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27 May 2009

Abu Dhabi

The bizarre double life of Latif Yahia

Michael Theodoulou, Foreign Correspondent

  • Last Updated: May 27. 2009 11:07AM UAE / May 27. 2009 7:07AM GMT

LARNACA, CYPRUS // Latif Yahia escaped from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq nearly two decades ago, but has yet to escape his past. It is a past so bizarre, lurid and unique that some have questioned Mr Yahia’s story – that for several years he was forced to play the body double of Uday Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator’s psychopathic and depraved elder son.

“The problem is people think because I was the double of Uday, that I’m a bull******* like him,” says Mr Yahia, puffing on a Marlboro at his Babylonian Arabic cafe near the seafront in Larnaca, a placid tourist town in Cyprus.

For nearly two decades he has sought in vain for a home in the West for his family. His odyssey across Europe included periods in Austria, Holland, Norway, Germany, Britain and in Ireland, where he lived for 12 years.

Since August, he has been in Cyprus with his Irish wife, their two children and his mother, Bahar. No refuge has worked out. He is once more desperate to move on, but claims a vengeful CIA is thwarting his every attempt to secure a normal life anywhere for his family because he refused to co-operate with the US intelligence agency.

He says the CIA wanted him to head the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a US-backed umbrella organisation of mostly exiled opposition groups created in 1992 to foment the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yahia refused, despite, he says, being offered a blank cheque for his services. “I didn’t want to be a traitor.”

It was only then, he claims, that the INC job was given to Ahmed Chalabi, a controversial figure who went on to head the opposition group for many years.

Then, before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Mr Yahia says the CIA asked him to pretend to be Uday in a video to be released once hostilities began. In the video, he says, he was to urge the Iraqi army “to surrender and let the Americans come in”. Again he refused: “I wasn’t a traitor and I didn’t trust the CIA.”

Bitterly, he savours another irony: “For Saddam Hussein’s regime I was a traitor and for this regime [the current Iraqi government] I’m a collaborator, especially when they see I was against the war [the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq].”

The mostly Cypriot customers and occasional British tourist at his cafe have no idea who he is. But any Iraqi popping in would do a double take. Mr Yahia, 45, still bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Uday: he has a close-cropped helmet of black hair, a goatee, thick eyebrows, full lips and a bulging nose.

His account of his 4½ years as the would-be bullet-catcher for Uday is documented in two books, I Was Saddam’s Son, published in 1994, and The Devil’s Double, in 2003. A feature film combining the two, titled The Devil’s Double, is in the works, directed by Lee Tamahori of Once Were Warriors fame and Die Another Day, the 20th Bond movie.

Mr Yahia’s memoirs portray the clan surrounding the Iraqi leader in his Macbeth-like court as a gang of sadistic, bloodthirsty killers with Uday at the front of the pack, raping and pillaging with impunity.

When Mr Yahia’s second book was published six years ago some opponents of the US-led invasion of Iraq dismissed it as opportunistic propaganda against Saddam. But the horrors uncovered in Iraq after the dictator’s fall provided compelling evidence of the astonishing cruelty of Saddam’s regime and the depredations Mr Yahia had so graphically catalogued. Mass graves and torture chambers were found, as was Uday’s extensive collection of pornography.

Even those who question Mr Yahia’s credibility acknowledge no tale of Uday’s cruelty and depravity is implausible. To most Iraqis, he was evil incarnate, more feared and loathed than his father.

Mr Yahia’s account begins during the 1980-88 war with Iran, when he served as an officer in the Iraqi army. The scion of a wealthy family, Mr Yahia had attended an elite Baghdad school with Uday, where he was teased about his remarkable likeness to the dictator’s unruly son. In 1987 Uday asked him if he would play his “fiday”, an Arabic word for double that also implies the role of a deputy and bodyguard. Mr Yahia at first resisted, but after Uday locked him in a tiny cell, daubed entirely in red paint, and made “vile threats” against his family, Mr Yahia says he succumbed.

An intensive training period began. Mr Yahia was subjected to dental surgery to recreate Uday’s “chimpanzee” grin and lisp: work that he says he has since reversed. He watched countless hours of videos of Uday to learn how to mimic his master’s mannerisms, from the way he held his fat Cuban cigar to his one-handed driving style.

To desensitise him to the regime’s brutality, Mr Yahia says he also had to watch tapes of Uday and his security forces torturing dissidents and personal enemies to death.

The job came with a lifestyle of expensive cars, fine clothes and access to the clannish corridors of power in Baghdad, although Mr Yahia says none of this was an attraction: he came from a wealthy family anyway. The drawbacks, however, were unimaginably bad. Effectively he was a prisoner in a gilded cage. As Uday’s fiday, he says, he survived 11 assassination attempts by people who mistook him for Saddam’s elder son. There are deep scars on Mr Yahia’s right hand, the result, he says, of one of the most serious attempts.

After fleeing Iraq, he adds, Saddam’s regime made four more attempts on his life in European countries. Despite his special role, Mr Yahia also found himself victim of Uday’s unpredictable rages and was beaten on whim.

Although he says he was forced to watch as Uday brutalised fellow Iraqis, Mr Yahia says he never took part in rape or murder and was never even a member of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party. “One time he [Uday] asked me to kill someone and I refused and tried to kill myself,” Mr Yahia says, showing scars on both his wrists where he says he had slashed himself.

He felt “horrible” being Uday’s fiday but not guilty because he was forced into the role. “It wasn’t a job you applied for,” he says drily. “I didn’t choose my past, I was forced.”

But he does feel “selfish” that he never used the gun he always carried to “put a bullet in his [Uday’s] head and stop the horrible things he was doing”. Mr Yahia says his trigger finger was stayed by the knowledge that all of his family would have been killed by the regime in revenge.

In November 1991 he finally fled Uday’s clutches, speeding in his Mercedes-Benz to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. In March 1992 a US helicopter whisked him across the border into Turkey, he says.

The CIA helped him escape Iraq in return for his agreement to help the agency, he says. “I said anything to get out.” Once safe, he told the CIA: “I am against Saddam but not Iraq … I didn’t want to be a traitor.”

Mr Yahia is personable, engaging, larger than life, clearly bright and well educated. But it is hardly surprising that he has enemies. He makes startling accusations against powerful people and institutions. These range from the CIA, which, he claims, together with Austrian intelligence, tortured him for nearly a year in a secret cell near Vienna because he refused to co-operate with them – an episode detailed in a third book, The Black Hole, published in 2006 – to the current Iraqi government whose members he brands as “pimps, criminals and traitors”. They are, he insists, “worse than Saddam … these [US-backed] puppets in Iraq have done to Iraq what Saddam failed to do in 35 years.”

The US-led invasion and its aftermath, he argues, killed 1.5 million people and led a further five million to flee their homeland. George W Bush, the former US president, and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, he says, “are the murderers of the Iraqi people and should be brought to justice”.

Mr Yahia says 145 members of his extended family were killed in a US air raid as they made their way to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul for a funeral in mid-2006. The incinerated bodies were “crispy” and unidentifiable. “I think this is what they call the liberation of Iraq,” he says, with bitter sarcasm.

If Mr Yahia seems conspiracy-minded or paranoid it is hardly surprising, given his account of his extraordinary experiences. Perhaps his most intriguing claim to The National was that the inflammatory unofficial video footage of Saddam’s hanging in December 2003 was taken by a senior Iraqi government official.

Mr Yahia alleges that within hours of the execution the official sent him the footage in a taunting e-mail that said: “Ha, ha, ha, look what they’ve done to your father! You’ll be next.”

He claims that he promptly forwarded the e-mail and video footage to contacts at Al Jazeera, Reuters and the Associated Press. A senior editor at Al Jazeera television denied that anyone had sent them the unofficial execution footage. “We picked it up from the internet. It wasn’t an exclusive.”

Official Iraqi accounts had portrayed the execution as a well-organised affair and Saddam as a weak, broken man as he faced the gallows. To the embarrassment of the Iraqi government, the video footage showed a chaotic event, as witnesses mocked a dignified-looking Saddam with sectarian taunts while a noose was put around his neck.

Mr Yahia’s equally personable wife, Karen, fully supports her husband’s claim about receiving the e-mail, saying she was in his office at their home in Ireland when it arrived. They were keeping an all-night vigil for more news after reports emerged that Saddam’s execution was imminent.

Mr Yahia says Saddam “faced death like a lion”. As Uday’s reluctant double, Mr Yahia says he met Saddam frequently. Asked if he liked the ousted dictator, he shrugs, lights another Marlboro – he smokes four packets a day – and says: “I don’t deny that.” He insists, however, he was never a “Saddamist”.

The Iraqi dictator, unlike Uday, had been decent to him. “I never saw Saddam kill anyone or give the order to do so. He was always calm and smiling, always quietly spoken,” Mr Yahia says. Nor, he argues, was the Iraqi dictator informed of the full extent of Uday’s excesses as a serial rapist and killer. But once, “after Uday did a lot of terrible things, he [Saddam] said to me, ‘I wish you were my real son’. I said to him: ‘I am your son’.”

Mr Yahia says he has mementos given him by Saddam stored in a bank safety deposit box, among them a gold and platinum watch bearing the toppled dictator’s face and a pen he says Saddam used to sign off on the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

For Uday, however, Mr Yahia feels only revulsion and hatred. “If I saw him in hell, I’d kill him.” Uday, he says, ruined his life and had his father poisoned in 1995.

When the first bulletins broke in mid-2003 that Uday had been killed by US forces in Mosul, Mr Yahia shattered his plasma television screen with a coffee cup hurled in anger. “I didn’t want him to be killed. I wanted him to face justice.”

Uday, he insists, was a coward, unlike his younger brother, Qusay, “a professional fighter” who was killed in the same siege by 200 soldiers in their Mosul hiding place.

Mr Yahia does not pause for a second when asked what the worst thing was that he had witnessed Uday do. He tells of a grotesque episode in Al Habaniya, Iraq’s leading honeymoon resort, when Uday noticed a newlywed couple walking hand in hand and called over to them. Uday was livid when they ignored him. Mr Yahia attempted to persuade Uday to leave the couple alone, pointing out that they had only been married a few days. Uday snapped back: “This isn’t your business!”

Uday’s “pimps” beat up the husband and forced the beautiful bride to his suite, where he raped her. In shame and despair, she later threw herself to her death from the fourth-floor window of the building.

Mr Yahia says the husband was accused of trying to kill Uday and sentenced to death but was later spared because of his long service in the war against Iran for which he was awarded medals. The man, Yahia claims, was one of those who nearly killed Uday in a 1996 assassination attempt and now lives in Holland.

For five years after his escape from Saddam’s Iraq in 1991, Mr Yahia could see the ghost of Uday simply by looking in the mirror. “Before that I was thinking like him,” he says.

Today, he is no longer haunted by Saddam’s first born. Mr Yahia is back to what he was in 1987, before his fiday nightmare began, although he feels the West has shattered his dreams of leading a normal life.

Despite being married to a citizen of the EU, he remains stateless, equipped only with a temporary Irish travel document. He was stripped of his Iraqi citizenship, he says, because he left Iraq illegally – without his passport or permission – and has never been back.

