A refuge from all but the memories
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
NEW PORT RICHEY -- For many Americans, proof of Saddam Hussein's past atrocities is words on a page or pictures on a television screen.
For two Iraqi refugees, proof scars their bodies and minds.
For Mr. Amir, proof is a triangle on his thigh.
The scar is the shape of a burning clothes iron pressed against his flesh.
If that's not enough, the former Iraqi prisoner, who is afraid to have his first name published, points to his other thigh.
The dimpled skin bears marks from the acid and fire-hot plastic dripped on his leg.
"I wait for execution," said Amir, 28, of his three years in a Baghdad prison. "I pray every day, 'God, make me dead."'
His crime? He had scrawled, "No Saddam" on a wall in Baghdad.
Amir arrived in New Port Richey 18 months ago, a refugee resettled by World Relief. A few years before, Hussein's regime had executed his mother, father and brother.
An Iraqi Kurd, Dizaey was arrested in 1974 during a crackdown on his ethnic group. He was tortured -- prodded with hot prongs -- for two months until his family bribed officials to release him. He fought against Hussein until he escaped the country.
Dizaey and Amir haven't met.
But their horrific experiences offer a different perspective on the war in Iraq than that of most of their new neighbors. About those who question war's necessity, the men feel the same way.
"They don't know Saddam," Amir says.
Three years of torture, but the worst was to come
Amir's father worked in Saddam Hussein's government as an electricity manager.
"But all the time, he didn't like Saddam," Amir says. "He take everything in the country. He killed so many people. You don't have freedom. You don't have anything in Iraq."
Because of his father's position, Amir moved in some of the same circles as the dictator's family. He remembers seeing Hussein's infamous sons at parties and nightclubs.
The senior Amir's disdain for the Hussein regime rubbed off on his son. Amir, who had studied engineering in college and worked in home construction, began to act on his feelings.
He wrote "No Saddam" on a wall that day in 1996, but someone saw him. He was reported to state security and arrested. For the next three years, he was tortured.
His captors ripped out a toenail and poured salt on the wound, he says, pulling off a sock and shoe to reveal a dead nail. They shot him in the back of the knee, he says, pulling up a pant leg to show a plum-colored bruise.
They would let him heal, feed him good food for 15-day stretches, and then resume the torture all over again, he says.
Finally, the United Nations got involved after visiting his prison in Baghdad. Amir was released in 1999. But the worst was yet to come.
One day that year, in March 1999, his mother called the family's house from her office where she was a doctor.
Your father and brother have been arrested, she told him. His father, who had begun speaking out against Hussein, was a target of the regime. So was the rest of the family.
After she hung up the phone, his mother was arrested, too, Amir later learned.
Amir fled the house. He left town and made his way to western Iraq. With friends' help, he crossed into Syria. He later learned that his parents and brother had been executed just after their arrests.
In Syria, the United Nations investigated his case and granted him refugee status. Through World Relief, he was brought to New Port Richey in 2001 for resettlement. He later moved to Hernando County.
Amir is estranged from his wife and is serving two years' probation on domestic violence charges. Now a convert from Islam to Christianity, he feels alone but for his new church. Amir earned English through classes at Living Word Church on Little Road in New Port Richey. He is looking for a job to start a new life.
He doesn't want to go back to Iraq, even after the war.
"I don't have family," he says, sitting in the vast and empty assembly hall of the church one afternoon last week. "God, he gave me a Christian family."
Hung by his bound hands in an underground prison
Faris Suleimin Dizaey worked for the government, too.
He was the director of agriculture over three cities in the Kurdish stronghold of northern Iraq.
In 1974, Saddam Hussein was second in command behind Hassan al-Bakr in the governing Baath party and in charge of his party's internal security.
It was Hussein who had negotiated a treaty giving Kurds a large amount of autonomy in 1970. But then in 1974, he reneged on the deal and attacked the Kurds.
That year, Dizaey, a Kurd, was arrested in the middle of the night.
He was taken to an underground prison in the northern city of Kirkuk, he says on a recent afternoon in his New Port Richey home where his wife serves a tray of sweet, Kurdish tea.
"We don't see anything," he says.
Guards accused him of being a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party. It was true, he was a member. But he denied it.
"If I say yes, they kill me."
His hands were bound behind his back and he was hung by them from the ceiling.
"Speak!" guards yelled. "We say, 'Kill us, we don't speak anything. We don't know anything."'
They stuck iron rods into flames and poked them into Dizaey's body, he says, pulling up his pant leg to show a scar on his calf. He saw other prisoners tortured: men's ears cut off, a baby crushed, men's fingernails pulled out.
"Some nights we are not sleeping," he says. "They come and take someone and hit him, with, what's called, a whip?"
Dizaey, 62, a slight man with deep-set eyes, jumps off the couch and runs into the kitchen. He comes back with an iron.
"What is this?" he asks in broken English.
"They put in power," he says, motioning as if to plug it in. And then he presses it against the back of World Relief caseworker Mike Salas to show what some prisoners endured.
"They put here and here and take all the meat," he says. "They are not like me or you or Mike. They kill more and more people."
Exile, then battle, then refugee status
After two months, Dizaey's family finally tracked him down and bribed guards to release him. He fled and began fighting Hussein's regime for the next 18 months with the Kurdish army.
In 1975, he was captured and sent into exile for the next five years in the desert town of Nasiriyah, far from the green lush hills of Dizaey's northern home of Erbil.
From 1980 until he left Iraq for good, he moved back and forth to Iran to escape Hussein's forces, returning to fight in defense of the Kurds, who were attacked with chemical weapons.
He and his family left for good in 1996 through Syria. Like Amir, they obtained refugee status through the United Nations and were resettled through World Relief to New Port Richey in 1999.
Dizaey says he would go back and fight right now with Americans if his health weren't failing.
"If it wasn't for surgery, I would be in Kuwait now," he says.
'I must look to America like my country'
World Relief has brought 150 Iraqi refugees to the area in the past 10 years, said David Gray, who heads the office in New Port Richey with his wife, Nancy. Of those refuges, only about three families remain here that he's aware of, he said.
Both Amir and Dizaey believe the war will be a success.
"Iraqi people need American style government," Dizaey says. "We see all the governments of Iraq from the king to Saddam Hussein is one bad government after another. We see no improvement."
But both men say years of American military presence are needed to avoid initial civil war and retribution by people who have long suffered the same torture they withstood. Change must come from the Iraqi people themselves, they say.
Unlike Amir, Dizaey wants to go back some day, maybe forever, once the fighting stops.
"But now," Dizaey says, "I must look to America like my country."
-- Saundra Amrhein can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
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