Sat at home, a notification came through with a beep. The video my eyes would lay upon would offset memories I had long suppressed.
With a swipe I open my messages to find the video that a friend in Baghdad had sent.
The content was expectedly violent. Iraqi police jeering as they beat a shopkeeper of a clothes store in Baghdad’s Karrada district.
He was of a similar age to my brother, early twenties, whose unlawful arrest was the final straw that forced me to flee Iraq and never look back.
Minutes passed by before the boys were gone. Disappeared.
I only knew of their fate after a local resident reported to have seen them whisked away by members of the 11th infantry division. They arrested the boys shortly after teaching them a class in public humiliation.
More accounts surfaced as information slowly trickled through.
I was able to obtain the license plate number of the patrol vehicle. Colleagues searched high and low for a point of contact, eventually tracking the digits of the officer in charge. Denial that the incident ever happened was his only response.
Then came the biggest blow.
“Noor, your brother and his friend were arrested on information that he was running an illegal checkpoint. Police have seized a car loaded with weapons belonging to him”.
The charges against him were fabricated, there was no question. The evidence too, most likely transplanted.
“They were only drinking beer” I told the colleague that had helped obtain the officers number a day earlier.
Not an ounce of truth existed in the claims against him, especially charges of hoarding of guns and ammunition.
“I am in no position to help” the colleague said as my throat became choked by desperation.
“Your brother will be held under ‘Article 4 of Iraq’s anti-terrorism laws”.
“Knock on all the small doors” was his advice, in other words, seek out junior officers. “They’re capable of turning things around”, but “only if they wish.
For those unfamiliar with Article 4, like a black hole, it has disappeared hundreds of innocents.
Chances of their safe recovery is higher when families of the disappeared accept paying a ransom.
Help was scarce, the clock was ticking, and hope was diminishing steadily by the hour.
It wouldn’t be long before the fabricated charges against my brother would reach the respective court.
Insomnia struck. The image of my brother boxed in by the four walls of the infamous unlit cells run by our interior ministry, haunted me, as did the fear of him being tortured.
Work duties were put on the backburner, as I exhausted all work hours trawling and streaming videos of Iraqi men tortured at the hands of security forces.
In Iraq, torture has become the prefered method of extracting money. These videos are a mere cry for help from individuals seeking relief from the government’s oppressive apparatus.
Suddenly an idea came to me like a freight train.
There was one man, a family friend, whose help I had not pushed toward. I dialled into my phone digits pencilled onto a piece of scrap paper.
“Hello” he spoke, before asking me to wait for an hour. He needed to check with ‘al Hajji’ before presenting any help.
I did not know al Hajji, but I heard that, with his help, my brothers release is negotiable. Al Hajji held an important position in government and was perhaps the only person that could drop the fabricated charges against my brother.
Another call. This time an offer. “Don’t worry, al Hajji is a trustworthy man” the go-between man assured, after asking me to meet al Hajji over lunch. “It would just be like chakat al-ibrah (needle prick)”, he repeated this laughing wickedly. Another meaning was intended.
chakat al-ibrah is a term that refers to the pain a virgin feels following sexual intercourse. The fact that the mediator who put me in contact with al Hajji knew my family very well meant nothing.
Shock coursed through me as if the earth cracked and swallowed me whole.
My brother’s life was left hanging in the balance. Everything rested on whether I would accept al Hajji’s seedy ‘offer’. This may be the first story you read, but women are repeatedly blackmailed and coerced into performing ‘sexual favours’. We are unlikely to hear about the fate of those that refuse. I heard about these practices under the former regime, but stories were largely whispered behind closed doors.
I cried a lot, but had yet to reach the end of my road.
I shared my brothers tale with Marwan, my work driver, and by chance he told me that a cousin of his works with the 11th infantry.
He immediately contacted his cousin and promised his release. It also came at a cost, $400 in order to bribe the police.
Without hesitation, I handed him the money, knowing this would be my only chance to save my brother and myself from rape.
My brother returned safe and soundly from the 11th infantry headquarters in al Kam (Adhamiya district) where he was held. I later discovered no charges were brought against him, nor was he tortured.
Triviality was what had allowed the situation to escalate.
The true cause for his arrest was rooted in a personal vendetta held by one of the police officers, who allowed himself to be overcome by jealousy and rage. As the story goes, the arrest was prompted by comments of admiration for my brother voiced by the officer's girlfriend.
The shopkeeper who recoiled on the floor as police officers beat him was also targeted due to the fact that women considered him ‘handsome’.
In July this year, 25 year old Karar Nushi was also singled out and murdered due to his eccentric appearance and looks, which many criticised him for.
I was lucky to know Marwan, the driver who helped with the release of my brother, rescuing me from the two terrifying scenarios, losing my honour or my youngest brother.
Miraculously, I got out, but will others be so lucky? I haven’t any answers, just hope they are.
Noor al Qaisi
Iraqi writer from Sweden