Escape from Iraq
A Baghdadi father, tortured and threatened with death, lives to tell the tale of his war-torn country
They hadn’t tied his wrists together very well.
Alone in a dark room somewhere in Iraq, Firas Saliba worked quietly to get out of the ropes that bound him. He could only use his left hand; the right wrist hung limp and useless.
Earlier that night in late 2006, his kidnappers told him he would be decapitated in the morning. He struggled through the night, hoping to get out of his ties. And now, as dawn approached, he’d finally freed himself.
Saliba crept toward the door. He hadn’t heard the guards make any noise for several hours. He clutched his right forearm, trying to keep the wrist immobile. His entire body ached from the six-hour beating he’d received the night before.
He grasped the door and cracked it open. He froze a moment, listening for the guards.
No sound. They must be asleep.
He pulled the door open a bit more. Outside, he spotted a guard dozing lightly. The guard held a rifle close to his body and could wake up at any moment.
His steps pounded heavily as he fled from the building where he was held captive overnight. He didn’t know where he was or where he was going, he just knew he had to get away, find help.
The guard at the door had awakened to Saliba’s steps.
“He’s escaping!” the voices yelled behind him. He heard them scrambling. They opened fire.
Saliba kept running. He ignored the pain in his wrist as he kept up for almost a mile. The guards chased after him, yelling and shooting.
Up ahead, Saliba spotted car headlights passing on a highway. If he could flag down a car, he could get away, get away to —anywhere.
Just a few more steps.
And then, just feet from the highway, a bullet ripped through the back of his right leg.
Saliba fell flat on his face. He couldn’t move, not that it would have made any difference now. The guards had caught up. They were a few feet away.
Then, suddenly, they stopped.
“We killed him,” he heard one of them say. And with that, the guards turned away. Saliba lay facedown there on the side of the highway, alone, blood streaming out of the bullet wound.
Life in Iraq had never been easy for Saliba. Under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime there had been little work, and little freedom. When the United Nations sanctioned Iraq’s oil imports after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the economy suffered greatly. Even after Iraq was allowed to sell some oil for food and provisions, members of Hussein’s Baath Party often hoarded the supplies for themselves.
Hussein controlled the media. “We have only three [television] channels then, and all of them is for Saddam Hussein only,” Saliba said, his English still less than perfect, 11 months after finding refuge in the capital of California.
Under Hussein’s rule, Saliba earned a living installing generators at churches and gas stations. He worked for a company that gave him various assignments, and he did his own contract work. Jobs were scarce; he barely made enough to support his young family.
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and Hussein was deposed, jobs became available as the U.S. Army doled out contracts to Iraqi companies for various reconstruction projects.
Saliba took advantage of the work. He installed generators in newly built structures. He helped design and build a major bridge in Baghdad.
And the pay was good. Saliba built a new house with a spacious garden for his wife and young daughter. He filled it with brand new furniture. He bought a cell phone and three cars.
But with that prosperity came huge risk.
While some Iraqis wanted to help rebuild their country, others—including invading militia groups from neighboring countries—were angered at the prospect of the U.S. military establishing a permanent base of operations in the country. Iraqis who worked for the government were accused of spying for the U.S. Army. Anybody who helped the U.S. government in any way was a potential target: translators, contractors, embassy workers, even people washing the troops’ laundry.
And the United States did little, if anything, to protect their Iraqi contractors, according to Saliba. He had to keep his work secret. He parked the car he drove to work several miles away from his house, and he was careful not to tell anybody what he did for a living.
It wasn’t only his work that threatened his safety. Saliba was a third-generation Christian.
While Hussein’s regime oppressed Shiite Muslims—Hussein was Sunni—Christians practiced their religion openly under his rule. But after the U.S. invasion, Saliba and his family had to practice their faith in secret. Invading militias distributed a letter to Christians, giving them one of four options: Pay money to Muslims, convert to Islam, leave their homes or be killed.
For two years after the invasion, Saliba had managed to keep his family safe from the violence. But that, like so much of his life before the invasion, was about to change.
In the early morning hours of April 16, 2005, Saliba woke to head out to work. But as he opened the front door, he saw something strange sitting on his doorstep.
He immediately knew someone had left a bomb for him. A note attached to the bomb read, “You are taking Muslim money. We will kill you and your family.”
Saliba flew through his house, scooping up his wife and daughter as he ran outside to the wall surrounding his property. Frantically, he threw together a makeshift staircase and hoisted his family over the wall separating his house from his neighbor’s.
Once his family was a safe distance away, Saliba called the Iraqi police, who then called in the U.S. Army. Army personnel shut down traffic on Saliba’s street while an army officer defused the bomb.
