Journalist Asma Obeid on the terrors of the sectarian war, enforced exile, and her brother's new life in Canada
Peter Beaumont in Baghdad
The Guardian The Observer, Sunday 17 March 2013
Asma Obeid was working for the newspaper Zaman when I first met her in 2004. When I go to their new offices today I find she no longer works there. In a country defined by fear her old boss is at first reluctant to give me her number; when he does, I discover she is now working for a television station run by the ministry of higher education
Asma is waiting at the entrance. "So many things have happened since we last met," she says. We head upstairs to her office where she locks the door to keep out curious colleagues. "The hardest years," she explains, like everyone, "were during the sectarian war. I was among those who fled to Syria and lived there for three years"
I ask her where she was when the Americans invaded in 2003. "We went to the countryside. I was following the news closely at home when George Bush announced the invasion had started. Because we lived near Baghdad's main power station and there were lots of armed forces there we were concerned. So we went to Yusufiyah [about 18 miles south-west]. I remember the Ba'ath party trying to mobilise men. They gave them weapons but some of them weren't usable"
"Later I heard that Saddam had visited our district in disguise. The main bridge in Yusufiyah was wired to explode but the officer in charge didn't blow it up so the Americans crossed over. They killed some people at a nearby farm and we were afraid we might be killed at any moment. My cousin had a pick-up truck and we all got in – all 22 of us – and we went back to Dora [an area of Baghdad]
"Later when Paul Bremer [the US head of the Coalition Provisional Authority] started dissolving the Iraqi army and state institutions, I thought, 'but they could be useful'. I remember the first elections too, thinking, 'these are not going the right way'
"The situation in my [largely Sunni] neighbourhood became unbearable. You couldn't tell who your enemy was. On the one hand we had al-Qaida and on the other the militias in the armed forces who were killing Sunnis. In the end there were four different groups of people attacking in my neighbourhood
"It was becoming difficult to work as a journalist. I felt as if I was being watched all the time"
Then, in July 2005, her brother was kidnapped. It was common at that time for Sunni men to be snatched and tortured by police and militias, sometimes killed, sometimes released for money.
"We paid a bribe and found he was being held in a cell in Jadriya [a mainly Shia neighbourhood]. He was held without charge for 40 days. I found an official and said I was a journalist and they let him go but he was in terrible shape. He'd been tortured with electricity and with bits of burning nylon dropped onto his skin. They'd also hung him by the arms. He now has trouble with his eyes and a heart condition. We took him to the doctor and then he went to Syria and we followed. If he'd stayed they would have killed him eventually.
"In Syria we used to follow the news every day. Once they showed the militia in my street and pictures of victims. We just sat together crying.
"We came back in October 2008, when the sectarian war was ending. Our house was in a miserable state, damaged by explosions and there was a woman living in it. We repaired it and I got a job at a newspaper at the technical institute, and then I joined the higher education department.
"One day my brother started packing. He wouldn't say why but I suspected he'd received a threat. He went to Syria again and seven months ago he moved to Canada where he is receiving therapy for the things that happened to him. I thought about bringing a case against the people who did this to him. Then I thought – what if that harms my family even more?"