Bush Jnr's Baghdad: A death hole for Iraq's professionals
Friday March 24, 2006
The Iraqi brain drain As hundreds of Iraqi doctors, professors and teachers are being murdered in what some see as a deliberate campaign, Jonathan Steele meets the ones who managed to escape [Read MORE]
Still ashen-faced six days after escaping death, Dr Ali Faraj pulls his hair aside to display a scar above his left ear. One of Iraq's top cardiologists, he was seeing a patient when a group of kidnappers wearing ski-masks stormed into his Baghdad clinic, knocked his receptionist to the floor and when he emerged to investigate the noise, ordered him to come with them.
To his surprise, they said they were taking him to the Interior Ministry. "I know the minister so I said I would check if it was really necessary. I put out my hand to pick up the phone, but they knocked my arm aside and struck me on the head with a pistol butt. They dragged me to the front gate where a car was waiting," he says, safe now in Jordan.
"It was about 7pm, already dark. Suddenly we heard shots. I couldn't tell where they were coming from. One of the kidnappers fell to the ground. He had been hit. Three of them started to lift him up. The fifth man ordered me into the car but I ran back to the clinic in the darkness."
Faraj was not totally unprepared for what has become a normal risk of Baghdad life. "I had a Kalashnikov in the clinic. My driver took it and started shooting. I also had a pistol in my drawer. The kidnappers drove off."
Bleeding from his head wound, he was taken home by colleagues. Only the next day did Faraj discover that the firing that saved him came from the garden of a tribal sheikh who lives opposite: "The man's bodyguards saw the gunmen going into my clinic, and were ordered by the sheikh to take cover and shoot if they were obviously abducting somebody when they came out."
Who the kidnappers were remains a mystery. Were they criminals acting for money or, as they claimed to be, people linked to the police? What is certain is that a trickle of kidnappings and murders which began in the first lawless months after US and British forces toppled Saddam Hussein three years ago has now become a flood. At least 1,000 people have died in the sectarian tit-for-tat killings that followed the destruction of one of Iraq's holiest shrines in Samarra last month.
The growing insecurity has set off a massive brain drain, as more and more Iraqis slip away from the country, perhaps never to return. While the fall of Saddam Hussein opened the door for an earlier generation of Iraqi exiles to go home, now the flow is going the other way again. Kidnap survivors are the lucky ones. Hundreds of Iraqi professionals are being murdered in what some Iraqis see as a deliberate campaign to destroy the country's best and brightest. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research says that 89 university professors and senior lecturers have been killed since 2003, and police investigations have led to nothing.
Iraqi academics have compiled a longer list of up to 105 names of assassinated colleagues. The most recent was Professor Ali Muhawesh, the dean of the engineering college at Mustansiriya University, one of Baghdad's two main campuses. He was shot this week.
The rate of killing is increasing. Some 311 teachers have been murdered in the past four months alone, according to the Ministry of Education. It is not only Baghdad that is suffering. The medical college in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, has lost nine senior staff.
Even outside Iraq, fear consumes many exiles. In Jordan's capital, Amman, the first port of call for most refugees, requests for interviews produced repeated rejections. Others would only talk if false names were used and no mention made of where they work or live. Faraj is one of the few people who have fled who are willing to speak openly and be photographed. After eluding his would-be kidnappers, he fled to Jordan last week. In the chaos and looting which followed the US entry into Baghdad, he had already taken his wife and children to Amman, aiming to wait until the dust settled. It never did.
His family stayed in Jordan, but he commuted to Baghdad for several weeks at a time. "That's over now," he says with grim determination. "I will never go back to Iraq."
Dr Azzam Kanbar-Agha, a British-educated surgeon, still makes the journey, though he too escaped a kidnapping last September. "My whole life has changed. My family is shattered. I'm a sociable person. I enjoyed sitting in cafes, meeting friends and talking politics, but that's all over now. It's too insecure in Iraq," he says.
