After several dull days and no visa, I meet Iraqis who help me see the horror of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
I haven’t been posting lately. I feel like I fell into a foggy place where nothing interesting has been happening. I devoted most of the last week to trying to get the Iraqi visa. It’s so ridiculous. There are two major fixers who are supposed to help us get a visa through the embassy. Most people went with one, a very dramatic woman who wears big furs and a lot of perfume and has dyed hair and provocative clothes. She’s not at all like most Jordanian women. She hasn’t gotten anyone in the two weeks I’ve been here, so I decided to go with the other fixer, a hunched-over young guy who skulks in and out of rooms and looks exactly like a sleazy, mysterious Mideast fixer. On Monday, he said no problem, he’ll definitely get me a visa that day. I got very excited, for some reason. Nobody had said “Definitely” before. I met him at the embassy, waited a few minutes, he came out and said, no problem, you’re definitely getting a visa but you’ll have to come back this afternoon. I told some other reporters how great he was and that I really believed he would get me my visa shortly. A few of the others said they might leave the woman for my guy. I went back that afternoon, he said I’m definitely getting the visa, I just have to come back the next morning. Anyway, you probably guessed how this turns out. Every morning, every afternoon, every evening, we all went over to the embassy, five or six or ten reporters, depending on the day. The woman fixer and the man fixer had a huge battle, accusing each other of taking bribes and stealing customers. Today, it seems ridiculous that I kept going back for more and more of this, but at the time, every single time, it seemed like I was just one visit away from the visa. There was always some very specific reason why the visa wasn’t available that day. Baghdad hadn’t sent the list; Baghdad had sent the list, but they didn’t include some important information. The Consul guarantees he will personally fax Baghdad on my behalf, he just needs to wait a few hours. And we all kept our humor for a while. People really believed this would all be sorted out shortly.
It came to a head on Saturday. The consul of the embassy told a few reporters that He gives His Word. They will get visas on Saturday. I was told that he wanted to meet with me personally to discuss my visa. He was very specific about wanting to see us all at 9:30 in the morning. We were there, a bit bleary-eyed, and chatted happily, feeling we were getting the visas very soon. We waited until 1:00 and were told to come back that evening at 6:30, that everyone was getting visas. There is no question, no problem. Just come at 6:30. We were already discussing whether to go to Baghdad that night or the next day, we were making plans to share rides. It seems so stupid. We show up at 6:30 and the embassy is deserted. The one guy there tells us the consul has gone home. There will be no visas that day. I don’t know why things collapsed right then, but they did. Reporters started talking very sternly to the poor Iraqi schnuk who was there. One reporter stood up and said, He Gave Me His Word. He is Not A Man of Honor, and stormed out, he said, rather than punch the Iraqi guy we were talking with. Another reporter said that this doesn’t reflect very well on the government of Iraq. Surely, they would like to make a better impression. Most of these reporters have been sitting around for weeks in Amman doing nothing, just waiting for that damn visa. They’re starting to be aware of the thousands of dollars they’ve spent on hotel rooms and food and it’s all for nought, it seems. People were discussing, with trepidation, having to call the office Monday night and see what they should do. Go home? Never get in to Iraq after wasting so much time here. Some went back on Sunday and were told there’s a total freeze on visas. Nobody is getting any. We started discussing ways of bribing people. Several reporters said they’d happily bribe anybody any amount of money. But they can’t find an Iraqi willing to sell a visa.
Each day also blends into the other, because we would, after the last visit to the embassy, head to one of the hotel restaurants and drink a lot. This is a boring town. There are not any nice cafes. I went to what I was told is the nicest bar in town and it was such a sleazy place. Dirty leather couches, smarmy waitresses (you can take them to your hotel with you, I was told). At least I got out a bit to interview people. I started feeling I’m the only reporter actually working on stories here. Everyone else is just waiting for Baghdad. It’s fun, a lot of fun, drinking with a bunch of war correspondents every night. But all the nights kind of bleed together.
