Several months after his arrest in 1982 Ala'a Al Jaffar and 15 other men from a Baghdad prison were handcuffed and blindfolded and shoved into the back of a small military van. Some of the men huddled on the floor, others stood up and tried not to fall on them. They had no idea where they were being taken.
It was summer, and as the van began to move through the city the temperature inside rose quickly. The prisoners realized that there were no vents, and they suspected the guards hoped at least some of them would suffocate. "They did that all the time," says Jaffar.
Gasping for breath, some of the men managed to remove their blindfolds, even though they knew they'd be punished for it. Jaffar says he noticed some light hitting his chest, filtering through a hole the size of a lentil, and he put his nose to it. It wasn't enough. His chest tightened, and he felt he was about to collapse. "I saw the faces of my whole family in my mind," he says. "In Islam we believe you see that the moment before death. But I never surrendered." Finally the vehicle stopped and the door opened. No one had died.
Jaffar, who now lives in Chicago with his wife and four children, describes this trip in his recently published memoir, The Bitter Time: Scrap of Paper Smuggled of Iraq's Prisons. Every detail is still vivid in his mind. "When I think about it I get the same feeling I felt that moment," he says. "I get chest pains. I can't breathe." But he felt he had to tell his story, even though he couldn't bring himself to use his real name--Jaffar is a pseudonym. "I believed if I didn't write it, maybe people will never know what Saddam did to Iraq."
The son of a Shiite merchant, Jaffar was born in 1955 in the southern port city of Basra, three years before the army coup that overthrew the monarchy and turned Iraq into a republic. As a child he was aware of a power struggle between Marxists and nationalists, but he remembers Iraq as a free land until the Baath Party took over in 1968. His father had spoken out against the communists during the early 60s, but he was afraid to speak against the Baathists, particularly Saddam Hussein, who was the real power in the country long before he became president in 1979. Like his father, Jaffar came to hate the Baathists.
In 1979 Jaffar was in his second year studying economics and management at the University of Basra. That same year he married Sahar (not her real name), whom he'd known since childhood. He also began writing articles that condemned Saddam and the Baath Party, hoping to get them published under a pseudonym in another Arab country.
In 1981 one of Jaffar's two brothers, a doctor, was arrested. He was quickly released, but he wasn't told why he'd been detained. Jaffar says it was common for people to point fingers at acquaintances, or even friends and relatives, to prove their loyalty to the regime and try to gain favors. As Shiites, Jaffar and his brothers were automatically suspect, and their university degrees didn't help, because Saddam felt threatened by people who were well educated.
After Jaffar graduated he found work at a Basra branch of Iraq's central bank. By then he and Sahar had two children and were living with his parents, saving to get a place of their own. One night in January 1982 a childhood friend he calls Ahmed, a low-ranking military officer, warned him that he was about to be arrested. He was only 24, and Sahar was 21.
Ahmed told Jaffar that another old friend, Majed, would help him flee. But Majed double-crossed them both, and by the end of the night Jaffar and Ahmed were in prison. Jaffar says the officers who arrested him didn't know what he was accused of, though that didn't keep them from taking turns beating him. Ahmed was tortured so brutally he died the same night.
The next morning Ahmed's sister told Sahar that her husband was probably in custody. Sahar went to the city's prison, but no one would tell her anything.
In The Bitter Time Jaffar writes that during his first week of captivity he saw prisoners ranging from boys in their teens to men in their 80s. His cell mates included a merchant, a tailor, a soldier, a port authority official, and one of his neighbors. The neighbor said he was tortured so badly on his first day he confessed falsely to being a member of an opposition party. Jaffar writes that he often heard other prisoners, including women, screaming and pleading for mercy. After the screaming stopped, guards would sometimes drag an unconscious prisoner into his cell.
Jaffar was surprised that at first his captors weren't that brutal with him. Instead they insulted him and only occasionally beat him. They would also do things such as refuse to take him to a restroom for hours, then give him a small can to urinate in.
He was periodically driven to new prisons, eventually winding up in a police jail in Baghdad. There he was questioned about his connection to a Dr. Emad. He told the interrogator Emad was a friend he'd lost touch with. Unsatisfied with that answer, the interrogator ordered a security guard to take Jaffar "into the garden for a walk." He was led into an adjoining room, where his legs were tied together, his hands shackled behind his back and tied to something he couldn't see. Suddenly he was jerked violently upward by his hands and found himself hanging from what looked like a butcher's meat hook. The officials demanded to know if he was a member of a subversive group, the same thing they asked everyone.
The pain was excruciating, but Jaffar insisted he was innocent. The officials repeatedly dropped him to the floor, then yanked him back up. The next night they wrenched him up again, this time beating him as he hung in the air. He still insisted he'd done nothing wrong, so they attached metal clamps to his earlobes and sent electric shocks through his body. His hands swelled until he couldn't move his fingers, his entire body ached, and his head bled continuously.
For seven months Jaffar was tortured. Sometimes he was tortured every night, sometimes he was left alone for days. He says he refused to confess to anything because he knew where it would lead. "People think they can escape torture by making a confession, but then the investigator tortures them even worse to get more information," he says. "So you keep making up more lies and getting in more trouble."