In Jordan he earns a third of what he did in Baghdad. So, despite the growing risk, he still goes back on short visits. His kidnappers did not get as close as the ones who stormed Faraj's office, but the threat was equally sudden. At his clinic one day last September, Kanbar-Agha took a phone call from someone who announced, "We are the mujahideen" (the resistance fighters). Assuming it was a friend playing the fool, he replied, "Come off it."
"We're serious," the voice countered. "We've been watching your clinic and we want you to make a donation to help our cause. We're fighting the Americans."
When he asked what figure they had in mind, the voice whispered softly, "We don't want to force you."
"I told them I wasn't used to this kind of talk. They suggested $10,000 (£5,750) and promised that no one else would bother me. I would be protected. I asked how I could be sure they were mujahideen. They might be a gang. If we were a gang, the man said, 'We would just kidnap you without a phone call'," he recalls.
Kanbar-Agha was given two days to collect the money but a few hours later got a chillingly impatient text message: "You're not worth negotiating with. We're going to act." Next day he threw away his mobile phone Sim card and fled to Jordan with his wife and daughter.
Despite the danger, he has been back to Baghdad twice. But now he turns up at his clinic at random times. His receptionist gives patients an appointment but warns them there could be a long wait. In the afternoons he works at a crowded hospital where he feels there is safety in numbers.
One family that has strong evidence that the police are involved in hostage-taking are the Hilmis. The father, mother, and four children in their 20s have had to swap their capacious home in a prosperous Baghdad suburb for a small flat in Amman. Ahmed, 21, who was in his last year at university, was with one of his sisters in their father's medical supply store last autumn in Karrada, a busy Baghdad shopping area near the river Tigris. His sister had the safe open in the back room when four men arrived. They displayed official IDs from an anti-terrorist squad. They put handcuffs on Ahmed and marched into the back room where they took $40,000 from the safe. Then they blindfolded him and bundled him into a vehicle for a 15-minute drive.
Ahmed could not identify the place where he was held but says it must have been a government building since the electricity was never cut. He suspects it was the notorious Jadriyah detention centre, run by the Interior Ministry, where the Americans discovered close to 200 people in December whose bodies showed multiple signs of torture.
His family was asked to produce 25 daftar, or notebooks, a slang phrase for a bundle of 100 $100 bills - in other words, $250,000. The amount was too much, but they managed to raise $40,000. Ahmed was lucky. He was only held for five days. He was not mishandled in detention, and his kidnappers accepted the "reduced" amount of $40,000. When the family got the money together, he was dumped back on the street.
The next day, the Hilmis fled after quietly moving suitcases to the homes of relatives. They did not dare tell their neighbours they were leaving. Their house is closed up and their new fear, they say, is that if the Americans hear it is empty, they may smash the door and search it, leaving it open to looters once they go.
Similar stories can be heard from families in rented rooms throughout Amman. By some estimates, there are a million Iraqis in Jordan (compared with 300,000 at the time of Saddam's overthrow). Thousands of others have moved to Syria, Egypt, and the Gulf States.
In one flat I found an elderly gynaecologist and her dentist husband, both with post-graduate qualifications gained in Britain. They left Iraq last year with their four children, all fluent English-speakers with university degrees. Now they are lost to Iraq. "I love my patients. I didn't want to leave them," says the doctor.
The last straw, says her younger son Ahmed Kamal (not his real name), was when his mother had severe heart pains one evening and they could not get her to hospital because of the daily curfew which starts at 8pm. "There are not enough ambulances. So I tried to drive her myself. We stopped at a police station for an escort because I was afraid we would be shot on the way. The police said they were too busy to help, so we had to go home," he says.
With their various degrees - in electrical engineering, chemistry and agronomy - one might think a family like this could be an asset in Jordan and quickly settle in. But every Iraqi complains of Jordan's tough immigration rules, under which they only get tourist entry permits for three days or a week. "They hardly ever give residency permits to Iraqis. They're afraid of competition," says Kamal. "So we have to take work illegally at a quarter of our Iraq salaries. Employers like it that way."