I did spend time in the Iraqi neighborhoods all over town, recording people’s misery. That has been quite difficult. My fixer got four of his Iraqi Christian neighbors to come to his house to tell me their stories. His mother decided to invite an Iraqi Muslim also. I first interviewed the Muslim, in this big living room, with the Christians sitting on the couches next to her. She’s an older woman, with the head scarf, and a blank face with the occasional hint of menace. She said that she loves Saddam. That she will personally kill any soldier who walks in front of her house. I laughed and said how are you going to kill a soldier, you’re an old woman. She said she’d use a knife, a stick, anything. She said she wishes she could go to Israel and become a suicide bomber. Then I asked one of the Christians to come over. She’s a pretty woman, about 40, sitting next to her mother. She had this blank look and said she doesn’t know anything about how hard life is in Baghdad. She never got out of the house much. She never heard of anything the regime had done that was bad. I thought she was stupid. I was getting frustrated, I felt like she was a total idiot to miss what was happening around her. Then my fixer told me in English (nobody else spoke the language) that this woman will not say anything as long as the Muslim is there. That she is afraid the Muslim woman will turn her in to the regime. He said we should pretend that we’re done and getting ready to leave and that hopefully the Muslim will leave herself and then we can do the interviews. I stood up and started making noises to move. I went to the back of the house and the Christian woman and her mother followed me. They took me to this back porch, it was freezing. The second I turned on the tape, the older woman, the mother, started bawling, screaming in agony. She was crying hysterically, telling me that Saddam had killed her son, her favorite boy. He refused to fight the Americans during the Persian Gulf War and they killed him and buried him in a mass grave, a Muslim grave no less. She and her daughter, the one I thought was stupid, just pored out the stories about how horrible Saddam is and how he ruined them. They were a big, happy, wealthy family, professionals. Now they are broke, destitute, living in misery in Amman. Some of the woman’s other kids are in Australia and Europe. They haven’t seen each other in eight years. They don’t know what will happen with their lives. Then my fixer’s mom came in and said the muslim woman’s daughter would like to come in and say things bad about Saddam, that she hates Saddam. A few minutes later the daughter, much more modern looking than her mom, came in. She gave a speech about how great Saddam is. The older woman, the mother who was sobbing a few minutes before, started agreeing, saying Saddam is fine. She was terrified. My fixer’s cousin happens to speak Hebrew, and so do I. He took me to the other room and told me, in Hebrew, that he heard the Muslim mother tell her daughter that if she says one word bad about Saddam she will kill her. I found this whole thing overwhelming, the mother being forced to speak favorably about Saddam, the Hebrew conversation. When we finally were getting ready to leave, we went back to the living room and I said–in Hebrew–Thank you very much to the old Muslim woman. I was so shocked that I spoke Hebrew to her that I ran out of the room as did the Hebrew-speaking cousin and my fixer. We were laughing sort of hysterically in the hallway and we all kept repeating, I can’t believe you said that, I can’t believe I said that.
The next day, I interviewed some other poor Iraqi Christians in their home. The father, a sweet, older man with a tired, handsome face, explained that he had a succesful grocery store. Saddam’s minions would come by three or four times a month to take whatever food they wanted. this went on for years and it kept him from doing as well as he could. Finally, one day, they asked for so much food that it would bankrupt him. He told them he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give them that much food. They beat him in the store and then took him to prison for a year. They were lucky to flee to Amman after he got out. They’ve been here four years and he said they never leave their small house. He has this sweet kids, a five or six year old boy, a nine year old girl, and two lanky, awkward teenagers. They don’t go to school, because they can’t afford private school and the public schools won’t admit Iraqi refugees. They’re harrassed for being Christians, so they just sit there all day. The kids don’t have any toys. They are sweet kids, they smile easily and are sort of shy. I asked the oldest one what his favorite game is and he said soccer but he doesn’t have a ball, so he can’t play. I told him I’d get him a soccer ball. The next day, my fixer showed up with the back seat of his car filled with toys. He said that he told his wife and five-year-old daughter about them, and his daughter insisted on giving some of her favorite toys to them. He also got a nice soccer ball. We went by and gave it all to them. It was kind of great, I have to say. The kids didn’t seem to know what to do, really. They just stood there, the older one holding the soccer ball still in its wrapping.
