Ahmed Etemish, 27, has witnessed and endured horrors few can fathom, even as the soft-spoken Iraqi describes them in candid, unequivocal detail. For him, the bloodletting – first under dictator Saddam Hussein and then the insurgency that took root after the fall of Baghdad in 2003 – was merely a thread in the fabric of Baghdad’s civic life.
As he puts it, “[Iraqis] are used to blood and war.”
In 1971, Saddam, who then headed Iraq’s network of secret police, imprisoned Ahmed’s mother and grandfather in Abu Ghraib prison on suspicion they were working with the Iranian and Israeli governments, because of their religious beliefs. When Saddam rose to power in 1979, Amhed’s uncle was among the thousands of dissidents who disappeared in the political purges that followed.
After America overthrew Saddam’s government in 2003, the kidnappings began. First, Ahmed’s 16-year-old cousin was kidnapped, but released after a ransom was paid. But as jihadis from neighboring countries poured in through Iraq’s open borders, religious strife between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims pushed the country to the brink of civil war. In 2006, his father, a university professor, was among the first wave of intellectuals kidnapped and presumably murdered.
Fearing for their safety, Ahmed and his family fled Baghdad to Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in the northeastern part of the country. In July 2008, Ahmed struck up an Internet correspondence with Madison resident, Kate Vestlie, whom he’d been introduced to by a cousin. Months later, Kate flew to Iraq to meet Ahmed in person. Not long after, they were engaged and then married. In February, Ahmed’s visa was approved and he moved to Madison, just in time for the birth of his son, Samir.
Ahmed is currently taking classes to improve his English and to supplement the civil engineering degree he earned in Baghdad. The Feral Scribe met up with Ahmed recently to hear about his harrowing journey from one of the planet’s most dangerous cities to one of its safest.
What was life like under Saddam?
I was born in 1983 and there was war between Iraq and Iran. All my life I’ve been from war to war. It’s hard to live because there’s no simple condition to live, no freedom for people who have thoughts. They put my mother in jail for seven years – she was 21 – because she was Bahá’í.
When Saddam came to power, he destroyed all the parties around him. He just wanted his party. He destroyed too many people without any reason. Too many people wanted freedom, so they try to leave Iraq, but he made hard conditions to leave, so they have to stay and follow his rules even more. But we did have a safe life, to be on the safe side, to be close to his party. Anyone against him, they would disappear. Like my uncle; he was against him and we don’t have any information since 1979.
Was the line you didn’t want to cross very clear?
We call it, ‘red line.’ We don’t be close to this line or we get into trouble. He took my mom for seven years because she’s a Bahá’í. After she was out, she couldn’t say she was Bahá’í. Her ID said she was Muslim. She couldn’t ask for her right. We thought the war would solve all of these problems, but what happened is much worse compared to the past. In the past we could live on the safe side. But now, there is no government control on the situation. There is no Iraq power to destroy the terrorists. There is no law.
So under Saddam, as long as you followed certain rules, you were pretty safe?
Before, he was focusing on specific groups against his party. There were politicians against his government. He’s not religious. He doesn’t care what religious do as long as you’re not against his party.
Were the Bahá’ís against his party?
He thought this religion came from Iran. We have a shrine in Haifa, in Israel and he thought we had relationship with Israel and Iran, but we don’t have relationship with them, just relationship with people, not government. But he thought we did so put Bahá’ís in jail in 1971 to 1978… He let them out when he came to power [in 1979].
Obviously things changed when the Americans came. What was that like in 2003 when the occupation began?
We learned from the other wars to prepare for war before it’s coming. We prepare as a family, to be in one place so if we die, we die together. We get food for a long time, water for a long time. In war, there is no television, no water, no electricity. We lived in a dark place for 20 days, in one room and protect each other from the bombs – about 30 of us. It’s so hard. After 20 days we went outside.
Iraqis, we are closed and don’t know the outside and don’t know the American thoughts. We thought the war would solve problems and get us the freedom. We were optimistic about the situation. Like in 1997, they hit special places. In 1991, they hit special places, Saddam’s places and they didn’t hurt Iraqis. We thought they would come and hit Saddam’s places. But they came and opened the borders and broke the Iraqi Army and, before that, Saddam had let out all the people from the prisons. So the borders are open and there is no army. We could see in the street people killing the weak people, stealing, the officers stealing from the banks.
How long after the invasion did you realize things weren’t going as you had hoped?
Iraqis, they think everyday that things are going to get better because the American’s came. They think that American’s came from far away to help Iraqis, but they saw that there was no help for the Iraqis. We see now it’s only politics. Politicians came for a specific purpose, because they don’t try to fix the problem. And the Iraqi politicians think about themselves. Each government thinks about itself. We know now why they came. If we don’t have oil, nobody will come to us. All the problems, all of the wars, because of the oil. Like Jordan, there is no oil, there is no problems.
In 2006, when the insurgency really took root, what was day-to-day life like for you in Baghdad?
