This is my Book, it has been banned in America and Ireland, you will not find it in any bookstores.
I have decided to publish a chapter of “The Black Hole” online each week for my readers who may not have the opportunity to read it otherwise.
However the CIA or various other organizations and governments may try to silence me, I will never stop fighting for Free speech and Justice in this world.
Latif Yahia author of “I was Saddam’s Son” and “the Devil’s Double” which have sold over one million copies worldwide in twenty languages now brings you the next chapter in his extraordinary and chilling life story.
Published by Arcanum Publishing in 2006.ISBN 0-9554191-0-7
THE BLACK HOLE
Copyright © Arcanum Publishing 2006
Latif Yahia has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design and Patents act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.First published in Ireland in© 2006 by Arcanum Publishing.
This book is sold subject to the condition that is shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be left, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser © 2006.
Printed and bound in Ireland by Jetprint, Tullamore, Co. Offaly
Cover design by Michael Fedun and Alexander Six.
Photographs by kind courtesy of Latif Yahia and CBS, Karl Wendl, News
I would like to give special thanks to my wife Karen and children without whose support and love this book would not have been possible.
All profits from the sale of this book will be donated to the Children’s Hospital in Ireland where my children were born.
Some of the names of the characters in this book have been changed to protect their identities and their right to privacy.
I would not be so presumptuous as to assume that every reader of this book has read The Devil’s Double or Ich war Saddams Sohn [I was Saddam’s Son]. It is possible that many readers will have approached this book hoping to learn more about the political and social aspects raised, particularly with regard to asylum seeking in general, or how the Saudi Arabian and Austrian administrations deal with dissent of any kind. For readers who have not read the story of how I ended up in Austria, or those who have read it and require a reminder, the following few paragraphs cover the same ground very briefly.
The geographically diverse land between Turkey to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south, Iran to the east and Syria to the west is rightly termed the cradle of civilisation. Ancient peoples such as Sumerians, Hittites, Babylonians, Persians and Assyrians cultivated the ground and were responsible for many of the technologies we now take for granted – the wheel being just one.
The wheel, however, came back to dominate the region; a worldwide wanderlust fed a human desire for transportation, which in turn needed fossil fuel to turn to smoke and make the wheels go round. And the area, now known as the Middle East, sits on trillions of tankfuls of the stuff. This underground resource has been the cause of much war, territorial dispute and conspiracy. After all, the hand that rocks the oil pumps controls the world.
Between 1979 and 2003, that hand was Saddam Hussein’s. He would also use it to sign death warrants on dissenters, to murder his own countrymen, to plot disastrous wars with neighbouring countries and to be the puppet master of his entire population. In September 1987, Saddam – or more accurately, his son, Uday – picked up my strings. Uday wanted a double, and I was unlucky enough to resemble him.
This was not my first encounter with Uday. Because of my father’s wealth I was sent to the best school in Iraq, and a young, spoilt, arrogant, Uday became our classmate. We hated him even then. He would cruise the streets in his cars and with the assistance of his bodyguards would pick up girls whether they wanted to or not – and most did not. At least one girl who refused to be taken by him was kidnapped and thrown to his starving dogs. In class he would act like his father, showing no enthusiasm for lessons and acting threateningly towards anyone who crossed him. A teacher who reprimanded him for bringing his girlfriend into class with him was never seen again.
My classmates used to tease me and call me Uday because even at that age I resembled him. I used to imitate him for laughs.
When my second encounter with Uday came about, I was a Captain on the front in Iraq’s pointless war with Iran. My unit’s command received a dispatch saying that I should be sent to the presidential palace. I was taken there and informed that I was to become Uday Hussein’s fiday, or body double. This would involve attending functions, making appearances, and assuming his persona when rumours of assassination were circulating. Saddam had several fidays already, and Uday obviously longed for one just like his daddy, and I was to be his first. My initial refusal was met with a long spell of solitary confinement and mental torture in a cramped cell without so much as a toilet to maintain my dignity. Eventually, this treatment, and vile threats against my family, forced me to agree to Uday’s demands.
Throughout a lengthy period I was trained to act like him and to speak like him; I was, through cosmetic surgery, also made to look even more like him. Indeed, having my front teeth filed down and being given a copy of his overbite-dominated set gave me a lisp just like his. I was, during my “training”, desensitised to the ugly barbarity of the regime by being forced to watch endless, excruciating videos of real torture, mutilation and murder perpetrated by them on dozens of men, women and children of Iraq, usually prisoners or prisoners’ family members. These films also served as a warning as to what I could expect were I to decide to challenge the regime at any time in the future.
My first public appearance as Uday was at a football match in Baghdad’s People’s Stadium. My job was to wave at the crowd from a dignitaries’ box and present medals to the players at the end. When Uday saw the appearance on television he was impressed, congratulated my trainers and accepted me as a member of his circle, albeit on the outer reaches. He could not allow anyone to become too close to him, particularly anyone from outside the Tikriti clan from which the majority of the regime was drawn; indeed, I had been the first fiday to be plucked from the outside world. From then on my days were spent living in his palaces, effectively a prisoner, as I was not allowed to do anything without permission. But it was a prison of opulence and luxury, with access to the finest food and drink the world had to offer; swimming pools and other such charmed diversions made the time a little more bearable.
But the captivity grew stultifying. Most of the time I would not be making appearances; I would be bored out of my mind, intellectually and socially unchallenged. I had graduated with a degree in law and had dreamt of following in my father’s footsteps and becoming a businessman. This had never been part of my master plan. I was largely living a brainless, useless existence with no independence or exercise of free will.Worse was to come. I got sucked closer to Uday and he started to treat me as one of his bodyguards, taking me out with him as protection against assassination at the hands of any of his multitude of enemies. This is when I witnessed the depravity of Uday at first hand. I saw him rape, murder, bully and destroy anyone who dared to question his will. This could be anyone from friends of his father to innocent passers-by, on one occasion a honeymooning couple, the wife of which Uday took a liking to and who threw herself to her death from her balcony after being raped by Uday.