Today, with Saddam gone, he could return to Iraq, claiming scornfully that he could buy back his citizenship for a few hundred dollars. “But I don’t want to be a citizen of a corrupt country … I don’t want to be an Iraqi any more.”

Mr Yahia is keen to get a message out to any country that considers itself a democracy.

“I want a country called home for me and my family, somewhere I can say ‘here is my country’.

“If I knew the West would treat me like this, I’d [have preferred] a bullet from Saddam Hussein’s government … Every day I suffer and every day I feel dead.”

He is very bitter that Ireland, which allowed him residency rights, refused him citizenship even though he had lived there for 12 years and has an Irish wife. He told an Irish reporter two years ago that his naturalisation application had been rejected because of a baseless claim, passed on by the CIA, that he was an international arms dealer.

“Ireland is not a state of Europe; it’s a state of America,” he says.

Mr Yahia had high hopes of finding a new home in Cyprus, which he entered legally on his temporary Irish travel document. He was relieved to leave behind the incessant rain of Ireland for a sunny country on the doorstep of the Middle East but which is part of the European Union.

The experience soon soured. He invested €172,000 in his cafe, but says numerous attempts to have it licensed have failed. He also had problems with the authorities when his brother, Omid, entered Cyprus illegally in December to seek asylum. Mr Yahia was accused of assisting his entry, which he vehemently denies.

Now Mr Yahia cannot wait to leave Cyprus. Adding to his worries, he says he was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

To escape his past Mr Yahia says he needs a country that looks “at me as a human being, not as Uday’s double”.

When he looks in the mirror today, he says: “I see Latif Yahia, the fighter”.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