I’d go back to the history of Islam, because the problem came from the history. The history began 1,400 years ago, the problem between the two big parts of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a. All countries, they have this problem. Even during Saddam’s time we have this problem, but the government controlled it. Each government in the Arab country control it. After the war, the Shi’a wanted to have their right, because 30 years ago they lost their right, so they started to practice their right and because there is no government, no law and the border is open… there is people in neighborhood countries who think about their politicians and they come from [various] groups. We have Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Afghanistan. So the Shi’a from Iran came to Iraq and tried to make this country Shi’a. They came from Syria and they fight with each other inside the country. They trained Iraqis in Syria how to cut heads, how to kidnap people, how to make fake checkpoints… so all the fighting came from outside the country to Baghdad, inside the streets.
Why was your father kidnapped?
In 2005, the first kidnapping in my family was my cousin. He was 16. The people who kidnapped him… it wasn’t between Sunni and Shi’a. Those people didn’t come until 2006. From 2003 to 2006, it was stealing and kidnapping for money. One day they kidnapped my cousin. When he was done with his school they stop him at a fake checkpoint. They kidnap him for 13 days. His father gave him the money and they let him go.
Did they pick him at random?
They study the situation, the family, if they have money and can pay for him. In 2006, when the government became weak, and the terrorists from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Afghanistan, you could see so easily the terrorists kidnapping people. So we decided right away to leave Baghdad, but I wanted to finish my degree at the college.
So you’re going to school during all of this?
Yes. All the people hope for a better situation. There’s nothing to do but practice your life. We get in troubles with the government if we don’t do our lives. We have to practice our life or the terrorists will get more power. It was my last year. We decided to leave as a family. Everyday we see these terrorists kill people. We decided to leave in September when I finished exams. My father was a professor at the college. The terrorists who came wanted to make life like Islam time, 1,400 years ago.
So they get rid of the intellectuals and thinkers first?
Exactly. They kill all the technology, the doctors and teachers and the histories. They don’t want car or gun; they want sword and horse. So they started to kidnap the people who have knowledge. So we decided to leave after I finished exams, but they kidnap my dad before that, on the 23rd of August, in 2006.
Did you ever hear from his kidnappers?
We heard from a group. After they kidnap him, me and my uncles, we went to the hospitals and the morgues and search for him. It’s hard to recognize, because all of the bodies are in bad shape. So we look on the street. The terrorists put the bodies in the garbage, but they put bombs on the bodies so when the Americans come to take them. We didn’t want to go to the police, because we know when the police get information… but we gave them a phone number and the information. After that, a group called us and said, ‘Your father is with us; we need money.’
We had a little bit of hope, but asked to hear his voice or any proof he’s with you guys and they said he’s fine and that they’d let us hear his voice, but to prepare yourself for the money. They wanted $100,000. We made it to $10,000 and we agreed to meet some place to get him. They ask for only my mother to go there and we asked to hear his voice or call from his cell phone. But they didn’t so we think it’s the police. They used to do this, because they have the information. We told them we can’t pay unless we have the proof. So they told us, ‘Give us the money or we kidnap your mother.’ We decided to leave the same night.
Then, some time later, your cousin wants to introduce you to this American girl, but the Americans have done so much damage to your country.
We know the people are different from their government. We cannot judge the people. There are big differences between East and West, but we share the same religion, Bahá’í. We started on Facebook, then Skype, and we became serious. But it was very hard to get out of Iraq so she came to visit with my sister. We get to know each other. In two months, we were engaged and her family came, then her brother came and we were married in Kurdistan. Then I waited several months to get my visa.
I had to go back to Baghdad for my papers, but there are too many bombs in Baghdad. They had blown up the building, so my papers weren’t there. It was the last stage. I was going to get my papers, but two days before they blew up the building. I didn’t expect that. I went there and saw people dead. They were still pulling bodies. The police ask me what I am doing here. I said, ‘I’m looking for my papers.’ The police say, ‘We don’t care about your papers.’
What’s it like to see that, the bombings and bodies and bloodletting?
I have a video, about two minutes after the bomb, taken by my friend. Two car bombs destroyed the building by my apartment in central Baghdad. All the windows in my apartment were broken. We used to hear bombs, but this time we saw the affects. We saw hands and heads, arms, legs and tissue. The building is so big that they didn’t go in to help the people. They heard them crying, but they were afraid to go inside. And this is still happening. We hope it gets better. We go from war to war.
What are your hopes these days? Five years from now, do you think it’ll be better?
There have been improvements, maybe a little bit. But the people, they’re used to blood and war. We need a new generation to live without war, to live without blood. We believe now that the war was negative. Nothing about it is positive. We need big energy from God. He is the only one who can help this society. There are too many wars around the world. We thought the war would bring freedom, but the terrorists came and now the Iraqis live with terrorists. I have faith, but my emotions are broken, my heart is broken to see the Iraqis dying everyday… but I cannot do anything. It will take a long time to control the situation.
Click here to see exclusive, unreleased footage of the immediate aftermath of the double car bombing of Iraq’s Justice Ministry building on Oct. 24, 2009. The video was shot by Ahmed’s friend, who, like him, lived across the street from the government complex. Ahmed was en route to Baghdad to finalize his visa application when the bombing occurred. However, the papers he needed, proof that he had no criminal history, were destroyed in the blast, delaying his reunion with his wife in America. He arrived in Madison last February.