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Millions of pages of Iraqi pain

Times Staff Writer

Baghdad

Staring directly at the camera, Zahra Badri begins: “I have not had one good day in my life.”

Saddam Hussein’s regime imprisoned and killed 23 of the Shiite woman’s relatives, including her husband, her son and her pregnant daughter. To save two other sons, she kept them hidden inside her home for more than 20 years.

As Iraq is swept up in new bloodshed, a small team of archivists and videographers has begun the painstaking work of collecting, classifying and preserving evidence of such atrocities. Some of it is newly recorded, a cataloging of terrible memories, but much of it was documented in obsessive and chilling detail by Hussein’s vast bureaucracy.

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Each one of the more than 11 million yellowing pages and more than 600 hours of footage amassed by the Iraq Memory Foundation is witness to a family’s pain, says its founder, Kanan Makiya, a longtime Iraqi exile in the United States and author of “Republic of Fear,” the book that brought Hussein’s savagery to international attention in 1989.

Many of those interviewed donate photographs and other personal mementos -- Badri gave the foundation her daughter’s wedding dress.

Inspired by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Makiya had hoped the material would be used to help Iraqis face their past, heal their wounds and make a fresh start after U.S.-led forces toppled Hussein in 2003. Instead, he watched as the country slid into a nightmarish cycle of revenge, and as the memories that were supposed to help reconcile a tortured people became the subject of bitter dispute.

“In essence, what we ended up doing was the truth part, but nobody did the reconciliation part,” he said by phone from London, where he was visiting a foundation colleague. “That needed Iraqi politicians to lead it, and here . . . the new political class failed Iraq, as it has failed Iraq on so many levels.”

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Until Iraqis face the horrors in their past, he believes, they are doomed to repeat them. Every day, Baghdad streets yield another grim collection of corpses, many punctured with electric drills or seared with hot irons. They are victims of sectarian death squads linked to some of the largest groups in government and remnants of the former regime trying to claw their way back into power.

“My life is very complicated, a never-ending saga of pain and sadness. I cannot bear much more pain. I went through a traumatic time with the death of my daughter and son. My son was executed. I was told that my daughter, who was four months pregnant, died of a hemorrhage in the arms of my sister-in-law. She died of fear in prison before they could interrogate her. That’s all I know of her.”

-- Zahra Badri, recorded in Baghdad on Nov. 10, 2004

In the chaotic aftermath of Hussein’s fall, thousands of Iraqis descended on the security offices in every Baghdad neighborhood, tearing through the files for answers about missing loved ones. Boxes of documents were carted off by political groups and others, many of them to be bought and sold later on the street. Others were torched by enraged throngs, or former functionaries seeking to hide their deeds.

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The largest collection -- an estimated 100 million pages, Makiya says -- ended up in the hands of the U.S. government. The U.S. Embassy said about 20 million pages were being held at a secure location for use by the Iraqi High Tribunal, charged with prosecuting the worst crimes committed under Hussein. Others were transferred outside the country.

The Memory Foundation, which is funded by the U.S. government, obtained the permission of the now-defunct U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council before retrieving a vast store of Baath Party records from the party’s Baghdad headquarters.

But in an echo of the divisions that are tearing this country apart, squabbling has broken out over who should control the documents and how they should be used.

Iraq’s National Library and Archives, which lost rare Ottoman texts, minutes from government meetings and other historical documents to the looting and destruction, argues that it should be the repository of all national records. It accuses the Memory Foundation and others of acting illegally.

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Former detainees, who formed the Iraqi Assn. of Free Prisoners, argue that the records of Hussein’s abuses belong to those who suffered them. The association has supplied more than 60,000 people with certified copies of court rulings and execution orders it seized during the looting to help them reclaim jobs and property taken under Hussein.

Makiya agrees that the records in his foundation’s possession are the property of the Iraqi people, but he argues that the government and other institutions are not yet equipped to safeguard them. Until recently, a selection of documents was on display at the foundation’s office, in a villa inside the capital’s barricaded Green Zone. Stacked floor-to-ceiling in box files, they underscored the scale of Hussein’s brutality. But the staff worried that the records would be damaged in the frequent mortar and rocket barrages on the fortified area. So they moved them to secret locations.

The Memory Foundation also is worried about what could happen if the millions of names they contain get into the hands of those seeking revenge or political leverage.

One group went so far as to abduct a foundation employee and demand its records as ransom. Although they were eventually persuaded to accept a hefty cash payment, they riddled the victim’s arm with gunfire as a warning before releasing him, said the foundation’s Baghdad office manager, Ahmed Naji.

