Raouf finally made it to Syria. For those of you who do not know Raouf's story , please read a Postcard from Iraq.
At first, he tried Damascus. An old small "hotel" in the Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood, run by an Iraqi Shia, who turned the lobby into a Husseinya once a week.(Husseinya means a religious gathering for rememberance of the Imams Al- Hassan and Al- Hussein).
The hotel owner kept preaching to Raouf about the problem with the "nawasib" i.e Sunnis. Every morning he was reminding him that if only the Sunnis praised Ahl Al Bayt (which they do), everything will be ok. And if only the Sunnis accepted that Imam Ali was the real inheritor of the Khilafat then all will be ok. And if only Aisha (the wife of the prophet) was not such a traitor, then all of this would have not happened. And if only Abu Bakr, Othman and Omar were not such hypocrites, then all of this would not be taking place...
Raouf is patient by nature and he really does not give two hoots about these divisions.
But his last ordeal in Baghdad left him fragile and vulnerable. He could no longer take this daily sermon that bordered on threats...He was becoming restless and anxious all the time and could no longer tolerate the hotel owner and his preaching.
After all he had received his share of religious brainwashing from his torturers who would take breaks and go and pray and sing devotional songs in between then resume their torture sessions on Raouf...
He decided to move to another city where rents were less expensive and away from sectarians. Who can blame him, the poor man is traumatized for life.
Besides, Iraqis are really not wanted in Syria, in particular in Damascus.
The Syrians constantly complain about their presence. It is because of the Iraqis that crime rates have doubled. It is because of the Iraqis that corruption exists. It is because of the Iraqis that prices have increased. It is because of the Iraqis that services are slow and inefficient...It is because of the Iraqis that Damascus is overcrowded and polluted...
A few Syrians not knowing that I, too, belong to the untouchable, unwanted ones, told me that everything has gone down the drains because of the Iraqis...
" It is not their fault if the Syrians are anting up the prices. After all they are making profits no ? Why blame the Iraqis for Syrian greed ? " I said.
The Syrian replied : " I guess you are right. After all the government is getting money from the UN agency. And many Syrians have made heaps of money because of the Iraqis. But still, the Iraqis are a cumbersome lot. "
I witnessed Syrian greed. If a taxi ride usually costs 50 liras, for an Iraqi it is 150 liras. A bag of rice costs 35 liras, for an Iraqi it is charged 50 liras. A shirt costs 300 liras for an Iraqi it is 600 Liras. Everything is doubled, tripled. As for rents, they are quadrupled for Iraqis.
Back to Raouf...
He moved to another city. Finally found a so called "furnished" apartment on the top of a building with no elevator. It consists of one bed room, one living room and a bathroom. The rent is exorbitant for Raouf but Raouf has no choice.
This apartment is the most insalubrious, squalid, filthy place he has ever seen.
The sofa is eaten up by moths. The curtains in shreds. The mattress and the sheets have not been changed since the Ummayad period. The bathroom is covered with slime and grime. And the so called crockery - plates, pots, pans are not even fit for feeding animals. The teapot is an antiquarian piece - so rusty that the water turns yellow - a great piece for the antiquities museum.
But the worst, are all those unwanted visitors - cockroaches. The place is full of them.
Raouf with his swollen bruised ankles, unable to wear shoes. Raouf with his broken ribs unable to carry anything. Raouf with his dislocated shoulder unable to move his arm. Raouf with a partial paralysis in his hand unable to hold anything for a long time...would walk daily for one hour to the souk (taxis are too expensive for him) and buy sheets, crockery, curtains, detergents, paints, and of course plants...
Then he would carry daily three bags full up 6 floors to his " furnished apartment. "
This went on for about 10 days. He cleaned, painted, brushed, polished, fixed...the place to make it liveable. And everytime he was overwhelmed with pain, he would comfort himself by saying " At least am alive and away from Iraq."
When Raouf's wife learned that Syrian visas were to be issued to Iraqis on the 10th of September, she caught a bus on the 8th of September at 6.30 am and finally arrived to Syria on the 9th of September at 11.30 pm. Endless rows of buses and endless queues at the border before the 10th. Her trip from Baghdad to Damascus took over 24 hours. But she too is grateful she made it away from hell.
When Raouf learned that his residency will not be renewed after the initial three months period, he was gripped with a terrible anxiety.
Throughout his ordeal, Raouf never cried, never screamed... Even his torturers were surprised and asked him what kind of human being he was. They told him : " Another man would have died but you did not even utter a sound - you are not normal."
Raouf replied that he had totally surrendered and whatever they wish to do to him, is fine with him. " I am in God's hands " he would say.
" You in God's hands ? Because you know God ? We saw you wearing shorts inside your house and we saw a can of beer outside. "
And they would beat and flog him some more,until his skin fell off, keeping him blindfolded and chained in a bathroom for 5 days with no water and no food...And threatening to murder him, burn him or behead him daily. At one point they were three of them with three sharp knives on his jugular about to go into his throat...Raouf did not utter a sound.
But when Raouf learned that he might be forced to return to Iraq in two months time, he screamed like a wild animal. He cried like he has never cried before and his anxiety attacks would take hold of him for days on end.
After his torture ordeal Raouf had partial memory blackouts...But after hearing that he might have to return to Iraq, all the images came back flooding his memory.
Today Raouf cannot be left alone for one hour. He simply goes mad with the flashbacks.
He said : " I would rather commit suicide than go back to Iraq. Iraq is over for me. Iraq is no longer my home. I do not miss it. I just miss my family and my neighbors and my garden. I would rather die than go back. " And Raouf means it.
UNHCR is filled with case upon case similar to Raouf's. They are all going crazy at the idea of returning to hell.
But it seems that the Syrian authorities want the Iraqis out.
I made it a point to peruse daily their newspapers, they are very kind and "soft" towards Al-Maliki. I also noticed a lot of Farsee being spoken in Damascus. A detail.
Goodness, am at loss. Raouf is one story. But there are so many others. I do not even know where to begin the list.
There is Ahmad. A Phd in Microbiology, worked as a masseur for a while and is now unemployed. There is Noora and Hanan not older than 17, despite the heavy make up, working as call girls in hotels. There is Wassim, a Phd in Electrical Engineering working in the black as a technician repairing Air Conditioners. There is Sana a high school student, standing in the streets selling combs and bubble gums...
They are crammed up to 10 in one room. There are the sick ones, the amputated ones, those in wheel chairs...The tragedy is endless. The despair is endless...
But they are all unanimous. They would rather die than go back to Iraq. And they all agree that Iraq is no more. For them, and from what they have seen, witnessed, and experienced, Iraq is finished. And I agree with them.
If the Syrian authorities force them to leave where will they go ? What will happen to them ?
In Syria they hardly have any future. In Iraq, they will be something of the past.
And the International "Community" is still watching, with amused detachment, those unwanted ones about to be pushed off the edge and into the abyss of no return.
Painting : Iraqi female artist, Sawsan Al Sarraf. "Immigration"