15 May 2009

The Black Hole
By. Latif Yahia

Chapter 1 – A European Welcome
by Latif Yahia

By the time of our flight from Iraq, early in 1992, Saddam’s troops had been driven from Kuwait, the unconditional surrender had long been signed at Safwan Airfield by Lieutenant-General Sultan Hashim Ahmad and General Schwarzkopf, and the United Nations’ “no-fly zones” were being enforced, but Saddam remained firmly in power.
The no-fly zones had the effect of severely restricting the Iraqi regime’s ability to continue attacking the populations in the north and the south of Iraq (chiefly the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, respectively). Both had suffered numbing oppression and terrifying violence at the hands of Saddam, his ministers and his armies. Kurdistan responded to the no-fly zone by becoming a quasi-autonomous administrative region, as Baghdad’s ideological grip was ineffective without the free run of its military. However, it was, and still is, part of Iraq in the often arbitrary political geography of the Middle East. Its people’s desire for independence is strongly opposed by Turkey, and Iraq is anxious to keep the Kurdish region as its own thanks to the large reserves of oil in the region of Kirkuk , the northern city which would be the capital of a state of Kurdistan were it ever to gain independence; after Saddam was finally overthrown and a new Iraqi government installed, Kirkuk became the capital of the Iraqi province known as Kurdistan.
To Nusa, the prostitute who had begged me to take her with me, and me, the north of Iraq represented a sort of freedom, a base camp for our flight from the country. After a frenzied drive from Baghdad, during which my rear-view mirror received more attention than did the view from my windscreen, we made it to the coalition-controlled Kurdish area and prepared to carry out our plans. I had posed as Uday on several occasions to ensure passage through checkpoints, a risky but vital strategy; fortunately, most of the checkpoint guards had been too terrified of Uday to pay me much attention.
On arrival in the Kurdish region, things stopped going to plan. We were robbed, taken hostage and imprisoned by the Kurdish Socialist Party, and several uncertain weeks were spent in cells and being driven and held at gunpoint before we finally made it to a US agent, who immediately set about arranging our escape. Ironically, the leader of the Kurdish Socialist party Mr Mammend and his second man Mr. Othman ( who now holds a British passport) who personally oversaw and directed my torture in that dingy cell and later went on to shoot two men in front of me, Kurdish prisoners that Othman believed were working for the Saddam Regime one that held a German passport whose name was Kaled. (This proved later to be incorrect, but hey, they were dead anyway) Othman went on to become a major figure in the Post Saddam elected government after the invasion by America in 2003. A tribute to the fact that blood will never be too far away from Iraqs' door.
You can change the faces but the practices remain the same, wether they be Kurdish, Arab or Shi'ite. We were finally picked up by an American helicopter which took us further north to the relative safety of Turkey, where we made contact with other representatives of the American intelligence services, who were to arrange our next step.
Even at this point I understood that my return to Baghdad, and probably Iraq, would be impossible at least until the regime had been toppled, and was less than certain even then, such would have been the mistrust and detestation of anyone seen as being connected with Saddam and his atrocious sons. There was also the fear that my escape would provoke Uday, or, more accurately, Iraqi intelligence to be on my tail and that capture, torture and probable death would ensue. I was acutely aware of the danger in which my actions had put my family and acquaintances. It was something I would have to deal with, but such thoughts chilled me to a halt whenever they crossed my mind. Perhaps the degree of freedom I would enjoy would allow me to arrange something. Besides, I was far from safe even then. I did not know what lay ahead of me in Europe, how I would be treated or accepted, and for how long I would be there.
Furthermore, my status had, on crossing the Turkey–Iraq border, switched from an implanted member of Saddam’s extended inner circle – with all the seedy benefits that that ensured – to that of a refugee, running for my life and relying on the openness and legal processes of the West. I was casting myself on a continent in the hope that its reputation for exercising compassion was true. (Time was later to suggest that the reputation is only partly deserved.) But rather than being afraid, I was filled with a sense of cautious optimism. A lifeboat might not be the best place to be in stormy seas, but it is preferable to being on a sinking ship.
I had been asked by the CIA about where I would be applying for asylum. Knowing little about Europe, I decided on Austria on the premise that I had a cousin there. He was a doctor and by all accounts was successful. As is the case all over the world, doctors are held in high regard by the people they serve. A respected contact in a foreign country could, I reasoned, soften my landing. Admittedly, however, my options were somewhat limited. Most of my friends and family were firmly rooted in the land I had fled.
There remained the fact that I would be of great value to America, the main protagonists in Operation Desert Storm and in the enforcement of the no-fly zones. Inside my head was an encyclopaedia of Iraq’s dictatorship, its workings, its hierarchy, its palaces. In the United States I could have had an assurance of safety, which would of course be paid for with that knowledge. But I also knew that once my priceless resource had been exploited I would be on my own, probably looking over my shoulder, trusting no one – precisely the situation I was fleeing.
The inevitable offer of refuge came in the end from Dick Cheney, then the country’s defence minister. But accepting his offer grated on me in a way which is difficult to explain. I had never had any cause to dislike Americans as individuals – I now have many American friends, and they have enhanced my life immeasurably. They have a stimulating enthusiasm and a straight-spoken honesty which I admire. The American people and their immigrant forebears have indeed imbued the nation with a unique sense of purpose, but it is a sense of purpose that does not always travel well, especially when it is driven home by force. They are like the person who can light up a social gathering but with whom one is glad one does not have to share a home. There is an otherness about America that attracts and repels in equal measure – the strength of instinctive repulsion roughly proportional to one’s proximity to Babylon. Had I been able to choose between the American people and the American government, the choice would have been easy. However, I had to take both or neither; my decision was made.
To the American government’s credit, their arm-twisting was carried out with a light grip, and they made arrangements with Vienna for me to be transported to Austrian soil to serve my asylum-seeking period. In order for the US to spring me from Iraq, I had to agree to certain conditions, one of which concerning what I knew about Saddam. I agreed reluctantly, as I had no idea how the information would be used. I was anxious not to harm the Iraqi people but cared little for what they had planned for Saddam and my ex-employer. The US could and would come and get me as soon as they needed the intelligence. It was not as though I would be fired into a black hole. Austria is a proud member of the brotherhood of nations, albeit one with a historical commitment to intercultural harmony as chequered as the Croatian flag. Hopefully that image had been consigned to history.
We were granted single-journey passports by the United Nations and on 9 March 1992, Nusa and I Arrived in Vienna. My immediate concern was that my cousin and I would not be able to recognise one another. We had not met since 1973, when I was a beardless nine-year-old with unmodified incisors and he was a young boy whose parents were embarking on an adventure in Europe, which in those days seemed esoteric, distant and modern to us. Perhaps the uncertainty of being recognised was the first sign that I had ceased to be Uday; the Latif in me was re-energising. Of course my cousin will recognise me, I reminded myself – he just needs to look for Uday in the crowd!
“Latif?” came the uncertain call from the collected meeters and greeters at the airport. “Latif!” he laughed as I spun my head in recognition. Latif – my name, but it sounded like the name of an old friend. We shook hands, kissed each other and hugged tightly. Here, in this city with its moderately northern climate and guttural tongue, was a warmly familiar link with my country. Sure, he had become used to Western ways, but the warmth of our greeting spanned continents in a way that only family or nation can do. By degrees, I was feeling safer, but this step seemed so meaningful that it was difficult to imagine myself in the clutches of the Saddamites again.
My cousin was introduced to Nusa and they greeted each other in a familial way. He was not to know that she was not my wife, although he no doubt made that assumption. Whereas in Europe having a mistress is frowned upon but accepted as what goes on, in Arabic countries it is a cause for great shame and even ostracism for both parties. He would no doubt have been aware of the cultural differences and, either through discretion or supposition, never so much as thought about raising the issue.
Leaving the airport, we got into his BMW and set off through Vienna. This city of beauty and drama slipped into our wake as we cruised through its streets. The architecture and general atmosphere were unlike those of any Iraqi city I had visited. The only word I could use to describe the place was “European” – pretty much as I had imagined, but striking nonetheless. The journey seemed to take quite some time, the buildings’ grandiosity diminishing as we progressed, which suggested a suburban or even pastoral destination. This would figure, as successful city dwellers often crave the comparative peace and security of the outskirts when they tire of urban living. But the journey took us well outside the city limits, although I felt as though we were still in its orbit. We finally drew up in a town called Traiskirchen, situated about thirty kilometres south of the centre of Vienna. The town has an industrial feel to it but it is, I am told, well known for its viticulture; the eastern foothills of the Alps are visible to the south-east.
I noticed an enormous, looming building, and it soon turned out that the “Traiskirchen” I would be staying at was not some suburban wine-growing idyll, but was the name of Austria’s main refugee camp. My cousin had merely brought me to the place he had been instructed to. Where I come from, if you meet a relative after a long spell apart, it is traditional to be taken to his or her home, to take their hospitality for granted. It was a shock for Nusa and me to find ourselves here, and we were not overly reassured by the word refugee ¬– one finding refuge ¬– as the cold, dark, overbearing, forbidding appearance of the place brought less comforting thoughts to mind. There was also the point that neither Nusa nor I had any knowledge of German; under the assumption that we would be taken in by my cousin, this did not seem to matter compared to the urgency with which we were to leave Iraq. I could speak reasonably good English, however; maybe that would help. Many Europeans know a bit of English.
My cousin approached the security outside the building and started talking to the guards, returning a few minutes later with instructions to accompany him into the camp. It would appear that he was to be our translator. We gathered what belongings had not been stolen from us by the Kurds and stepped towards the gates which were a gathering point for uniformed men, probably police or immigration officials. Whoever they were, they stopped their conversations and eyed Nusa and me as though we were pieces of shit that had been trodden into the carpet. If they were intending to intimidate us, they succeeded. Considering the fact that we were supposedly entering a place of refuge, safety and security, this attitude did not augur well, but our fates were in the hands of this foreign force and we had no choice but to pass them without drawing too much attention to ourselves. Was this how all refugees were regarded in Austria? Time would tell.
The reception room was small, dirty and less than welcoming, and we spent almost an hour there doing nothing before someone came to take us in. After filling in forms and going about the business of registration and reception, we were ordered like dogs to go to another room, this time a much larger one where the essentials of refugee life – blankets, plates and such like – were literally thrown at us by the indifferent staff. “Take this, take this,” they would chant as they did so. It was nothing more than a chore to them. All the eating utensils we caught were dirty, the bedding reeking of stale sweat and urine. This was the unwashed detritus of other poor souls escaping unthinkable acts in places less civilised than even here.
An anger began to simmer inside me. We were being treated as prisoners, criminals, parasites, scum, not people fleeing certain death and looking for a temporary sanctuary. Only the arrogant can act with such dispassion.
A policeman and my cousin accompanied Nusa and me on a fifteen-minute walk, at the end of which was another enormous building. As the doors opened we were confronted with the dismal sight of families and individuals, the elderly and children of many nations gathered in their little groups. There was a tumult of crying, shouting and talking, and the echoes of all three made it impossible to be heard and understood.
But the walk was not over. We were led to a side room, a smaller one, no larger than twenty square metres in area, where five families were accommodated with the absolute minimum of privacy or dignity. Each family unit had a double bed for the parents and a bunk bed for the youngsters. The policeman pointed at an empty bed and through my cousin let it be known that this was to be ours.
This I was not expecting. I do not know quite what I was expecting when I extracted myself from the crushing vice of Iraq, but sharing a tiny room with five families had not been a scenario that would have got much of a foothold in my imaginings. I was convinced that I had had assurance from the Americans with whom I had arranged my escape that I would be whisked away to a safe home where I could start afresh and live in safety. I did not feel safe here. I was assured by my cousin that this was not a prison, that this was a temporary holding place for newly arrived asylum seekers, that our case would be dealt with and that we would be found a more permanent place of residence. This was simply the way things were done in Austria, he concluded. His instructions, from an authority no lower than the ministry of justice, had been to the effect that he would pick us up from the airport and bring us here for administrative purposes.
Nusa and I put our things down on our bed and surveyed our surroundings. I for one had grown accustomed to palaces and wide open spaces, and this was as far removed from that ideal as I could have expected ever to find myself. I did not expect a palace, but to stay in this room with little ventilation and indescribable smells that would make one’s eyes water seemed inhumane, even torturous. The five other families were Iraqi Christians. One of the women was pregnant and each couple had two or three children. We were left with no choice but to endure the screaming and crying, to try to close one’s ears and get some rest.
Before long I noticed that the adults among my room-mates were watching me attentively and seemed even to be cowering and holding each other protectively, their eyes widened with fear and confusion, their bodies twitching whenever I moved. My recent past suddenly lurched back into my consciousness. They thought I was Uday, that I had somehow tracked them down and that unspeakable horrors awaited them. The sensation lurched into me with burning intensity. It was all too much for me to take. I emptied my lungs with screaming and swearing, and punched the bed with a dismal loss of control. The situation, the dull, depressing reality of freedom from Iraq and all it embodied had got the better of me and my rage was unstoppable. No doubt this terrified those present even more, but what did I care? For the first time since boarding the helicopter in northern Iraq, I wanted to return to sailing through the monotonous unpredictability of the Baghdad compound. I started yelling to be taken back to the airport and placed back in Iraq. I wanted it like nothing else.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” implored my cousin, “you’ll be killed.”
I screamed back at him, “So be it, I’d rather die there, surrounded by my family and my countrymen than in this stinking shit hole of a place.”
“You know that’s not true, Latif,” he said. My cousin was right; I could not go back. Longing for Iraq was like looking forward to a death sentence. But over the coming years I would long for that futile return innumerable times. “You’re probably very tired and distressed. You need rest. Think about everything tomorrow. It’s been a long day.”
Perhaps it was his professional bedside manner, but my cousin calmed me down with the force of reason and reassurance. He said I would not be here long and that everything would be fine. He opened his wallet and drew out 300 schillings, and offered it to me so that we could make ends meet. Of the opulence with which I had been surrounded only weeks earlier, and of my untroubled, middle-class upbringing, I had nothing to show. This money and the clothes we wore were all Nusa and I had to our names. The wad of notes looked impressive and generous, but still I refused to accept it. I insisted on sorting myself out, just as I had always done. He stuffed the money into Nusa’s bag, so it became hers, which solved that moral dilemma.
My cousin left, saying he would visit every to day to see how things were going. He left us in the room with the five nervous families.