They never asked about his writing, so he figured they were just fishing. Later he found out that he was treated so harshly because a fellow prisoner had claimed he was the leader of an opposition group.
Jaffar also had to watch the people around him suffer. One young man had a broken bottle inserted in his rectum and would bleed whenever he had a bowel movement. Jaffar was forced to watch as guards dragged in the wife of another man and groped and undressed her in front of her husband, who tried to stop them by confessing things that weren't true. Many Iraqi women were imprisoned and tortured alongside their husbands, Jaffar writes, and they were often raped. He saw lots of prisoners die.
Jaffar says the only way he could cope was to focus on his faith. "I grew very close to God," he says. "That was the most advantage I got from prison." One man had a pocket-size Koran when he was arrested, and the prisoners would read it and pray together. "Muslims have to pray five times a day," Jaffar says. "We say that if you pray more you're saving for the future. We used to joke that we had prayed enough for many lifetimes." Their praying irritated the guards, and it became an act of defiance.
While Jaffar was in prison Sahar took care of the children and Jaffar's parents. She told the children that their father was away on business and would eventually return, but it was difficult not to show how worried she was. "In Iraq, usually at dinnertime the father gives children a tip," she says. "Dinnertime became a time of sadness. I would give them a tip and say, 'It's from your dad.' My older daughter didn't believe it."
Occasionally intelligence officers would drop by the house to ask if anyone had called wanting to know where Jaffar was, and they warned her not to lie or she might be put in prison herself. Friends and relatives were afraid to be associated with the family and stopped coming around.
Sahar had always worked, though her husband hadn't wanted her to when they married. She had a job at a food processing plant, and like all government employees, she had to file a report every year describing anything she knew that could be of concern to security officials, including the arrest or execution of a relative. She knew she could be fired or worse if she said Jaffar was in prison, but her supervisor, an old friend of her father, let her report that her husband had been lost in the Iran-Iraq war. Living in constant fear, she too turned to the Koran for comfort: "Allah made me peaceful and secure."
Sahar had to be careful what she said even at home. "You can't say anything about Saddam in front of children," she says. "They love him. They see him on TV all the time. They see statues and posters of him everywhere." She says many people were arrested because their children innocently repeated something they'd said about Saddam. "I was afraid if I said something bad about him my daughter would say it at day care," she says. She forced herself to put up decorations on the revolutionary holidays all Iraqis had to observe. "Saddam took my husband away, he ruined my life," she says angrily, "and I have to teach my children to love him."
The trip in the military van that nearly suffocated Jaffar turned out to be a trip to court. Ten prisoners at a time were taken before a judge. There were no witnesses or jurors, just a general prosecutor and a few court bureaucrats. Jaffar says that when his turn came the prosecutor produced a stack of statements, allegedly given by friends, saying he'd been the leader of an opposition group. He denied the charges so vehemently that the judge postponed his trial for a month. He was taken back to prison, where the guards, who hadn't expected him to return, beat him unconscious. When he came to, on the floor of a bathroom, he was covered with urine from a blocked sewer.
For the next month he was beaten badly. When he was taken back to court a lawyer appeared on his behalf, a man he'd never spoken to. "The defense lawyer said, 'Your honor, I'm sure this man is guilty, but please be kind to him,'" he says. "That was it." Two Baath Party officials he'd never seen before were introduced as witnesses against him. He writes that he questioned them so fiercely they started stammering. For reasons he doesn't understand, he wasn't executed.
But he wasn't released. Instead he was shipped to a prison where most of the detainees were political prisoners. He was put in a cell that was 15 feet by 15 feet, which he shared with 65 other men, sometimes more. They would pile on top of one another to sleep. "We would sleep in any position we could," he says. "When I got out of prison I had forgotten how to sleep on my back."
He wasn't tortured anymore. The regime seemed to have no interest in him--or anyone else in the prison. Someone came in with tuberculosis, and the disease spread quickly through the prison. Many of the men started coughing and spitting up blood. They begged for medical help, and after three months their jailers produced an X-ray machine. Jaffar says they randomly tested 250 inmates, and 250 had tuberculosis. The guards said they'd provide medical care but never did. He never caught the disease, but he watched several people die from it.
Jaffar says some of the prisoners lost their minds and would scream and howl in their cells. Not knowing if he would ever be released, he was afraid he too might crack, and he decided the only way to prevent that was to stop thinking about his family and the life he'd once had. "After a while," he says, "I couldn't remember my children's faces."
Three years later, in April 1986, he was suddenly released, part of a group of men freed on Saddam's birthday as a goodwill gesture. He soon learned that Sahar had moved the family some 50 miles northwest of Basra and made his way there. "He used to be very athletic, very handsome," says Sahar. "We didn't even recognize him. He can't stand, can't sit, is just hunched over." He'd also lost the use of his right hand.
