What Saddam did to his cousin when he found out he kidnapped and tortured my dad
I was about eleven years old, on that particular afternoon, I was playing in the garden with the family dog when I noticed my mother nervously pacing up and down the driveway. She had a particular look about her, one of extreme worry and she seemed burdened with a sense of doom.
My mother was one of those characters who valued humour and tended to smile more often than not. So to see her marching up and down in that deliberate, almost military fashion, with that worried air, was quite unusual and a sight that I still remember vividly to this day.
At the time, I had no clue why she was pacing, but for some reason, I didn’t ask her what was wrong. She was, as it transpired, worried about my father, who was now unfashionably late and had not telephoned to say that he was going to be held up, which was totally out of character for that extremely punctual man.
I honestly don’t remember if we had lunch without my father on that fateful day. What I do remember is the arrival of my dad’s car, which was instantly recognizable to me and to the entire neighbourhood. That car was his pride and joy; he had ordered and collected it himself from the Mercedes factory in Germany and driven it back to Iraq, with my mother next to him and yours truly in the back, with my teddy bear Johnny and the rest of my toys around me.
So, when my father’s beloved car finally pulled up outside the house, it was very strange to see a young man in military uniform get out of the driver’s side. I ran to tell my mother that dad was back, but another alarm bell was already ringing in my head — my dad’s car had not driven into the driveway as usual. My mother came rushing out to help my father, who more or less fell out of the passenger’s side. He was clearly not well and needed my mother’s assistance to walk slowly into the house.
Confused, I swiftly followed them inside, where I found my father lying on the sofa and complaining of pains that radiated from all over his body, particularly his left forearm. It was clear to see that my dear father had been battered and bruised.
My mother rushed to the phone and called her brother, who’s an orthopaedic specialist. He arrived soon after and examined my father, immediately recognizing that he had broken his radius bone and needed medical attention.
So, what had happened to my father?
Saddam preferred to be surrounded by blood relatives, whether installing them as his security staff or putting them in charge of sensitive and vital ministries and security organizations. It was reported that his favourite film was ‘The Godfather’ and I’m inclined to believe this anecdote, due to the noticeable way his behaviour, to a large extent, mimicked that of Don Corleone. I mention this as I feel it relates significantly to what I’m about to tell you.
By 1984, two characters had gained notoriety and established gangster-like reputations. One was Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, who was a total psychopath with an insatiable appetite for violence and a temper to match. Most had learned to avoid him at all costs and many families with attractive daughters had to take drastic measures to keep them out of his sight, as Uday soon added serial rape to his repertoire of criminal activity.
Right from childhood, Uday’s arch-nemesis was considered to be his young uncle, Luay, whose father, Khairallah, was Saddam’s uncle and father figure. Khairallah raised Saddam when he was abandoned by his mother and abusive step-father. Lauy’s older sister, Sajida, was Iraq’s first lady (an arranged marriage to one’s cousin is the cultural norm in tribal Iraq).
Now, Luay was equally as psychotic as Uday, if not more so. Perhaps he wished to compete with or felt jealous of, his nephew’s criminal reputation. But for whatever reason Luay desired notoriety more than he desired his next breath. So he embarked upon a series of serious crimes, ranging from beating to death a poor soul who looked at him the wrong way, to raping and assaulting people at random, without ever being arrested or even reprimanded for his crimes.
Unfortunately for my dear father, both Uday and Luay decided to attend the college of civil engineering at Baghdad University, where my dad had been a professor since his return to Iraq in 1976. For the first couple of years, all was quiet for my father; he did not have direct contact with either of the pair due to the specialist nature of his subject, which was an advanced civil engineering course for third- and fourth-year students.
My father’s good fortune, in terms of having no immediate contact with the president’s son, nor his deranged uncle, came to an abrupt end in late June 1984. Having been assigned the role of head of the examination committee for the final exams of that academic year, my father was required to make routine rounds of the exam halls to make sure that all was well.