Then came Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This was a time when every warring tyrant needs a double, and I was put to good effect, visiting the troops in Basra posing as Uday, to show courage, fortitude and supposedly to improve morale, while all the time Uday himself was drunk in the safety of Switzerland. I was also pressed into plundering Kuwait, leading parties of thieves into car showrooms to steal luxury cars and take them back to Baghdad to be sold at huge auctions. But Uday was growing tired of me. When he was accused of plundering Kuwait and faced huge embarrassment for such actions he had the perfect excuse – that it was I who had stolen everything – and that he was completely innocent. I was made to “confess” on television – a ridiculous charade in a country with no electricity – and sentenced to death. It was of course a convenient cover. Uday had begun to sense that I was resisting his will, that I wanted to escape his clutches. I was saved by the beginning of the invasion of the US-led forces, which seemed to give the regime other things to think about.
Saddam was kicked out of Kuwait but survived politically, and my death sentence seemed to have been forgotten about. After a trumped-up row over a girl I was sent to a “re-education camp” where I was tortured and humiliated for weeks. That particular horror ended when Uday came to visit me one day, but it was replaced with another kind of horror. He had me shaved from head to toe and dumped on the doorstep of my parents’ home. My mother discovered me but did not recognise the bald, skeletal figure at her feet until I spoke to tell her who I was.
I was later offered a sort of freedom, by way of gratitude for the way I had performed when called upon. But once again, at a party, I caught Uday on a bad day and he had me captured and held by his bodyguards while he went to sort out some business or other. I was sure that I was to be executed when he came back. I tricked my guard and made my escape to the north of Iraq, where I was captured and robbed by Kurds. But at least for the time being I was free from Uday. I eventually managed to flee to Austria, which is where my story picks up in this book.When I wrote and published I Was Saddam’s Son in 1994 and The Devil’s Double in 2003, I thought that my story was finished, at least as far as the public interest was concerned. It went on to be a success and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who cared enough, or were shocked enough, to buy it. On fleeing Iraq I was penniless, and it helped financially as well as emotionally; it was also a priceless cathartic experience. As expected I received no plaudits from Uday or Saddam Hussein, and a good deal of this book covers my ongoing fight with them, particularly with Uday.
Throughout this book details emerge of assassination attempts, murder, emotional breakdown and moments of lightness which I hope everyone can identify with, but which also serve to put space between the extraordinary, brutal existence which I was forced to endure and the loving, productive life I yearned for.
The overall purpose of the book, however, is to reveal to the world a tiny sample of the injustice, exploitation and horror that are daily enacted from the highest levels of some of the nations whose representatives have no doubt shaken the hand of, or might even be, your president, prime minister or monarch.
I would never have believed, as I was being flown in the aeroplane from Turkey to Austria, that I was not escaping hell, but merely being moved to another of its fiery chambers.
The decision to write and publish this story was not an easy one to make. I cannot believe that the normal legal protection given to journalists, historians and biographers applies to me. I have been subjected to enough torture, kidnappings, imprisonment and assassination attempts whilst living in the jurisdictions of the free world to have any faith in the observance of international law. Some of the revelations herein will definitely not endear me to international, ubiquitous agencies who thought that they had shut me up long ago.
I spent many hours discussing the pros and cons of publication with my friends and family. I now have a young family of my own, and the responsibility I owe to them has never left my mind. Most of my friends advised me, as I thought they would, to let my story lie, let it fade away and carry on with a life which had become rather comfortable for me. They were, I believe, advising me from the heart, or from the gut feelings about the dangers to which I would be exposing myself and my family. They have continually reminded me that, despite the fact that I have lived in the European Union for the best part of fourteen years, I am still stateless, still effectively a refugee, and that no country had a duty to protect me or investigate my disappearance. I believe the stories I have heard about Iraqis voicing anti-war sentiments or criticising the US administration and being swept away in appropriately-named Gulfstream jets, never to be seen again, or re-emerging with more approved views.
Or perhaps the consequences would be less bad – I could be subjected to character assassination, ridicule and veiled threats. No doubt I would be branded a Walter Mitty, a fantasist, a conspiracy theorist, someone with an axe to grind or burdened with the weight of other uncomplimentary clichés. Government-sponsored journalists and reviewers would probably say I was pro-Saddam, a terrorist and a social misfit, and some of these assertions would stick.
Throughout the world, in the US, in Europe, in the Middle East and in the seats of power at the heart of “liberated” Iraq are people who could pull enough strings to have me written off physically, critically or credibly. My friends’ arguments were convincing and sensible, and I decided to take their advice and keep my story to myself, at least until the dust had settled, sometime in the 2070s.
But then they came back. The CIA started to pay me attention and for some reason began to harass me interminably. Had someone been serving them false information about me, asking for certain favours? I can think of several potential originators of such actions, and the contents of these pages will provide readers with some of the many reasons why certain people would prefer it if this book did not make it onto the shelves, or if I were to be discontinued.
