an iraqi prisoner of war tells his story

  1. 5,748 Posts.
    Oriana Fallaci
    Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2003

    His name was Dakel Abbas, and he was a 21-year-old Iraqi soldier drafted in a village where along with his wife he lived raising cucumbers, onions, eggplants. A village near As-Samawah, central Iraq. Rather than a soldier, however, you would have thought him to be a survivor from a concentration camp. His head looked like a skull with a nose and a mouth and two eyes. His chest, a bas-relief of ribs hardly covered by skin. His biceps, tiny bones that could fit inside the palm of a child. (Saddam Hussein does not feed the troops very well.) He had been captured at the end of the Gulf War by members of the Kuwaiti Resistance who, supposedly by mistake, had opened fire on his group while it surrendered. In fact he appeared badly wounded and the doctors didn't know whether he would recover.

    I found him by chance in a ward of the Kuwait City's Mubarak Hospital where he had lain for ten days next to fellow prisoners who kept their faces hidden under the sheets or avoided my eyes. Unlike them, he stared at me insistently. Almost imploring. So I approached him and through an interpreter I asked if he wanted to tell me something. He answered yes, I activated my tape-recorder, and immediately he began to talk. He went on talking for a long time, with such passion and determination that I practically could not interrupt him. Besides, there was no need for questions. His soliloquy contained all the answers, his story spoke by itself.

    Why do I return to it after twelve years? Because his simple-mindedness, his innocence, his truth, are today as meaningful as they were twelve years ago. Because the Dakel Abbases of today are the same Dakel Abbases of twelve years ago. And because, now as then, they are the first victims of Saddam Hussein. Of all the Saddam Husseins who soil this world.

    Dakel Abbas's Soliloquy

    Listen to me, I beg you. Don't go. I am so alone. Besides, when I talk I feel less pain. Listen to me and look what they have done to me. Twelve shots, twelve. One at the right shoulder, one at the left shoulder. One at the right arm, one at the left arm. One at the right hand, one at the left hand. One at the right hip, one at the left hip. One at the right leg, one at the left leg. One at the right foot, one at the left foot. Yet Abdul was waving the white flag, he really was. He had taken off his white underpants, he had fixed them to a stick, and while waving them he screamed: "Don't shoot, don't shoot! We surrender!" Abdul the Kurd, I mean. My pal, the guy who disobeyed orders and wore white underpants.

    In the Iraqi Army we cannot wear white underpants. It's forbidden like wearing white vests or white socks or white handkerchiefs. Do you know why? Because with white underpants and white vests and white socks and white handkerchiefs soldiers can make white flags and surrender. Yet Abdul never took off his white underpants. Never. Not even to wash them. If an officer confiscated them, goodbye white flag.

    But those wicked guys shot us all the same. The guys with the red armband, I mean. The guys of the Kuwaiti Resistance...Ya'Allah, Ya'Allah, who ever heard of a Kuwaiti resistance? And who ever imagined that they would be so nasty? After piercing me with ten shots they also beat me. And while beating me they yelled: "You raper, you thief!" Useless to answer: "No, no, I did not rape anybody! I did not steal anything!" Well... Once I did. I was so hungry. For weeks the army had been feeding us only with two slices of bread in the morning and two slices of bread in the evening. Nothing else but water, and when I saw that Kuwaiti woman with the bag full of eggs and cheese and bananas I didn't control myself. I stretched my hand and said: "Give it to me." Thus, she gave it to me. At once, without a word. I mean, I did what soldiers do.

    I have been a soldier for one year and four months. That is, since the scoundrel who spies for the chief of my village came looking for me and asked my wife: "Where is Dakel?" "In the field picking cucumbers," she answered. "Then call him and tell him that within two hours he must be at the district to enlist," he said. Ya'Allah, Ya'Allah. I don't like to be a soldier. Not even in peacetime. I don't like to stay in the soldiers' barracks, in the cities where people read the newspaper and repeat like parrots what the newspaper writes. I am a peasant. I like to stay on my land, to raise cucumbers and onions and eggplants. Moreover, soldiers go to war. In war we die. We get wounded, mutilated, or we die. My father was a soldier and died in war. The war with Iran. My uncle, too. Yet I went all the same to the district, I could not refuse...