With growing reassurance that I was not Uday, the mood in the room elevated to mere misery, and conversations were struck up with the Iraqi refugees. They told us about the quality of the food in the camp, that is, how it was a sickening, tasteless slop with the nutritional value and texture of mud. Nusa and I were soon to find out for ourselves, when the evening meal period initiated and we made our way to the canteen with our greasy, stained plates and cutlery. The gelatinous blob made a smacking sound as it landed on my plate, and I looked down at it with dismay. My palate had assumed a palatial refinement during my time chez Uday, but even those refugees from culinary environments less charmed than my own found the food a disgusting, sub-human gruel that would have had prison inspectors foaming at the mouth. But this was no prison. It was off the legal radar. Nusa and I did not eat for five days. Our stomachs became tight with pain.
One trait that is often ignored by countries who take in asylum seekers is that they are by their nature an enterprising, brave and opportunistic breed. They are, after all, the fittest who have survived, the ones who have, by means of guile, sacrifice or financial advantage escaped closed societies and brutal regimes to seek freedom or to spread stories of their country’s ills to the enlightened world, in the usually vain hope that it will care. Instead of being welcomed and praised by the supposedly civilised, entrepreneurial states that take them in, they are often corralled, hidden away, scapegoated and subjected to abuse by their host populations, governments and media. History is written by the victors; that’s a given. And the immortalised prisoners who fashioned gliders and other means of escape from whatever they could scavenge from World War II prisons will – rightfully – always occupy a proud place in the psyche of the victorious. But many of those arriving in the West by escaping from their often lawless home countries would not even have been able to confront those trying to prevent their escape with a fragile Geneva convention. As long as the world tolerates brutal regimes, families and individuals will always be risking all to escape them. So much as planning to escape from such a place could be a death sentence. If the comfortable ruling classes could only begin to imagine the plights of these beleaguered people, and appreciate the brilliant and treacherous escape plans they have made, perhaps they would be treated a little more sympathetically – or even as heroes.
So here we were, among people from whom I would once have been perhaps a couple of miles in Iraq, but prevented by levels of security, walls and mistrust ever to meet until our flight paths crossed in this squalid prison masquerading as a kind of sanctuary. We were not allowed out of the doors until we had been placed in slightly less temporary accommodation I was not processed the next day. In fact, there was no sign of it ever happening. Many days and nights of drudgery were to follow, although after getting to know some of my fellow inmates a little, I felt a tiny bit safer.
My room-mates’ trust was eventually earned, and one day they whispered to me that some enterprising inmates had breached the outside walls and turned it into a secret means of access and egress. This was a hopeful development. Strangely, it was not used so much as an escape hatch than as a larder or a works entrance; people did actually go out and come back with provisions, be they begged, borrowed, stolen or paid for. There was also work to be had in the bars and restaurants, and a thriving black economy had sprung up in the environs of the Traiskirchen asylum centre thanks to that hole in the wall. Inmates would often leave in the evening and return in the morning, unnoticed and unmissed. In a bizarre take on Michelin approval, we were even recommended a good, inexpensive restaurant. I became glad of the money given by my cousin, and my stomach moaned at me to get a move on.
So it was that one night we excitedly squeezed our bodies through the opening and marched, with our throbbing appetites driving us on, to the recommended restaurant. Our mouths started to salivate as we neared the place, the aroma of cooked food having been kept from our noses for so long. We ordered kebabs and sandwiches from the menu.
Communication was a problem. The filthy looks we had been greeted with by those guarding the gates to the camp proved not to be isolated sneers of paramilitary camaraderie, but a condensed, official expression of popular feeling. The people in Austria seemed to have an aversion to darker-skinned people that I have experienced nowhere else, least of all in neighbouring Germany. They made no effort to communicate. If I tried to speak in English they would reply in German, even when it was obvious that they had understood my questions. There were no attempts to reply with gestures or attempts to seek help from another passer-by. Perhaps it was the small-town attitude that comforts people all over the suburban world; maybe Vienna itself would be different. This first true experience of the Austrian general public gave me the impression that racism, mistrust and excessive defensiveness were quite normal and acceptable attitudes in Austria.
As the palatable food digested, Nusa and I decided that the time was right to head back to the centre. I went to pay, but when I asked the price, the owner of the restaurant answered in an unintelligible German. I shook my head and asked for the price in English. He looked blankly back. I fanned out the 300 schillings under his face and told him just to take whatever the bill came to. I put the idea of leaving a tip on hold. My eyes widened as he took over 200 schillings. Exchange rates and such like had not really occurred to me; my cousin’s donation had looked like enough to last a week, but it turned out that 300 schillings was roughly equivalent to twenty-five dollars!
The activities of the previous days had softened my cigarette cravings, but now that I felt a little more relaxed and had time to think, the desire for a few lungfuls of smoke reappeared. I asked the owner how much were the cigarettes; they were about 35 schillings. I bought two packets, thereby using up all the cash we had between us. Half an hour’s living outside the centre’s walls had left us penniless.
In view of the inmates’ recommendation of the restaurant, I could only imagine that I had experienced the best of a bad brunch, so to speak. I would risk another establishment at my peril.
We found our way back to the centre and I made enquiries about what would happen next. I seemed to be going nowhere, despite what I had been assured. Our fellow inmates were surprised that we had not been told about the procedure. Full registration, we were told, was to be our next step in the asylum process; the form-filling on entry to Traiskirchen had been merely a preliminary formality. I already knew that, but had been expecting a call from an official to guide me through the next steps. But this was not the case, I was informed by a laughing room-mate. It was up to inmates to arrange their next step. Until then they were left, presumably as oblivious to procedure as I had been, in this appalling encampment. Full registration took place in an office in another building within the compound. The office opened at eleven in the morning but such was people’s desperation to put the wheels of their cases’ progress in motion that a queue started to form at 2 a.m. every day. It was intimated to me that without full registration I effectively did not exist.
That night Nusa and I got up at two and made our way to the office. It seemed that we were too late. The queue that had already formed was similar to that seen outside a football stadium on match day. It stretched all around the building. Estimates of how many people made it up would have been impossible, as the queue was thick in some places and thin in others, and its snaking nature made its length a matter of guesswork. Where did they all come from? I naively asked myself, before recalling that there were over twenty people in our compartment. I sighed as I took in the number of people in the queue I would have to join the end of. And this over eight hours before the offices opened. We made our way to the end, without much hope of being processed that day.
We slept as best we could. It was quite normal to sleep as there was no chance that the queue would move on for many hours; furthermore we had no possessions to be robbed of. The waiting was numbing, draining. Shuffling forwards commenced after eleven, and continued in tiny waves for several more hours. Because we would move forward a metre or so every five of ten minutes, it was impossible to get comfortable by sitting. Our backs and legs ached and our mouths were parched by the time we eventually made it to the door of the so-called interview room.
Here we had our second encounter with Austrian officialdom. A police officer of some unknowable rank sat on the chair with his feet on the desk, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, contempt and boredom pressed into his features. He had the nonchalant bluster of the fictional dictator of every banana republic that has ever appeared in the movies. By his side he held an iron bar, more for intimidation than for emergency, one presumed. Here I learned my first useful fragment of my hosts’ tongue: “Scheißeausländer” (“shit foreigner”, I later found out). Unfortunately for him, I thought he was asking if I was okay or if I needed anything, or even welcoming me to his country. I replied courteously with a nod and a “Thank you.” Could he have been testing my German language skills? I doubt it. I think he meant it. Whatever, he started to speak to me in a broken English. He asked where I was from, what was I doing in the country, the usual things. As the interview stumbled forwards, he became agitated at something and started banging his iron bar on the table as he bellowed questions at me and rolled his eyes when he could not understand my replies.. He was treating me with all the respect I would have expected from his greeting had I understood his language. A new anger was bubbling inside of me. This guy was nothing. He would not have lasted a minute if he ever adopted this attitude in Baghdad.
“Get me a translator,” he yelled to one of his subordinates outside the room, smashing repeatedly on his tabletop with the bar. “What language are you speaking?”
I replied that I spoke Arabic.
He instructed one of his officers to go and fetch a translator and turned to me and said, “Now fuck off until we find an Arabic speaker.,” He flicked his wrist at me, looked down at his pile of paperwork and seethed at it.
This belittling, dismissive comment and action ignited the rage inside me. I threw myself forward, got onto his desk and kicked him full in the face with the underside of my shoe. Blood immediately pumped out of his burst nose, and he fell back in agony. I could hear other policemen’s heavy feet approaching, and at that moment noticed that the interviewer had been armed with a gun. I snatched it from its holster and grabbed the interviewer by the hair and pointed the gun at his head.
“If anyone comes a step closer,” I screamed, “I will blow off his fucking head.” The policemen’s appreciation of English seemed to have made a gratifying leap and they stopped dead, looking at each other for a clue as to what to do next. I held him there, his ripped, bleeding head in my arm and his terrified eyes darting between me and the gun. I could sense the adrenaline coursing through me and no doubt it was a sensation he too was experiencing. It felt like I was Uday again, like I had an untouchable, unpunishable power. People simply did not speak to me in the way he had done, or treat me as he did. Perhaps Uday would have been proud of me.
The situation stagnated for about half an hour. My arm that held his head ached and shook. All actions in the centre had been halted while things were sorted out. Eventually a detachment of Cobra operatives arrived. Cobra is the special branch of the Austrian police who deal with terrorism and serious crime. They came wearing bullet-proof clothing and with a psychologist and his Arabic interpreter, ready to calm the situation. All very routine. I responded by finally placing a bullet in the gun (of course, nobody had previously known it had not been loaded, which must have irked them), and yanking the interviewer’s head back by his hair and thrusting the barrel into his mouth.
“I don’t care what happens now,” I growled. “If I pull the trigger he will die and so will I. Fuck you, fuck Austria, fuck the president and fuck everyone in this country.”
There was intense chatter going on outside the room, and occasionally I thought I could sense a police siren in the distance, or maybe they were ambulances. Someone came in and took Nusa out of the room. I would not otherwise have had any recollection that she was still there, so focused was I on my hostage. The rescuers were asking her questions and I could hear her scared voice quivering as she responded.
After a minute or two of this, and careful instruction from whoever was directing operations, the translator came gingerly into the room and said, “It’s okay. We know who you are. Who brought you here? You’re in the wrong place. The Department of Justice had a place arranged for you. Let the man go. We will take you to the right place.”
I refused. After another half an hour, the secretary of the minister of justice arrived. He made pretty much the same offer.
“I’m not interested in your offer, and I don’t believe you,” I replied. “I came here by United Nations passport, and I want to be taken back to Iraq.”
“We know all that,” said the secretary. “But it appears that your cousin brought you to the wrong place. Let’s sort this out and we can take you to where you should be.”
“Fuck you and fuck my cousin and fuck everyone else!” I spat. I guess I had everyone covered by now. “I don’t want to stay here.”
The secretary adopted a conciliatory tone. “Look, let him go and nobody will be pressing charges. You don’t know the law here, so we’ll pretend it never happened. Just let the guy go. He needs help.”
Still I refused. I insisted on being taken to the designated place. With my hostage. With the gun in his mouth. I trusted no one here. And so it was that I left the Traiskirchen centre with my finger on the trigger of a gun that was poised to eliminate my own personal Scheißeausländer. We slowly made our way to the waiting car, passing fellow refugees (some of whom were, I like to think, willing me on) and the special police with their machine guns primed and ready to cut me down if I decided to end this official’s days with his own gun.
Nusa and the translator got into the car. Once again the secretary of the minister of justice suggested that I let my captive go. Admittedly he was in need of treatment. “I don’t trust you,” I said, instructing the secretary to get into the front seat; I put myself in the back, still holding the interviewer’s head. “I’ll let this man go but I will have the gun pointing at your head until we get there,” I told him. “No problem, OK,” said the secretary, showing an admirable sense of bravery, irresponsibility or duty. “Just let him go.” I slowly moved the gun from the interviewer’s mouth to the secretary’s head, and let the former go. “I’m here with you,” said the secretary. “Kill me if you want, but you must trust me – we’re going to the safe place.”
The engine started and, as the main attraction of a convoy of six or seven cars, we made our way to the safe place, which was, I was to find out, in Vienna 13, the leafy residence of ambassadors, politicians and businesspeople. The place I was to be placed in was not a luxury mansion; it was a small dwelling with a living room and a bedroom that was used by “higher-ranking” asylum seekers – fleeing politicians, political refugees and the like. Seeing the open spaces and then Vienna appearing along the road helped me to calm down. A perverse small-talk was started between the secretary and me, the kind that goes on when one of you is pointing a loaded gun at the other. I cannot remember a word of it, but I did grow to respect the man – even like him – and, more important, to trust him.
On arrival we were shown around. The place was small but it had everything we needed. Moreover, we were informed that this was only temporary accommodation and that one of the nearby larger houses would be ours just as soon as the present occupants vacated, roughly three weeks in the future. I nodded, but did not have much faith in the assertions of temporariness. Anyway, this house was a million times better than where we had just come from.
I handed the gun to the secretary, and apologised. I would have assured him that my actions had been out of character but I am not sure he would have believed me.
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “We understand your position and your motivation. Had any of the other refugees done what you did they would have got ten years’ imprisonment. But since you are a special case, and you were brought to this country with the help of our government, and you were, as I said, taken to the wrong place. No charges will be brought against you and there will be no investigation.”
I nodded. “What I would like, though,” I said, “is for that man to be sacked. He is abusive to refugees, he treats them like dirt.” I know little of what happened to the interviewer, and care less.
The secretary gave me a piece of paper with phone numbers on it, and said that someone from the government would visit twice a week. Then he left us to settle in. After Traiskirchen this modest house was like a palace. We had our own room, a shower, a kitchen. We could truly relax, reflect and plan for the future. The food was very good – halal compliant – and our hosts treated us respectfully.
We lived between a Turkish political refugee and an Afghan dissident who later was to become part of the first post-Taliban government in his country. Soon after we arrived they started to visit us and treated us as friends. Contact with my cousin was limited as his job in the hospital and on his rounds kept him busy most of the time.
Almost immediately I set in motion plans to get myself a gun. I made subtle enquiries about the possibility to my neighbours, and, although I do not know if they were armed themselves, I was given a few suggestions as to where I could find one. I was not prepared to put all my trust in Austrian intelligence or the country’s police to protect me. I knew that Iraq’s agents were ever-present. I quickly managed to get myself armed and kept the gun safe in the house, but hoped I would never have to pull the trigger in anger. So began my time of relative freedom. I was shaken and cynical after all that had gone on. And Austria seemed to be a reasonable place to live, notwithstanding its uncertain welcome. At least we were not in Baghdad.
But was that a pang of genuine homesickness I just felt?


