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.
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.
"I think America will leave Iraq in six months," offers one man, pushing through the crowd to share his views in broken English. "Not one day after." But others click their tongues, insisting the Americans are in Iraq to stay, at least until the oil is gone. One rumor has the southern oil fields already back in production, pumping their liquid assets through a secret Kuwaiti pipeline to waiting American ships. Some say America will not leave until Saddam is dead, while others argue he's already been spirited away on a military helicopter and is being held prisoner by his CIA masters, who no longer have any use for him. (Another rumor that the Bush administration might especially appreciate: Saddam Hussein's wife has fled to Syria with 24 tons of gold.)
"We refuse the American occupation," says one man through an interpreter. "Iraq must be for the Iraqis." But almost at once, others in the crowd start offering a long list of tasks American soldiers should accomplish before they leave the country: Find and free Saddam's political prisoners; confiscate his personal fortune; return the nation's cultural treasures; rebuild the oil wells and refineries; rid the country of Iranian mujahideen fighters; build schools; provide technology.
"We don't want occupation," concludes a man in a leather bomber jacket, his black hair graying at the temples. "We want technology, building, investment. Treat Iraq like another state, not an occupied territory." Moments earlier the same man had criticized President Bush as a tool of Israel; now he's proposing a kind of statehood. The sense of intellectual whiplash is inescapable. With their world turned upside-down, Iraqi refugees simply don't know what to believe anymore.
What they do know is the pain of their own past. "Please get the words right," a man begs of a journalist. "This is the suffering of the Iraqi people."
"Why are there 4 million Iraqis living outside Iraq?" another man asks, sweeping his arms to include the crowd pressed around him. "Saddam's greatest accomplishment was killing and torturing people, putting them underground." More often than not, the victims of the killing and torturing were fellow Shiites. These men, who managed to escape Saddam's reign of terror, say they long to return home-but not just yet.
"Is there anyone who doesn't want to go back to his own country?" one man asks rhetorically. Yet, like everyone else in the crowd, he's set no date for his own return. "In Iraq, there's no money, no work, no authority. Here we can work, even if illegally. At least we can survive."
A wizened little man in traditional Arab dress worms his way to the front of the crowd. Over and over he tries to speak, only to be drowned out by the younger, bigger men around him. He stands with his hands folded in front of him, as if in prayer. Finally there is a lull in the debate and he opens his arms in a vee, elbows together, palms up. "We want America to bring justice," he says with the familiar whisper of the aged. "We have always been mistreated. When there is a stable and righteous government in Iraq, then I can go back to my country." His eyes look wet, but he smiles toothlessly, as if the promise of the future may yet outweigh the hardships of the past.
Yad Faraj Patrus is a man of 28, with the nervous energy of a boy of 14. He swings his keys, fidgets with his hands, talks nonstop. He perches on the edge of a tapestry-covered booth in his favorite street-corner cafŽ in downtown Amman, swirling his straw in a milkshake. There's so much he wants to do in the new Iraq: Build a wireless network, start a sort of religious freedom ministry, write for a newsmagazine, possibly even advise George W. Bush.
Maybe both the energy and the ambition stem from a sense of lost time. He spent two years in Iraq's largest prison, sentenced by a special security court on charges of sectarianism. Born to a Catholic mother and Orthodox father in northern Iraq, he became an evangelical Christian after a U.S. Marine from Oklahoma gave him a Bible during 1991's Operation Provide Comfort.
Kicked out of his university engineering program because of his outspoken religious and political views, Mr. Patrus served his compulsory term in the army until he was able to buy his way out for $1,000. Then, in late 1996, he printed on his computer a one-page pamphlet arguing for the deity of Christ. He circulated the paper among some of his friends, and one of them, in turn, passed it along to the local priest, Faraj Raho. But the priest, according to Mr. Patrus, was an agent of the regime. Arrested and sentenced on Oct. 31, 1996, the 23-year-old dissident went to jail, while his accuser was appointed Bishop of Mosul.
"It was a terrifying place," he says of the prison, but in retrospect he can see how it transformed him. Cooped up for 730 days with some of Iraq's leading intellectuals, he began to absorb social and political ideas from across the spectrum. He read the U.S. Constitution and the works of America's Founding Fathers. Most of all, he began to dream of what Iraq could be after Saddam Hussein.
"When Iraq is prosperous, the whole world will be prosperous," he says. "Yes, it's a rich country, you will see. We have oil and agriculture and industry. We will rise up so fast, you won't believe it." Oil reserves, he says, can be used as a kind of underground Fort Knox, supporting a stable currency based on black gold rather than yellow. Tourists will flock to the country for both its natural beauty and its ancient history. A well-educated populace will provide skilled labor for both manufacturing and high-tech companies lured from America and Western Europe.
Even under Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, Mr. Patrus points out, Iraq had the most robust economy in the entire region. Without international sanctions, he says, without lavish spending on royal palaces and birthday parties, without financial support for terrorists and a sprawling secret police force-without all these fruits of the Baathist regime, Iraq can become an economic powerhouse that drives growth and prosperity from North Africa to Central Asia.
"We want peace with Israel, with America, with all the countries around us," he says in his Louis XIV, I-am-the-state, sort of way. "We want a stable, constitutional government. We want UN humanitarian laws to be applied to protect Christians, to protect Muslims, too, and even atheists. Every person must worship like he believes."
So when will Mr. Patrus return to Iraq to help turn his dream into reality? "I will go back when there's an institution that respects the rights of all minorities in Iraq," he says, then predicts it will take one to two years. Why not simply go back tomorrow? "There's no authority," he responds, as if the idea were patently absurd. "How can you live where there is not any law, no one to secure your safety?"
Like so many of his countrymen biding their time in Jordan, Mr. Patrus is finally able to dream of a bright future for his country-but he knows that dream could yet slip back into a nightmare.