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Batul’s unique perspective on two nations


For moral guidance, as well as political counsel, on U.S.-Iraq relations, I have been listening lately to Batul Al-Zubeidy. She knows firsthand of the death-dealing policies of both violent governments. Both the United States and Iraq saw her life as worthless.

Batul Al-Zubeidy is 18. Since September, she has been one of my students at the School Without Walls, a District of Columbia public high school where I volunteer. Five blocks from the White House -- no school is closer -- the structure has no cafeteria, gym, auditorium, lockers or playing fields. But quality teachers are serving, for which the students are grateful.

Among the school’s 75 seniors, none had as perilous a path to its front door as Batul. The youngest of eight children, she was born in 1984 in the Abu Ghreeb prison near Baghdad. Her mother, Salima, was a political prisoner. Her crime was being the wife of Hamza Al-Zubeidy, a risk-taking political organizer who publicly opposed Saddam Hussein during the 1980s when the dictator was a Ronald Reagan ally and U.S. weapons client.

In that decade and the next, Hamza Al-Zubeidy spent more than 15 years in and out of Iraqi prisons, ones known to be among the world’s meanest and filthiest torture chambers. Freed in 1990, he returned to his family in Najaf, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad. Within months, night-raiding American pilots bombed the Al-Zubeidy home, along with much of the neighborhood and nearby bridges, water and electric plants. Had Batul and her family been home during this American killing spree -- the family was away visiting relatives -- they would likely have been among the scores of Najaf’s dead or maimed.

Suddenly destitute, and fearing reprisals from Saddam Hussein’s military intent on squashing opposition, the Al-Zubeidys fled. Beginning in March 1991, they walked more than 200 miles with thousands of other Iraqis to the makeshift Rafha refugee camp in northern Saudi Arabia. The travelers were often at the mercy of Saddam Hussein’s shock troops who -- as the Los Angeles Times reported in March 1991 -- were paid bounties to kill refugees.

During the next six years of Batul’s childhood, she was one of 32,000 people confined to a camp where death, disease and fear were rampant, and water, food and health care scarce. With barbed-wire fences, watchtowers and armed Saudi soldiers as guards, the camp was little more than a maximum security prison. In 1994, a report from Amnesty International told of “the arbitrary detention of refugees, their torture and ill-treatment -- in some cases resulting in death in custody -- possible extra-judicial executions and the forcible return of others to Iraq. Various forms of collective punishment have been systematically used against the refugees.”

By August 1993, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had resettled 6,288 of the original 32,000, sending them to Iran, Scandinavia, the United States and other countries. The Al-Zubeidys’ turn would not come until 1997.

On arrival in Washington the following year with her family, Batul spoke no English, had no teenage friends and had not been in a classroom since first grade in Iraq. That she now speaks perfect accent-free colloquial English, is a student leader, is thriving in her courses, is taking three college classes, including one in Hebrew, and volunteers for an antiwar group is a story of gritty resilience and self-motivation like few others I have known in 20 years of teaching.

“Two governments didn’t care whether I lived or died,” Batul said. “In Najaf, I was at the other end of the U.S. bombing runs. Walking 200 miles through the summer desert to get to the Rafha camp, Iraqi soldiers regularly shot at us.”

Politically, Batul is opposed to the Iraqi government. “I would love to see a change to democracy but I don’t believe that a war by the United States will bring that change. It certainly hasn’t brought democracy to Afghanistan where civilians were killed and warlords now dominate. I don’t think the Bush administration wants to help the Iraqi people. If I did believe that, I would need to ignore the full story. U.S. officials know that the economic sanctions for the past 12 years have helped kill more than a million Iraqis, especially children. Does the U.S. government really think that’s the way to win friends in Iraq? The sanctions aren’t hurting Saddam Hussein.”

In addition to taking English as a Second Language courses, Batul began reading American newspapers and watching television news programs to learn English. She is dismayed by the largely uncritical acceptance by the media to the Bush war plans against Iraq. “A war will only cause more destruction, more refugees, more instability, more death.”

The solution? “I strongly believe in diplomacy and the work of the U.N. inspectors. I believe, also, in the Iraqi people. Milosevic in Yugoslavia was overthrown not by U.S. bombing but by student-led nonviolent resistance to his power. At first, few thought that could bring down the ruthless government. But it did.”

At the high school, I have turned over my class several times to Batul -- to educate her schoolmates about the realities of state violence, whether the government is five blocks away or the one across an ocean and a sea. I have taken her to other schools to lecture at student assemblies. She speaks movingly and knowledgeably.

Batul plans to become a physician. “In the refugee camp, I saw too many people die from illnesses and diseases that could have been prevented. I was only a child but I wondered, where are the doctors? Where is the hospital? Where is the medicine? Someday I hope to be a doctor, and work in the Third World, and maybe among refugees, so at least there won’t be another child asking those questions.”

For now, other questions persist. Should American pilots bomb Iraq cities as they did in 1991, how many Batuls will become collateral damage? How many will be in refugee camps for years? How many will be at the mercy of two brutal governments?

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003