In my years since fleeing Iraq, I have plunged to suicidal low points and enjoyed the exhilarating highs that a good life can serve up. I have been in more embassies and governmental departments than I care to remember and have met world leaders and notables from all disciplines. If there is one thing that I have learnt, it is that the world’s leaders act like a single family, rarely criticising each other unless a scapegoat nation is needed. They will turn a blind eye to each others’ misdeeds, treating them as internal matters that are immune to international condemnation. What is more, they indulge in favour-giving deals in which millions of dollars of credit change hands. I have participated in it myself, and I have seen prime ministers and presidents shaking hands on deals that will never make the news. It would only take one of them to request that I should be silenced and it would be done. On the other hand, I have been impressed with the robustness of a few nations, most notably Germany, for whom the rule of law is not a structure to be toyed with, but is the immutable basis of all political actions, and a country where the legislature is as strong as the executive. It is often left out in the cold as a result.So here I am, an anti-Saddam Iraqi escapee who has the audacity not to support Bush and Rumsfeld’s Middle Eastern oil grabbing adventures. Along with billions worldwide, I disagree with terrorism and with military action on defenceless populations. I am not with the Americans and I am not with the terrorists, which leaves me as something of an outcast in George W’s polarised, inward-looking world view. I remain opposed to Bush and his coterie of belligerents while not being opposed to America or Americans in general. This sentiment is again widespread, but for the most sinister of reasons I shudder when I express it, for I feel vulnerable. People fleeing Saddam’s Iraq are not meant to oppose the present occupying forces in the White House and on Capitol Hill. After all, they were the guys who went and kicked his ass (or at least they sent the guys who went and kicked his ass). I am supposed to be eternally grateful. Because I am not, I must be a threat. I must be plotting against them. That is the polarised logic I am up against.
So in the end, my motivation for publishing this book came down to this fact: there is a truth that needs to be told, and if I do not tell it now, it might remain hidden forever.
In my book, The Devil’s Double, there was no mention of the fact that I had with me a woman when I fled to Austria. However, as will become obvious, I had with me a woman named Nusa who was reported in the press and on television reports to be my wife. She was not my wife; she was one of the women who hung on to Uday Saddam Hussein and his inescapable opulent lifestyle – a hired girl, a prostitute. She had been introduced to me by Issam Malla, who was famous among the upper classes of Baghdad, a man who sorted out girls for the well-heeled members of Iraqi society. In the West he would be considered a pimp, but like most of the criminals who ran the country for over twenty years he was careful to maintain a public image of refinement and respectability. This image was maintained by his choice of clientele. Government ministers, businessmen and politicians linked to the inner circle were all enthralled by the radiance and beauty of his charges, their accessibility (at a cost), and the ego boost afforded by their company. He probably saw his business as a legitimate arm of the Western-influenced state that was Saddam’s Iraq. And of course, he was right.
Issam used to visit me every Thursday – the equivalent of a Western Saturday or Sunday. He would arrange girls with whom my friends and I would socialise and be entertained. He would be accompanied by some of the girls so that we might choose a suitable partner for whatever occasion was taking place, or simply to spend time with. On one such occasion, he brought with him a captivating Shia girl named Nusa. I chose her to accompany me that night; she was good company. Over the following days she continued to visit me and we slipped into a tentative closeness that had never taken hold with previous girls provided all too easily by Issam.
In addition, Nusa and I had not known each other long; we were little more than acquainted when we effected our the flight from the cauldron of fear and hatred that was boiling all around us.
The decision to “rescue” her was mine, although her pleading was instrumental in my decision. I did not want to have anyone in tow. I trusted no one, and bringing her with me would increase my chances of capture. However, before me was a human being, one who had been sucked into Saddam’s world just as I had been and whose very survival probably rested on my whim. I do not consider myself a hero by this action. It was a bout of humanity and normality that I had long been craving in my brutal, make-believe existence. The two of us went on to share experiences that will be related in this book, but ours was a fake “marriage” of convenience, which in many ways proved beneficial to both of us. However, the time is right for the truth to be told regarding her, and this book presents the ideal opportunity.
Apart from this detail, for which I hope the reader will forgive me, this story follows seamlessly from that told in The Devil’s Double. Revealing her presence and her identity would have imperilled both her and the family she left behind in Iraq. There was no attempt to fictionalise of gloss over the truth for reasons other than this.
I must also point out that several of the people who play their parts in this story have either had their name changed of have not been named, largely because they or their relatives are vulnerable or do not have the wherewithal to protect themselves from intelligence services and various other agencies from around the globe. They are the people who have had a place in this story thrust upon them by circumstance, rather than people who have sought privilege or position by entering the public domain. Some have confided in me and I will not betray their trust.
Conversely, there are names herein of people who have forced themselves into my life in the hope of damaging me physically, emotionally or professionally. Many of these have not benefited from anonymity. I am assured in the veracity of my story, and fear no legal action from such quarters under any law that I know of. However, one or two of those people who have caused me pain and suffering have been let off the hook somewhat because naming them would reveal the identity of someone whose anonymity I have sought to protect..
by Latif Yahia
By the time of our flight from Iraq, early in 1992, Saddam’s troops had been driven from Kuwait, the unconditional surrender had long been signed at Safwan Airfield by Lieutenant-General Sultan Hashim Ahmad and General Schwarzkopf, and the United Nations’ “no-fly zones” were being enforced, but Saddam remained firmly in power.
The no-fly zones had the effect of severely restricting the Iraqi regime’s ability to continue attacking the populations in the north and the south of Iraq (chiefly the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, respectively). Both had suffered numbing oppression and terrifying violence at the hands of Saddam, his ministers and his armies. Kurdistan responded to the no-fly zone by becoming a quasi-autonomous administrative region, as Baghdad’s ideological grip was ineffective without the free run of its military. However, it was, and still is, part of Iraq in the often arbitrary political geography of the Middle East. Its people’s desire for independence is strongly opposed by Turkey, and Iraq is anxious to keep the Kurdish region as its own thanks to the large reserves of oil in the region of Kirkuk , the northern city which would be the capital of a state of Kurdistan were it ever to gain independence; after Saddam was finally overthrown and a new Iraqi government installed, Kirkuk became the capital of the Iraqi province known as Kurdistan.
