Cover Story

Dream or nightmare?

Stories of Saddam's repressive rule are almost as numerous as Iraqi refugees. But even after coalition forces liberated the country, the refugees' memories are so vivid and painful, few have enough confidence to return

Issue: "Staying underground," May 3, 2003

In the shaky, shadowy world of Iraqi refugees, everyone has a story-even if it's sometimes almost too painful to tell. A petite, vivacious woman has only recently begun telling hers, some 20 years after it happened. She'll tell it to the press and to the UN workers evaluating her applications for asylum, but she can't bring herself to tell her husband, even after all this time. "Something inside him will broken," she explains in halting but determined English, asking that her name not be used.

The woman was 18 years old, a young bride walking down a Baghdad street, when a police car approached her. The two uniformed officers said her husband had been brought into the station and that he wanted to see her. She had seen these men before: They'd tried to enter her house while her husband was away at work, but she had barred the door, fearful of the Iraqi police force's reputation for violence. On this day, however, news of her husband's arrest overwhelmed her own fears. "I forget about everything," she recalls. "I just wanted to see my husband."

She got into the car, but they never made it to the station. Instead, she says, the officers raped her. At least, that's what she tries to say, but she doesn't know the words to tell her story in English. "They hitting me, you understand?" she implores. "They are man, I'm woman, I can't stop them. I don't want this, but I can't stopping them, you know? The men, they too strong." She resorts at last to a quick, furtive pantomime, then drops her head, ashamed.

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Victimized by the very department that was supposed to protect her, the woman couldn't complain to police for fear of reprisals. The attackers warned her not to tell her husband, either. If she did, they would say she had cheated on him, going along willingly for an extramarital fling.

What they didn't know was that she was pregnant at the time. She says she lost the baby soon after. "This is 23 years ago, but I can't forget this day. From this day, I tell my husband I want to leave Iraq."

She finally made it out, one of perhaps a half-million refugees who flooded into neighboring Jordan in the 10 years since the first Gulf War. Even today, after many of the refugees have drifted back or gone to live with relatives in other countries, Jordan is still home to as many as 200,000 Iraqis, their six-month transit visas long since expired. They live on the fringes of a society that cannot afford to offer them basic social services. Without residency status, they cannot find regular work, depending instead on menial odd jobs and the charity of others. Their children are not eligible for government schools. Their diet consists almost entirely of bread.

Yet despite the hardship in Jordan and the promise of a new regime in Iraq, few seem in a hurry to get back home. Too many of the old animosities linger, and too many of the old structures are still in place. The brutal police force, for instance, is being rehired by the Americans to help restore order. The sight of them brings a familiar fear to their long-ago victim.

"Now I'm old woman," she says, touching her red-streaked hair that shows no trace of gray. "But I have two girls. I know they do the same with them. I tell UN, I kill myself before I take my daughters back there. They know our name. They know our home. Never."

In a tribute to the long-suffering nature of Jordanian authorities, the Iraqi refugees make no effort to hide in their illegally adopted country. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, the men gather by the hundreds in the Hashemite Square, an open plaza surrounding the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater. Though many have given up their long robes and headcoverings in favor of leather jackets or acrylic sweaters, the Jordanians can still pick them out by their deep-tobacco complexions. Like most of the Iraqi refugees in Jordan, the men here are Shiites, the suppressed religious majority of the south.

They stand in the square for hours each day, chain-smoking their cheap cigarettes, fingering their worry beads, and debating the future of their country. The very fact that the future is open to debate seems almost too wonderful to comprehend. Just a month ago, it was impossible to imagine a future without Saddam Hussein or his sons, without the Baath Party or the secret police. Now, no one can say what tomorrow will look like, though everyone is eager to try. The words Saddam and Bush are like a verbal magnet touched to metal filings; within 10 minutes, a group of six men swells to 50 or more.

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