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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 April, 2003, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Painful memories of home

By Stephen Sackur
BBC correspondent in Brussels

"They've bombed Mansour," says the woman on the sofa, not taking her eyes off the television screen. She's looking at grainy night-time footage of Iraqis standing bemused in front of a black gash in the ground.

"Four 2,000lb bombs..." the reporter intones. "The building, a restaurant. Saddam Hussein was said to have entered just 40 minutes before the strike."

The bombed street in Mansour
The US bomb was aimed at a restaurant where Saddam Hussein was believed to be
The woman is frowning, staring intently at the images. Looking for clues. She's not trying to spot Saddam Hussein's feet sticking out of the rubble, she's looking at the wrecked buildings next to the blast site, at the date palms on the pavement, the shape and the texture of this neighbourhood street.

And, as she stares, she's trying - trying so hard - to remember. Back 25 years, back from womanhood to childhood, back to her Mansour. Heat, dust, distant laughter - memories of a big villa on a broad Baghdad avenue.

Could this be it? Could the Americans have dropped their bunker-busting bombs on her street? However hard she stares, the woman can't be sure. Until she was 14-years-old, Mansour was her home, now it's an idea in her head, a longing in her heart.

Executed

This confusion of images and impulses is what it means to be an Iraqi exile in war time.

The woman on the sofa is one of millions of souls driven from Iraq by the cruelty of Saddam Hussein. She is also my wife.

Zina's story isn't unique, it isn't special - in fact it is numbingly familiar. Her father was from Sinjar, a hill village not far from the northern city of Mosul. He established a business in Baghdad, did well, lived well. But all the while Iraq was being slowly strangled by the fascism of the Baath Party.

One of the numerous statues of Saddam in Baghdad
The Iraqi leader kept a close grip on the country
For Zina, the schoolgirl, that meant little more than mandatory marches in oppressive heat - mindless chants in praise of Saddam Hussein. But for her father it meant grave danger.

As the political atmosphere worsened Zina was sent abroad to boarding school. It was there, in cold, wet England, that she was told her father was dead - executed by Saddam's enforcers.

Her mother was placed under house arrest - then kicked out of the country after a terrifying year. The family hasn't been able to set foot in Iraq since.

There have been strange twists on the road from then to now. By 1991 Zina and I were about to get married. I was sent out to cover the first Gulf War by the BBC. For a few short weeks I believed I might be able to bring her first news of her country's liberation from tyranny... but it wasn't to be.

The year afterwards, we settled in Cairo. We promised each other we would stay in the Middle East long enough to witness the demise of Saddam Hussein.

Tales of Baghdad

In the early 1990s, I made several reporting trips to Baghdad, but each one was more depressing than the last. Saddam's Iraq was like Stalin's Soviet Union - a republic of fear in which truth-telling was punishable by death. Even within families there could be no trust, no honesty. You could never, ever, be sure who was being blackmailed, squeezed, by the mukhabarat, the secret police.

A potent image of the regime crumbling
The state machinery of torture, terror and murder is being dismantled
Before one trip I naively suggested to Zina that I might visit her former home - the villa in Mansour. She looked at me as if I were mad.

"As soon as you do that they'll be interrogating the neighbours, destroying dozens of lives. Stay away," she said. She was right.

A generation of Iraqi families in exile have felt their links to their homeland frayed by time. Zina's own siblings and mother escaped with their lives. But what of her childhood friends, Shireen, Zeinab, Ayesha? What became of her teacher, Miss Malvina?

This is the exile experience. All the ties that bind, that make an identity, a life, are blown to the four winds.

We've had three children in the course of our travels. They love to listen to their mother's tales of Baghdad, but to them Iraq shimmers untouchable on a distant horizon.

Ironically, the two youngest were born in the United States. American passports they could have, Iraqi passports they could not.

Maybe, just maybe, all that will change now. The tyrant's grip on this ancient land has been conclusively loosened. For the first time in three decades Iraqis have that most precious commodity - hope of something better.

Which isn't to say Zina has found it easy to watch American bombs rain down on her country. This war has brought anguish and tears. And there will be no easy path to peace.

But Saddam's rule is over - what a wonderful, simple fact that is. The state machinery of torture, terror and murder is being dismantled. And surely that is reason enough to declare this a war worth fighting - for the futures of 24 million people inside the country, and millions more outside, who can now contemplate the journey home.






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