To Nusa, the prostitute who had begged me to take her with me, and me, the north of Iraq represented a sort of freedom, a base camp for our flight from the country. After a frenzied drive from Baghdad, during which my rear-view mirror received more attention than did the view from my windscreen, we made it to the coalition-controlled Kurdish area and prepared to carry out our plans. I had posed as Uday on several occasions to ensure passage through checkpoints, a risky but vital strategy; fortunately, most of the checkpoint guards had been too terrified of Uday to pay me much attention.
On arrival in the Kurdish region, things stopped going to plan. We were robbed, taken hostage and imprisoned by the Kurdish Socialist Party, and several uncertain weeks were spent in cells and being driven and held at gunpoint before we finally made it to a US agent, who immediately set about arranging our escape. Ironically, the leader of the Kurdish Socialist party Mr Mammend and his second man Mr. Othman ( who now holds a British passport) who personally oversaw and directed my torture in that dingy cell and later went on to shoot two men in front of me, Kurdish prisoners that Othman believed were working for the Saddam Regime one that held a German passport whose name was Kaled. (This proved later to be incorrect, but hey, they were dead anyway) Othman went on to become a major figure in the Post Saddam elected government after the invasion by America in 2003. A tribute to the fact that blood will never be too far away from Iraqs’ door.
You can change the faces but the practices remain the same, wether they be Kurdish, Arab or Shi’ite. We were finally picked up by an American helicopter which took us further north to the relative safety of Turkey, where we made contact with other representatives of the American intelligence services, who were to arrange our next step.
Even at this point I understood that my return to Baghdad, and probably Iraq, would be impossible at least until the regime had been toppled, and was less than certain even then, such would have been the mistrust and detestation of anyone seen as being connected with Saddam and his atrocious sons. There was also the fear that my escape would provoke Uday, or, more accurately, Iraqi intelligence to be on my tail and that capture, torture and probable death would ensue. I was acutely aware of the danger in which my actions had put my family and acquaintances. It was something I would have to deal with, but such thoughts chilled me to a halt whenever they crossed my mind. Perhaps the degree of freedom I would enjoy would allow me to arrange something. Besides, I was far from safe even then. I did not know what lay ahead of me in Europe, how I would be treated or accepted, and for how long I would be there.
Furthermore, my status had, on crossing the Turkey–Iraq border, switched from an implanted member of Saddam’s extended inner circle – with all the seedy benefits that that ensured – to that of a refugee, running for my life and relying on the openness and legal processes of the West. I was casting myself on a continent in the hope that its reputation for exercising compassion was true. (Time was later to suggest that the reputation is only partly deserved.) But rather than being afraid, I was filled with a sense of cautious optimism. A lifeboat might not be the best place to be in stormy seas, but it is preferable to being on a sinking ship.
I had been asked by the CIA about where I would be applying for asylum. Knowing little about Europe, I decided on Austria on the premise that I had a cousin there. He was a doctor and by all accounts was successful. As is the case all over the world, doctors are held in high regard by the people they serve. A respected contact in a foreign country could, I reasoned, soften my landing. Admittedly, however, my options were somewhat limited. Most of my friends and family were firmly rooted in the land I had fled.
There remained the fact that I would be of great value to America, the main protagonists in Operation Desert Storm and in the enforcement of the no-fly zones. Inside my head was an encyclopaedia of Iraq’s dictatorship, its workings, its hierarchy, its palaces. In the United States I could have had an assurance of safety, which would of course be paid for with that knowledge. But I also knew that once my priceless resource had been exploited I would be on my own, probably looking over my shoulder, trusting no one – precisely the situation I was fleeing.
The inevitable offer of refuge came in the end from Dick Cheney, then the country’s defence minister. But accepting his offer grated on me in a way which is difficult to explain. I had never had any cause to dislike Americans as individuals – I now have many American friends, and they have enhanced my life immeasurably. They have a stimulating enthusiasm and a straight-spoken honesty which I admire. The American people and their immigrant forebears have indeed imbued the nation with a unique sense of purpose, but it is a sense of purpose that does not always travel well, especially when it is driven home by force. They are like the person who can light up a social gathering but with whom one is glad one does not have to share a home. There is an otherness about America that attracts and repels in equal measure – the strength of instinctive repulsion roughly proportional to one’s proximity to Babylon. Had I been able to choose between the American people and the American government, the choice would have been easy. However, I had to take both or neither; my decision was made.
To the American government’s credit, their arm-twisting was carried out with a light grip, and they made arrangements with Vienna for me to be transported to Austrian soil to serve my asylum-seeking period. In order for the US to spring me from Iraq, I had to agree to certain conditions, one of which concerning what I knew about Saddam. I agreed reluctantly, as I had no idea how the information would be used. I was anxious not to harm the Iraqi people but cared little for what they had planned for Saddam and my ex-employer. The US could and would come and get me as soon as they needed the intelligence. It was not as though I would be fired into a black hole. Austria is a proud member of the brotherhood of nations, albeit one with a historical commitment to intercultural harmony as chequered as the Croatian flag. Hopefully that image had been consigned to history.
We were granted single-journey passports by the United Nations and on 9 March 1992, Nusa and I Arrived in Vienna. My immediate concern was that my cousin and I would not be able to recognise one another. We had not met since 1973, when I was a beardless nine-year-old with unmodified incisors and he was a young boy whose parents were embarking on an adventure in Europe, which in those days seemed esoteric, distant and modern to us. Perhaps the uncertainty of being recognised was the first sign that I had ceased to be Uday; the Latif in me was re-energising. Of course my cousin will recognise me, I reminded myself – he just needs to look for Uday in the crowd!
