Samarra, Iraq–Riyadh “Ali” Alibrahimi, a veteran of both the Iraqi army and the Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein in the wake of the first Gulf War, was comfortably ensconced in his adopted home of Boston, Massachusetts when Operation Iraqi Freedom got under way. Yet, despite all the war, terror, and horror he’d seen in his life, Alibrahimi has returned to Iraq as a translator for Coalition forces serving with the 3rd Battalion in the volatile (yet steadily improving) Sunni-dominated city of Samarra, approximately 60 miles north of Baghdad.
”I still owe the United States whatever I can offer,” Alibrahimi, who barely escaped Hussein’s murderous postwar rage in 1991, explained. “No one else came to save my people. No other Arab or Islamic country tried to get Saddam to stop killing us. Without America, I would still be a refugee and there would be no election here, no constitution, and no freedom. We would be living under Saddam and his sons forever. I had to come.”
In the field, Alibrahimi is among the most respected translators, helping steward sensitive communications between Coalition forces, Iraqi security forces, and the leaders of Samarra’s fledgling civil government. By evening, he is the consummate gentleman host, gathering soldiers and officers in his room for exquisite Iraqi food cooked on a small hot plate and Turkish music, peppered with discussions of Arab culture and the sort of impassioned denunciations of Saddam Hussein only a man who has lived under the former dictator’s tyranny can deliver.
“He’s an amazing man with an amazing story,” Lt. Col. Mark Wald, commander of the 3rd Battalion, said. “He’s a huge help to us in our mission here.”
“Kuwait Had Done Nothing to Us.”
Alibrahimi was born in Iraq shortly before Hussein came to power. Like most Iraqis, when he came of age Alibrahimi was conscripted into the army. As a Shiite living under a racist Sunni government, however, he was not allowed to attend a military college as he hoped, which was how Alibrahimi found himself fighting on the front lines of the war with Iran. He carries a memento from that war everywhere: A thick scar around his wrist where a mortar round almost blew off his right hand. While the wound was being tended his company went into battle and were slaughtered wholesale.
“The lucky ones came back without an arm or without a leg,” he said. “Most didn’t come back at all. I almost went crazy that day, I was so sad from all my friends being killed.”
The war with Iran was barely over for the weary soldiers when Hussein decided to attack Kuwait. Even most Iraqi soldiers had no idea an invasion was about to take place, Alibrahimi said. His unit was sent to Basra for training and was shocked to find themselves ordered into Kuwait.
“I could not imagine why we were doing it,” Alibrahimi said. “Kuwait had done nothing to us. They had helped us in the war with Iran. It was an Arabic state. It made no sense.”
After two months in Kuwait, Alibrahimi had had enough. He defected, hiding in a small village. When the Coalition attacked, Alibrahimi answered President George H. W. Bush’s call for Shiites to rise up. But no help ever arrived.
“I ask myself everyday, ‘Why did they stop?’” he said. “I’m sure there is a reason, but I will never know it. We lost our revolution. Saddam killed everybody. He buried Shiites alive. Many of my friends disappeared and have never been found.”
Alibrahimi survived–barely. He walked through the desert for two days without food or water, changing between an Iraqi uniform and civilian clothes, to evade capture and certain death. Finally he reached the Saudi Arabian border and was met by U.S. troops.
Welfare? “No Way”
“They were from Arizona,” he recalled. “For the first time in my life, I was treated with dignity and respect.”
From there, however, it was a long four years in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp.
“Four years in a camp is like 20 years in a city,” he said. “There was no work, nothing to do. My family thought I had been killed. I could not call. There were no phones. I knew if I sent a letter it would put them in danger. It was life as a zoo animal, not a man.”
Slowly, the U.S. granted 10,000 ex-soldiers in the Saudi Arabian camps refugee status, bringing them over in groups of 500. Alibrahimi was accepted in 1995, ending up in Boston where he was immediately offered welfare.
“I asked, ‘What is welfare?’” he said. “When they told me, I said, ‘No way.’ I went to work pumping gas, doing whatever I had to do. In America I was good to everyone and everyone was good to me. As long as you follow the rules, you have no problems. It was never like that in Iraq.”
So Alibrahimi got used to the cold, worked, and hoped the rest of his family still in Iraq might someday be free. When the nation geared up to invade in 2003, Alibrahimi was not among the dissenters.
“I was so happy,” he said. “I began watching the news 24 hours a day. It was my dream to see Saddam Hussein fall from power.”
Whatever the state of the political debate in America, Alibrahimi believes victory in this war is inevitable.
“I am more than 100 percent sure we will win,” he said. “There is no war, only a fight against terrorists that don’t like stability in Iraq. They are thugs and want to go back to when thugs ruled the country. It was better for them than peace and democracy.”
Nevertheless, when it is all over, there is only one place Alibrahimi calls home.
“When I am at an airport in the Middle East, they see my hair and skin and know I am Arab,” he said. “But when they ask what country I am from, I am proud to tell them I am American. In Iraq I had no life. It is only in America that I ever began to live.”
–Shawn Macomber is a Boston-based writer. His dispatches from Iraq are collected at www.shawnmacomber.com .