Chapter 2 – Domestic Bliss Disturbed

George Galway and Latif Yahia
The illusion of calmness settled into my days, and Nusa had began to enjoy her new life as an adopted European. Looking over my shoulder had been something I had grown used to over the previous years, so the lingering suspicions and paranoia were at their background levels, which was something I could cope with. We would visit our temporary neighbours and on occasion they would pop round to our house for a cup of coffee and an energetic conversation. With a little imagination, we could make out that life was approaching a suburban idyll, a level of normality that most take for granted. Naturally, I was eager to make plans for the future, of settling down somewhere. I was itching to start a business if at all possible, and I even let myself imagine starting a family.
At some point during this time Nusa had confided in me that she had a daughter, called Tara. She was not conceived in a previous marriage – or even a relationship. Tara’s father was one of her clients in Baghdad (but not Saddam himself, as has been reported in certain newspapers), probably someone from the elite who would not have thought twice about bumping off Nusa and his unborn child rather than suffering the indignity of fathering a child to a prostitute. Nusa had found it necessary to keep the whole thing quiet; Tara lived in Karbala with Nusa’s father. Although Nusa visited her as regularly as possible, because of her Baghdad lifestyle, and because the sprawling city was where she could be guaranteed some sort of income, regular visits were impossible. Still, while in Austria Nusa was suffering feverish pinings for Tara to the point where her mind became occupied only by wondering if she would ever see her again. Eventually, after several nights of desperation, she came out and asked me if there was any way we could bring her daughter over to Austria. How could I ignore this plea for help? Stuck in this strange, cold country, lonely, afraid and without possessions to call our own, Nusa and I undeniably grew closer together. We needed each other, both for comfort and by way of a guarantee – we had both staked our security in our flight, and if either of us had had second thoughts and decided to go back to Iraq, the other would no doubt have harmful consequences to face. Since we were living together, we considered it wise to fabricate the myth that we were married and that we had known one another for a couple of years. Back in Baghdad, the shame that would have been brought on me and my family from any marriage to a prostitute would have been unbearable, but such societal mores were a foreign currency over here. Besides, no one knew that she had been a prostitute. As a survival method it seemed to make sense to claim to be a couple. The authorities in Europe might think twice before dispatching with either of us were they to believe that we had large extended families back home. Moreover, my picture of Nusa was the same as it had been when I agreed to bring her with me – she was a terrified human being, not the lowly whore of the moralists and the extravagant ego-boost of her clients. Although she would in time cause me more heartache and anger than I would ever have thought possible, I find no profit in fretting about my decision to help her out.
At half past nine one morning, about a fortnight into our stay at our home, there was a knock on the door. I was pleased to see that we were being visited by my cousin, ecstatic when I noticed that he wore a smile and had with him a television set for us. It was a portable type; he helped us with the little aerial and we managed to get a decent picture. We had not had a television since we arrived, so the luxury it added to our lives was comparatively regal. The set, with a screen no more than twelve inches across, was like a surround-sound wide-screen home cinema as far as we were concerned, barracked in our home in this foreign land. He also gave us more pocket money – another 300 schillings. I vowed that I would repay him, but he turned my offers down with an affable shake of the head. The television had a grand total of three channels, all of them in German, but all day we sat and gazed at the pictures and listened to this impenetrable language, occasionally picking out the odd word and phrase that had become internationally recognised – Clinton, deutschmarks, OK.
The morning after the television had been delivered, at half past eight, a terrific banging on the front door shook the walls of the house, making the windows rattle. I dragged myself to the door and on opening it was confronted by a six-foot tall blue-eyed fair-haired man and behind him, dressed in suits, were about fifteen other burly men. I could not but be reminded of the Iraqi intelligence services – those respectable, businesslike men who brought with them nothing but nightmares for anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a visit. The man at the front introduced himself as Kessler, head of the Middle Eastern wing of the Austrian intelligence services; he wanted to talk to me. I invited him in. He seemed straightforward enough, businesslike and courteous, albeit in an domineering way.
Accompanied by five officers, he strode into the apartment. As I followed him in, I noticed that there were other agents in the back garden and when I looked through the front window I could see that perhaps five of the original backup team had remained in position, deployed such that the whole vicinity was covered, and communicating into their little microphones. There were also anonymous BMWs hurriedly parked up half on pavements and at disorganised angles – again, just like in Iraq. When you are on a swoop, there is no time for straightening the car up.
We sat down in the lounge, which suddenly seemed very small, dark and cramped with all these muscular men filling it. I offered them coffee but Kessler refused on their behalf.
“We need to know everything about you,” Kessler announced, via an interpreter. “Everything. Who you are, what you were doing in Iraq, why you came here, what your job was. Everything.”
“Let me just get changed,” I replied, trying to be as accommodating as possible. Suddenly becoming red-faced and impatient, he told me to just come with him dressed as I was. I was in neither the mood nor the position to argue. In a column of vehicles I was transported to a police station, and taken up to the third floor where the staff were going about their business dressed in civilian clothing, like secret services or detectives. A room had been prepared for us and we paraded into it and the door was ordered to be closed behind us.
The moment the door crashed shut, Kessler ordered me to strip. I protested – nakedness, embarrassing in Western countries, is much more shameful to Arabs – but Kessler ignored me and told me that one of the men present was a doctor and that he had a few medical tests to perform to check my health. In this place resistance would have been futile, so I stripped, trying to maintain my dignity as best I could. The last time I had been forcibly stripped was by Uday; on that occasion I had also been shaven and dumped naked at my family’s door. A sense of foreboding descended on me, but it was also a sense of captivity, of being the plaything of these people in whom I had no trust, and a great deal of fear. A humiliating, penetrating medical examination ensued. There seemed to be little going on of any medically beneficial nature; the tests were for something else, but I do not know what. They were possibly to get a sample of fresh DNA, but probably simply to belittle me. I had not had a chance to shower that morning.
I was allowed to dress, and Kessler and his men then embarked on a series of personal questions, starting with my date of birth and continuing through every aspect of my life. I considered it prudent to maintain that Nusa was my wife; Tara was introduced to them for the first time, and she was from now on to be presented as being my own daughter, Tara Latif Yahia. A wedding date was made up that would give credence to our claims on Tara. I committed it to memory; Nusa would never forgive me if I forgot our anniversary.
The questioning went on for four or five long, dry and hungry hours. Apart from the examination at the start, the meeting was reasonably civilised, with no aggression or violence, although I knew that it would surface the moment I showed the slightest hint of defiance. They had already proved their power over me when they had me undress in front of them and allowed a stranger to prod and examine me. I went through the motions without antagonising them and when I sensed that the interview was coming to a close, asked a question of my own: Could Tara be granted asylum and extracted from Iraq? The reply I got did not surprise me: Yes – if I would tell them all I knew about Uday. I agreed to tell them anything, although the knowledge that they were prepared to prolong the imperilment of this little girl in order to get intelligence (and, no doubt, personal promotion) seethed inside me.
All present agreed that we had done enough for the day, and that we would resume in two days’ time. I was driven home. At my door Kessler gave me an envelope; I opened it and inside was two thousand shillings. I refused the money, for some reason thinking it was from Kessler’s pocket. He laughed and told me that the money was from the Department of Justice and it was for us to feed and clothe ourselves and buy sundry items such as cigarettes. I signed for it, and suddenly felt like a millionaire.
“Get changed,” I announced to Nusa after the throb of Kessler’s engine had faded to silence. “We’re going out!” For two weeks we had not ventured beyond the end of the street, but with the stuffed envelope came an irrepressible wanderlust. I scribbled our address on a piece of paper and put in my back pocket so that if we got lost we could hand it to a taxi driver. Off we went into Vienna’s centre, taking in the sights and buying a few basic items – tee shirts, underwear and such like. It is a beautiful city, dominated by the enormous, ornate cathedral and dozens of grand public and private buildings built during the opulent days of Empire. A feeling of euphoria overcame us when we started to appreciate the modern lifestyle exhibited by the populace over here. There was wealth and poverty just as in Iraq, but opportunity did not, at least on first impressions, appear to be determined by connections to some governing clan. The prosperity and comfort also came from peace. We had known nothing but war, violence, executions and fear, the kind of conditions hardly conducive to inspiring in a country’s people enterprise and optimism. My eyes were opened. Very few police were about, and those that we saw were responding to calls or going about their beats in a casual way, which contrasted visibly with the intimidating, swaggering, trigger-happy manner in which the law enforcers prowl the streets of Baghdad. There were no intelligence services monitoring people’s movements. It was a completely different world.
As planned, two days later Kessler rolled up and knocked on our front door. He said that we had an appointment and took me away again. This time we went to a different place, somewhere outside Vienna. It was a grand, plush restaurant, and the whole room had been booked just for us. We sat down to a luxurious meal, with excellent food and delicious drinks. Conversation was pleasant and felt in no way like an interrogation. In fact, we spoke of my past only a small amount. At the end of the meal, Kessler reminded me of my promise to give information to the Americans, by way of reimbursement for their removing me from Iraq. He informed me that the next time we met we would be accompanied by a US agent. “I am a man of my word,” I replied, and agreed to the meeting.
And that was it for the day’s meeting. I was returned to my apartment, again accompanied by three or four other cars with blue lights flashing, each vehicle full of agents armed with machine guns.
Another two days passed. The knock on the door came, and I greeted Kessler, who was this time accompanied by a short, fair-haired man. He was introduced as being from the American embassy. I invited them in, but again they had made other arrangements and I was whisked away to a beautiful hotel in the centre of Vienna. It turned out to be even more luxurious than the restaurant we had dined at two days earlier. There were four of us – me, Kessler, the American and a translator who was under the employment of the Americans.
Over delicious, expertly prepared starters we discussed Saddam, Uday, the situation in Iraq, and a host of other issues. I held nothing back, telling him all I knew. I had nothing to hide from them. The information might even benefit me if it led to Uday’s capture or assassination. I needed to keep some things back, however. And I occasionally hinted that I knew more than I actually did, just to keep them interested enough to spare me.
After much procrastination, he came to the question of weapons of mass destruction – Saddam’s fabled arsenal of chemical, nuclear, biological and radiological weapons. What they thought I, a virtual prisoner of Uday’s, would know about such things I have no idea. But he asked about them anyway. I suppose he had to. I told him I knew nothing of such things.
“Don’t start lying to us,” he snapped.
“Look, I was not an insider of the regime,” I explained. “Perhaps I have a small amount of information, possibly useless information, but if I were to let any of it out I would be killed for sure. I don’t even know if it is reliable.” There were certain top secret things I had accidentally been privy to, and it would have been obvious where the story had come from had it got back to Iraqi intelligence. They might have come after me with renewed vigour.
“We will look after you,” said the American, with borrowed sincerity. But after six weeks in the country I was becoming accustomed to their conditional hospitality, and considered it likely that I would receive no protection once I had exhausted my most exchangeable currency: my knowledge.
Nevertheless, I decided to play his game. “What guarantees will I receive that I will be looked after?” I asked. “How do I know I won’t give you information and be kicked out of the country and sent back to Iraq? I know how the West supports Saddam and how people have been kidnapped and returned to the regime with European governments’ blessing.”
He faced the table and cleared his throat with an uneasy cough. “So what do you want?” he enquired.
I had my reply ready. “I want my presence in this country, and details of my asylum application, to be put into the national newspapers. And I want assured asylum. Then I will start talking.”
The American looked over at Kessler, then back at me. Kessler said, “And if we give you asylum – how will we know you will help?”