“Latif?” came the uncertain call from the collected meeters and greeters at the airport. “Latif!” he laughed as I spun my head in recognition. Latif – my name, but it sounded like the name of an old friend. We shook hands, kissed each other and hugged tightly. Here, in this city with its moderately northern climate and guttural tongue, was a warmly familiar link with my country. Sure, he had become used to Western ways, but the warmth of our greeting spanned continents in a way that only family or nation can do. By degrees, I was feeling safer, but this step seemed so meaningful that it was difficult to imagine myself in the clutches of the Saddamites again.
My cousin was introduced to Nusa and they greeted each other in a familial way. He was not to know that she was not my wife, although he no doubt made that assumption. Whereas in Europe having a mistress is frowned upon but accepted as what goes on, in Arabic countries it is a cause for great shame and even ostracism for both parties. He would no doubt have been aware of the cultural differences and, either through discretion or supposition, never so much as thought about raising the issue.
Leaving the airport, we got into his BMW and set off through Vienna. This city of beauty and drama slipped into our wake as we cruised through its streets. The architecture and general atmosphere were unlike those of any Iraqi city I had visited. The only word I could use to describe the place was “European” – pretty much as I had imagined, but striking nonetheless. The journey seemed to take quite some time, the buildings’ grandiosity diminishing as we progressed, which suggested a suburban or even pastoral destination. This would figure, as successful city dwellers often crave the comparative peace and security of the outskirts when they tire of urban living. But the journey took us well outside the city limits, although I felt as though we were still in its orbit. We finally drew up in a town called Traiskirchen, situated about thirty kilometres south of the centre of Vienna. The town has an industrial feel to it but it is, I am told, well known for its viticulture; the eastern foothills of the Alps are visible to the south-east.
I noticed an enormous, looming building, and it soon turned out that the “Traiskirchen” I would be staying at was not some suburban wine-growing idyll, but was the name of Austria’s main refugee camp. My cousin had merely brought me to the place he had been instructed to. Where I come from, if you meet a relative after a long spell apart, it is traditional to be taken to his or her home, to take their hospitality for granted. It was a shock for Nusa and me to find ourselves here, and we were not overly reassured by the word refugee ¬– one finding refuge ¬– as the cold, dark, overbearing, forbidding appearance of the place brought less comforting thoughts to mind. There was also the point that neither Nusa nor I had any knowledge of German; under the assumption that we would be taken in by my cousin, this did not seem to matter compared to the urgency with which we were to leave Iraq. I could speak reasonably good English, however; maybe that would help. Many Europeans know a bit of English.
My cousin approached the security outside the building and started talking to the guards, returning a few minutes later with instructions to accompany him into the camp. It would appear that he was to be our translator. We gathered what belongings had not been stolen from us by the Kurds and stepped towards the gates which were a gathering point for uniformed men, probably police or immigration officials. Whoever they were, they stopped their conversations and eyed Nusa and me as though we were pieces of shit that had been trodden into the carpet. If they were intending to intimidate us, they succeeded. Considering the fact that we were supposedly entering a place of refuge, safety and security, this attitude did not augur well, but our fates were in the hands of this foreign force and we had no choice but to pass them without drawing too much attention to ourselves. Was this how all refugees were regarded in Austria? Time would tell.
The reception room was small, dirty and less than welcoming, and we spent almost an hour there doing nothing before someone came to take us in. After filling in forms and going about the business of registration and reception, we were ordered like dogs to go to another room, this time a much larger one where the essentials of refugee life – blankets, plates and such like – were literally thrown at us by the indifferent staff. “Take this, take this,” they would chant as they did so. It was nothing more than a chore to them. All the eating utensils we caught were dirty, the bedding reeking of stale sweat and urine. This was the unwashed detritus of other poor souls escaping unthinkable acts in places less civilised than even here.
An anger began to simmer inside me. We were being treated as prisoners, criminals, parasites, scum, not people fleeing certain death and looking for a temporary sanctuary. Only the arrogant can act with such dispassion.
A policeman and my cousin accompanied Nusa and me on a fifteen-minute walk, at the end of which was another enormous building. As the doors opened we were confronted with the dismal sight of families and individuals, the elderly and children of many nations gathered in their little groups. There was a tumult of crying, shouting and talking, and the echoes of all three made it impossible to be heard and understood.
But the walk was not over. We were led to a side room, a smaller one, no larger than twenty square metres in area, where five families were accommodated with the absolute minimum of privacy or dignity. Each family unit had a double bed for the parents and a bunk bed for the youngsters. The policeman pointed at an empty bed and through my cousin let it be known that this was to be ours.
This I was not expecting. I do not know quite what I was expecting when I extracted myself from the crushing vice of Iraq, but sharing a tiny room with five families had not been a scenario that would have got much of a foothold in my imaginings. I was convinced that I had had assurance from the Americans with whom I had arranged my escape that I would be whisked away to a safe home where I could start afresh and live in safety. I did not feel safe here. I was assured by my cousin that this was not a prison, that this was a temporary holding place for newly arrived asylum seekers, that our case would be dealt with and that we would be found a more permanent place of residence. This was simply the way things were done in Austria, he concluded. His instructions, from an authority no lower than the ministry of justice, had been to the effect that he would pick us up from the airport and bring us here for administrative purposes.
Nusa and I put our things down on our bed and surveyed our surroundings. I for one had grown accustomed to palaces and wide open spaces, and this was as far removed from that ideal as I could have expected ever to find myself. I did not expect a palace, but to stay in this room with little ventilation and indescribable smells that would make one’s eyes water seemed inhumane, even torturous. The five other families were Iraqi Christians. One of the women was pregnant and each couple had two or three children. We were left with no choice but to endure the screaming and crying, to try to close one’s ears and get some rest.
