It was dark, wet, and miserably cold. Pangs of hunger growled in Baba’s stomach, and his army fatigues were drenched. With a grimace at his aching feet, he shook off the mud that caked his boots, and the same thought that had been plaguing him for weeks nagged him once again.
Of all the places in the world, this is the last place I should be.
Baba had been exchanging news with other teachers when the government vehicles arrived.
“Everyone needs to wear army fatigues and get into the trucks, now!”
There was no time to go home. Baba, like the rest of them, had been forced long ago to become a low-level Ba’athi. Refusing to do so would not only have vastly limited his career options, it would also have put his life in danger. Now, with all Ba’ath party members called upon to do their part for the regime, he and some two hundred other teachers were loaded into trucks and shipped two hundred kilometers away to Samawa without so much as a note to their wives.
With a ceasefire between the UN and Iraq, there was little to do in Samawa besides cook, eat, and hang out with the others. Their boredom was relieved only with the arrival of the Intifada a few days later. The irony of it was painful: Baba, a 41-year-old high school English teacher, fighting on the side of a regime he detested. The rest of the regime’s Popular Army was similarly half-hearted, and within two days, the city fell to the rebels. Confusion followed among the remaining teachers as the Popular Army disbanded and scattered.
“The rebels say their problem isn’t with us. They know we were brought here against our will.”
“Where should we go then? All of Iraq is falling to the rebels, and Saddam’s Republican Guard is slaughtering any male old enough to hold a weapon.”
“Some of the men are hiding in palm trees to escape the Guard.”
“What about you, Abu Ali? What will you do?”
Baba was resolute. “I’m going to Hilla to protect my wife and children.”
One of the teachers laughed. “We’d all like to do that, but Hilla is nearly two hundred kilometers away and we have no transportation.”
The man’s laughter stopped abruptly. “It’s too dangerous, Abu Ali. The other day a group of disbanded soldiers just like us was caught by the rebels and killed. In fact, one of the men committed suicide just so he wouldn’t have to die by another’s hand. Look at us! We’re still in our fatigues! If you aren’t killed by rebels who think you’re with the regime, then you’ll be executed by the Republican Guard, who will think you’ve defected. The Intifada is on its way to Hilla, the Republican Guard will be there to take it back, and both sides are dangerous.”
Baba met the man’s gaze head-on. “Then I’d better walk fast.”
Now, fourteen rainy kilometers later, Baba was soaked, exhausted, and hungry. He was walking with nine other men; some he knew, others he didn’t. Daylight had long since disappeared, and still they had not reached Rumaythah, the first town en route to Hilla. They were stranded.
“Ali! Mohammed! Kadhim! Come inside! Now!” Fear echoed in Mama’s voice, and for once they did not question her. They ran into the house and locked the door.
Within two weeks, most of Iraq had fallen to rebel forces. Now, only four of the eighteen provinces remained in the hands of the regime: Baghdad—the seat of Ba’athi power—and the three provinces known as the Sunni Triangle. Uncle Ehab said that most Sunnis stood to gain from the Ba’ath party remaining in power, but if they did join, then perhaps even Saddam Hussein himself would be unable to withstand the force of an entire nation.
That was before the Republican Guard came to Hilla to reclaim it from the rebels. Now, even Kadhim could not ignore the war outside his doorstep.
Heart pounding, he stood close to Mohammed as they watched out the window. Across the street, two guards entered the home of Hayder, one of Ali’s closest friends.
The Republican Guard had arrived like a plague, killing everything in its path. Suddenly, the chopped-up corpse in the park became the first of many. On their daily hunt for water, Kadhim and Mohammed were careful to step around the unclaimed bodies that littered the streets, some of whom they recognized. They made sure to be home by the state-mandated nine o’clock curfew and watched together in horror as helicopters shot at their city right in front of them, always running home as quickly as they could. But for Kadhim, the most terrifying part was still the thought that Baba was dead. Mama insisted their father would be home soon, but her tone grew less convincing with each day that passed.
“Boys! Get away from the window!”
The two brothers pulled the curtain shut and peered through the crack, unable to tear their eyes away.
Over the past week, they had watched as men were taken by the Guard, never to be seen again, and others were executed in the street. This time, the Republican Guard reappeared with a young boy in their grip, and Ali let out a blood-curdling scream.
Mama rushed to Ali’s side and held him as they watched the scene unfold.
Hayder’s mother was on her knees in the street, pleading and sobbing, “Please, let him be! He’s only sixteen! He hasn’t even finished school yet!”
“The mukhtar has informed us that your son is a traitor to the regime. The punishment for joining the rebels is execution.”
It was the job of the mukhtar, the malicious party official, to know and report the intimate details of every soul in his neighborhood. Behind the curtain, Kadhim’s pulse quickened, and he felt Mohammed’s grip on his hand tighten.
This can’t be real.
“Please, have mercy on him! He’s just a boy!” Hayder’s mother clung to the guard’s pant leg as he raised his Kalashnikov. He kicked her away and trained the barrel at Hayder’s skull. The boy was crying and shaking.
Mama gasped and pulled Ali close to her, trying to shield her son’s eyes as a shot rang out and Hayder’s mother screamed. Mohammed and Kadhim could only stare in wide-eyed shock as the boy’s lifeless form fell to the ground.
The farmer took one look at the nine hungry, dirty men who crowded his doorstep, and without asking who they were or where they were going, invited them in for dinner and a free place to sleep. In the tradition of true Arab hospitality, it was the guest’s right to stay for three days—no questions asked—but Baba had no intention of making such an imposition on their host.
“I’ll have to leave you here,” the farmer said the next morning, after giving them a ride to the outskirts of Rumaythah. “The fighting is still ongoing within the city, and I don’t want to get mixed up in it. Besides, you’re still wearing your Ba’athi uniforms.” He looked at them gravely. “We’ve been hearing rumors that Saddam’s thugs are capturing unarmed civilians and burying them alive.”
The men looked at each other in somber silence. This sounded exactly like something Saddam and his Republican Guard would do.
That day, several of them decided to discontinue their journey, looking for a safe place to wait out the fighting. But for Baba, the fear wasn’t for himself. His wife and four boys were alone in a city that would soon fill with violence as the Republican Guard weeded out the rebels. So, dirty and weary, he and the remaining men began to walk to the next city en route to Hilla: Diwaniya, a city still in the hands of the Ba’ath.
They spent the night in the small town of Hamza about halfway to Diwaniya, and continued their endless walk the next day, choosing small side roads in an attempt to stay out of sight. As they walked the dirt road, an old pickup truck pulled up beside them, and a young man with a Kalashnikov eyed them suspiciously from the driver’s seat. “Where are you headed?”
“Diwaniya.” Even as he said it, Baba was frighteningly aware of the fact that they were walking, unarmed, in full Ba’athi garb, toward one of the regime’s remaining cities. He and his companions stopped warily, and he felt a chill as the rebel and his passenger exchanged looks, grabbed their weapons, and jumped out of the truck, encircling the group like a large cat circles its prey.
“I see.” The rebel peered at Baba, head cocked, a strange look in his eyes. “Where are you from?”
“Hilla.” Something about the young man’s look made Baba nervous, and he tensed himself to run. Then the tips of the young rebel’s mouth twisted into an ominous smile.
“Don’t you recognize me, teacher?”