Leaving Iraq III – A Childhood Under Saddam

By Sahar S. Gabriel
Kids were taught in Saddam’s day never to refer to him as President, always as Baba (Papa) Saddam. He was a frightening figure. People used to name their kids Saddam so it would help them in the future.

We didn’t like him much but he protected the Christians in Iraq, though we did not know to what extent. We didn’t know what kind of evils were waiting for us when he wasn’t ruling. Not that I am saying in any way that we want him back or that he was our savior.

Before 2003 we never really heard of the Islamist movements which became so powerful later. We weren’t aware that there were people who would target Christians. I had never even heard of the Sadr family. I had never heard of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, the Badr Brigades.

Saddam’s media was the only form of communication with the world, so whether you wanted to believe it or not you didnt have any other outlet to the world.

I already knew about America from books and television. But apart from the subject of America I believed anything because I didn’t have anyone else to tell me different. Like with Iran: they talked about Ayatollah Khomeini a lot. Under Saddam our school books would say the Iranians bombed an elementary school, and say that the Iranians wanted to destroy our children and our chances for the future. When you have read this from the first grade to the sixth grade, you tend to believe it.

The economic sanctions didn’t seem fair or just to me, and I did believe that America caused that. Saddam would blame a lot of things on the sanctions.

It was when I was about 15 that I started to understand things. I learned from my dad about what Iran had gone through in the war. I started registering things, which contradicted a lot of things we were taught in school. I started having my own thoughts.

We had cinemas running before the sanctions, but in the 1990s they said we can’t operate cinemas because of the sanctions. That made no sense, an entire country without cinemas because they couldn’t get parts?

By 1998 I knew what he was saying was not the truth, the kind of propaganda that he ran against the Americans. The whole propaganda message about them being evil, them wanting us to die. About them preventing us from developing or upgrading our country so that we wouldn’t compete with them.

I thought “Huh?” It didn’t make sense. It was at that time I read a book about Japan, and I thought, “They survived a war and look at what they did. They actually made something out of themselves.” We were under the same circumstances. Why couldn’t Iraq do it?

After 9/11 they showed brief pictures of it. Then they would make songs, every Iraqi singer had to make one patriotic song that praised Saddam and Iraq. They would show those clips of the World Trade Center and show clips of the towers and say, “This is what happens to people who are sinners.”

I would never say what I thought. I can’t tell you I was afraid someone would arrest me, because I didn’t know about that. But I had watched my dad keep quiet when I was young, and that became part of my mindset.

After the war we found out what had happened under Saddam. We had always known that he tortured people, especially people who spoke out about what he was doing. The shock when we found out about the mass graves was that it was so many people.