Baghdad. Nine months earlier
Baghdad military training center lay by a main road on the outskirts of the city. It was large and utilitarian, and I felt dwarfed by it as I approached the main entrance. The sun was burning, and the cars in the busy street had all their windows wound down, their drivers crumpled and oppressed by the midday heat. I wiped a trickle of sweat from my own forehead and looked around up at the high walls of the building: a huge picture of Saddam Hussein returned my gaze. It was a familiar sight, one that had been commonplace in my life for as long as I could remember. The gates of Al-Zahawi primary school, which I had attended as a child, were colorful, painted with a huge yellow bumble bee to welcome the children; but on the walls on either side of the bumble bee were paintings of Saddam. His Excellency smiled down benevolently upon us, and around his head flew birds painted in the colors of the national flag. Inside the walls, high up, were more pictures of Saddam, and the slogans of the Ba'ath party were written large--"One Arab nation with an everlasting message," "Unity, Freedom, and Communism"--as well as one of Saddam's favorite sayings: "Always look your enemy in the eye."
Today, however, the images seemed more imposing and threatening than ever--the very embodiment of everything from which I had been trying to break free.
"I don't want to be in the army," I had told my Uncle Saad petulantly when it had become apparent that there was no other option open to me.
"You haven't got any choice. You've been called up, and if you don't go they will consider you to be a deserter. When they catch up with you--which they will if you are still in the country . . ." He made a deft flicking sign by his right ear to indicate its removal--the standard punishment for anyone who went awol. "I've seen people selling these ears on the black market so that deserters can have them sewn back on. Trust me, they are not a pretty sight."
For a moment I thought he was joking, but one look at his face told me that he wasn't. "Will you keep looking for someone to help us?"
Saad looked around nervously, checking that no passersby--no matter how innocent they looked--could overhear our conversation. Idle talk had a tendency to find its way back to military intelligence, and the consequences could be severe. "I don't know, Sarmed. The stakes are higher now. Not attending university is one thing, but running away from the army is quite another. If any of my colleagues were caught deserting during the Iran-Iraq war, they were shot in front of their relatives and the families had to pay for the ammunition. They were told it was their fault their sons were being executed, because they had allowed their children to grow up into opponents of the regime."
"I know," I insisted quietly. "That's why I want to leave. I don't want to be part of it. Please, keep looking for me."
I handed my call-up papers to the guard at the entrance. He did not speak as he looked through them. "Go to reception," he said finally and opened the heavy gates.
Inside the center everything was painted an austere military green. Huge metal structures around the edge of the main parade ground housed the various quarters, and nowhere was there any sign of ornament--apart, of course, from the ubiquitous pictures of Saddam in military uniform. In some pictures his military decorations were on display; others showed him firing an rpg-launcher or an ak-47. I was handed my military id and given my provisions--uniform, boots, beret, and belt--before being shown to my quarters. I was in a huge dormitory with bunk beds neatly arranged along its length. A thin strip of window along the top of the wall let in only a small amount of light. Once I had stowed my few belongings under my bed, I was taken off to have my head shaved. There was no time after that to get settled in: my training began that very day.
The first month at the center was an extension of the national education program I had undergone at school. We were taught all about the army: how it was split into divisions and what the responsibilities of each division were. We were told about the facilities of the compound, and it was explained to us that we would be expected to undergo a very tough regime of physical and military training to ensure that we were fit enough in three months to join our unit--wherever that might be. We were taught how to salute superior officers, how we should store and look after our weapons once they were issued--all the little nuggets of knowledge that would start to make this mismatched bunch of citizens look a bit more like soldiers.
The officers could not have cared less about our mental education; it was our physical education with which they were most concerned. We were rudely woken at first light one morning--about six o'clock--and told to present ourselves immediately in the training area of the parade ground. Five minutes later, a group of sleepy recruits did their best to form an orderly line by a bed of evil-looking barbed wire. Two arifs--not officers, exactly, but the men in charge of our training--stood stony-faced, ak-47s at the ready. We stood silently as they examined each and every one of us, checking our fingernails and our hair and making sure our uniforms were spotless. Then they spoke. "You each have sixty seconds to crawl under the barbed wire and come out unscathed at the other end," one of them barked. I looked at the barbed wire more carefully. It was spindly and knotted and raised little more than a foot from the ground. To crawl underneath it without getting scratched horribly, you would need to take it slowly. "You," the arif shouted at the first recruit in line. "Go!"
The recruit crouched down on all fours, then flattened himself on his belly. As he crawled gingerly under the barbed wire, the two arifs started firing their Kalashnikovs into the ground. The guns were clearly shooting blanks, but the poor recruit did not know this. As the first shot was fired, he jumped almost out of his skin. A piece of barbed wire tore into his trousers, and the rough cloth was quickly stained red. He started scurrying more quickly and sustained a few more wounds to his flesh, but he made it out the other side in the allotted time and was packed off to tend to his injuries.
I was next. Reluctantly I crouched down in front of the barbed wire with my gun in my hand. Trying to ignore the explosions of the nearby ak-47s, I gently wove my way to the other side, managing to emerge unscathed. As I stood up, the first arif looked at his watch. "Sixty-eight seconds," he told me with menace in his voice. "Come with me."
He grabbed me by the shoulder, pushed me in front of him, and kicked me hard from behind. I fell to my knees. "Over there," bellowed the second arif.
