“The decision to leave Iraq permanently, was taken after an incident in 1997. I had just graduated and already worked as a doctor in a hospital in Bagdad. Two men in suits, who claimed to be her family, brought in a woman. She showed signs of rape and torture. I was asked to sign a statement saying that she had been in a car accident. I tried to get around it, said that we would hospitalise her, but that was not the idea, they only wanted my signature and were planning to take her away immediately after they had it. If I didn’t sign, I would end up in prison myself. Fortunately my shift ended; I was able to get away without them seeing and I left the hospital. I never returned. Of course I was afraid, these were people from the secret service, and that woman had no chance anyway. But I also had the feeling, and that was for the first time in my life, that I had done something brave: I hadn’t signed. This was my small war against the regime. But now I really had to leave.”
A kind of Dubai
The Al-Nasiry family was not very politically minded. Quite the opposite, actually. A decent family of doctors, who kept well away from all social controversies. They were religious, but far from extreme. Shiites, like the majority of Iraqis. “My parents met at the university in Bagdad, they both studied medicine, were in the same year, fell in love, graduated and got married. My mother became a gynaecologist, my father an internist. When I was two, in 1974, we left for London, where my father specialised further and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians. We lived there for five years; I still have a lot of love for England. We returned in 1979. Well, why not? Iraq was a fine country then, a kind of Dubai. There was oil, education was good. Saddam Hussein, leader of the Ba’ath Party, came into power in that year. My father was sent to Karbala, to the south of Bagdad. Specialists couldn’t just set up anywhere they liked; they were spread out over the country. Our family lived in Bagdad, but that wasn’t an option.”
Karbala is a Shiite sanctuary and so an important place of pilgrimage for the Iraqi Shiites. “There is a large event every year, worshippers walk to the town flogging themselves. As a child, I already thought this was taking things too far, and my family thought it was excessive too. For Saddam, a Sunni, all Shiites were suspicious anyway. When I was older, I had friends, proud Shiites, who participated in religious festivals and were therefore watched by El-Mukharabat, the secret service. So I thought: ‘If I did have religious ideas – which was not really the case, and today even less – I would be better off not expressing myself.’”
A year after he assumed power, Saddam started a war with Iran, the arch-rival in the region. The war would last eight years. Karbala was safe, even for the (Shiite) Iranians it is a holy city. Saddam also waged war against the Kurds in the country, which culminated in the attack with poisonous gas on Halabja in 1988.
That atrocity made less of an impression in the country than you would expect.
“No, we were hardly concerned about that at all. It was far away in the north, the news that we received was biased, and the Kurds were always portrayed as the villains, rebels who were now defeated. You didn’t talk about anything, not even with your friends. Some were more fanatical about their religion, they were afraid of informers, who knows I might have been one. So we avoided those subjects.”
Up to a point, life just went on, certainly when the war was over in 1988. “We were doing well economically, and now we could finally travel abroad again. I was one of the best in school; towards the end, I was in a separate group the majority of whom wanted to study medicine. I did too, for me it was an obvious choice. After the war, my parents decided to move to Bagdad where both of them wanted to set up their own private practices. They bought land to build a house. I was already at the university there and had just completed my first semester when war broke out again; it was 1990. Nobody had expected that.”
Saddam attacked Kuwait, a blitzkrieg that would lead to the Gulf War and would last until 1991. This time the consequences for the county were disastrous. Because after the United States and its coalition partners took action, there was a revolt against the regime in which fourteen of the sixteen provinces chose the side of the opposition.
“The new house in Bagdad had not been completed yet and my parents still lived in Karbala when the town, with the aid of Iran, fell into the hands of Shiite rebels. They were of the assumption that the US would support them, because they were against Saddam Hussein. His photograph was already being ripped to pieces in Karbala. But those appeared to be false promises, Saddam signed an agreement with the US and the next day we saw army pamphlets ordering an evacuation of the city. They would be coming with chemical weapons.