The Jordanian authorities impose a fine of 1.50 dinars (about £1.25) a day for every foreigner who overstays his or her permit. When they leave, the border police count the time since they came in and charge them. As a result, once in Jordan, many Iraqis say they cannot afford to leave. "We're trapped here. We can't work and we can't leave," says a car mechanic from Najaf.
The new sectarian tensions have added to the pressure to escape from Iraq. Like thousands of other families in Baghdad, the Kamals are mixed Sunni and Shia. In the past they had no interest in what sect their friends were but now, against their better instincts, they find themselves beginning to want to know. Group-think is gaining ground. "Most Sunnis think Shias are all traitors. Most Shias think Sunnis are all terrorists," says Ahmed.
Slow-motion sectarian "cleansing" is under way as minority groups leave home and move to Baghdad districts where their sect is in the majority. Kanbar-Agha, who is a Shia but has a Sunni wife, tries to remain optimistic. He blames politicians for exploiting sectarianism. "It's stronger among politicians than ordinary people. I see it in their eyes. They no longer talk about the Iraqi people. They only talk about their own sect or group", he says.
But sectarianism is also being exploited for financial gain. Kandar-Agha says he has heard that an estate agent in Adamiyah, a mainly Sunni suburb in north Baghdad, was paying teenagers to deliver fliers to Shia houses, warning them to leave. He hoped to buy their property cheap or get it to rent out. Faraj says his Shia aunt who lives in Amariya, another heavily Sunni area of Baghdad, got a letter saying her 16-year-old son would be kidnapped if the family did not leave. "The boy was immediately sent away to Turkey to stay with his married sister, but my aunt is refusing to go. 'I'm an old widow. Let them kill me,' she says."
In another Amman flat, I met Muhammad Taha Yahir, the owner of a mini-market in Mosul, who had arrived in Jordan the previous day. "I decided to leave Iraq a month ago. I kept hoping things would improve, but now it's hopeless. Very few people go to the shops. They just come out for an hour or two in the afternoon," he says. Mosul has few Shia residents and relations between its main communities, Kurds and Sunni, are not bad, he says. What worries him is the general insecurity, bombs, clashes between the Americans and insurgents, and trigger-happy American reactions. "I'm worried car bombs will go off as my kids travel to and from school. Or there could be clashes with the insurgents, and roadblocks. If an American gets killed, they shoot back in all directions," he says. "If an Iraqi policeman comes to my shop to buy something, I have to apologise and ask him to leave. I'm afraid that I'll be thought to be an informer. I'm caught between both sides. We know where the insurgents live, but we can't say anything."
He has never received any threats, but has two friends who were killed on successive days last week. They had been kidnapped but their families could not raise the ransom. Both happened to be from Mosul's Christian community. One ran a hardware store, another a shop selling electrical appliances. In the last few months before leaving, Taha Yahir rarely visited his own shop for fear of being abducted. His staff ran everything for him.
His wife and family are still in Mosul, while he organises a place in Amman for them to stay. In a few days he will rejoin them and try to sell his shop and house. "It will all have to be done with great discretion and through a bank in Jordan. Otherwise, if people know I am going and think I'm flush with cash, the risk of kidnapping will be even higher," he explains.
When will it be safe for Iraqi exiles to go back? The guesses range from gloom to the deepest pessimism. "I see no chance of improvement for at least 10 years," says Taha Yahir. "Maybe we won't live to see it get better," says Kamal. He is not yet 30.
Muhammad Moher el Din sits in the Central Cafe, a favourite haunt for Iraqi men in the crowded streets of Old Amman, where hours are spent playing backgammon or smoking hubbly-bubblies. A leading Iraqi artist, he arrived in Jordan last week. "In Baghdad there is a threat to everything civilised. The attacks are targeting doctors, artists, university people, and everyone who represents civilisation, as well as all of civilisation's symbols, like the shrines in Samarra and Najaf," he says. Suspicion, mistrust, and fear are everywhere. "Even our character is being changed. I feel it in me," he says.