Previously in Refuge#28 Think of Lenin: In 1979, Saddam Hussein’s government imprisoned Sabah for being a communist. Then from 1980 to 1988, he was conscripted for the Iran-Iraq war. Through these years, Lamia tailored clothes for extra income and was effectively a single mum, bring up their young children alone.


Mid-way through our third interview, Ranin appears in gym clothes, munching on a whole telegraph cucumber. She talks me through a small photo album filled with pictures of the family at various chess tournaments.

‘So basically, my dad allowed us to play chess because it’s like a quiet game,’ she says.

‘I remember in the 90s, I was playing with him like every day, when he came back from work,’ says Iba.

Photo by Sabah Al-anbari
At home in Iran. Ranin is in the centre, wearing a blue sweater.
Lamia is on the far right.

Rua and Ranin joined the Diyala chess club and were selected for the women’s team to represent the state of Diyala in Baghdad. It was well known that Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, who was in charge of sports, roamed the streets of Baghdad and helped himself to any girl he fancied. Suddenly, chess became a lot more dangerous. Although it was socially unacceptable for two young unmarried women to travel without a chaperon, the club paid for the travel expenses of players only. At the time, Sabah and Lamia were barely making ends meet.

So Lamia taught herself how to play chess, studying openings, tactics, endgames, and qualified for the state team. As a player, Lamia chaperoned her daughters to Baghdad at the state’s expense. They checked in to the hotel where the chess competition was held, played their games and Lamia then marched Rua and Ranin straight to their room and locked the door. Sightseeing was completely out of the question.

Ranin went on to study mathematics at the Baqubah University and became part of the National Iraqi Chess team, representing her country in the Middle East and Europe and winning equal second place in the women’s category at the Arab League Chess Championships in 2002.

Meanwhile, UN parties searched for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Although no such weapons were found, Baghdad was invaded and occupied by the Americans on 9 April 2003. Saddam Hussein and Uday Hussein had already fled the city.

American soldiers followed American bombs. Hulking men in bulletproof vests, carrying machine guns, knocked at the door of Sabah and Lamia’s home in Baqubah a few days later.

‘Any weapons here? Do you know any terrorists?’ asked the soldiers.

Iba interpreted for his parents and told the American soldiers at their door, ‘We don’t have any weapons. We don’t know of any terrorists here.’

When the soldiers heard Iba speaking, they said, ‘Hey, you speak English? We’ve this whole neighbourhood to work through but nobody can understand us. Can you come and interpret for us?’

Iba agreed and spent the afternoon with the American soldiers, knocking on familiar doors, speaking to the people of his neighbourhood in old Baqubah, many of whom knew him and his family. The Iraqis stiffened at the sight of the Americans and said, ‘We don’t want the Americans in our house.’

People spoke to Sabah and Lamia after that saying, ‘Why did you let Iba interpret for the Americans? It might cause trouble – people will hear that he worked for the Americans; you shouldn’t have allowed him to.’

But Iba was not worried about associating with the Americans, and neither was Sabah. The Americans had made sweet promises and Sabah had believed them. Wanting to play his part in bringing change, he joined Red Cross and then later the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to organise courses for Iraqis, to teach Iraqis about human rights.

The Americans disbanded Saddam Hussein’s government, army, and police. In an effort to wipe out all positive references to Saddam Hussein’s legacy, they pulled down statues and renamed places, such as Medina Saddam, which became Medina Sadr.

The Americans also barred Ba’athist Party members from holding any position of authority. Ironically, the Americans appointed a communist party member as the new Minister of Education. After all, communists were among the educational elite of the country. Furthermore, Saddam Hussein’s systematic persecution and execution of all threats to his power over a twenty-four-year dictatorship, coupled with the American exclusion of all Ba’athist Party members, meant that there were very few qualified candidates.

Just days after the invasion, American soldiers in many parts of the country came under sniper attack; they hopped back into their tanks and retreated to their barracks, confused by the hostility of the people they thought they had come to liberate.

The Americans couldn’t distinguish friends from enemies. This gave rise to an injustice that all school children are familiar with, when the teacher says, ‘If I can’t find out who did it, I’ll punish the whole class.’ Sabah’s third brother was arrested by the Americans and incarcerated for a full year because a roadside bomb exploded near his workplace. They didn’t even know his name; they just arrested all who were near enough to have been a suspect.


In early 2004, pictures of unimaginable acts of depravity committed against Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers in the refurbished Abu Gharib prison, once Saddam Hussein’s most notorious prison, were splashed on front pages of newspapers all around the world. The pictures confirmed Sabah’s suspicion that the Americans had been lying. They had not brought freedom; they had not brought peace; living standards had not improved. Violence in Saddam’s reign had been organised and out of sight, now it was random and in full view of the public. Sabah stopped working with the UNHCR.

One morning, an explosion rocked Sabah and Lamia’s house. The family woke up to find debris everywhere, their doorknob blown clean out of the door, a deep gash gouged in their satellite dish. Thankfully, they were unharmed.

All the glass windows of their neighbour’s house were shattered. A dismembered hand lay in the smithereens. A man covered in blood, his trousers in shreds as if they had been cut with giant scissors, stumbled into their house asking for help. A suicide bomber had driven into a crowd of people registering for the police force, the registration exercise held at a school just behind their house.

As the weeks dragged on, the tree-lined streets, fountains and monuments in this ancient city of Baqubah, where homes were built with bricks a foot thick in the style of Mesopotamian architecture, gave way to rubble, ruins and mangled steel. Lamia cried each time her husband or her children stepped out of the front door, crying for fear that she would not see them alive again.

The death threat on Sabah confirmed that it was time to go.


To be continued in next week in Refuge#30 Just a Number. This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge, a collection of true stories. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.


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