Thursday, March 29, 2007

Love story led to tragedy in Saddam's Iraq

In my first and third post I mentioned that my father's best friend from Iraq, a Sunni Arab from Samarra who held a senior position in the Oil Ministry, was murdered by Saddam's regime in 1986. His name was Mun'im al Samarraie, and he was married to a British woman named Pauline. I was surprised this morning to receive from my father the article below, which is about Pauline's tragic story. My parents had heard that her son disappeared in the late 80s, but they were not certain what happened to him, until now.

On the night my father left Iraq to attend the OPEC meeting in Vienna (October 1982), Mun'im and Pauline implored my father to come back to Iraq and not defect. My father told Mun'im that Saddam's is a dangerous and bloody regime and that he should take his family and leave, but he replied that his parents, brothers and sisters were virtually hostages and, therefore, could not leave Iraq for good.

From The Argus: Love story led to tragedy in Saddam's Iraq

Knowles-Samarraie found herself trapped within a brutal regime and face to face with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Ruth Addicott tracked her down in Rottingdean, where she now lives, to hear her moving and powerful true story.

'The quaint tea shops of Rottingdean couldn't be further removed from the dusty streets of Baghdad, which has seen one of the most brutal regimes in recent history.

Not many people experience both worlds. Pauline Knowles-Samarraie, however, is someone who has.

In the Sixties, Pauline followed her heart and went to Baghdad, where she witnessed the rise and ruthless dictatorship of Saddam Hussein first hand. Her husband was a senior government minister and Saddam used to call their home so frequently, they began to dread the sound of the phone.

He cast a long, dark shadow over their family life to such an extent their only chance of survival was to flee Iraq.

Pauline, 69, has led an extraordinary life, made even more so by the fact she is here in Rottingdean talking about it today.

Four years since the British first sent troops into Iraq, she has decided to share her own personal experience in her book, I Never Said Goodbye.

Pauline was 18 when she first laid eyes on Munem at the Old Cock pub in Halifax. The name was a source of amusement and still makes her smile today.

"He bowled me over," she says. "All the other boys did was comb their hair and fight over girls. He talked about the world and I admired him."

They got married in a Birmingham registry office in 1958. Pauline became pregnant and a year later their son, Mazin, was born.

Her husband Munem was a student at Birmingham University and, as his education had been paid for by the Iraqi government, he was obliged to go back and work for them.

He returned to Iraq and shortly afterwards, at the age of 25, Pauline flew out with Mazin to join him. It was a stifling 42C and Pauline was in no way prepared for the culture shock.

The cultural divide hit home quite literally when she was introduced to the in-laws. The entire family were standing in line waiting to meet her and wasted no time in airing their disapproval at her Western clothes and ways.

Although Pauline and Munem had their own house in a more cosmopolitan part of town, when Munem went away on business, she was obliged to move in with his family.

On one occasion she discovered her dressing table mirror smashed to smithereens a sign of disapproval at her wearing make-up by one of his brothers.

"They didn't like the fact I would walk down the street in a dress or show my arms and legs," she says..

"But I said, I am me, I come from a different culture and I am not changing for anyone'."

Pauline soon made a lot of friends in Baghdad and got a job at the Iraqi Broadcasting Centre.

In 1966, she fell pregnant and gave birth to a daughter Nada and it was around this time she suddenly saw a new side to Munem.

It was while he was away on business and she was having to endure the usual barrage of cruel taunts from the family that she discovered he'd been having an affair.

He swore it was over but further letters she discovered years later (one proclaiming make love not babies') suggested he'd been unfaithful throughout. Munem dismissed it as unimportant and refused to let her leave Iraq. But, as Pauline herself admits, she still loved him.

Munem's commitment to the modernisation of Iraq was indisputable and it wasn't long before he rose through the ranks to become a senior government minister.

Saddam was second in command when both Munem and Pauline were invited to a glittering reception he was hosting at a new club in Baghdad.

Pauline had briefly seen Saddam previously at the family home, when he was a young revolutionary and had come to pay his last respects to Munem's late brother Bedi. But it was at the reception she met him for the first time face to face.

She describes the dictator as being immaculately dressed in a French designer suit and having a rock-star persona' which made women scream and faint at his feet.

"He came over and shook hands with me. His stare was so penetrating, so focused I had to drop my gaze,"

she says. "Every woman in the room was completely drawn in by the aura of power.

"He always had a smile but he loved himself. He just seemed to bask in the knowledge everyone was spellbound."

She adds: "I said to Munem, He's good, isn't he?' Munem said, He's not all he appears. He'd kill his own mother if she stood against him'."

Her husband's words soon echoed true. Just days after Saddam was inaugurated, he called a meeting of hundreds of Baath officials and read out a list of so-called conspirators'.

One by one they were led out and executed, including Adnan Hamdani who had only a few days earlier been appointed deputy prime minister.

It was broadcast live on TV and proved just the beginning of the tens of thousands of Iraqis including Saddam's own henchmen who went missing under his regime.

Pauline recalls the husband of a close friend being among them. Her friend discovered his bullet-ridden body rolled up in a carpet, dumped on her doorstep.

Another friend's husband was detained at Abu Ghraib prison. She was summoned to visit him and led to a room where his body had been dumped in a freezer.

"The true number of deaths, disappearances and imprisonments will probably never be known," says Pauline.

Saddam's presence had an impact on her son Mazin's schooling. Pauline wanted to enrol him in the best school in Baghdad but feared for his safety.

Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay were the same age as Mazin and known to frequently bring guns into the classroom. In the end, she sent Mazin to a different school.

The Baath party had good and bad phases. While they taught a lot of women in poorer communities to read and write, it caused friction within families, who were used to the old system.

"They also encouraged young people to make a report if they saw or heard anything which was against the party," says Pauline. Even her daughter Nada was asked to spy on her parents which she refused to do.

"The whole atmosphere changed," she says. "People stopped chatting in the street and began to stay indoors for fear they might say or do something that could be taken the wrong way. Everyone was terrified.

"There were two plain-clothed men from the Baath party at the end of our street and they'd watch every time I went to the shop."

In the end she stopped going out after 6pm. Paranoia and fear started to creep into all their lives and it became difficult to know who to trust.

As Deputy Minister of Oil, Munem was ordered to witness executions of colleagues and friends. Pauline could only watch as he sank deeper and deeper into depression. According to Pauline, Saddam called their house so frequently they came to dread the sound of the phone.

Munem changed from a charming, smiling man to a shadow of his former self.

Pauline even suspected their home was bugged.

She recalls: "On one occasion, the phone rang and Munem said, Whoever it is, tell them I'm not in'. I answered the phone and as soon as the voice said in Arabic, This is the Revolutionary Command Council', I knew it was Saddam. I said, I'm sorry he's not in'. He said, He must be in. The driver just brought him home'. I was terrified.

I thought, I've really put my foot in it now. I said, Munem has just gone out for a walk'. He said something I couldn't understand in Arabic and slammed the phone down.' The pressure on Munem began to take its toll: "He wanted to leave but how could he? He was being watched all the time," Pauline says.

All residents had to take Iraqi citizenship and, under the regime, Pauline had been forced to hand over her British passport. No one was allowed to leave Iraq without express permission from Saddam.

Eventually, knowing it was their only chance of survival, Munem asked Saddam if his wife and daughter could have a two-week break in England.

Their real plans had to be kept secret and they had to be careful not to pack anything which could suggest they were going for longer.

The aeroplane on that summer's day, August 16, 1984,was virtually empty.

Pauline had made desperate attempts to try to claim dual nationality for Nada, then 18, and, ironically, it was the aid worker Margaret Hassan, who was later kidnapped and killed herself, who ran onto the plane just before take-off to thrust the papers into her hand.

Recalling the moment she left Baghdad for good, Pauline's voice begins to shake. Fighting back the tears, she says: "It was the last time I saw my son alive."

Munem told Pauline he would do his best to get himself and Mazin, then 24, out.

Tragically, the next Pauline heard of her husband was he had been executed. Mazin was also imprisoned but, despite constant phone calls to Baghdad, she could get little or no information about his welfare.

Clinging to the hope her son was still alive and would one day flee Baghdad, Pauline moved to Florida and bought a business for Mazin.

Then, finally, she got some news via a friend that her son had been released.

In 1993, she boarded a flight for Baghdad, clutching a case of new clothes for Mazin. Arriving at the family home, however, she found it all boarded up and she discovered Mazin had been executed five years earlier.

Pauline still struggles to come to terms with the loss. "For five years I strived in every way I could to get him out of Baghdad, thinking he was still alive," she says, tears in her eyes. "Although he wasn't there in person, he was in my heart and I always lived in hope."

It was only after the fall of Baghdad in 2003 she found out where his body was buried in a mass grave outside Abu Ghraib. All Pauline has today is a reference number.

After leaving Iraq she returned to Florida and sold the business. The pain of losing both her husband and her son took its toll on her health and she moved back to Rottingdean, where she now lives.

Asked her thoughts on the invasion, she pauses before answering: "In a selfish way, I am happy they went in because it finally meant I got some answers. It's not the Government's fault other people brought the wars.

I just feel sorry for those who've lost their loved ones. I understand how it feels for a mother, particularly, to lose a son."

Pauline also has mixed feelings about Saddam's execution. In her book she talks of the rage she felt at his opulent lifestyle and flagrant abuse of power while her son and husband perished. "We have to remember he persecuted people from all walks of life not just Shiite muslims," she says..

"I had so much hate for Saddam, it made me ill but that hate has slowly gone it had to. I just feel a sense of peace now this man has finally been made to pay for what he's done." '


Anonymous said...

I am the daughter of Munem Al-Samarraie.

Muhannad said...

Nada? Really? Shlonich? Inshallah zaina.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about the death of your mother. I remember reading about her murder, being battered to death and set alight. So dreadfully sad. May she rest in peace. I note Mohammad Soboh was cleared of her murder.

Woman killed by son-in-law who had previously been her husband

A British woman whose husband and son were executed by Saddam Hussein was battered to death by the man she remarried but had later become her son-in-law, a court heard.

Rottingdean fire death woman was 'unlawfully killed'

The inquest at Brighton County Court heard that Mohammad Soboh, 41, her former husband and later son-in-law, was the last person to see her alive.
He was cleared of her murder in May following a three-week trial.

No family or friends were at the inquest and it was heard that, after being cleared of her murder, Mr Soboh joined his wife and children in Jordan where they now live.

Anonymous said...

This is a tragic story as many Iraqi stories. An entirely country taken hostage and terrorised for so long. I would like to know more about Mazin, the matyred son. I have read that Munem was killed for alleged bribery (obviously false & not warranting death even if true) but what about Mazin. What excuse did the regime give, beside the true reason which to eliminate relative pre-emtively to prevent revenge.

Iraqi Mojo said...

I do not know if the regime gave an excuse for killing Munem and his son.