I told him he could trust me, and that I was no friend of Uday’s. Right on cue – in fact, as though we had been observed by the kitchen – the main courses arrived. Just as had been the case during the previous meal, once the main meal arrived our official business was not discussed at all. We made small talk about the weather, about sport, about travel. Again I was escorted back home in a convoy and given two thousand schillings by Kessler. I took it without question this time; I needed food, cigarettes and clothes. A week later, Kessler arrived with an envelope, this time containing not money but my asylum approval certificates. I was granted political, not humanitarian, asylum. This was a rare thing in Austria. The people with whom I was living at Traiskirchen would all have been humanitarian cases. The forms were in German; I shrugged my shoulders and Kessler indicated to me that the two back pages were in Arabic. I took in the words for a few moments. Kessler then told me that we were going to be taken to the Department of Justice where I would present my letter and receive full asylum, plus identification and travel documentation. Nusa and I were beside ourselves with joy and relief at this development. We would now be able to make a real start and, more important, particularly for Nusa, we would be free to attempt to get Tara out of Iraq to Europe, where she would undoubtedly be safer and have a brighter future .That day we were officially granted political asylum. At the Department of Justice we received our documents, and registered Tara as our daughter, with the name I had given at the first interview with Kessler.
We then went to the passport office. Nusa was immediately given a passport, but there did not seem to be one waiting for me. When I asked why, I was told that it was because the passports were allocated on an alphabetical basis, and that since N came before Y in the alphabet, mine would necessarily come long after hers. I found this explanation very hard to believe, yet there was little I could do about it. Nevertheless, as an officially recognised asylum seeker I knew I had at least a degree of protection, however small.
At around this time the house we had been promised became available, and we were moved there as soon as it had been cleared. It was much more of a homely dwelling, and a step closer to the airy, spacious quarters I had become accustomed to in Baghdad – not that I expected or wanted that again.
Every few days, Kessler would visit. He would take Nusa and I out for a meal and we would talk about anything but Saddam, Iraq, Uday or chemical weapons. Instead he would show concern as to how we were, what we were up to and whether everything was working properly. He was, in his transparent way, trying to gain our trust. I never got the impression that we would ever become friends, and conversation was often awkward and wooden.
One morning, my cousin arrived, accompanied by the secretary of the minister of justice for the Middle East, Mr Zadeh. My cousin told me that he was a close friend of his. They were both affiliated with the ministry, my cousin in the capacity as a spokesman for Jalal Talabani (a Kurdish separatist leader, later to become president of the post-Saddam Iraqi government). It was a part-time position for my cousin, which he filled when his medical duties allowed.
The purpose of their visit was not social. They had been sent to me to request that I did not appear in the media, did not tell anyone who I was and generally to keep a low profile. Their reasons were clear; as soon as a journalist got so much as a sniff of the fact that I, Uday’s fiday, was in Austria, my face and my story would be on the front page of every newspaper. Were that to happen, there could be no guarantees on my safety, for one reason more than all others: the Iraqi secret service was remarkably active in Austria and the two governments had a special relationship. (At the time, with Saddam flouting his UN-imposed surrender conditions, very few countries had an Iraqi embassy. Austria and Switzerland were the only two European nations to maintain diplomatic links with Iraq. These were links which ran much deeper than the thread of communication required to be information conduits, however, and guaranteed commerce, security and intelligence matters could go on as normal, although neither country’s government would openly admit it. It is these illicit, opportunistic relationships that have kept many a vile dictatorship propped up long beyond what was natural.) I was also told to avoid travelling to the city centre, as this was where the embassy was situated and agents and informers were rife and had a degree of immunity, thanks to a central Austrian government who would turn a blind eye to any transgressions. The problem is that the embassy in Vienna is located rather like Iraq is situated in the Middle East – it is almost impossible to avoid passing its sphere when travelling from place to place; avoiding it would in fact mean avoiding the city itself. My guests also suggested that I should shave off my beard – looking like Uday would be something of a giveaway – and to try other ways of altering my appearance. While grateful for the intentions of such advice, I regarded the proposed measures as a sort of defeat. I was supposed to have escaped all that, and if I had to live out my days in fear and suspicion, I would have been better off staying in Baghdad. My face was my face after all, and I did not want to change it. What is more, I had by then visited central Vienna on several occasions without turning heads or feeling suspicious of anything. As far as the media were concerned, I had no plans to make any major appearances, although my desire to be mentioned in the press without fanfare still remained.
We became more settled, and apart from the outstanding matter of Tara, began to grow happier, and less regretful of leaving Iraq. The number of acquaintances we had slowly grew, and through my American and Austrian contacts I would occasionally communicate with notables as they dropped into the city. The Kuwaitis and Saudis, like most nations in the diplomatic sphere, liked to celebrate national days and such like with invitations to the business world’s local expatriates or other Middle Easterners. It was a means of social networking and little more. I was invited to several such events, and at one I met the leading Austrian statesman Kurt Waldheim, who had been president of Austria and then Secretary General of the UN in the early 1970s. In what was a very brief encounter I asked him why the Iraqi embassy was allowed to flourish in his country when the rest of the world had chosen to reject such links and thereby limit Saddam’s reach and air of respectability. “Business is business,” he said to me, with a playful pat on the shoulder and moving on to patronise another guest.
These ambassadorial events became more regular as time went on. At each event, business cards would be given to every ambassador and minister, and the card would be one’s guarantee of invitation to their own gatherings. I found the meetings rather tiresome; the same conversations would be had countless times, and everyone seemed to be probing for information or business contacts with which to further their own standings. But I continued to attend nevertheless, as I could also occasionally get snippets of information from people connected with Iraq, talk of which was always keenly listened to. Many of the things I heard I did not believe, but some of it was useful. No two diplomats really seemed to trust each other. Everything for them was a game, but one that had to be learnt.
During this period, and continuing well into my future, I was visiting a psychiatrist, Dr Wolfgang, who was attempting to counsel me and help me to come to terms with what everyone but I knew was a traumatic experience that would without treatment come back to haunt me. He was a good listener, as they say, and put me sufficiently at my ease truly to open up to him and talk like I previously did not know how about my time in Iraq. Indeed, back home the idea of visiting a psychiatrist is tainted by the belief that it is a last-resort attempt to avert the onset of madness, or to pacify the already condemned. Counselling as such was seen as a quaint and unnecessary measure, partly because in times of trouble the society one belongs to is meant to offer support, and partly because one is supposed to simply get on with life. Iraq is teeming with traumatised souls, the legacy of three major wars and a brutal, uncaring leadership. Maybe feelings will change in time, and some help might be extended to them. I cannot begin to say how much Dr Wolfgang’s counselling helped me, and dread to think what kind of person I would be today were it not for his professionalism and expertise.
As I have mentioned, one of the first things I had done when I arrived in Austria was to get hold of a gun. It felt completely natural to me – in Iraq, almost everyone has a gun, and it is considered strange not to own one, even if it is left at home. Quite apart from the danger I knew I was in, I felt somehow incomplete without one. Ownership of a gun is a sign of manhood, of responsibility and of a readiness to protect one’s society in most Arabic regions; in Iraq it was a virtual necessity, thanks to the lawlessness that was rife in certain areas. So it came as something of a culture shock to be told that gun ownership in Austria, indeed over much of Europe, was itself something of an oddity, restricted to enthusiasts, farmers, gangsters and psychopaths, and the continent had many individual laws to protect against proliferation. This is a good thing only if there is strong protection given to the populace by the police and by the law. An unarmed population can be much more easily manipulated by powerful regimes, although it can also create a violent culture of its own, a jungle mentality. A well-armed population never saved Iraq from oppression, of course.
I had some very rational reasons for wanting to keep hold of a firearm of some sort, reasons that would need some serious dislodging. I was still a hunted man and I simply could not know when I would need it. Dr Wolfgang, with enormous skill and patience, managed to talk me round to a state where both my Iraqi mindset and my personal anxieties were erased to the point where I felt I could safely disarm. It is difficult to express how large a step this was for me, but I knew I had to leave behind the brutality that was the norm in my homeland if I was to successfully take on a new life as a European.
At first, my psychiatric sessions took place once a week; I was nervous and mistrustful, and could not see how they could be of benefit. Dr Wolfgang was incredible. I started to accept his help more often, which would raise eyebrows were it not for the fact that after a couple of weeks he refused to take any payment from me. Our relationship changed from a professional one to a strong friendship which continues to this day.
* * *
Vienna is famed for its coffee houses where afternoons can be wasted sipping the stimulating drink and sampling the array of savoury and sugar-coated cakes and pastries served apparently everywhere. Such places are impossible to miss, and at times it seemed like there was a coffee house for every inhabitant. We reasoned that it would have been a shame to come all this way without sampling the city’s fare – that would be like going to New York and not visiting a sushi bar. So with a small amount of cash in our possession, we headed one day into the city centre, as excited as children before a birthday, only in our case at the prospect of tasting pastry! We were struck by the cleanliness of the place The locals were rightfully proud of their striking city, and it was not uncommon to see a passer-by picking up a piece of litter – almost certainly dropped by an outsider or blown in from another town – and putting it in a bin. I continue to feel an affection for the beauty of Vienna, if not for its motherland’s flawed and often prejudiced psyche.
We made our way into to a cosy looking coffee house and sat down to eat and drink. I started talking to Nusa in Arabic, and when the waitress heard us she leant over and said, in a muted, surprised voice, “You are Iraqi?” She must have recognised our accent. Her eyes were wide open and seemed welcoming, but there could have been a hint of surprise, or even fear, in them.
“I am,” I replied.
“So am I!” she responded, with a friendly smile. Then her tone changed, almost to an apologetic one. “You know, when I first saw you from over there, I thought Uday Saddam Hussein had walked in.”
My body tensed and I said nothing. I had not practised a way of volleying back such comments. I simply did not know how to react, and probably looked quite uncomfortable in my attempts to look unemotional and blasé. Of course, the waitress’s observation was not as unbelievable as it might have sounded. Uday would spend time in Europe, on business or simply for entertainment, although it must be said that it is quite unlikely that he would walk around a city like Vienna without some form of personal protection.
The waitress quickly changed the subject, and started to ask about how long we had been in Vienna, where we were staying and how long we would be staying, and such things. I told her we had been there a few months, and we did not know what we were going to do next. I could not trust even her, so limited my answers to the minimum of information and peppered them with exaggerations, understatements and plain untruths.
Her name was Juliette. We exchanged addresses and over the coming weeks became friends, although I tried to keep her at arm’s length. She seemed to ask rather a lot of questions that had little to do with the conversation we were having. Nevertheless, it was refreshing for Nusa to have some female company, but I too was glad just to have another person to communicate with.
(It was only later that I discovered that during our friendship with Juliette, the Austrian intelligence services had been monitoring Nusa and me very closely. I was at one point advised by an agent to break off our friendship with her, because they had information that she was working for Iraqi intelligence. I also found out another explanation for her closeness to Nusa: by day she worked in a café and by night she was a dancer and a prostitute. Whether they knew each other’s background or whether there was an instinctive bond between them I do not know. She was a Christian and her dream was to go and live in America, but somehow she had got stuck in Vienna and was almost certainly forced by circumstance into her various underground activities.) Juliette took us to an Egyptian nightclub, the owner of which I also got to know quite well. It was reassuring to see that someone from that general area could overcome prejudice and steer a business towards being reasonably successful. Once again my Arabic-speaking circle of friends had expanded a little, and I was beginning to become more settled.