“We left in two cars, our family and three relatives. Neighbours gave us an address where we could go, about 10 to 15 kilometres from Karbala in the direction of Bagdad. A green area, lots of date palms, there were only farmers living there. My parents were simply dressed, not to be recognised as doctors and be accused for having helped the rebels. We stayed for two weeks, until the army turned off the water supply because they thought there were rebels in the area. The family of farmers remained – they survived, much later we returned to thank them - and we went on our way to Bagdad, using small roads. You could be shot at by both parties and there was one roadblock after the other. That is when you realise your life is not worth much. It depends on the person who stops you, you mustn’t panic. My father was visibly ill, maybe that was enough to gain sympathy at the first army checkpoint; we were allowed through.
“You only have one instinct at such a time, which is survival. You are in shock, you are afraid; you say and do what you are told. You know what can happen: I had friends from university who had disappeared and whom I have never seen again.
“At the second checkpoint, the fear was less, we had already passed one, and at the third things went really quickly. After a couple of hours we reached my grandfather’s house in Bagdad. When I think about it, I get emotional all over again. Everyone was crying, it was an explosion of emotions, we had escaped death, that is how it felt.”
After a few of weeks, life went back to normal. “We started to think about the future again. We lived life and felt safe, all the rest is less important. Everything was still rationed, electricity and water supply didn’t function properly, but we had money so we had fewer problems.”
Al-Nasiry continued with his studies and graduated in 1996. But he wanted to leave, go to another country. “I thought, things are not going to get any better here. We knew what the world had to offer, we watched TV, saw all kinds of nice things, MTV, the Simpsons, you name it, so you think: there is also a different kind of life. At the end of the nineties, there was a real mass emigration from Iraq, especially intellectuals left. Six months after graduation, 30 per cent of all doctors had left, after a year the figure had gone up to 60 per cent; eventually it was 90 per cent. Those who remained, were either afraid or had no money. The younger generation’s spirit had been broken, you wanted a future. Don’t forget, you always had one question at the back of your mind: when will Saddam start the next war? Stay so you can do something for your country? An honest answer? You are a doctor, but you are also thinking about yourself.”
The incident with the woman who had been tortured by the secret service was the last straw. Nine months after his graduation, he left, in 1997. With a forged passport, because doctors were not allowed to leave the country. How did his journey go?
Salwan al-Nasiry becomes quiet. He will not go into detail. Because, he says, he is a little ashamed of the rest of the tale. “I could make my story much more dramatic than it is, but honesty is the best policy, and I am more of an economic asylum seeker. I did not necessarily need to leave. I could have brushed off that incident with money and then I could have remained in Bagdad and continued to work as a doctor. Of course it was unsafe, but I do not want to compare myself with a Syrian who is fleeing for his life, in a small boat, carrying his children. If Europe had to choose between him and me, I would immediately give up my place. I am not the only one who manipulated the truth a little, everyone does it, nobody wants to run the risk of being sent back. The next step in you life depends on what you say at that moment. I think honesty is extremely important but I felt, at that time, that I didn’t have that luxury.”
Al-Nasiry is very glad with the chances that he was given. He learned Dutch within a couple of months - having completed a medical study in English in Bagdad - and he achieved his doctor’s title in Leuven within six months, after which he specialised as a gynaecologist.
“I did not want the image of being an asylum seeker who just took advantage of things, so I worked really hard. You want to give something back to this honest and hospitable society.”
He thinks that his background makes him a different kind of doctor.
“I have been through a lot, I have seen how much misery you can have in your life, and I understand people. Women now come to me when colleagues don’t have the patience, the ‘difficult’ patients. I don’t want to lose the human approach.”
He has trouble with the present refugee debate, especially where it concerns the economic refugees. “Every human being in the world deserves an honest chance. Nobody leaves his or her country just like that. You leave everything behind, your home, family, friends, and your whole history. And why should we Europeans deserve a better life than others? It is even worse to see people dying of hunger every day in Africa, isn’t that even more unfair? There is no simple solution, but it is certainly not the approach of the extreme right. Selecting people on the basis of their religion or the colour of their skin, you just can’t do that.”
He no longer worries about his future. “Suppose things got so out of hand that I would have to leave Belgium, or that someone like Wilders would want to rid the country of people with strange names. Then, of course, you would have to join in the debate; you have to protest against it. Fleeing again is not an option, I feel. But if things really got very bad, I can fortunately always go somewhere else.”