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Makiya wants the documents to be studied before they are released. He has pressed the government to pass a law providing guidelines on how they should be managed.

“Like so many other things, it is pending,” he said.

“I would return from looking for my son Mohammed exhausted and cry until I had no more tears. I searched for him everywhere and became ill in the process. . . . They informed his uncle first, then gave me his nationality certificate cut in half and said this person no longer existed. He had been executed. I didn’t say anything when I was told. I couldn’t believe it. Was it feasible that they had executed Mohammed just like that? I asked for his body, that of his father and sister. They didn’t respond, and there was no point in asking again, so I left.”

-- Zahra Badri

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Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, was once among the staunchest advocates for the Iraq invasion, which he hoped would end his people’s torment. But he was bitterly disappointed.

He describes Hussein’s trial and execution last year as the latest in a sequence of missed opportunities. It was an event that could have unified Iraqis, he said. Instead, the image of the dictator standing with a noose around his neck in front of taunting Shiite guards confirmed to Hussein’s fellow Sunnis that there was no place for them in the new Iraq.

Makiya’s effort to build a historical record of Hussein’s brutality began more than a decade before the dictator’s fall, when he traveled with a BBC filmmaker to northern Iraq to view documents seized by Kurdish guerrilla fighters. They included stacks of dusty files detailing the Iraqi military’s campaign to wipe out the Kurds. Between the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the U.S. and Britain maintained a haven in northern Iraq in which the allies’ air power was used to protect the Kurds from Hussein’s military.

He later established the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies to begin sifting through the 2.4 million pages. The project relocated to Baghdad in 2003 and was renamed the Iraq Memory Foundation.

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That summer, a U.S. soldier stationed at Baath Party headquarters pointed out a trapdoor at the tomb of one of its founders. Below it were rooms full of records that had escaped the looting: membership files, reports from informants and huge ledgers containing notes on every male student in the country, including whether they took part in annual celebrations marking Hussein’s birthday or had relatives in custody.

Each page was scanned into a computer, cataloged and carefully packed away. What emerges from these pages, Makiya says, is that all Iraqis, regardless of faith or ethnicity, suffered under Hussein, and all of them to a degree became complicit in the dictatorship that ruled their lives for more than three decades.

“They were all so young. . . . The youngest were these two [pointing to pictures of nephews Ahmed and Ali], who were just kids when they took them away, 12 and 13 years old. His [Ali’s] mother described the scene when they took them away. It was so moving I broke down and asked her never to repeat it in front of me. They put handcuffs on Ahmed and Ali, her son. . . . At first the boys laughed when they saw the handcuffs, but then as they took them away her son turned to her and said, “Mummy, help me. Mummy, help me.”

-- Zahra Badri

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Most of the 25 employees of the foundation hide their work even from close family and friends. Cameramen and producers still venture out to record the accounts of victims, but the work is fraught with danger.

Addu Hashimi, a diminutive man with a trim mustache, has had to wait out gunfights underneath his car as he crisscrossed the country to interview survivors. When he left one subject’s house in the southern city of Basra, a man appeared at his side and threatened to kill him if he interviewed anyone from a rival Shiite Muslim faction.

But for all the difficulties, Hashimi finds the work therapeutic. He too was repeatedly imprisoned under Hussein. His crime? His sister was a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, and a friend, who was accused of being sympathetic to Iran, was deported to that country. During interrogations, his hands were tied behind his back and hooked to the ceiling, leaving him suspended until he thought his shoulders would break.

“I know what it is to be tortured,” he said, suddenly awkward, his hands fluttering across his face. “So when I listen to the victims and hear their stories, it is a way to ease their pain, but it is also comforting for me.”

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When they cry, he cries with them.

“After they let out everything they have bottled up inside, they smile,” he said. “Most of the time they ask us to stay and have dinner with the family.”

The years had not hardened the gentle contours of Badri’s face, which was framed in layers of white lace and the enveloping black cloak of a devout Muslim woman the day she recorded the video of her story.

She recounted how her son Ebrahim was a teenager about to write his high school exams when he went into hiding in 1980. His elder brother, Saad, had just started working at an oil refinery. Badri pretended they had been arrested and would even inquire after them at Hussein’s security offices.

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Badri and her sons declined to talk aside from her taped account, but she sent word through Hashimi that being able to tell her story was “like lifting a load off her chest.”

Although there has been no national reckoning, the family has made its peace with the past. Ebrahim took his exams and started university in his 40s. Saad went back to work, and Badri was finally able to retire the ancient sewing machine she had used to support the family for all those years.

“She is happy,” Hashimi said.

--

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com


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