    The chief of my village is so evil. He always says that Saddam is a great man, a great leader who wants the glory of Iraq, and if you say the contrary you are dead. The previous chief of my village, no. He was good. He hated Saddam and said that Saddam is a liar, a buffoon, a bandit surrounded by bandits, a criminal who builds his palaces at the people's expense. So one night they arrested him. They executed him. And in his place they put the one who spies on us with his spies. I went. So they enlisted me and sent me to Basra where people read the newspaper and repeat like parrots what the newspaper writes. Here they gave me a uniform and put me in an artillery unit where everybody came from other tribes, spoke other dialects, and I did not understand what they said. But I found Abdul who spoke my dialect though he was Kurdish. He was so nice, Abdul. So kind, so merciful. Last July it was Abdul who translated for me what the colonel said to the troops.

    He said that we would occupy Kuwait to defend it from the Americans and from the Israelis who were planning an invasion to steal the oil wells.

    And would you believe it? When I heard those words I felt better. I felt proud to defend Kuwait. Because during the war against Iran the Kuwaitis had helped us Iraqis a lot. With money, meat, rice, fruit. Oh, I have never eaten so much fruit as during the war against Iran. All Kuwaiti fruit. Besides, I am a Muslim. And Kuwait is a Muslim country, a brother country. I also felt happy because I thought that they would be happy to see us arrive. That they would applaud us, throw flowers at us. But when I arrived, at the end of October, I immediately changed my mind. I immediately understood that Saddam had told my colonel a lie. I understood it because the Kuwaitis were looking at us with such rancor. Women looked frightened, children never smiled, and one day... You see, at the end of October we had candies. So one day I kneeled in front of a child, I handed him a candy, I said: "Do you want it?" And the child burst in tears. He ran away crying: "Mommy! Mommy!" I understood it also because Abdul explained to me that the whole world was against us. That only the Jordanians and the Palestinians were on our side, and that the Americans would soon attack Iraq. Besides, in my unit everybody hated Saddam. They cursed him like the good chief of my village used to curse him before being arrested and executed. I mean, openly. They called him terrible names, they wanted to desert, to escape...

    I wanted too. To Iran. And the reason is that once my father had said to me: "Dakel! If I die, remember that those who hate Saddam are right. He does not give a damn for us soldiers. He considers us animals for slaughter and that's all. Dakel! If he makes another war, you must desert. Escape. You must go to Iran. Cucumbers and onions and eggplants can be raised in Iran as well as in Iraq."

    Abdul, no. He did not want to escape to Iran. He said that the Kurds are butchered in Iran more than in Iraq, that he preferred to escape to Saudi Arabia, and did not do it only because the road to Saudi Arabia was a mine-field: and he would blow up. As for me, I escaped nowhere because deserting is dangerous. If they catch you, they shoot you on the spot. They also arrest your family, they rape your wife and your mother and your sisters and your cousins. Then the Americans made the war. And in my unit everybody began to say: "No need to take the risk of deserting. Saddam will withdraw. He will leave Kuwait and get us home." Everybody, yes. Including the officers. One night Abdul and I walked around the commander's tent and the colonel was yelling: "He will, he will! He has realized that this war is lost since the moment it started!" The captain said: "Agreed, agreed. Let's be ready, then!

    So we surrender to the Americans and we go to New York, we get rich." Only one objected. He said: "Nonsense. Don't forget that we have the gas."

