Amel wears big sunglasses with rhinestones when she goes outside. Her hair sports remnants of blonde streaks from a time when she could spend money on things like that. She has pictures from her singing career and still has the flute she played in the national orchestra. Her face is haggard. The dark circles under her eyes are almost as dark as her brown eyes.
We can’t take our coats off in the room where she lives because it is so cold. Outside the wind blows and sends freezing drafts into her room. There is one ancient electric burner sitting on an empty can that she uses for both heating and cooking. She pulls up her pj top to show us the wounds from her recent surgery. Scotch tape holds the cotton balls onto her skin. She says that it hurts inside and she’s afraid it’s infected but she can’t go back to the doctor because she has no money.
During the Saddam regime she was part of a national choir that would travel around Iraq and sing about things like the victory over Iran in the 80’s and what a swell leader Saddam was. They also performed traditional Iraqi songs. This wasn’t steady work. Periodically she’d get a letter summoning her to perform in this choir. She never refused because she was pretty sure that if she did, she’d land in prison.
Her main job was teaching music and designing sets for children’s theater and the ballet. Her husband was an architect and they had a comfortable apartment in a good area of Baghdad. But she didn’t want to just stay at home. She liked to work and she knew it was important to have marketable skills. She didn’t expect anyone to take care of her.
They didn’t flee when the American’s arrived in 2003. She thought that life might improve. Even though both she and her husband had worked for Saddam, they weren’t fans of the regime. They hoped that the American’s would bring real freedom.
They endured the bombings like everyone else. Even in Baghdad, electricity and water have been available only sporadically since the first Gulf war. It only got worse after the second invasion and occupation. But, still, she thought that eventually life would improve.
Then the threats started. Men armed with Kalashnikov rifles drove around her neighborhood. They wore black clothes and covered their faces with black ski masks. No one knew if they were Badr Brigade or Medhi Militia but they certainly belonged to one of the two groups. They noted where the doctors, lawyers, journalists and architects lived. All of these professionals were given letters telling them to leave – or else. Amel’s husband got one of these letters. Amel thinks that they found his name and address in papers at Saddam’s castle because he’d done work for the Saddam regime. But Amel and her husband didn’t have anywhere to go so they hunkered down and hoped it would all go away.
About a week after the threatening letters arrived, an armed militia formed a cordon around their neighborhood. People inside couldn’t escape and there was no hope of help coming from the outside. The targets were dragged out of their houses at gun point. The men came for Amel’s husband. She ran out to the street but couldn’t get near him. All she could do was watch helplessly as they gunned down their hostages one by one. Amel saw her husband shot in the head and then in the chest. His blood flowed down the street. They cut up his body. When they were done, they left with the pieces.
Weeks later, she got a call asking her to come to the morgue. Several bodies had been found and they thought her husband might be one of them. She was terrified of going outside. The militias were still active. But she had to go.
The smell inside the morgue was overpowering. The bodies were black, as if they had been burned or painted with black paint. She couldn’t recognize any of the faces. They were too far gone. Then she noticed a hand with long, slender fingers and she knew without a doubt that she’d found her husband’s body. She was told to leave and not speak to anyone about her husband’s death.
She walked out into the sunlight feeling as if she’d escaped her own death. Her husband was gone but she was still alive. She knew she’d find a way to survive. She had skills. She could find work. She would make her way alone.
Amel doesn’t know if the men who killed her husband were part of the Medhi Army or the Badr Brigade. It could have been either group. Both of them are Shiite fundamentalists and hated the secular Saddam regime.
The Badr Brigade is made up of Iraqi’s but they fought against their own country and for Iran during the Iran/Iraq war. They wanted to spread the Islamic revolution started by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Badr Brigade was funded and trained in Iran by the same people who screamed “Death to America” while they held American Embassy personnel hostage in the 1970’s. The also founded the Al Da’wa political party which was put on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in the 1980’s.
During the Saddam regime The Badr Brigade was exiled in Iran. When the Americans rolled into Iraq, the borders were left wide open, unguarded. This was just the sort of opening that the Badr fighters had been waiting for. They poured over the border and into all parts of Iraq. They had old scores to settle. Anyone who fought with Saddam during the Iran/Iraq war or who worked – in any capacity whatsoever – in the Saddam regime was a potential target. So were women who wouldn’t wear a veil.
The Medhi Army is another Shiite militia. It was formed after the overthrow of the Saddam regime. The men who formed this army also had a hand in forming the Al Da’wa Party but in addition to opposing the Sunni’s, the Americans and anyone associated with Saddam, they also oppose the Badr Brigade.
People like Amel and her husband get caught in the crossfire and the Americans either won’t or can’t stop these militias. In fact, despite the fact that the Badr Brigade is known to be behind kidnappings and murders all over Baghdad, the American-supported government appointed a high-ranking Badr official, Bayan Jabr, to the Interior Department in Iraq. The Interior Department in Iraq is like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security rolled into one.