About twenty meters from the barbed wire was a muddy pit, perhaps four meters in diameter and a couple of meters deep. The two arifs pushed me toward it while my comrades looked on. Once we were by its side, one of them struck a blow to the pit of my stomach with the butt of his Kalashnikov. Winded, I collapsed to the ground once more. Gasping to catch my breath, I felt a heavy boot kick into my ribcage as the two proceeded to beat me with their hands and feet until my body was bruised and bloodied. At no point, however, did they touch my face. I later found out why: I was expected to look presentable when I was on display, and bruises or cuts to the face were not acceptable. But any parts of my body that could be covered by a uniform were fair game.
The beating felt as though it lasted an hour--it probably lasted only a minute--and when the arifs finished making an example of me, I was pushed roughly over the side of the pit. I fell heavily into a pool of cool mud at the bottom and felt it seeping through the coarse material of my uniform.
"Stand up!" one of the arifs shouted at me. Painfully I pushed myself up off the ground. "Now," he shouted. "Climb out of there, and next time I tell you to do something in sixty seconds, do it in sixty seconds. Understood?"
That was my first encounter with the pit, but it was not to be my last. Whenever one of us failed to achieve a task that had been set--maybe we had not climbed over a wall as quickly as we had been instructed to, or not let ourselves remain suspended at the top of an obstacle course for long enough--we were beaten and thrown over its sides. The beatings varied in their intensity, according either to the gravity of our misdemeanor or to the whim of the arif in charge, but they were always brutal enough to persuade us to pay very close attention to what we were told to do, and to carry it out to the letter. We soon learned to make every attempt to land on our feet when we were thrown over the side of the pit: if our uniforms became too muddy, we were likely to be forcefully hosed down and left to complete our exercises in sopping wet clothes. The soaked material chaffed unpleasantly against our torn skin, and if the hosing-down happened to take place in the heat of the day, the wet uniform turned boiling hot and scorched our skin before the water evaporated and the cloth dried.
Nobody was spared these beatings, even those who performed well. The arif wanted all of us to know exactly what sort of brutality we could expect if we stepped out of line. Gradually as our skill at the various tasks increased, the beatings became less frequent. But when they did occur, they were inflicted with even greater vigor and with a larger dose of humiliation, for the arifs knew it would reflect poorly on them if they delivered substandard recruits to the unit bases at the end of the three-month training period.
At the other end of the parade ground we could see the more recent recruits receiving the same treatment that had been meted out to us only weeks earlier. Some members of our group laughed when they saw this. It was only natural, I suppose, that having been treated like animals, some of them would turn into animals themselves. The rest of us just looked on grimly as we did our best to get on with the job at hand.
Once a week, a graduation ceremony was held at the training compound, and those recruits who had completed their training were assigned to the unit that would be their home for the next three years. The ceremony was held on the parade ground: we saluted the flag, and then the names of all departing soldiers were read out, along with their destinations. On the morning of my ceremony, I awoke with a dreadful feeling of foreboding. I had endured the hardships of the training compound with the vague hope in the back of my mind that I would be able to get out of Iraq, away from the brutality and the torment, before being assigned to my unit, and was comforted by the knowledge that my family was only a few miles away. How would I cope if I were sent to one of the distant reaches of the country, where my family and my hopes of freedom would seem even more remote?
We lined up in front of the whole population of recruits and saluted the flag. Then, one by one, our names were called out. When I heard mine, I stepped forward to be told my fate. "The brave and courageous soldier Sarmed Alsamari will be leaving to join our glorious regiment in Al-Amarah!"
My heart sank. Al-Amarah was a good four hundred kilometers from Baghdad, more than halfway to the southern city of Basra and close to the Iranian border. The road there was slow, and getting back to see my family on leave would be difficult. But I did not let these thoughts appear on my face as I received my honor. The camp officers were eyeing us all carefully, and a look of disappointment would have been insubordination if they were of a mind to make it so. The news had bruised me enough as it was; I felt no desire to add physical pain to my mental turmoil.
I couldn't believe it. I had never been to the south before, and now I was being packed off to a military unit miles from anywhere for three years. I called Uncle Saad to see if there was anything he could do, any favors he could call in or bribes he could pay to keep me at least in Baghdad. But there was nothing he could do, and when the day came, I prepared to be transported to my unit.
We piled into the green-painted Russian-built trucks covered with thick green canvas that were waiting outside the compound. There were perhaps twenty other recruits who were going to Al-Amarah with me, but we would be dropping other soldiers off at various units along the way. The front seats were already taken up by the arif and some of the more thuggish recruits. As the rest of us walked on, they eyed us threateningly as if daring us to complain about the seating arrangements.
As we left Baghdad, I felt as though I was leaving civilization behind. The roads became less well cared for, and the villages we passed seemed to become more ragged the farther south we went. Villagers stopped and stared at the convoy of Mercedes vans as they passed through, making me feel like a curiosity. I had become used to acting around soldiers with a care born of suspicion; now, I suddenly realized, I would be treated with suspicion by others. At each checkpoint we were stopped and thoroughly searched by the Red Berets, but as we headed farther south, our number dwindled as the soldiers were dropped off at their respective units. By the time I alighted at Al-Amarah, only the few poor souls who had been stationed at Basra remained.
The unit building was practically identical to the military training compound, both inside and out.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Escape from Saddam by Lewis Alsamari. Copyright © 2008 by Lewis Alsamari. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.