My Kurdish childhood in Saddam’s Baghdad
Saddam Hussein: An infamous name that conjures up many haunting images of his countless victims. Baghdad: A once glorious city that went from the historical center of civilization, to an immaculately groomed dystopian police state lined with Presidential Palaces, to a bombed out looted pile of rubble amidst ponds of raw sewage.
The man who oversaw the last two transitions, Iraq’s “president” for life, Saddam Hussein, would eventually be pulled from a rathole and strung up by a rope. But two decades earlier throughout the 1980s, Saddam was the “savior” of Iraq, a mustachioed face that watched over every one of his “people”, which included me against my consent.
While Saddam’s brutality could be equally applied to a range of his political or religious opponents and various ethnicities, the Kurds of northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan) bore an especially heavy brunt of his attacks, most notably in the Anfal Genocide of 1988, symbolized by his gassing the city of Halabja. However, the focus of this reflection is not a wider macro analysis of Baathist Iraq’s policies towards the Kurds, but on my unique experience as a Kurdish child growing up in Baghdad, right in the proverbial belly of the beast, under Saddam’s dictatorial reign of the 1980s.
Saddam is Always Watching
There are many threads that weave this tapestry of pain and trauma together and so there really is no logical place to start. With that said, any discussion of 1980s Saddam’s Baghdad must begin with the cult of personality we were subjected to on a daily basis. His image was literally everywhere, in all schools, businesses, public buildings, and even private homes. His face followed you on the streets, as statues in the city squares, and stared at you from behind every doorway.
The images painted Saddam as this heroic and prophetic military figure. He would be seen with swords and atop horses, while sculpted with shrines as his helmet. He was portrayed as a mix between Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi, a giant historical icon that was only second to the Prophet Muhammad himself.
Naturally, these images were enticing at first for a young Kurdish child like myself. On television Saddam was presented as a loving family man, a protector of the people, a defender of the poor, and the uniter of the Arab world. It was only on that last issue, where the confusion began. Where did that leave us Kurds, I wondered? It was obvious to me that my Kurdishness was a problem, because my parents forbade me from speaking our language in public when out in Baghdad.
In their desire to keep me safe, they insisted I could only use Arabic, a language that I never learned until I began school at age six. Looking back, I will never forget those looks of fear on my parents’ faces when I would accidentally say something in Kurdish when out in Baghdad, before being quickly shushed as they checked to see who was within earshot of this potential “treason”.
It was only later when I fully understood what they were protecting me from. The two predominate threats that we faced in Baghdad were being Kurds, and the terror of Saddam’s regime, which could target both Kurds and Arabs with equal cruelty.
As for our Kurdishness, my parents explained that I should not tell my teachers or anyone that I was a Kurd, but that I also should not lie. This moral dilemma I failed several times, leading me to say I was a Kurd during the usual interrogation that children faced from their teachers to gauge the family’s loyalty to our “dear leader”.
Thankfully, I never said anything negative against Saddam. As even my Arab classmates who failed these Q&A sessions and admitted that their parents did not like the regime, could find their entire family disappeared, or the women of the house raped, and the father’s tortured and jailed for decades.
In more heinous examples, secret agents would behead Saddam’s supposed enemies and leave the severed heads outside their homes, or to dishonor and bring shame to an entire bloodline. Saddam’s henchmen would rape the girls and women of the household on videotape and then send the footage to the family’s men. In the latter case, Saddam knew that this would be the ultimate wound even worse than death, in a socially conservative and religious society that guarded women’s “purity” and valued the family’s honor even above their lives.
Naturally, because of the deadly consequences, my parents did not speak honestly about Saddam’s crimes in our home, for fear that I would repeat any of their remarks at school and get all of us murdered by a death squad.
Reflecting back, although I could not see it at the time, I now understand that small hint of anguish that always showed on my parents’ faces as they hid the truth to keep me and my siblings alive. Even though they were honest and honorable people, they knew Saddam’s dictatorship would not show them and their children mercy for acknowledging the truth.
That is probably the deepest wound of growing up under such a tyranny, being made to live a lie, to wear a fake smile to match the one Saddam was wearing on all the posters, and to fear that because your identity cards said you were a Kurd, you had twice as much reason to be kidnapped in the daylight and never seen again.
Fear the Foreign Enemy Instead
Another monster from my childhood in Baghdad was Iraq’s long war with Iran, a conflict that seemed like it would never end. During the nightly bombings and attacks on Baghdad we would be hurried downstairs to windowless room, to try and wait out the explosions. I remember my parents teaching me to fear windows, because they knew our chances of being killed increased if we stood in front of one. As I tried to sleep during the bombings, I found some comfort in my blanket, which I came to believe would somehow protect me.
And it is revealing that decades later, as I sleep in a bed in Europe, I still find myself covering up on summer nights despite the heat, as if that traumatized child still lives inside me.
My parents also taught me to pray to God when I was afraid, which brought confusion later when I saw Saddam’s propagandists accusing the Kurds of being “infidels” or not “real Muslims”. But that is a helpful way to view Saddam’s Iraq, a place where Kurds were never loyal enough, or to be fully trusted by a Baathist regime centered around Arab superiority.