The bomb was probably more of a threat than an attempt on Saliba’s life—there would have been no point in attaching a letter to a bomb that was intended to detonate. But it was the first time something like that had happened to him; nobody had ever confronted him about his contractor work, and besides, he had gone to great lengths to disguise his involvement with the U.S. military.
Still, the bomb hadn’t exactly been a surprise. “These kinds of threats are made every day in Iraq,” he said. The incident didn’t stop Saliba from working—he was in the middle of a job and he felt it was his duty to do the work he was contracted to do.
In December 2005, he took a 15-day contract in Ramadi, about 68 miles west of Baghdad. He would stay for days at a time at the U.S. Army camp there. For his safety, Saliba always traveled to and from the work site with an armed convoy—it was too dangerous to travel in his own unprotected vehicle.
But on Jan. 3, 2006, the first day his employer’s office was open after the new year, Saliba decided to take his own car to the company office to wish his co-workers a happy new year and then return to camp.
He wouldn’t make it back.
Kidnappings were a common tactic used by militants in those days. At any moment, an Iraqi could be kidnapped for any reason: for being the wrong religion, for working for the U.S. Army or just for ransom money. Saliba never took his daughter outside his home—the chances of someone taking her were just too great.
Some victims were held for ransom. Others were beaten and interrogated. Many were killed.
Saliba’s brother had been kidnapped for his work with the Latin church. The church ended up paying a large ransom for his release. And one of Saliba’s managers raised a six-figure sum to get his own son back.
Just a few days before New Year’s Day, the man who drove Saliba to the job site had been kidnapped, presumably tortured, then killed. In retrospect, Saliba assumed it was the driver who had given up information that led to his own kidnapping.
As he drove away from the office, two cars—one in front and one behind—sandwiched Saliba’s vehicle. Seven masked men jumped out of the vehicles and yanked Saliba from his car.
Saliba said he didn’t feel scared when he saw the men. “That thing was normal in Iraq at that time,” Saliba said. “A lot of people were kidnapped in that way.”
The men covered his head with a black sack and threw him into the back seat of one of the other cars. One of the men used his knee to jam Saliba’s head down into the floorboards.
Saliba lay pinned there while the men drove for some 40 minutes. They yanked him from the vehicle and led him into a dark room, where they wrapped thick rope around his right wrist. With the other end of the rope, they hoisted him onto a hook hanging from the ceiling.
With his feet dangling, Saliba’s body weight was supported entirely by his wrist.
His kidnappers beat him as he hung there, helpless.
“Who are your managers?” they demanded. “Where do they live?”
Slowly, his wrist dislocated from his arm. The pain was excruciating. Still, the beating continued.
Saliba hung there for six hours. Finally, his kidnappers cut him down.
“They take me to another room and they put my hands together, but they are not wrapped very good,” Saliba said.
“In the morning, we will behead you,” one of the men told him.
He heard more talking outside of the room. From the accent, he believes his kidnappers had come to Iraq from Saudi Arabia.
His captors closed the door. Saliba crumbled onto the floor—alone, unarmed, battered.
“It was dark, very dark,” Saliba said.
After his escape that next morning, after being shot through the leg and left for dead on the side of the highway by his captors, Saliba was nearly ready to give up. But somehow he decided to go on. He would not become another statistic.
He couldn’t walk, so he rolled the rest of the distance to the side of the highway.
He tried to flag down one of the passing vehicles. Hopefully he could flag down a vehicle to take him to a hospital in—wherever it was he was. Saliba couldn’t stand. He waved at the cars with his good hand.
Looking around, he figured he was in Baghdad, but he wasn’t sure.
Finally, a passing truck stopped. The driver helped Saliba in and drove him to a hospital. It was then that Saliba learned that he was in Fallujah, a city lying halfway between Ramadi and Baghdad.
After Saliba explained his injury, the doctor told Saliba that he would have to leave. Al Qaeda was running things at the hospital, the doctor warned, and if they heard about Saliba, they would kill him.
The doctor cleansed the bullet wound with some alcohol, administered Saliba an injection for his pain and gave him an official document that he could use to file a report with the police in Baghdad.
From the hospital, Saliba called his brother. His brother picked him up and drove him back to Baghdad, where at 7 in the evening, he finally got treatment for the bullet wound he suffered more than 12 hours earlier.
Saliba couldn’t use his leg for the next nine months—the bullet had severed a nerve—and it would be a year before his wrist healed. Saliba couldn’t work. His wife took a job as a beautician. Between her job, the family savings and some assistance from his brother, the family managed to get by.
Since he wasn’t working for the Army, Saliba figured he might be safer.
But in late 2006, while he was at the hospital for physical therapy, he got a call from his father-in-law.
“Don’t go home,” his father-in-law warned. “They’re looking for you.”
After Saliba had left for the hospital, his father-in-law said, a militia group stormed his house, beat his wife and daughter and stole all their cash and jewelry.
