Friday, July 16, 2004

Torture Survivors


By Bruce Finley
The Denver Post

DENVER — While America tries to sow freedom in Iraq, Iraqi torture survivors Kareem and Laila Qabani are just trying to live.

They reached a turning point last week after four years in metro Denver. Laila, 49, was putting up "sale" signs at the Sears where she works. A new manager accused her of missing a sign. When Laila said the manager was wrong, the manager accused her of lying.

Laila snapped: "You know what? I lost four months of my life because I say the truth." Then, sobbing in the arms of another supervisor, she blurted out details of her captivity under Saddam Hussein that left her and her husband, Kareem, almost broken.

"Everything, even in my body, reminds me," she said later at their suburban Denver apartment, referring to a cigarette burn on her hand, a scar from a skewer on her forearm, numb fingertips where captors attached electrodes. Wincing, she told of a gang rape in the Olympic compound run by Saddam's son Uday — punishment, Laila said, because she had refused to collaborate with Uday in a business venture.

"They told me, "We are going to teach you how to say yes all the time — not to say no,' " she said.

Kareem, 58, began talking about his torture, too, encouraged by a psychiatrist who sees it as a step to recovery. A former journalist, Kareem was detained, once for three years, including long stints alone in a small, dark room. Then Laila's captors forced him to watch a video of the gang rape. Those images "took my power," he said.

"Now I feel tired," he said. "I worry all the time."

The Qabanis signed contracts consenting to be killed if they spoke to anybody about their treatment in prison. They were among thousands tortured under Saddam, the dictator deposed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The State Department lists rape, extended solitary confinement in the dark, electric shocks, branding, burning with hot irons and blowtorches, amputation without anesthesia, dripping of acid on skin and more as torture tactics used under Saddam.

This week, U.S. officials couldn't say how many torture survivors have been accepted as refugees since the fall of Saddam's regime in April 2003. A State Department staffer said a history of torture might help an Iraqi get in.

The Qabanis escaped by bribing Iraqi officials to obtain passports and fleeing across the desert to Jordan in 1998, first Kareem with their son and daughter, then Laila three months later, disguised as an old woman seeking a doctor. Finally in Syria, U.S. officials accepted them as refugees and sent them to Colorado, where resettlement workers would assist them in March 2000.

Now they fly U.S. flags outside their front and back doors.

Haunted by the past, neither sleeps easily. They're also bothered by the furor over U.S. mistreatment of war detainees. Americans need to grasp that U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are "a small fire," Kareem said, compared with abuses under Saddam. Thousands of children born to women raped in prison are evidence of what happened before, he said.

"Where was the American media when I was in prison and when that happened to my wife?" he asked.

Laila said she'll never go back to Iraq. Kareem said maybe he'd work in Iraq temporarily if asked by the U.S. government.

Most of the 150 or so Iraqi families in the Denver area know somebody who disappeared in captivity, said Ibrahim Kazerooni, imam at a Shiite mosque. An unknown number are torture survivors. Some keep it a secret.

For the Qabanis, trying to live meant muffling inner wails while juggling multiple jobs. The Qabanis' 20-year-old son works at Target; their 29-year-old daughter, who has a 3-year-old son, works at Wal-Mart. Kareem manages 12 hours a week on night shifts at Target. Laila works full time at Sears. None earns more than $10 an hour. They combine their earnings to pay their $1,100-a-month rent at an apartment complex.

In the 1970s, the Qabanis had office jobs in oil-rich Iraq. They had university degrees. Their families had money — his father owned a trading company, hers a rug and fabric factory. He pursued journalism, publishing articles in newspapers, and ran a video shop.

"I wanted to speak out loudly about people, about suffering I saw," Kareem said. "To show the truth. But it's impossible to show the truth in Iraq."

Laila ran Radio Baghdad, a state-owned radio station. She preferred to focus on the arts, knowing that news meant reading propaganda handed down from government officials.

Then in the early 1990s, Uday Hussein decided to start a radio station. He asked Laila to serve as a managing director. She refused, out of fear.

Soon, she said, Uday's manager telephoned, saying, " 'You should go to the Olympic building; they want you to go there.' "

Her boss told her to comply, and she did, worrying that otherwise she would be taken from her home in front of her children. At the Olympic compound, a guard told her she was under arrest.

She can name the "ugly men" who abused her in an empty room. Her captors later moved her to prisons. Every other day, she said, they administered electric shocks "until I pass out. ... At that time I was wishing to die."

She wanted to live "just when I think about my kids. I hoped to stay alive to see them." She lost more than 50 pounds, and four months later was taken to a police station for release.

She cries recalling the day when Kareem arrived. "He was looking at the faces, and he couldn't recognize me," she said. "I call him: 'Kareem!' "

She was "like a ghost, broken, her wings were broken," he said. "After I saw her, I was mentally broken."

Laila couldn't sleep for more than 15 minutes, couldn't stand to be alone. "I felt I was dying every day," she said.

America offered breathing room.

"I am far away from those ugly people," she said.

She's halfway to making "a normal life," she said.

Kareem said he struggles with "the idea of somebody controlling me" at work, though he likes the people at Target. And "when I go outside, I worry about every single thing."

He prefers to just sit in a darkened basement — smoking, dozing, writing a little, sometimes playing guitar.

"I like to be there as long as I can," he said, "just to not face other people."