One day he walked into a hall and noticed Luay sitting in the back looking rather agitated and slightly dishevelled, with as my father described them, “wondrous red eyes”. Luay was sitting upright and appeared not to be writing anything; this raised my father’s suspicion and prompted him to ask a colleague about the young man’s identity. On hearing the whispered reply — ”that’s Luay Khairallah” — my father asked one more question: “What’s he doing here? He’s been expelled by the college faculty for missing too many lectures.” It appeared that Luay overheard this exchange, as he abruptly got up and left the exam hall.
When my father returned to his office to prepare for a meeting he had scheduled later that day with the Dean of the engineering college, he was surprised to see Luay standing by his office door, looking even more agitated. He began to threaten my father, telling him, “You’ve embarrassed me by announcing my expulsion in front of other students and you’ll pay dearly for that mistake.”
This, my dear reader, was not an idle threat. Luay soon after ordered his bodyguards/thugs to kidnap my father and beat him to death.
Upon receiving their orders, they promptly began to formulate a plan. The operation commenced with surveillance to establish my father’s habits, his travel routes, timings and so on. They even rang our doorbell once, when my mother answered, one of the men inquired about my father’s whereabouts. Having no idea about their evil intentions, my poor mum answered honestly: “He’s at the university.”
Then, ‘zero hour’ arrived, as my father sat waiting for a green light at an intersection on his way to work one morning. A car pulled up next to his and the passenger pointed towards my father’s front wheel, gesturing to suggest low tyre pressure. It was just a ruse to distract my father while another man went around his car and opened the driver’s door, whereupon he pointed a handgun at my father. Two more thugs got into the back seat and ordered dad to move into the passenger seat, allowing the first man to get into the driver’s seat. They drove my father’s car away, while two more men followed in the other car.
They drove to desolate farmland about an hour away, where they blindfolded my father with his tie and started to beat him with batons and the buttstocks of their weapons. There’s a famous scene in the film ‘Casino’, where mobsters take the character played by Joe Pesci and his brother into a cornfield and beat them with aluminium baseball bats. It’s very gruesome viewing and once seen, it’s hard to forget. That is not far off what happened to my dear father.
When he eventually passed out, they thought he was dead and walked away laughing, brazenly congratulating one another on a job well done. As it turned out, my father was not entirely unconscious and was able to register some of their words as they were leaving. He also spotted Luay, watching from the other car.
I am not sure how long it took for my father to be able to get to his feet and walk back to his car, but he did. He even managed to drive for a short distance until he came upon a soldier who was returning home, still in his uniform. My father stopped and having explained his desperate need to seek medical help, he asked the soldier if he could drive him home.
The soldier was kind enough to oblige, despite the distance involved and his limited leave time; he was a gracious and chivalrous man, who did not hesitate to help my father. He was the man in uniform who exited from the driver’s side when my father’s car pulled up outside our house.
I can hardly imagine what must have been going through my father’s mind as he was being led away to almost certain death. What regret he must have felt for adhering to his principles; for pointing out that an expelled student, regardless of his bloodline, should not be sitting a final exam.
In retrospect, how trivial and pointless this principle must have seemed to him at that moment. He had just kissed his beloved wife goodbye for what he now realised was probably the last time. The terrible reality of having a gun trained at his side by some worthless thug must have confirmed the worst of his fears; that his three young boys would have to grow up without him.
Luay’s men drove for just over an hour and this must have been the longest and most desperate hour of my father’s celebrated life. As far as he knew, that life was about to come to a tragic and premature end, if not for the grace of whoever was watching over him that day. Indeed, someone was watching over our entire young family, commuting what would have been a devastating loss to broken bones and injured pride.
I still cannot fathom how the loss of my father, a caring and devoted husband, would have shattered my mother’s youthful heart into irreconcilable pieces.
As I sit and reflect upon the man I am today, my life and the influence my father had on shaping it, I understand the infinite love and admiration that I feel for the man I proudly call dad. I find it quite hard to even conceive of him not being around to care for us, and for me. My father rose quite early every morning to prepare breakfast for us and although waking up was a daily struggle for me, I always enjoyed the smell of freshly brewed tea that permeated throughout our house and signalled the beginning of each day. He would always whisper gently to my mother when they conversed, so as not to wake us up too early, letting us enjoy those precious few minutes of extra sleep.
