'I can't begin to tell you what happened when they started shooting'
How a Kurdish man survived Saddam Hussein’s regime. And what happened next …
Hama grew up in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq in the 1960s. He was the middle child of ten children. This is his story, as told to Naomi Reed:
“Back then, and even now, if you’re born a Muslim, you’re a Muslim, even without praying, or practising anything.”
“We didn’t even know what peace was.” – Hama
“My father didn’t pray or follow any Islamic practices, but my mother did. She prayed to Allah every day, memorising the prayers in Arabic. I would watch her, knowing she didn’t understand what she was praying. She didn’t speak Arabic (she only spoke Kurdish), but she prayed anyway. I could understand Arabic. I knew what my mother was saying, and she didn’t. It felt to me like it was an outward behaviour, not coming from the heart. But I was fearful of God.
“If I did something wrong, even if no one else saw me, I thought he was watching. And he might punish me.
“Mostly, though, I had questions about peace. There was always a war or a battle happening somewhere in Iraq. It was ‘normal’ for the Kurds. We hadn’t had a day’s peace for hundreds of years. We didn’t even know what peace was.
“It felt like there was no way out, and no end to the fighting, and no end to Saddam Hussein’s regime. His army had completely destroyed and mined 4000 of our villages, and 180,000 Kurdish civilians had been mass murdered. Everybody was afraid of him. Even if they got rid of Saddam, he had two violent sons. We felt like nobody could do anything.
“Then, in August 1988, the long war between Iran and Iraq came to an end. At that point, Saddam offered amnesty to all the men in hiding from the Iraqi Army military service. Saddam said our names would be officially cleared. Along with tens of thousands of other Kurdish men from my city, I reported to the local Iraqi Army registration office.
“It was a trick. Without warning, the officers divided us into groups and sent us off in buses during the night. We had no idea where they were taking us. Before dawn we were off-loaded at an army camp in southern Iraq. We were all back in the army.
“Saddam was very powerful. He had a million soldiers in Iraq. There was nowhere to run. Even if we had tried to escape and leave, we wouldn’t have been able to get past the checkpoints.
“In September 1990, Saddam was ready to invade oil-rich Kuwait. My infantry unit was sent south to Hillah. I was worried.
“In the army, you’re meant to wear a chain around your neck, with a metal tag on it. It’s identification for when you die. Everybody’s name is punched into the metal. But because we were Kurdish, we weren’t issued with ID tags. I didn’t know what to do. If I died without a tag, nobody would know who I was. My mother would never know if I was dead or alive. She would spend the rest of her life crying. I couldn’t bear that.
“I went into hiding for seven months.” – Hama
“So I escaped. Our troop stopped by a river. They all wanted to swim. I declined, saying I’d stay with the empty bus. While they were down at the river, I left my rifle, picked up my small bag, and quickly walked to the highway. All I had in my bag was a piece of bread and some dates.
“I managed to catch a bus north to Baghdad. Then after a few days, I got back to my Kurdish hometown. I went into hiding for seven months. A neighbour and I dug a big hole in our front garden. It was enough for us to squash into, with a tray of soil over the top …
“In March 1991, Iraq was defeated by Coalition Forces in the Gulf War. Immediately, Saddam ordered his tanks and helicopter gunships to take revenge on the Shiite and Kurdish populations of Iraq. Everybody was terrified. Families were scrambling out of their homes, shouting to their neighbours, ‘Run towards the mountains!’ We could hear the gunfire. There were tanks surrounding the city and bombs going off.
“Everyone was running, heading north up the mountains, into the prohibited, land-mined border zones of Iran and Turkey.
“I can’t tell you the things I saw.” – Hama
“I was with my parents and two of my sisters, halfway up the mountain. An army helicopter started shooting into the crowds. There were thousands of us jammed together, trapped on the steep narrow road up the mountain. The bullets landed on an open truck, immediately in front of me. It was carrying women and children.
“I saw a mother cradling her baby. And then I saw the top of the baby’s head blown off, in the mother’s arms, straight in front of me.
“I can’t begin to tell you what I saw. Hundreds stumbled and fell to their deaths down the ravine. Terrible things happened. The baby’s face was gone, and the mother was screaming, but the truck kept driving up the mountain. It couldn’t stop. It kept going … I can’t tell you the things I saw.
“But after a week walking in the rain and snow, we made it to a destroyed town in the mountains. We were cold and hungry. There were land mines and booby traps everywhere. After three weeks, a small Red Cross team arrived, distributing tents and blankets, and they brought in food. I was the first Kurd who volunteered to help them. I did English-Kurdish interpreting for them, and became their camp manager. My family returned home, but hundreds of thousands of displaced families remained in the mountains.
“They were too shocked to move, and they had no safe places to return to.
“For the first time I had the opportunity to read about Jesus.” – Hama
“One day though, everything changed for me. I was visiting the camp manager of a Christian aid group. He was a Kurdish man. And among his few possessions I was surprised to see a Bible in Arabic.
“I’d heard about Jesus once when I was a child, and ever since then I’d wanted to find out more. I’d even visited a church while I was at university in Mosul, but no one spoke to me. None of my university friends knew anything about Jesus.
“And there in the mountains, the camp manager gave me his Bible. For the first time I had the opportunity to read about Jesus.
“I started with the Gospel of Matthew. I remember reading up to chapter six. And in chapter six it says that when you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. Don’t show off on the street corners, or pretend, or use long, complicated words that you don’t understand. Just go to your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who knows what you need. He’ll listen to you.
“It all made sense to me! And Jesus said we can ask for forgiveness. Jesus said don’t do things out of ritual, or because other people are watching you, or telling you to do them. Your heavenly Father knows what you need. He’s listening to you. You can talk to him. It was quiet and humble… and it felt like everything I was looking for was on those pages, especially what Jesus said about prayer and forgiveness.
“From then on, everything changed for me.” – Hama
“So I sat there in the mountains, surrounded by tents and snow and refugees, and I kept reading. I didn’t understand everything about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but I kept reading.
“I remember the first time I joined the foreigners’ prayer meeting. It sounded so different. It wasn’t like Muslim prayers. They didn’t stand up and bow down or repeat the same thing, over and over again. They just spoke from their hearts. It felt new. And there seemed to be peace for the first time.
“After that, I began to pray myself, in my heart and sometimes out loud. I didn’t know any Kurdish followers of Jesus at that time, so I continued to join the foreign group when they met to pray and sing songs of praise in English. I had peace in my heart.
“For the first time, I knew God was listening to me. From then on, everything changed for me.”
This is an edited extract from Naomi Reed’s new book, ‘Finding Faith – Inspiring conversion stories from around the world’ (Authentic Media, UK). Available online and in all good bookstores.