As a creative outlet for this war trauma, I began drawing pictures of the city being bombed by war planes, the bodies on the street, and the black sky, which I remember badly hurt my parents. They began to feel guilty for not offering me the ideal childhood that every child deserves. After learning of the pain my accuracy caused them, I began depicting sunshine and blue skies in my drawings, but I knew it was not true, another in a long line of myths you tell yourself and others to survive.
One night that still haunts me, I was brought to the hospital while extremely sick and saw a family grieving their 18-year-old son who had just been killed in the war. I still remember seeing his body and hearing the shrieking cries of his mother, as she wailed with a pain that human beings are not made to handle. The screams of the family and sight of them all hitting themselves as if striking their faces would bring him back, has stayed with me my entire life.
Watching Your Family be Hunted on TV
When the Anfal Genocide began to simmer, my family became very worried. Saddam’s forces were targeting Kurds in an unrelenting genocide, but he was also focusing his ire geographically on the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, and in particular, the area where my larger family lived. As the genocidal campaign began, we lost contact with all our relatives causing my parents to suffer in silence and agony every night.
To find comfort, my parents would read the Quran, which was an especially dark irony, considering that on the news each night we were being told that these “rebellious Kurds” like us were not true “Muslims” like Saddam and his fascist killers. Each night my parents also awaited the knock of Saddam’s secret agents at the door, and we felt trapped like there was no way out. Yet, for all of Baghdad’s dangers, it was still safer to be a Kurd there than in the thousands of Kurdish villages Saddam’s Army was wiping off the map, or the dozens of Kurdish towns he was dropping poison gas on.
As the months went on a range of emotions set in. Guilt for not facing this tragedy back in Southern Kurdistan with our fellow people. And relief that although we could be arrested at any moment, the chances of a surprise chemical attack like what befell some of our family members in Halabja was unlikely.
When we finally heard from our family it made it even worse, as they told us how they only survived the gassing because they hid under wet blankets, and about how they drank from rain puddles amongst street corpses to survive.
Meanwhile, each night in Baghdad we would see the triumphant war footage on the news, of Saddam proudly displaying the work of his army, where our family and brethren were being slaughtered for his regime’s enjoyment. The propaganda told us they were all traitors, sinners, infidels, agents of Iran, and pawns of other states wanting to weaken Iraq, but we knew the truth, that the sin which earned them death was that they were Kurds, just like we were.
A Beautiful Sky of Death
My most powerful memory of Baghdad began with the commencement of the first Gulf War in 1991. At midnight on the first night of the war, the sky suddenly lit up with flashes, as Saddam’s forces shot aimlessly into the sky at the Western enemies who they said were coming to destroy us. It was a confusing threat, since Saddam’s regime had been doing a good job of that itself.
But as the night sky flashed with brilliant colors, I remember watching in awe. It seemed like a celebration of fireworks, and I was amazed that something so beautiful could kill me.
I would imagine it is also an indication on how humans can become so accustomed to war, that it stops to surprise them. Soon, every tracer shot became a paint stroke, as the fiery sky of Baghdad became my own frightening version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Hours later, we fled Baghdad and headed for the presumed safety of Kurdish areas that we felt the International Coalition may not be targeting. But as we sped northward in darkness with all the car lights off, I still thought of Baghdad’s colorful sky.
Of course, I could not have known it at the time, but on that night, Baghdad was probably in its best condition that it would be for the next thirty years. Later would come the sanctions, bombings, a second Gulf War, a US invasion, and a cascade of terrorist attacks.
Amidst the transformation, all the Saddam statues that lurked over us would be torn down, and his palaces where he squandered all of Iraq’s riches would be unveiled to the world and looted. But ultimately, all of Iraq would sink with the ship that was his megalomania. As he fell, he would take the entire nation with him, to the point where you can now even find misguided victims of Saddam who miss his tyranny for the “security” and “stability” it brought. That is probably the biggest crime from Saddam’s long list of atrocities, that he ensured toppling him would leave the nation in such a state of disrepair and uncertainty, that some who even feared him, would desire a return to his rule.
Fortunately, I now have the safety and distance in the European diaspora to see clearly. That Saddam not only stole my childhood and innocence, but most unforgivably, he made my parents tell us that everything would be ok, because he would protect us. When the reality is that afterwards I wondered if I could ever enjoy being outside without the fear of bombs. But thankfully, over the years I have heeded the advice of Anne Frank, who also experienced the cruelty of war as a child and wrote in her diary that we should not think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains.
Dr. Shilan Fuad Hussain is an interdisciplinary academic who specializes in Middle Eastern and Kurdish studies. Her work sits at the intersection of sociology and cultural analysis, and its symbiotic relevance to modern society. The main focus of her research has been examining the societal impacts of politics and conflict, gender and diaspora. As a woman who grew up in Iraq amidst war before transitioning to the diaspora, her personal experiences have shaped her worldview and unique perspectives to current cultural and political debates.