Before long I noticed that the adults among my room-mates were watching me attentively and seemed even to be cowering and holding each other protectively, their eyes widened with fear and confusion, their bodies twitching whenever I moved. My recent past suddenly lurched back into my consciousness. They thought I was Uday, that I had somehow tracked them down and that unspeakable horrors awaited them. The sensation lurched into me with burning intensity. It was all too much for me to take. I emptied my lungs with screaming and swearing, and punched the bed with a dismal loss of control. The situation, the dull, depressing reality of freedom from Iraq and all it embodied had got the better of me and my rage was unstoppable. No doubt this terrified those present even more, but what did I care? For the first time since boarding the helicopter in northern Iraq, I wanted to return to sailing through the monotonous unpredictability of the Baghdad compound. I started yelling to be taken back to the airport and placed back in Iraq. I wanted it like nothing else.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” implored my cousin, “you’ll be killed.”
I screamed back at him, “So be it, I’d rather die there, surrounded by my family and my countrymen than in this stinking shit hole of a place.”
“You know that’s not true, Latif,” he said. My cousin was right; I could not go back. Longing for Iraq was like looking forward to a death sentence. But over the coming years I would long for that futile return innumerable times. “You’re probably very tired and distressed. You need rest. Think about everything tomorrow. It’s been a long day.”
Perhaps it was his professional bedside manner, but my cousin calmed me down with the force of reason and reassurance. He said I would not be here long and that everything would be fine. He opened his wallet and drew out 300 schillings, and offered it to me so that we could make ends meet. Of the opulence with which I had been surrounded only weeks earlier, and of my untroubled, middle-class upbringing, I had nothing to show. This money and the clothes we wore were all Nusa and I had to our names. The wad of notes looked impressive and generous, but still I refused to accept it. I insisted on sorting myself out, just as I had always done. He stuffed the money into Nusa’s bag, so it became hers, which solved that moral dilemma.
My cousin left, saying he would visit every to day to see how things were going. He left us in the room with the five nervous families.
With growing reassurance that I was not Uday, the mood in the room elevated to mere misery, and conversations were struck up with the Iraqi refugees. They told us about the quality of the food in the camp, that is, how it was a sickening, tasteless slop with the nutritional value and texture of mud. Nusa and I were soon to find out for ourselves, when the evening meal period initiated and we made our way to the canteen with our greasy, stained plates and cutlery. The gelatinous blob made a smacking sound as it landed on my plate, and I looked down at it with dismay. My palate had assumed a palatial refinement during my time chez Uday, but even those refugees from culinary environments less charmed than my own found the food a disgusting, sub-human gruel that would have had prison inspectors foaming at the mouth. But this was no prison. It was off the legal radar. Nusa and I did not eat for five days. Our stomachs became tight with pain.
One trait that is often ignored by countries who take in asylum seekers is that they are by their nature an enterprising, brave and opportunistic breed. They are, after all, the fittest who have survived, the ones who have, by means of guile, sacrifice or financial advantage escaped closed societies and brutal regimes to seek freedom or to spread stories of their country’s ills to the enlightened world, in the usually vain hope that it will care. Instead of being welcomed and praised by the supposedly civilised, entrepreneurial states that take them in, they are often corralled, hidden away, scapegoated and subjected to abuse by their host populations, governments and media. History is written by the victors; that’s a given. And the immortalised prisoners who fashioned gliders and other means of escape from whatever they could scavenge from World War II prisons will – rightfully – always occupy a proud place in the psyche of the victorious. But many of those arriving in the West by escaping from their often lawless home countries would not even have been able to confront those trying to prevent their escape with a fragile Geneva convention. As long as the world tolerates brutal regimes, families and individuals will always be risking all to escape them. So much as planning to escape from such a place could be a death sentence. If the comfortable ruling classes could only begin to imagine the plights of these beleaguered people, and appreciate the brilliant and treacherous escape plans they have made, perhaps they would be treated a little more sympathetically – or even as heroes.
So here we were, among people from whom I would once have been perhaps a couple of miles in Iraq, but prevented by levels of security, walls and mistrust ever to meet until our flight paths crossed in this squalid prison masquerading as a kind of sanctuary. We were not allowed out of the doors until we had been placed in slightly less temporary accommodation I was not processed the next day. In fact, there was no sign of it ever happening. Many days and nights of drudgery were to follow, although after getting to know some of my fellow inmates a little, I felt a tiny bit safer.
My room-mates’ trust was eventually earned, and one day they whispered to me that some enterprising inmates had breached the outside walls and turned it into a secret means of access and egress. This was a hopeful development. Strangely, it was not used so much as an escape hatch than as a larder or a works entrance; people did actually go out and come back with provisions, be they begged, borrowed, stolen or paid for. There was also work to be had in the bars and restaurants, and a thriving black economy had sprung up in the environs of the Traiskirchen asylum centre thanks to that hole in the wall. Inmates would often leave in the evening and return in the morning, unnoticed and unmissed. In a bizarre take on Michelin approval, we were even recommended a good, inexpensive restaurant. I became glad of the money given by my cousin, and my stomach moaned at me to get a move on.
So it was that one night we excitedly squeezed our bodies through the opening and marched, with our throbbing appetites driving us on, to the recommended restaurant. Our mouths started to salivate as we neared the place, the aroma of cooked food having been kept from our noses for so long. We ordered kebabs and sandwiches from the menu.