Six days later his brother called from Basra to say that police had been looking for him at his old address. He, Sahar, and the two children immediately left, taking only some money Sahar had managed to save. They spent six months traveling northward, staying briefly with friends and relatives along the way. They settled for a few months in northern Kurdistan, where Sahar gave birth to a baby girl. Only a few weeks later they paid smugglers to take them on horseback across the desert and over the Syrian border.
From Syria they traveled to Lebanon, where they lived for the next 14 years. Jaffar made a living as a freelance editor and wrote books on the side, mostly about Islam and premodern Iraqi history, including The Roots of the Shia. His children--they had another daughter while in Lebanon--did most of the typing for him. Well aware that Saddam had spies in Lebanon, he came up with the Ala'a Al Jaffar pseudonym to protect his family in Iraq.
Friends encouraged him to write about his years in prison, and finally in 1999 he wrote a memoir of the time from when he was arrested until the end of his trial. "I felt great peace after I wrote it," he says. "I wanted to give voice to those people, the ones who died in jail." Hoping to further disguise his identity, he wrote it in the second person, but he was still afraid to publish it, afraid that someone might find out who he was and retaliate against his parents and siblings.
In 1999 the family went to the UN and asked to be resettled in the West. Sweden offered to take them, but they declined. Jaffar and Sahar decided the weather there was too harsh, and besides, they and their children had already learned some English. A few months later they were interviewed at the American embassy in Beirut and were allowed to come to the U.S. as refugees.
The family was sponsored by World Relief and arrived in Chicago in April 2000. Their interpreter was Rana Al-Edanee, a former Basra resident who soon became a friend. "They didn't have any relations with other Iraqis here," says Al-Edanee. "I really became like an adopted daughter. I thank God a thousand times a day I found them."
Jaffar, who still can't use his right hand and sometimes has problems with his memory, is now on public aid, as is Sahar. Their son, who's 23, manages a restaurant, and their oldest daughter is in college. One of the two younger girls is in high school, the other in middle school.
Jaffar finds it difficult to trust anyone outside his family. He says he shuns the 2,000 or so other Iraqi families who live in the Chicago area and has never attended the mosque on the far northwest side that's run by an Iraqi cleric. He's told no one besides his family and Al-Edanee that he writes books under a pseudonym. He says that even though Saddam is now out of power he's afraid Saddam sympathizers could still hurt his family here or in Iraq.
Al-Edanee says he has good reason to be afraid. "One day I was talking to his daughter, and she was saying how wonderful Lebanon was. I asked, 'If Lebanon was so great, why did you leave?'" The daughter said her father had received death threats when he began to write his memoir. "Someone was calling and saying, 'We'll kill you--we'll kill your family.' That's why he left the country."
When the U.S. began gearing up to invade Iraq a year and a half ago, Jaffar worried that a war would lead to a repeat of 1991. He didn't believe that American troops would march all the way to Baghdad and thought thousands of Iraqis would be massacred by a vengeful Saddam.
He listened appalled as Arabs outside of Iraq defended Saddam. "I was watching an Arabic channel," he says, "and I saw men saying, 'We've got to help Saddam. Saddam Hussein is the best Arab president.'" They also refused to believe that he'd committed atrocities against his own people. Jaffar decided he had to do what he could to change that impression. "I saw these things. I heard these things. I'm a writer. I'm here to be a witness. I want people to know what Iraq was like."
He pulled out the memoir he'd written in Lebanon and sent it to a publisher there, who released it early last year. But it got little attention, and he decided it had to be published in English. He found someone on the Internet to translate it, and Al-Edanee, unsure how else to get it published, looked in the Yellow Pages and called around until she found the cheapest self-publishing firm, 1st Books of Bloomington, Indiana. "I didn't know most publishers are in New York," she says. She put up most of the $1,400 cost.
The day before the book went to press Saddam was captured. "What I saw yesterday nobody ever dreamed," said Jaffar. "We can't even imagine that he would end up like that. He loves himself so much he didn't even have the courage to put a bullet in his brain."
The Bitter Time was released first as an e-book, and a paperback edition went on sale online in early January. The translation isn't very good; it's literal, awkward, and sometimes simply wrong--the jacket calls the book a novel. But the story remains compelling, and since Jaffar retains the rights to it, another publisher could pick it up and do it justice.
Jaffar names the prisons he was in, names the officials who ran them, names the men who tortured the prisoners. He hopes the book will be used to keep them out of any positions of power. "If I see any of these men working with the new government I will not trust that government," he says. "No one in Iraq will. They are killers." Despite his fears, he says he would even be willing to travel to Iraq to testify against them.
When the country has an Iraqi government and the streets are safer, he says, he'd like to visit his mother and siblings--his father died last year. But he has no desire to move back. "Iraq is much better without Saddam," he says, "but life is better here." Sahar agrees. Then she says, "But Saddam left something broken in everyone's heart. It will never be whole again."
Publishing the book seems to have made Jaffar a little more open to the world, but he says he's tried to put his years in prison behind him and can't. "If you ask me how many times they hit me I will tell you," he says. "If you ask me what they did to me on this day I will tell you. I can't forget even what I tried to forget."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.