    We had it. True. We had the one we launch with the artillery shells. Some helicopters had brought it in December, and though the captain said that the gas is very risky because if it is launched when the wind blows in the wrong direction it kills the Iraqis not the Americans, those shells gave us a sense of reassurance. They made us feel almost safe. But one day the commander reviewed the unit. While he reviewed the unit we saw that the officers kept a little bag tied to their belt, and Abdul asked the sergeant: "What is that bag?" "It is a gas mask," the sergeant replied. "And why do the officers have a gas mask?" "Because the Americans too have the gas," the sergeant replied. As a consequence we got angry. "It is not fair! If the Americans too have the gas, we must have the mask like the officers!" we protested. We also became impatient to use those shells, and I don't understand why we never did. Not even at the last moment. I mean, when the Americans came and...I don't remember when the Americans came. I was so scared, and my head was as empty as an empty pumpkin. I only remember that we did not fight. There was no time to fight. There was a tremendous confusion and that's all. The officers ran like goats in a storm, and one yelled: "The orders! Where are the orders?" Another one yelled: "What orders? We no longer receive orders! We have lost all contact!"

    Then we heard a scream: "Let us leave, let us leave!" But at that point the officers had already left on the cars requisitioned from Kuwaiti civilians. The trucks for the troops had left too with their plunder. TV sets, food, garments, merchandise stolen from Kuwaiti shops. We soldiers had to go by foot, and Abdul said: "Trust my white underpants, boys. Follow me." I followed him along with ten comrades, each of us carrying the Kalashnikov and the ammunition. But it was a very dark night, the smoke coming from the oil-wells in flames made the dark even darker, and instead of taking the road that goes to Iraq we took the road that goes to Saudi Arabia. At the frontier with Saudi Arabia the Saudis opened fire, and killed six of us. Two from Basra, two from Bakuba, one from Suleimaniya, one from Samarrah. The one from Samarrah was sixty years old. They had drafted him though he was sixty years old. The one from Suleimaniya was sixteen. They had drafted him though he was sixteen.

    What happened next? Well: it happened that only four of us remained alive, and being alive we ran back. We ran and ran until we found the right road, the road for Jaharan. Here Abdul sat on the ground, and said: "Boys, we cannot go on this way. We are too tired, too hungry. Either a car gets us to Iraq, or I take off my white underpants and we surrender." He said it, yes. And at the same moment a car appeared. It stopped and the man who drove it, a very elegant man, addressed us with a big smile. He said: "Are you Iraqis? I am Palestinian. Do you want to go to Iraq? I get you to Iraq." Then, while we were joyfully crying thank-you-sir, thank-you-sir, he raised his hand and snapped: "One hundred twenty-five dinars each!" Ya'Allah, ya'Allah! One hundred twenty-five dinars each! Five hundred dinars in all! Who gave us so much money? The Iraqi Army pays a soldier fifteen dinars a month, and in the last two months nobody had been paid a cent. We nervously emptied our pockets. We put together eighty dinars and fifty cents, we nervously handed the amount to him, and in doing so we were sure that he would say: "All right, I'll get you there all the same." Aren't the Palestinians our friends, our allies? But he didn't. His big smile became a big laugh, his car left. So fast that we couldn't even kill him.

    The rest is tragedy. Sorrow, fear, tragedy. Because blind with rage and frustration we threw the Kalashnikovs and the ammunition away. We started again to walk and at dawn we reached the frontier with Iraq. Well, not really the frontier. Between us and the frontier there were two or three hundred yards. Yet for me it was already Iraq. I felt as if I was already in my village with my wife and my cucumbers, my onions, my eggplants. In fact I did not see the red-armband guys. I did not hear their bawling "Stop! Don't move or we shoot!" I only heard Abdul who said, "Boys, the moment has come for me to wave my white flag." Then he took off his trousers, took off his underpants. He put on the trousers again, he secured the underpants to a stick, he made a white flag. He waved it, he screamed: "Don't shoot, don't shoot, we surrender!" And, while he was waving it, none of us noticed that it did not look like a white flag. That the never-washed white underpants had become very dirty and were no longer white. They were black. So the flag he was waving was not a white flag. It was a black flag. And they shot. They pierced me this way, and they killed Abdul. They killed him, yes. And I cannot go home. If I go, the chief of my village tells Saddam that I have thrown away the Kalashnikov, the ammunition. And Saddam executes me. Please ask the Americans not to send me home. Please explain to the Americans that if they do I am a dead man. Please! I beg you, please...

    (Oriana Fallaci is the author of "The Rage
    and the Pride", Rizzoli International, 2002.)
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