CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Since Iraq became independent from the British in 1921, it has undergone 11 coups. However, for the better part of the 20th century, the structure of the state had never experienced significant change.
April 9, 2003, however, saw the end of the Iraqi state and the chaotic beginnings of a new state. On that day a line was drawn to distinguish between two eras. It was the first day of my life to live without Saddam.
Saddam was not just a dictator ruling an authoritarian regime. Under his reign, the character and meaning of Iraqi life changed. He confiscated Iraq’s history, civilization and substance. His image and shadow invaded all spaces, even our living rooms. The state that was built by Saddam when he seized power in 1968, the year I was born, was based on two pillars: fear and servility. The people, the state, and material resources were used for more than three decades to serve one man and achieve his brutal goals.
For all Iraqis that could not flee, the end of Saddam was an unattainable dream. It was all the more unimaginable for my generation, whose youth was effectively stolen by the regime. Saddam understood one language: “force.” We were hopeless and powerless. We realized that the end of Saddam could only be carried out by a foreign power, regardless the cost. Eventually we discovered that the cost was high indeed when we became a free people but were without a state.
Three weeks after the U.S. troops’ crossed the Kuwait border to invade Iraq, on that fateful April 9, I had to venture out of the house to see what was going on. There was no television, no newspapers, there was only a transistor radio offering little information.
I saw that the Baath party militia had left their bunkers at the corner of my block and the cars of the undercover intelligence had also gone. That gave me an indication that the war was over and Saddam had been defeated. For the first time in my whole live I felt I was a free man, even the dusty air I breathed was different because it was the air of freedom.
People were pouring out into the streets. Some were carrying booty from state buildings. Others looted the police stations, taking weapons. Witnessing this scene, observing the absence of the rule of law, I immediately felt so deep a worry for the future that it trumped the happiness of having tasted freedom for the first time.
We did not know what was happening at Firdus Square when the American soldiers toppled the statue of Saddam. Eerily, the scene was watched by people all around the world but was witnessed only by few Iraqis.
A friend of my family brought me to see someone who might help to find my brother, Sadun, who had been missing for 10 years. Since Sadun’s kidnapping in 1993 by Saddam’s security police, I had devoted all my time and effort to the one goal of finding Sadun, my elder brother and a father of three. For 10 years, I had been trying to find him to no avail. Sadun’s story was similar to hundreds of thousands of people who had disappeared under Saddam Hussein's rule.
It was early afternoon when my friend took me to the house of a man I had never seen before. They introduced another man: “This man is a major lieutenant in the military intelligence department, he will take you to find your brother.” These words revived my dead hope. I believe this gesture was a significant and early step towards the reconciliation between the perpetrators and the victims.
We drove to the military intelligence department. It was a large compound consisting of many buildings, yards and prisons. Thousands of people were there; some looting, others reading the thousands of dossiers and documents. It was mind-blowing that one day this place could be overrun by civilians. It had been one of the most horrible places during the era of Saddam, practically sacred ground for the Baath regime.
I remembered when I was summoned to that place a few months after my brother’s arrest. They made me sit and wait for five hours just to know the reason for the summoning. The stillness of the room was as heavy as death, despite its being filled with dozens of suspects. The order, structure and security of the place epitomized the strength of the regime. It was unimaginable to see it violated by looters, the most confidential documents and investigative files thrown into disarray, or worse, destroyed, by children driving donkey carts and looking for booty.
Our escort led us to a secret underground prison. People who were looking for their missing loved ones mobilized behind us to open the prison. We could not open the electric doors of the prison because there was no electricity, so we planned to come early the next morning with generators to open the prison’s door. When I returned the next day, the American troops had occupied the place and would not let anyone in. Nearly three years later, the day before New Year’s Eve of 2007, the Iraqi government executed Saddam in that very place.
Eventually I found my brother in a different place. Saddam’s secret forces had murdered him after holding him captive for six months. They buried him in a secret cemetery behind the Abu Graib prison, and it was there that my search was put to an end.
Saddam is gone; however, the scars of the wounds he inflicted and the fallout that resulted from his removal will take very long time to heal, if healing is, in fact, something we can hope for.
Razzaq al-Saiedi is a fellow and researcher at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He reported on conflict and politics in Iraq for the New York Times, 2003-2007.