On one of her visits, Juliette brought with her another Egyptian friend, William, who was a photographer for an Austrian tabloid newspaper. Like me he was about thirty and we got on well. But Juliette seemed to have a specific reason for bringing us together. She said that she had an instinctive feeling that I had a story but that she did not know for sure what it was. There was something about me, she believed, but confessed that she could not put her finger on it. I must have given something away, I suppose. How else is it possible to tell that someone has a story? It is not easy to keep one’s guard up constantly. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that we had been housed in this particular part of Vienna, rather than in the kinds of places reserved for typical refugees. She let me know that if I wanted to air my “story”, William could help me. He had connections in the press, she said, and could act as a go-between in any dealings. It was an offer I was interested in, but I considered it a little early just yet. I declined, but took his contact details just in case.
Nusa’s pain at being separated from her daughter was acutely affecting her at this time. She wanted to hold her more than ever, to see her growing up and to free her from the drudgery of Iraq and introduce her to a new life like the one she herself was growing used to in Europe. She would cry every night, and before long she started to blame me for bringing her out of the country. I considered this unfair – she had begged me to take her with me – but I had no difficulty understanding what she was going through. I was missing my family too, and remembered how much I had missed them when I was ensconced in Uday’s palaces; but perhaps I lacked somebody to blame, and she had me to act as her emotional punch-bag. Nevertheless, her constantly placing responsibility for every ill at my door, and her attempts to pin on me her own sense of guilt, caused me to snap and on one occasion a blazing row ensued. We had the kind of tumultuous row that can only take place between two deeply frustrated people. We screamed and shouted at each other just to be heard, but my tone must have terrified her, because after a particularly heart-felt scolding of mine she went straight to the phone and called the police.
Within minutes a policeman and a policewoman were banging on the door, and I was arrested and taken away to spent the night in a cell, purportedly for Nusa’s safety. I passed the long night on a hard bench-like bed, barely sleeping, just lying there becoming progressively more infuriated at Nusa’s overreaction. I was released the next day without charge, but was unable to contain my fury with Nusa. When I got back home I exploded, shouting, “We need to stop seeing each other today! You’re just a whore. I don’t want to see you again. I could kill you. I’d bury you in the garden and nobody would miss you …” Even I did not know whether I meant it. I was shaking.
She phoned the police again.
This time I spent two nights in the cell. I received a stern warning: next time, I would go to prison. I realised I needed a break from Nusa. And, I dare say, she needed some time away from me. What we had in common – our similar recent pasts – was not sufficient to hold together a relationship, and had we been in Iraq I doubt if our friendship would have had much mileage even if she had not been a prostitute.
In a way, I could blame my simmering rage on the state of frustration and helplessness I was suffering from. A day never passed when dreams of home – my birthplace – did not stop me in my tracks and force me to choose between the impossible and the undesirable. My stay in this country was never meant to be anything but temporary, although I always knew I had to stay here through lack of other viable options. My dreams would carry me away; in them I would be floating down the Tigris, my friends waving and calling me to come ashore, where we would talk about nothing until the orange setting sun would illuminate their faces ¬– then we would go on talking some more, until it rose again. We would often talk like this, throughout the night. But I had to snap out of this fantasy a hundred times. I am the absconded double of one of the world’s most ruthless and depraved men. Returning to Iraq would mean death. Probably not just for me, but for my family, too. My being here was keeping them alive – human shields, bargaining chips, call them what you will. Baghdad must remain a dream, at least for the time being. Every week or so Kessler would turn up at my door and give me an envelope full of spending money. He had also given me a mobile phone, the number for which was to remain a secret known only to me and his agency. Under no circumstances was I to use it for social reasons, but in an emergency I could be contacted by – or make contact with – Kessler. It was rarely used.
One day, in June 1992, the phone did ring. I answered it and a man introduced himself with his name and said he was from the American embassy. Before he could make his point I hung up and got in touch with Kessler; he said he was expecting someone to call and that I should talk to them. About two hours later the embassy called again. The man said that he would send a car for me which would take me to the embassy where they wanted to talk to me. I could see no harm in doing so.
A few hours later I was in the embassy with the American ambassador to Austria and several representatives of the CIA. They were asking me the same old questions – chemical weapons … Saddam’s hideouts … weak spots … personal security … et cetera, et cetera. I reasserted to them the fact that I knew nothing, that I was never part of the inner circle, that I was merely the bullet-catcher of a dictator’s playboy son, and that I had told them all I knew. I do not think they believed a word I was saying.
Eventually they changed the subject. They reminded me of the agreement we had made as a condition of my being plucked from the north of Iraq – that I would assist them with anti-Saddam activities. They had an additional request, something I might be interested in but that would, I was told, be of great assistance to the people of Iraq.
It transpired that in a few days’ time an important conference was to take place in Vienna. It was to be a meeting of all the Iraqi opposition groups – a gathering of regional, political and religious concerns – and they would use the conference to find their common ground, assess their levels of support, plot a means of overthrowing Saddam and to make arrangements for taking over the reins of power once he was gone. It was effectively an unelected government in exile, made up of often self-appointed figureheads who happened to have the right blend of military and financial back-up. None of them had any popular support in Iraq, which was no surprise considering the fact that any opposition manifesto would become a suicide note, but there was an arrogance and presumptuousness in the current crop’s invented, self-imposed status. I was invited to attend the conference and to choose which party I would be allying myself with.
“I don’t want to get involved,” I told them. “I want nothing to do with politics.”
It was not the response they had expected. With surprise on her face, the ambassador said to me, “You know all about Jalal Talabani, don’t you?” I replied that I had only heard of him, that I had never met him. This was not strictly true. I had met him, although he might not be so sure that he had ever met me, Latif Yahia. In fact, when we did meet in 1990, he was under the impression that he was meeting Uday, and thought that the 25-million-dinar donation – then approximately 25 million pounds – was a fitting gift for whatever services he had rendered. I did not need to know the specifics – I was not Uday. This was a man who the West thought was strongly opposed to Saddam, but who would gladly do favours for him and for the regime. Did the donation go straight back into anti-Saddam party funds? Somehow, I doubt it. He had a lifestyle to maintain.
“You met him in Baghdad,” she said, rousing me from my reverie. My mind flashed back to the present. “And you’re going to meet him again at the conference. We will send a car to pick you up every day of the conference and you will attend. Your presence will boost the general morale of the conference. You survived the regime.” She then handed me an envelope. I did not have to open it to understand that it contained money.
“I’m already getting money from the Austrian government,” I said, sliding he envelope back to he “We know; this is extra. This is a gift from the American government.” She slid it back my way.
“I’m sorry,” I insisted. “I don’t want any money. I have money.” There was no such thing as a gift in my life at the time. There were only purchases and bribes. And a gift from the Americans was to be suspected more than any other. I knew about things their satellites, spy planes and secret agents did not. But I had no plans to sell my knowledge. I did not want any more bombs and cruise missiles careering through the Baghdad skies. I would gladly give away information to people I could trust with it, but sell it? That was official opposition territory. I pushed the envelope back to the ambassador.
“Just open it,” she said. I refused. “Well I’ll open it for you,” she sighed. She opened it up and counted the money in front of me. One hundred thousand schillings.
“So what?” I said, with studied nonchalance. I would have been able to put that much money to good use; our regular contributions hardly kept us in luxury. I just knew that they were trying to buy me, and it would have been the start of something I would not be able to get out of. Had I taken the money I would have been under their control until they had finished with me. Every one of the groups gathered at the conference would have been financially sustained by various interested countries. By way of recompense, I gave a tentative agreement to at least attend – although not necessarily to contribute to – the conference, even though I considered it nothing more than the coalition of the billing.
Two days later the car arrived as planned and I was driven to the conference, which was taking place in one of Vienna’s luxurious hotels overlooking the Danube. My efforts to keep a low profile proved pointless – on entering the hall heads started to turn in my direction. Gathered there were all the big players in what the West thought were the anti-Saddam organisations, including Ahmed al-Chalabi, who was for a while America’s great hope for post-Saddam rule, despite his criminal past (in a way echoing Saddam’s own rise). Present also were representatives of various Islamic groups, of Kurdish parties and of a variety of smaller interests, each with one goal – to get rid of Saddam and to start ruling themselves. As the day progressed, I was courted by members of virtually every group present; they saw me as a potential asset, as someone with inside knowledge of the clan, someone who would lend extra weight to their campaigns, boost the donations made to them and give them a greater share of power once it was redistributed by whoever overthrew Saddam (i.e., America).
The gathered hopefuls each had a paper-thin claim to power. The factions had little in common with each other, which would not necessarily be a bad thing in a nationally representative, post-dictatorship government, but the one desire they shared – to overthrow the regime – was enough to get them all in the same hotel for a couple of days. Each party would receive funding, usually from a sole sponsor state, which they would use to publicise their cause and, where appropriate, to improve themselves militarily. The amount of funding, and the importance of the state which chose to support them, would usually rest upon the numbers of loyal supporters they would claim to have in Iraq. In truth, support for all the gathered parties was negligible, which was as much because of Saddam’s grip as because the characters involved were pretty unremarkable and generally untrustworthy. So they would make up the figures. They would claim a thousand supporters here, a couple of hundred there, and impress potential sponsors with their fantasy power bases which would pay dividends once Saddam was overthrown and rebuilding contracts were being drafted. It was impossible to check up on their claims, as nobody in Iraq would admit to affiliation with any anti-Ba’athist faction. In the meantime, the donations that were meant to be propping up grass-roots support within Iraq simply vanished, no doubt hidden away in secret accounts, ready to be accessed once a liberated Iraq had been bled dry. We are not talking thousands of dollars here, more like hundreds of millions.
So where would I fit into this arrangement? I had a definite position. I was avowedly anti-Saddam, and had, to a degree, a certain publicity value because of my past and my extraordinary access to the regime’s workings. In short, I could be worth a few million dollars extra to the party, just as signing a well-known striker will add a few pennies to a publicly-owned football club’s value. I was also an information bank who could be used to make useful and timely withdrawals, not to benefit any cause, but to give sponsors the impression that the party’s spies were active and productive, even though there were no spies. (One example of their ignorance was later to emerge concerning the presence of the second wife of Saddam Hussein. Not a single party even knew she existed until my first book was published, after which her name would crop up with regularity in party statements.)
Al-Chalabi himself kept in the distance, but eventually approached me. I suppose he had been expecting me to make the first move towards someone of his imagined stature. He had two girls with him, which made him look more like a departmental manager at an office Christmas party. At length he asked me to join his group and work for him and the Iraqi National Congress, a group apparently modelling itself on Nelson Mandela’s African predecessor, in ignorance of the fact that the average person in Palestinian Street would know nothing of their existence, let alone proudly wear their colours and pray for the day when they would take power. They were another fantasy opposition party, but they existed only in their own minds and on the payrolls of their sponsors.
“Good day, Mr. Yahia,” he said, holding out his hand. “At last we have a chance to talk.”
I took a long look at al-Chalabi and said aloofly, “Sorry, I don’t know you.”
“You must have heard of me,” he said, glancing awkwardly at the girls at his sides. “I am Ahmed al-Chalabi!”
“Yes,” I shrugged, “Okay. I’ve heard of you. I’ve never met you, though.”
“It’s good that we have met, don’t you think? We could do with someone like you fighting for us.”
He must have sensed my reluctance to get involved, and it unsettled him. He was the centre of this particular universe and everyone knew they had to get close to him if they were to consider themselves entitled to a slice of the Iraqi pie. Were things to go his way he would be my president in several years’ time, so it must have irked him to see my indifference to his advances.
“So?” he at last ventured. “What do you say?”
“I say no,” I replied, with a shake of the head and a bored glance around the room.
(I was later to find out that the pimp who sorted out his girls got himself a place in the post-Saddam interim government, a fact that served to demonstrate just how far Iraq had progressed after the dictator’s fall.)
