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During a visit to her native Iraq, Zainab Salbi had an emotional interview with Um Hanadi, a widow who fights -- and beheads -- ISIS militants (YouTube).


Iraqi widow from Tikrit who fights — and beheads — ISIS militants speaks out in emotional interview

By Zainab Salbi on December 12, 2016

This is Episode 3 of The Zainab Salbi Project

I grew up in a house where my room overlooked a cul-de-sac surrounded by eucalyptus trees. Behind it was a library that I visited frequently as I researched for my homework.  My father called the garden that he nourished dearly with roses, gardenias and all kinds of fruit trees his “second daughters.” My mother loved redecorating our home every year with new colors and new collections of furniture and paintings that she collected from all over the world.  

A few years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, that house was turned into an execution center, a brothel and a military operations base. Nothing of my childhood memory was left intact after it was released back to my family — not a branch of a rose bush, not even an electric wire inside the house.

Everything has been pillaged and ruptured. The library has been transformed into a mosque. The eucalyptus trees became concrete walls removed only recently. And the garden is now a new home for a new family and nothing of the house or the neighborhood has much resemblance of how it used to be only 20 years ago.

If my family home was the country, then the country is destroyed and is no longer recognizable.

Though there is no solid number of casualties given formally for the last 13 years, the numbers available rotate between 200,000 to more than 1 million killed, about four million Iraqis became refugees in different parts of the world, and an estimated 2.8 million people were displaced in camps or temporary living in Iraq itself. During my visit for The Zainab Salbi Project, every town, village and city I passed by, from Baghdad to the front lines with ISIS (more than three hours of driving), had been leveled down to the ground and turned into a ghost town.

Those who are in the country are trying to keep a glimmer of hope alive. My cousin Ahmed is a businessman working in food production. He lived in America for 10 years and came back to the country with a sense of duty to do all he can to contribute to its rebuilding. But he had to send his children out of Baghdad when they started telling him how many dead bodies they were seeing in the streets or floating in the Tigris River. “I could no longer have them witness such things,” he said. So he sent them to the Kurdish area in the north, known to be more safe and stable.

Hanaa Edwar, one of the most prominent women’s rights activists in Iraq, insists on staying in Baghdad to fight for women’s rights. “Much of our rights have deteriorated since the invasion,” she told me in a recent visit. “But we are trying to fight back against legal change the parliament constantly tries to impose to clamp down on women’s rights,” she explained.

Hanaa and I grew up in a time where Iraqi women were very active in the workforce, free to travel and dress as they wish and fully populating the streets and the public sector in all professions. Right now, young women have to wear the headscarf to maintain their safety, and many have retreated back to the private sphere in the home due to the insecurity in the streets.  

Hanaa’s contribution to keeping hope alive is by keeping the Amel Center, or the “Center for Hope,” open for youth gatherings. The concerts and activities at the center give them the freedom to be who they are — to create, sing, and discuss ways to build a hopeful future.

Other Iraqis have decided to pick up weapons and fight back against ISIS. Um Hanadi, a woman from Tikrit — the birthplace of Saddam Hussein — has been fighting against ISIS and Al Qaeda for at least eight years. She told me how Al Qaeda, whose members later turned into ISIS, had been after her to join and fight with them. When she refused, they killed every single male member of her family including the love of her life, her late husband and her co-fighter, Abu Shayma. When I met her at the front lines with ISIS, she explained that she will live whatever is left of her life fighting against ISIS until every inch of Iraqi land is liberated.

Zainab Salbi looking at the exterior of the home she grew up in. (YouTube).
Zainab Salbi looking at the exterior of the home she grew up in. She hadn’t seen in it years and learned that it had been turned into an execution center.  (YouTube).

When Americans find out I’m originally from Iraq, I constantly get asked the same question: “Which one is a better time? Saddam’s time or post-Saddam?”

For Iraqis, the answer to this question is a complicated one. Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq for 24 years (1979-2003). His rule was a time of great fear, where any expression of political opinion that may have been slightly critical of his regime was met with the harshest punishment. Iraq went through eight years of war with Iran (1980-1988); he ordered the massacre of the Kurdish populations (1988), massive deportation of Shia population (1980-1982), invasion of Kuwait (1990) and painful economic sanctions throughout the 1990s. But years after the fall of his regime, people also remember his time as a time of security on a day-to-day basis.

There were no random and massive kidnappings for political and financial reasons, no suicide bombings, no checkpoints in the streets, no sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shias, and definitely no Al Qaeda or ISIS — all of which occurred after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Some Iraqis say they preferred Saddam Hussein’s time — for at least it secured day to day safety for those who were not politically engaged.  Some say they prefer post-Saddam era, for they have freedom of expression now, even if there is no security in the street.  

I say it is an unfair question. Iraqis should not have to choose between two bad situations.

Saddam Hussein was a dictator by every definition of the word, and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq has been ruptured by sectarian fighting, ISIS’ brutality and destruction, and a regression of many aspects of women’s rights along with massive corruption at the state level.  

Healing is needed between America and Iraq, not only for Iraqis’ sake, but also to help fight terrorism and violence in Iraq and the surrounding region. Many Iraqis hold the U.S. responsible for their current state of affairs, pointing back to the 2003 invasion and U.S. management of Iraq in the years after.

The disconnect between promises made and what actually unfolded in the last decade has left a gap in the psyche of Iraqi society. That schism has been taken advantage of by terrorist groups who use it to justify their power, and their violent reign.

Healing starts with an authentic conversation to acknowledge what happened. Britain’s Chilcot report, where British government members were held responsible for actions or inactions, is a good model to look at for America.

Beyond political and public acknowledgment, healing can also be helped through compensation. Iraq was left destroyed. The rebuilding of the country is vital not only for Iraqis but for national and international security reasons. Destruction brings more violence. And rebuilding brings the promise of hope. Iraqis need hope, and that hope can have an exponential effect on the region if supported and nourished.

War will never take us to peace. I say build a bridge instead. Even if it gets destroyed, build it again and again until so many people are part of building that bridge it can no longer be destroyed. If we are to really change the narrative of Iraq, we must start by seriously listening to the voice of the youth and women of the country. In it is a new message of hope.

Previously on The Zainab Salbi Project

Woman walked away from a successful TV career and family to pursue a passion prohibited by her culture

Imagine never having to choose between male and female on any legal form

The headscarf, fear and Islamophobia in the heart of America