That memory is clearly etched into my consciousness because to me his voice radiated comfort and nurture. I recently went to visit him in Jordan, where he has been living for just over two decades and I found myself pretending to still be asleep in the morning, just to hear him whisper again as he prepared breakfast. I wanted to travel back in time to my childhood days and experience once again, even for the briefest of moments, the feeling of utter invulnerability that I enjoyed when I was growing up as his son.
I am now a grown man and grey hair is beginning to conspicuously break through my short stubble. However, I am not ashamed to admit that I welled up a tear or two as I wrote these words and was paralyzed by absolute terror at the thought of losing my father, even though the loss turned out to be hypothetical.
By the next day, the fog of war had lifted and my father’s arm, now in a cast, was no longer the main priority. My parents’ new objective was to seek justice for what had happened and they both began to telephone those who might have access to Saddam. They had realised that registering a complaint at the local police station was nothing but a laughable proposition and that circumventing the legal system was, in this case, the only way forward.
A few calls later and they managed to reach Saddam’s private secretary, who would later become his son-in-law and head of the Ministry of Military Armament. My father briefly explained his position and his subsequent kidnapping and assault. In all honesty, my parents were acting out of desperation; neither one of them expected what was to take place a few days later.
One afternoon, the phone rang and my mother picked up to a man identifying himself as a representative of the ‘Republican Palace’, — Saddam’s office, in other words. He asked to speak to my father and informed him that he had been summoned to the Palace for a private audience with the president himself. He then gave instructions on which gate to come through and at what time.
So the next day my father went to the Republican Palace, where he identified himself to the security personnel and was instructed to wait for a car that would take him inside. After being escorted to the main building, he was then instructed on how to greet the president, without shaking his hand and was told that he must not have any physical contact with the president. He was thoroughly searched and asked to leave his watch, pen and even his wedding ring in a designated basket, before being escorted to Saddam’s office by his private office director.
My father entered and greeted Saddam as instructed, receiving in response Saddam’s signature greeting of ”Ahlan Wasahlan”, which roughly translates as “welcome”. Seeing the cast on my father’s arm, Saddam pulled a chair closer to his and asked him to reveal exactly what had happened.
Of course, Saddam already knew the story prior to my father being invited to meet with him. However, he wanted to hear it directly from my father, who told him, “I’m a citizen and a patriot, do you accept that I get assaulted in this vicious way for doing my job?”
Saddam replied, ”I do not accept that any Iraqi should be assaulted whilst I’m in charge, especially a professor with your reputation.” He then called his secretary and told him, “Issue a presidential order to detain Luay and every associate of his. I want their arms broken in the exact same way as the professor’s,” — an exchange that I believe was more for my father’s benefit than his secretary’s. My father thanked him and having collected his belongings, he made his way home.
Three days later, my parents were visited by a high-ranking intelligence officer, who informed them that they must be ready to identify my father’s attackers the next day.
The following day, a driver arrived and took my parents straight to the palace, where they entered a large hall. Here, about thirty or so of Luay’s associates, friends and bodyguards were lined up. My father was able to identify them with relative ease, despite their attempts to change their appearances by shaving beards and altering their hairstyles.
After the line-up, my parents were escorted back home. Another three days passed before a man, identifying himself as a representative of the Presidential Palace, rang to inform them that they would be picked up and taken to an undisclosed location to witness the punishment of my father’s attackers. “These are his excellency, the president’s orders,” he added.
Late afternoon on the following day, my parents were driven the short distance to a QRF (Quick Reaction Force) barracks. They were greeted by a high-ranking military officer, who informed them that the president had ordered that both my parents should witness the punishment he had arranged. Specifically, the arms of the attackers — including Luay — would be broken in exactly the same way that my father had suffered.
My father instinctively objected, saying, “Please, let me call the president, I can’t accept this.” My father was feeling merciful and did not want to witness suffering and pain being exacted on others. The officer replied that the president’s orders had to be carried out to the letter and that the matter was not up for discussion. When my father pleaded that his wife had a heart defect, which was true and that witnessing such punishment could result in serious harm to her health, the officer relented and agreed that my mother could wait in his office while the act was carried out. He then escorted my father to a large empty barracks building where my father saw his attackers again. They were wearing only trousers and had clearly been extensively tortured — their backs bore the visible marks of whipping.