Next to shake my hand was Jalal Talabani of the Kurdish Democratic Party. At least this one had done his homework. “Latif, you have Kurdish blood,” he informed me. “We knew your grandfather, and he was a good man. Our cause is the one you must naturally follow.”
I told him I would think about it. I would also think about what my lineage had to do with my political views. My cousin, the doctor, was present at the conference in his position as Talabani’s spokesman, so maybe there was something in my genes that told me to follow this guy. Then again, there was something in my genes that made me look like Uday, so perhaps my genes and I could agree to differ on one or two issues.
I attended every day of the conference, during which my bullshit detectors almost became habituated to the background stimulus. The third day was set aside for deciding on an interim opposition parliament in exile – a prime minister, a president, governmental posts and such like – which would assume control after Saddam’s fall and thereby maintain law and order and set in motion the arrangement of free and fair elections. It was all pretty pointless, and served only to give the sponsors the impression that there was a degree of unity among the groups. The intention was to have all ethnic, tribal and religious groups equitably represented. Each delegate was given a voting form on which he or she (but probably a he) would vote for who should fill the assorted phantom vacancies.
The voting slips were collected. When the results were announced it immediately became obvious to me that the makeup of the opposition was not the one we had voted for. If this was not the case, then practically everyone I had spoken to must have been lying about their political leanings. I had in my mind a good impression of the political centre of gravity but the results all seemed too perfect, too West-friendly. The CIA had, it turned out, been monitoring the whole conference (which was meant to be confidential) from other rooms in the building and it is obvious that they had pre-planned the composition of the opposition long before any meaningless vote had taken place. And in a secret ballot, who could challenge the result? I felt like I had wasted three days.
“This is bullshit!” I screamed, proving that my detectors had some use left in them. The room went quiet except for the receding echo of my yell. Everyone looked at me. I would have felt like Spartacus had a single other person voiced agreement. But I had no allies here; nobody was paying me to take a certain position. “We are here to depose Saddam Hussein and replace him with another dictatorship, are we? Fuck the CIA! They picked these names. I don’t want to work for the CIA. I don’t want to spy against my country!”
People standing close to me started to calm me down, reminding me that the conference was being funded by America.
“Well fuck America!” I shouted, and stormed out of the conference.
The next day I was paid a visit by someone from the CIA.
“Latif,” the anonymous man said, “what do you want from life?”
“I just want to go back to my country after Saddam has gone,” I replied.
“But you’re not prepared to help get rid of him? Let me tell you, with your help, and the help of good Iraqi citizens like you, we want to kick Saddam Hussein from power. You alone can’t do that.” His tone was patronising, as though he were telling a child why not having a bar of chocolate today would be good for his teeth in years to come.
“I know that,” I replied, “I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger. I can’t jump from place to place and confront Saddam, and then just kick his ass.” I thought it might get through to him if I were to speak his language.
“Yes,” he laughed. “One hand can’t clap.” He paused for a few moments. “Look, we need each other. We can supply you with whatever you want – money, weapons, protection, anything. We can have you installed in the country to start forming opposition, and when all the groups coordinate, we can easily crush the regime.”
“But I have no connections in Iraq,” I told him. “Just like all the others at the conference.”
“We’re aware of that,” he said. “But we give them money, and when you have money you can buy connections – and support.” I was not sure how much this awareness was exaggerated. I am sure he thought that the parties had at least a degree of support on which to build, when in fact they would be starting from scratch.
“So you want me to be your agent,” I concluded.
“Why do you put it that way?” he asked. “Why don’t you say, ‘You want me to help my country and overthrow Saddam’?”
“I don’t believe you have ever wanted Saddam gone,” I replied. “You know as well as I do that you supplied him and you supported him. Now you want him gone you’re just going to pay someone to get rid of him, just like you did in Egypt.” Everyone has seen the film of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam in 1983 when the former was President Reagan’s special envoy, and the US was officially neutral. It is generally understood that America backed, and tacitly instigated, Iraq in its war with Iran, mainly in order to prevent an enormous Shia bloc spreading across the oil-rich region of the Middle East; were this region dominated by Ayatollah Khomeini and his like, it would not have served the West’s economic or strategic purposes. Another fact, which the world learnt about more recently, was that at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 (which left Saddam in power), America had promised support to any group that would create an uprising to overthrow the wounded regime. An uprising was indeed sparked after such promises, and it came almost exclusively from Shia militias; America reneged on its word, and allowed Saddam’s Republican Guard and Fedayeen to suppress the attempted coup. Retribution was harsh; in three days, 45,000 rebels and suspected rebels were killed by the regime, and never again was such an attempt at overthrowing Saddam made. It also left a vile taste in the mouths of anti-Saddam Iraqis. Once the nature of those rebelling was looked into, and it was found to be too close to Iran and too left-wing, the Americans simply left them to their fate. The US would only support a rebellion which would result in a “friendly” regime coming to power, so Saddam won the day. Better the devil you know. Perhaps the man from the CIA was thinking along the same lines. “That was the past,” he sighed. “The world is different now. We have a plan that will return power to the Iraqi people. You can be part of it.”
“And I still don’t trust you,” I snapped, “and I don’t want to work for you or do anything for you. It goes against my nature. I never asked to become Uday’s fiday. I always wanted a normal life. Saddam and Uday stole the chance from me and I am not about to voluntarily become part of a movement that will make such demands on me. Don’t you think I have suffered enough? And I will not hurt the people of Iraq – only the regime.”
“Just think about it,” he suggested, as though my entrenched views were negotiable.
“I won’t work for you,” I asserted.
He started to get impatient and angry. His face turned red. “Latif, just as we got you out of Iraq, we could take you back there. Maybe that will persuade you.”
“Fuck you,” I said, calmly. “And get out of my house. We’ll see how you go about sending me back to Iraq.”
The threats had started. I was to become used to them.
As seems to be a tiring and repetitive aspect of my life, I found myself needing a way of saving my skin, of assuring that I could not be simply spirited away without anyone noticing. America’s covert power is as potent as its B52s and aircraft carriers – and almost as subtle. They could do with me as they desired and we both knew it.
Nusa and I sat down for an important talk. I put it to her that now was the best time to get in touch with Juliette’s photographer friend, William. If my story were to be printed in his newspaper, the world would know where I was and my disappearance would not go unnoticed. The Austrian government would be held accountable should anything unfortunate happen. For sure, it carried with it the risk that Iraqi intelligence, knowing precisely where I was, could more easily neutralise me. I was not being driven by a hunger for fame and fortune, either; my anonymity was useful, even vital, to me. And besides, back then I had no idea of the sums of money that could be involved in a scoop such as the one reposing in my head. I did have an idea that any publicity could help to get Nusa’s daughter brought over here, and as we discussed all the pros and cons, the only possible conclusion surfaced.
A meeting was arranged with Juliette and William.
The four of us met a few days later and got settled around a table at our house in a room with coffee on tap, in preparation for a long, revealing day.
After the formalities were over, and when I had made sure that all present swore never to reveal what was about to be said, I got to the point: “I was Uday Saddam Hussein’s double, and I want to have my story published.” William was dumbfounded while he took in the implications of my admission. Tellingly, Juliette seemed to take the announcement calmly, which at the time confirmed to me what I had always suspected – that she already knew. She had done a reasonable job of hiding her knowledge from me, but she could never take back the look she gave me when we first met in the café where she worked.
“Please, Latif,” William said, “do not tell this story to anyone. But if you will allow me, I would like to talk about this with my girlfriend.” His “girlfriend” was not just anyone – she was the editor of a newspaper, and she employed him as a photographer despite his possessing no obvious talent in the field ¬– I guess I can only assume this; it’s just that I never once saw him with a camera, which would be like a journalist going about without a notepad and pen.
“Okay,” I said. “Ring her.”
He phoned his girlfriend/editor and about an hour later she arrived at our house, slightly dishevelled, as though she had been doing something else when her phone rang. I was surprised to see that she was about sixty years old, although I must admit it never crossed my mind that to be the editor of a large newspaper does require a certain maturity. William must have had a thing for the older woman – or Austrian citizenship. It is not for me to say.
“May I introduce Senta to you,” said William. We shook hands.
Over the next few hours I gave Senta a summary of my life, and watched her shift between strained concentration and disbelief as its meandering path was laid down. She must have heard a thousand intriguing stories in her time, so I was gratified to see that mine must have ranked among them. It was important, since Nusa’s child was in danger, that her story, indeed her very existence in my life, was left out completely; however, we felt we had to let Senta know what was going on, in the understanding that nothing of Nusa’s life would be made public. When I at last finished, silence descended on the room; we all looked at one another and tried to remain businesslike, although we each hid a little excitement at what was going on. Senta became deep in thought as she let the story resonate around her mind, and wondered what she could do with it. She at last looked up at me and said, “Latif, I don’t think we can publish this story. Please, just leave this story alone, at least for now.” This was not the reaction Nusa had been expecting; she burst into tears, wailing about this being the only chance of getting to see her daughter again.
I was taken to one side by Senta. “Look,” she said, “here in the West, nothing comes for free. I’m not sure if I could do your story justice with our newspaper’s budget. And that’s the truth. You have a great story, and I’m sure someone would pay good money for it.”
I asked what she meant. At that time I knew very little about publishing, and nothing about the sums of money that could change hands. As far as I knew, things like that did not go on in Iraq, where the state owned the press and competition between newspapers was not such a big deal.
She continued, “We could come to an arrangement. I could act as your agent, and we could try to sell your story to a major newspaper. With the money you could make moves towards getting your daughter out of Iraq.”
The meeting ended and Senta promised to get working on my story straight away. She and William left us at the doorway.
For two week we heard nothing. I started to think she had forgotten about the story, or that she had changed her mind. I trusted her enough to assume that she had not simply sold my story. Besides, I had kept back several key parts, so she would not have got the whole story. I could not imagine her betraying me to the authorities. I could not imagine a Western journalist doing this, especially with what now seemed to be a big story in her possession. More worryingly, however, was the fact that I was still officially invisible. Every passing day was another opportunity for someone with power to make me disappear, and few people would be aware that I had even been here in the first place.
At the end of the fortnight’s wait, however, we were greeted with what appeared to be good news; Senta had found a journalist willing to take the job on. Moreover, the newspaper he wrote for was about to launch a new magazine called News, and the editor wanted to put my story in the first edition.
“Would you be prepared to meet the journalist?” she asked. “Of course,” I replied.
The meeting took place the next day; Senta, the journalist and I were present. It was my first meeting with Karl Wendl, a tall, professional man with a deal to talk about.
“I am very interested in your story,” he announced, “ and I want to buy it from you.”
“Buy … paying … payment,” I admitted, shaking my head. “These are things I know nothing about.”
Senta stepped in. “Let me deal with all that. I’m your agent, don’t forget. I’ll sort out a good deal for all of us.”
Karl put his cards on the table: “I want to pay a hundred thousand schillings,” he said. This was a large amount ¬to me – about half the value of a house in Austria at the time, or one standard bribe from the US embassy. I had had no idea my story was this valuable. Naturally I agreed. It was an amount with which I could pull enough strings to get Tara removed from Karbala.
Two days later Karl returned with a contract. The story was to be serialised over the first three weeks of the News’s existence. I cared little for such details. All I wanted was for the story to be made public. “Run it for a day, run it for three weeks – I don’t care. Just pay me the money and do what you want to do with the story.” Karl must have been pleased to hear this. In my artless way I was displaying a lack of understanding of the publishing industry, of journalism and of contract-making that I would later regret.
The wheels were in motion, and I would soon become a recognisable face in the crowd, for better or for worse. Latif Yahia was on the verge of a kind of fame unlike the curious anonymous distinction that I had endured in Uday’s employ.
I hoped desperately that the advantages would make the disadvantages worthwhile.
But I was committed now. The consequences could be dire or hugely beneficial. I was rolling a ball into a roulette wheel with no idea of the outcome.