As we were leaving, a young guy came up to us and talked fast in Arabic to my fixer. He said he was one of Saddam’s personal bodyguards and would like to help Americans kill him. He wants to talk to me, he said, but he can’t do it in his neighborhood because he could get killed. I invited him to my hotel, and he came along. He’s a big guy, fat and tall, but he holds himself like an elite soldier. He sat in my room and told me a lot about Saddam’s palaces. How he was one of five guards around the bedroom and dining room. That Saddam has this secret entrance and exit that only he can access in every palace and that he switches cars every two minutes when moving from palace to palace. He sometimes disguises himself as a beggar and goes to the poorest part of town to evade assasination. He said that one of Saddam’s palaces, his favorite, has a giant glass floor built on top of a huge aquarium with sharks and things. His life was great when he guarded Saddam. Saddam personally gave him a grand apartment. He said that you can hate Saddam when you see him on TV or in pictures. But when you’re close to him, you can’t help but be drawn to the man. He’s so magnetic and powerful a personality and he’s very generous with his close allies and bodyguards. He quit the army when his term was over and a few days later was arrested by the Mukhabarat and taken to a prison and beaten with steel pipes. He showed me on his arm and forehead where the bones hadn’t healed properly. Half his teeth were bashed in and haven’t been fixed. He said that he was in jail for weeks and finally was released but was then told, by a friend, that he was targeted for death, so he escaped to Amman. He said he was always a healthy man, but now he just smokes and drinks coffee and thinks of ways to kill Saddam. He is desperate to find an American soldier. He knows where the weapons of mass destruction are, he said, they’re mostly in giant, movable bunkers under the sand dunes in a suburb of Tikrit, Saddam’s childhood home. It’s hard to know if he’s credible or not. I asked another reporter to talk to him to see what he thought. We both–and my fixer–all agreed that our gut sense is he’s telling the truth. He says he’ll probably be killed soon, because Saddam has Mukhabarat in Amman and they’re looking for him. He changes apartments and jobs as often as he can, but they’ll probably find him.
On my last visit to the Iraqi embassy, this past Saturday, an old man came up to me and my fixer. He said he’d like to tell us things about Saddam. He’s an old man with a proud bearing and we agreed to meet him Sunday night, last night. We took him to my fixer’s house, he’s homeless, and he sat and told me his story. He was a dancer in Iraq, a famous dancer. He holds himself like a dancer, He has that sort of regal, straightbacked dancer’s presence. And he moves his body in elegant, if pained, ways. He used to be in charge of several major theatres. Every year, he put on the big birthday celebration for Saddam. He met the man several times and had a very nice life. Then his brother was killed for being loyal to one of Saddam’s opponents and the dancer came under suspicion. He was arrested, beaten severely and imprisoned for three years in a tiny cell with no light. He showed me on his body all the marks of torture. They wripped out his fingernails, he said, and his nails look misshapen and infected around the edges. They broke all the bones in his hands, and his hands do look like they were broken and did not heal well. He has a huge scar on his forehead where the minister of culture threw a heavy ashtray. His ear–he showed me–was half cut off. It was agonizing listening to him. I felt sick, actually. After he left prison, he went to find his wife and discovered that she had been taken and killed because she screamed bad things about Saddam in the street after he was arrested. He found his young son staying with his sister and he took the boy to Amman but the boy died soon after they got here, just six years old but he was starving and had some untreated illness. The man said he was walking the streets begging for money when he came upon the Iraqi embassy. He decided to just go in, sit down, and wait for someone to take him to be killed. That’s when he met us and decided to stay alive a little longer, maybe our interview would help somehow. Again, I don’t know what to believe. The man clearly was a dancer, he clearly was once a proud, dignified man, and he clearly was tortured over a long period of time. He showed me an article about him from eight years ago, just eight years ago. I thought it was 30 years old. He looks so young and happy and healthy, standing proudly in front of a group of his dance students. While he talked, my fixer was almost crying, he could barely translate the words. His two brothers were sitting a few feet away with looks of such horror I wanted to take a photo. The old man spoke softly, calmly, crying a little bit every now and then. As I got up to leave, I felt so many things. I felt horrified by his torture, but I also felt suspicious; afraid he was just softening me up to ask me for money (which he never did) or just making the story up or something. And I felt disgusted with myself for feeling suspicious. My fixer asked for an advance on his pay so he could rent the guy an apartment for a month, I told him not to, or at least to sleep on it, that his family needs money, too. I felt like helping the guy, felt like an idiot for wanting to, felt like an asshole for not. Afterwards, I went to dinner with some reporters and got very drunk.