Communication was a problem. The filthy looks we had been greeted with by those guarding the gates to the camp proved not to be isolated sneers of paramilitary camaraderie, but a condensed, official expression of popular feeling. The people in Austria seemed to have an aversion to darker-skinned people that I have experienced nowhere else, least of all in neighbouring Germany. They made no effort to communicate. If I tried to speak in English they would reply in German, even when it was obvious that they had understood my questions. There were no attempts to reply with gestures or attempts to seek help from another passer-by. Perhaps it was the small-town attitude that comforts people all over the suburban world; maybe Vienna itself would be different. This first true experience of the Austrian general public gave me the impression that racism, mistrust and excessive defensiveness were quite normal and acceptable attitudes in Austria.
As the palatable food digested, Nusa and I decided that the time was right to head back to the centre. I went to pay, but when I asked the price, the owner of the restaurant answered in an unintelligible German. I shook my head and asked for the price in English. He looked blankly back. I fanned out the 300 schillings under his face and told him just to take whatever the bill came to. I put the idea of leaving a tip on hold. My eyes widened as he took over 200 schillings. Exchange rates and such like had not really occurred to me; my cousin’s donation had looked like enough to last a week, but it turned out that 300 schillings was roughly equivalent to twenty-five dollars!
The activities of the previous days had softened my cigarette cravings, but now that I felt a little more relaxed and had time to think, the desire for a few lungfuls of smoke reappeared. I asked the owner how much were the cigarettes; they were about 35 schillings. I bought two packets, thereby using up all the cash we had between us. Half an hour’s living outside the centre’s walls had left us penniless.
In view of the inmates’ recommendation of the restaurant, I could only imagine that I had experienced the best of a bad brunch, so to speak. I would risk another establishment at my peril.
We found our way back to the centre and I made enquiries about what would happen next. I seemed to be going nowhere, despite what I had been assured. Our fellow inmates were surprised that we had not been told about the procedure. Full registration, we were told, was to be our next step in the asylum process; the form-filling on entry to Traiskirchen had been merely a preliminary formality. I already knew that, but had been expecting a call from an official to guide me through the next steps. But this was not the case, I was informed by a laughing room-mate. It was up to inmates to arrange their next step. Until then they were left, presumably as oblivious to procedure as I had been, in this appalling encampment. Full registration took place in an office in another building within the compound. The office opened at eleven in the morning but such was people’s desperation to put the wheels of their cases’ progress in motion that a queue started to form at 2 a.m. every day. It was intimated to me that without full registration I effectively did not exist.
That night Nusa and I got up at two and made our way to the office. It seemed that we were too late. The queue that had already formed was similar to that seen outside a football stadium on match day. It stretched all around the building. Estimates of how many people made it up would have been impossible, as the queue was thick in some places and thin in others, and its snaking nature made its length a matter of guesswork. Where did they all come from? I naively asked myself, before recalling that there were over twenty people in our compartment. I sighed as I took in the number of people in the queue I would have to join the end of. And this over eight hours before the offices opened. We made our way to the end, without much hope of being processed that day.
We slept as best we could. It was quite normal to sleep as there was no chance that the queue would move on for many hours; furthermore we had no possessions to be robbed of. The waiting was numbing, draining. Shuffling forwards commenced after eleven, and continued in tiny waves for several more hours. Because we would move forward a metre or so every five of ten minutes, it was impossible to get comfortable by sitting. Our backs and legs ached and our mouths were parched by the time we eventually made it to the door of the so-called interview room.
Here we had our second encounter with Austrian officialdom. A police officer of some unknowable rank sat on the chair with his feet on the desk, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, contempt and boredom pressed into his features. He had the nonchalant bluster of the fictional dictator of every banana republic that has ever appeared in the movies. By his side he held an iron bar, more for intimidation than for emergency, one presumed. Here I learned my first useful fragment of my hosts’ tongue: “Scheißeausländer” (“shit foreigner”, I later found out). Unfortunately for him, I thought he was asking if I was okay or if I needed anything, or even welcoming me to his country. I replied courteously with a nod and a “Thank you.” Could he have been testing my German language skills? I doubt it. I think he meant it. Whatever, he started to speak to me in a broken English. He asked where I was from, what was I doing in the country, the usual things. As the interview stumbled forwards, he became agitated at something and started banging his iron bar on the table as he bellowed questions at me and rolled his eyes when he could not understand my replies.. He was treating me with all the respect I would have expected from his greeting had I understood his language. A new anger was bubbling inside of me. This guy was nothing. He would not have lasted a minute if he ever adopted this attitude in Baghdad.
“Get me a translator,” he yelled to one of his subordinates outside the room, smashing repeatedly on his tabletop with the bar. “What language are you speaking?”
I replied that I spoke Arabic.
He instructed one of his officers to go and fetch a translator and turned to me and said, “Now fuck off until we find an Arabic speaker.,” He flicked his wrist at me, looked down at his pile of paperwork and seethed at it.
This belittling, dismissive comment and action ignited the rage inside me. I threw myself forward, got onto his desk and kicked him full in the face with the underside of my shoe. Blood immediately pumped out of his burst nose, and he fell back in agony. I could hear other policemen’s heavy feet approaching, and at that moment noticed that the interviewer had been armed with a gun. I snatched it from its holster and grabbed the interviewer by the hair and pointed the gun at his head.
“If anyone comes a step closer,” I screamed, “I will blow off his fucking head.” The policemen’s appreciation of English seemed to have made a gratifying leap and they stopped dead, looking at each other for a clue as to what to do next. I held him there, his ripped, bleeding head in my arm and his terrified eyes darting between me and the gun. I could sense the adrenaline coursing through me and no doubt it was a sensation he too was experiencing. It felt like I was Uday again, like I had an untouchable, unpunishable power. People simply did not speak to me in the way he had done, or treat me as he did. Perhaps Uday would have been proud of me.