The president’s orders were quite clear: Saddam wanted to see for himself x-rays of broken forearms, showing injuries that matched my father’s or, at least, close enough. In addition, the entire episode was to be filmed by a cameraman who had a professional video camera on a tripod.
One by one, each individual was marched to the middle of the hall, where two quite well-built special forces officers awaited them — one held a thin cane-like stick and the other had a heavy baton. The first officer would commence whipping the individual with the stick and as soon as he raised his left arm to protect himself, the other officer would swiftly strike his arm with the baton, breaking the bone instantly. Then the injured man would be escorted to a nearby hospital to be x-rayed and, ironically, treated.
This process was successfully repeated four times. But when it came to Luay’s turn, it turned out that his bone had not fractured; after his arm was x-rayed and the failure exposed, he was sent back to the barracks to undergo the gruesome process once more. The second attempt was successful and Luay was later rushed back to the hospital for a second x-ray and treatment.
I should mention that my father, after witnessing this gut-wrenching scene and hearing the cries for mercy, was quite shaken and needed a sedative to calm his frayed nerves.
My parents were driven home that evening, but the ordeal was not over — a week later my father was informed that he was to attend a special court, to witness the sentencing of his attackers by the law. Each man was handed a fifteen-year prison sentence. However, they were released after serving a couple of years, with the exception of Luay, whose sentence was not enforced at all.
The final chapter of this saga concerning the video camera I mentioned, the tape was not for the private viewing of Saddam but rather was used as a warning video for those who considered themselves above the law. They were informed, in no uncertain terms, that such behaviour — which had evidently been considered to tarnish the government’s reputation and embarrass the president — would not be tolerated. The story itself went viral and I personally heard many versions of it, ‘Chinese whispers’ and all that.
One day, many years later, I was among a group of ex-pat Iraqis in the UK when a drastically altered version of the story was being told by one of our party. I waited for him to finish and said, “That’s not quite what happened.” His instinctive reaction was to ask, “How do you know?” I said, “It’s my father of whom you’re speaking.”
I guess there was a thin silver lining to my father’s kidnapping and assault. Professors and teachers felt slightly safer and a degree of immunity from arbitrary punishment was established for them, should they be perceived to have somehow wronged those connected to Saddam.
So, what can one conclude from this rather dark and abhorrent event, when a respectable university professor was kidnapped in broad daylight and beaten nearly to death for upholding his principles and carrying out his duty? After my father’s ordeal, many came forward to seek justice for being assaulted or attacked by those who thought themselves “untouchable”. Yet, prior to my father’s case, these injustices inflicted upon ordinary citizens were ignored by Iraq’s justice system. What it took for that can of worms to be opened was both courage on behalf of my parents and the political connections that enabled them to reach Saddam, who, by some random stroke of luck, was in the mood to act “justly” and exact what he deemed to be an appropriate punishment.
It could just as well have gone the other way, had his whim and random mood swings led him to view this episode with apathy. So, it stands to reason that justice reached via the whims of tyranny is rather governed by chance. Therefore, in my opinion, it is not real justice. The reality remained as it was — Iraq was governed according to whim rather than reason and it was only through extrajudicial means that one could reach some sort of closure when faced with such atrocities.
So to those who cite this episode as a testament to Saddam’s fairness, I would say this: it is he who created the culture of the “untouchables” and rendered the conventional justice system obsolete.
My dear reader, for a spot of context, this is an excerpt chapter from my book Ebbing Sanity; an autobiographical story about my life in Iraq and a small porthole into that bizarre world of absolute dictatorship. If you wish to support my work, I left links to the kindle version below.
Ebbing Sanity on Kindle US - https://www.amazon.com/Ebbing-Sanity-Martin-Allan-ebook/dp/B01GBOG0G6
Ebbing Sanity on Kindle UK - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ebbing-Sanity-Martin-Allan-ebook/dp/B01GBOG0G6
For other kindle regions, search your local amazon for Ebbing Sanity by Martin Allan