After the militia left, neighbors took Saliba’s wife and daughter to her father’s house. Saliba rushed from the hospital to meet them there.
Saliba had worked hard to provide a comfortable life for his family. For more than two years, he was willing to put his own life at risk, but his family being attacked wasn’t worth those comforts.
The new house, the cell phone, the satellite TV, the three cars—none of it mattered. The violence in Iraq wasn’t getting better, either. Even with all the secrecy, Saliba hadn’t been able to protect himself or his family.
It was time to leave Iraq.
After a couple of weeks at the in-laws’ house, Saliba sold his only possession—a 1985 Buick—and they fled to Syria.
There they joined the 2 million Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria and neighboring Jordan in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The wave of immigrants has taxed the Syrian economy; the refugees compete for jobs with legal residents. The government remedied the problem by stamping refugee passports with a tourist visa, which by law makes them ineligible to work. Of course, that didn’t keep the refugees from finding jobs; it just meant that employers paid workers like Saliba a third of what legal workers earned.
Saliba, his now-pregnant wife and their daughter lived in a cramped, one-room windowless apartment. They were poor, but safe.
Then, one day, Saliba came in contact with a U.N. worker who helped figure out the best option for different refugees: stay in Syria, relocate to a third country or return to Iraq.
“Do you want to go back to Iraq?” the worker asked.
“Take me any place in the world, but don’t take me back to Iraq!” answered Saliba.
Saliba and his family scraped a living for 15 months, nine of those while the United Nations processed their paperwork through the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. Saliba’s wife gave birth to a baby boy. Finally, they got the news that they would be coming to the United States.
Each family member went through a thorough medical examination, including X-rays and tests for AIDS, syphilis and tuberculosis. They took a three-day crash course that taught them about the differences between American and Arab cultures. They learned about their rights and responsibilities as immigrants to the United States. They learned about driving laws, paying bills by check and using ATMs.
Finally, in February 2008, they boarded a plane. They flew from Syria to Budapest, Hungary; then to New York, Dallas and, finally, Sacramento. Through each airport, they clutched a white-and-blue plastic bag identifying themselves as refugees to airport customs and immigration officials.
Saliba and his family were welcomed to California by staff from the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that has been assisting refugees since it was first formed under another name at the urging of Albert Einstein in 1933. In fact, Saliba and his family were the first Iraqi refugees to come to Sacramento as a result of the recent war. More than two dozen have followed.
The IRC staff helped Saliba and his family find their first apartment, register for job programs and, as much as possible, to adjust to their new life in the United States. These days, an IRC volunteer still visits the family in their apartment once a week to check up on them and help out with whatever they may need.
Saliba has also found help through a congregation of Arab Christians, almost all of them immigrants themselves. The Arabic Church of Sacramento helped the family find a bigger apartment and fill it with furniture. An anonymous church member bought them a car; another taught them how to drive it.
Life is certainly safer, said Saliba, but it presents its own challenges, like finding employment.
Despite his extensive mechanical background, Saliba has had trouble finding work. Everything proving his education and background was left in Iraq. When he visited local universities to get information on their certificate and degree programs, he was turned away because, though he holds a university degree, he can’t prove he completed high school, a basic requirement to attend even community college. He recently enrolled in a diesel automotive-technology program and should graduate in nine months.
The classes are mostly review for him. “It’s pretty easy,” he said.
His wife found work in food services for a nursing home.
Their young daughter is enrolled in public school, is learning English quickly and watches SpongeBob SquarePants on Saturday mornings. She doesn’t remember the day the militia stormed her home in Baghdad.
Saliba said the violence has been mostly the fault of neighboring Islamic regimes sending militants—like his Saudi Arabian kidnappers—to destabilize the fledgling government and the reconstruction effort. He thinks neighboring countries are worried that if freedom and stability come to Iraq, those religious governments will lose control of their people.
He believes the United States should stay in Iraq for at least another five years. “If the Army comes out now, you know what will happen to Iraq?” he asks. “It will be a sea of blood.”
Saliba’s right wrist still hurts sometimes. The wound in his right leg finally healed, but the bullet severed a nerve as it tore through his leg.
The pain in his leg—“like knives”—will be with him the rest of his life. He will never run again. Hopefully, he won’t need to.
One of the hardest adjustments for Saliba has been the loss of independence. He is a determined worker, and he left behind a good-paying job when he escaped to Syria. Now, his family lives off of government assistance programs and the kindness of volunteers and church members.
“You know, in our country, I make good money there,” Saliba said. “So we are used to spend money and not to take money from people.”
He laughs when he compares the small apartment he lives in now to the much larger home he built in Baghdad.
“But I don’t care about that. I just want to be safe with my family,” he said. “In Iraq, I couldn’t take my daughter out on the street.”
Now his wife can walk her to school every day.