The situation stagnated for about half an hour. My arm that held his head ached and shook. All actions in the centre had been halted while things were sorted out. Eventually a detachment of Cobra operatives arrived. Cobra is the special branch of the Austrian police who deal with terrorism and serious crime. They came wearing bullet-proof clothing and with a psychologist and his Arabic interpreter, ready to calm the situation. All very routine. I responded by finally placing a bullet in the gun (of course, nobody had previously known it had not been loaded, which must have irked them), and yanking the interviewer’s head back by his hair and thrusting the barrel into his mouth.
“I don’t care what happens now,” I growled. “If I pull the trigger he will die and so will I. Fuck you, fuck Austria, fuck the president and fuck everyone in this country.”
There was intense chatter going on outside the room, and occasionally I thought I could sense a police siren in the distance, or maybe they were ambulances. Someone came in and took Nusa out of the room. I would not otherwise have had any recollection that she was still there, so focused was I on my hostage. The rescuers were asking her questions and I could hear her scared voice quivering as she responded.
After a minute or two of this, and careful instruction from whoever was directing operations, the translator came gingerly into the room and said, “It’s okay. We know who you are. Who brought you here? You’re in the wrong place. The Department of Justice had a place arranged for you. Let the man go. We will take you to the right place.”
I refused. After another half an hour, the secretary of the minister of justice arrived. He made pretty much the same offer.
“I’m not interested in your offer, and I don’t believe you,” I replied. “I came here by United Nations passport, and I want to be taken back to Iraq.”
“We know all that,” said the secretary. “But it appears that your cousin brought you to the wrong place. Let’s sort this out and we can take you to where you should be.”
“Fuck you and fuck my cousin and fuck everyone else!” I spat. I guess I had everyone covered by now. “I don’t want to stay here.”
The secretary adopted a conciliatory tone. “Look, let him go and nobody will be pressing charges. You don’t know the law here, so we’ll pretend it never happened. Just let the guy go. He needs help.”
Still I refused. I insisted on being taken to the designated place. With my hostage. With the gun in his mouth. I trusted no one here. And so it was that I left the Traiskirchen centre with my finger on the trigger of a gun that was poised to eliminate my own personal Scheißeausländer. We slowly made our way to the waiting car, passing fellow refugees (some of whom were, I like to think, willing me on) and the special police with their machine guns primed and ready to cut me down if I decided to end this official’s days with his own gun.
Nusa and the translator got into the car. Once again the secretary of the minister of justice suggested that I let my captive go. Admittedly he was in need of treatment. “I don’t trust you,” I said, instructing the secretary to get into the front seat; I put myself in the back, still holding the interviewer’s head. “I’ll let this man go but I will have the gun pointing at your head until we get there,” I told him. “No problem, OK,” said the secretary, showing an admirable sense of bravery, irresponsibility or duty. “Just let him go.” I slowly moved the gun from the interviewer’s mouth to the secretary’s head, and let the former go. “I’m here with you,” said the secretary. “Kill me if you want, but you must trust me – we’re going to the safe place.”
The engine started and, as the main attraction of a convoy of six or seven cars, we made our way to the safe place, which was, I was to find out, in Vienna 13, the leafy residence of ambassadors, politicians and businesspeople. The place I was to be placed in was not a luxury mansion; it was a small dwelling with a living room and a bedroom that was used by “higher-ranking” asylum seekers – fleeing politicians, political refugees and the like. Seeing the open spaces and then Vienna appearing along the road helped me to calm down. A perverse small-talk was started between the secretary and me, the kind that goes on when one of you is pointing a loaded gun at the other. I cannot remember a word of it, but I did grow to respect the man – even like him – and, more important, to trust him.
On arrival we were shown around. The place was small but it had everything we needed. Moreover, we were informed that this was only temporary accommodation and that one of the nearby larger houses would be ours just as soon as the present occupants vacated, roughly three weeks in the future. I nodded, but did not have much faith in the assertions of temporariness. Anyway, this house was a million times better than where we had just come from.
I handed the gun to the secretary, and apologised. I would have assured him that my actions had been out of character but I am not sure he would have believed me.
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “We understand your position and your motivation. Had any of the other refugees done what you did they would have got ten years’ imprisonment. But since you are a special case, and you were brought to this country with the help of our government, and you were, as I said, taken to the wrong place. No charges will be brought against you and there will be no investigation.”
I nodded. “What I would like, though,” I said, “is for that man to be sacked. He is abusive to refugees, he treats them like dirt.” I know little of what happened to the interviewer, and care less.
The secretary gave me a piece of paper with phone numbers on it, and said that someone from the government would visit twice a week. Then he left us to settle in. After Traiskirchen this modest house was like a palace. We had our own room, a shower, a kitchen. We could truly relax, reflect and plan for the future. The food was very good – halal compliant – and our hosts treated us respectfully.
We lived between a Turkish political refugee and an Afghan dissident who later was to become part of the first post-Taliban government in his country. Soon after we arrived they started to visit us and treated us as friends. Contact with my cousin was limited as his job in the hospital and on his rounds kept him busy most of the time.
Almost immediately I set in motion plans to get myself a gun. I made subtle enquiries about the possibility to my neighbours, and, although I do not know if they were armed themselves, I was given a few suggestions as to where I could find one. I was not prepared to put all my trust in Austrian intelligence or the country’s police to protect me. I knew that Iraq’s agents were ever-present. I quickly managed to get myself armed and kept the gun safe in the house, but hoped I would never have to pull the trigger in anger. So began my time of relative freedom. I was shaken and cynical after all that had gone on. And Austria seemed to be a reasonable place to live, notwithstanding its uncertain welcome. At least we were not in Baghdad.
But was that a pang of genuine homesickness I just felt?