word of her son. “I didn’t speak to anyone. I was completely crazy. I didn’t recognize my own family. My jaw went out of place and I scratched my face with my nails,” said Al Badree.
While she waited in her brother’s home for some news, Ali was being held on the other side of town. Later, he told her he was beaten in a room guarded by masked men when a gunfight broke out and he and another man escaped their kidnappers. Ali hid for a day before returning to his mother’s house. Al Badree said when he returned she came out of her daze.
“My jaw immediately went into place. I yelled at him, ‘where have you been I haven’t seen you since this morning’,” she recounted. In reality, Ali had been gone for several days. Al Badree said it took weeks for her to fully understand what had happened.
After Ali’s return, the Al Badrees made the decision to flee Iraq. They sold their two Jeeps because, like many Iraqis, their bank accounts had been frozen. When the war broke out, Iraq’s Central Bank stopped functioning and everyone who had accounts lost their money. (There are currently thousands of lawsuits over the whereabouts of these funds.)
With the money from the sale of the Jeeps, the Al Badrees were able to flee. They left everything: Hana’s home, Ali’s apartment, Mohammad’s house, and their extended family. After she was safely on the other side of the border, Al Badree called her neighbors to check on her home. They told her militia had moved in and sold everything. The horror did not stop there.
Her family was being systematically exterminated in her hometown in Iraq. In Amman, Jordan, she could only helplessly hear the nightmarish news.
Al Badree is one of nine children. Her older sister’s husband was a cleric. When the violence began, Al Badree said he had started preaching about revenge against the Shi’ia and resisting Americans. One morning they found him in the mosque. His long white dishdasha [Muslim robe] was covered in footprints and 100 bullets riddled his body from head to toe.
“They killed all three of my sister’s sons. They were 22, 24 and 26,” Al Badree said.
In 2006, one of Al Badree’s nephews was visiting his mother, her oldest sister, when the militia came to her home in Iraq, Al Badree says. The militia demanded her nephew go with them. His wife protested and they kicked her in the stomach; she was six months pregnant. They hit another family member in the face with the butt of a gun. He went blind. Al Badree said that the next day the militia called and said they were bringing her nephew back. His family looked for a car and all they found was a garbage bag where his body had been chopped into pieces, his tongue, head and genitals removed. Al Badree went on to say that soon after her sister lost her mind and finally died of natural causes. “My family members are still being killed,” she said.
When I went to check on her a week later she was more concerned about me than talking about her loss. I commented on how strong she was and that I was surprised she was still standing. Al Badree then jumped to her feet with a wide smile, light glinting from the blue in her hejab and said, “I am still standing, this is our fate.”
Editor’s Note: Charity Tooze is a freelance journalist. She was the executive producer of Rites of Passage, www.ritesofpassage.tv, a weekly television program by and for young women in the Bay Area. She is producing a documentary and video series on Iraqi refugees.