Surviving terror: Confessions of an Iraqi translator
Watching the men approach, Ahmed Abdullah readied the Glock 9 mm pistol in his lap and waited.
Traffic had stalled, as it often did, on Main Supply Route Tampa. American forces somewhere ahead were sweeping for improvised explosive devices, turning the highway from Balad south to Baghdad into a makeshift motor camp. Parked vehicles, scattered haphazardly on and off the pavement, had disgorged their occupants into the summer heat. People stood in clusters to talk or walked in search of a breeze.
Not all of the vehicles were empty, though. Abdullah, for one, remained in his sweltering Ford Windstar minivan, leaning outside the driver's side window. His face betrayed no evidence of the fear that was trickling like perspiration down his spine.
Surrounded by danger
Abdullah, now 31, was no stranger to terror. He'd lived with it his entire life; by now it was as familiar as hunger and discomfort. All three were the product of growing up in an Iraq governed by dictator Saddam Hussein and the Sunni-led Ba'ath Party.
Hussein had risen to power through luck and intention. He was an early member of the revolutionary Baathists, who merged a wave of nationalistic fervor with socialism. Hussein failed in an attempt to assassinate a government official, then survived exile and imprisonment to become a political strongman, officially taking power as Iraq's president in 1979.
The occasion was marked by blood. Hussein immediately denounced many of his fellow Baathists as traitors, and within two weeks, hundreds had been executed.
Hussein was a Sunni, like Abdullah and about 80 to 90 percent of Muslims worldwide. In Iraq, though, the majority population is Shi'a. The two major Islamic sects are much the same but divide along some theological, legal, economic and social lines. Both suffered under Hussein's totalitarian regime.
"Hussein ... was one of the world's indisputably evil men: He murdered as many as a million of his people, many with poison gas," Dexter Filkins wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2007. "He tortured, maimed and imprisoned countless more. His unprovoked invasion of Iran is estimated to have left another million people dead. His seizure of Kuwait threw the Middle East into crisis.
"More insidious, arguably, was the psychological damage he inflicted on his own land. Hussein created a nation of informants -- friends on friends, circles within circles -- making an entire population complicit in his rule."
Abdullah was raised in Baghdad, but at age 13, he moved with his family to Balad, a community of about 70,000 people about 50 miles to the north. His father was a judge. The family was Sunni by tradition but not by practice; religion was dangerous, and they lived in a Shi'a neighborhood.
The family had a large home -- five bedrooms, two showers, an expansive lawn -- but little money. Access to essential services was sporadic.
"Saddam said it on TV," Abdullah recalled. "No water and no electricity because of U.S. sanctions."
What they did have, at least when the power was on, was access to two state-run television stations. One of them, operated by Saddam's son Uday Hussein, broadcast American movies at night. Abdullah and a friend watched whenever they could, fueling a growing obsession with the western world.
That obsession only increased when they discovered Metallica.
For years, Sunni rebels and insurgents loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had peppered Main Supply Route Tampa with explosives. By now, in 2006, what was once a smooth highway had become a ragged honeycomb of potholes and drop-offs. The tactic not only caused civilian and military deaths from explosions, but also left stopped travelers on Tampa open to carjacking, abduction and murder.
Drivers were left with two options: Hunker down with other travelers on Tampa or risk turning off on dirt roads. The latter choice, Abdullah knew, was more perilous; alone on the rough tracks you were most vulnerable to predators. So he stayed with the pack, enduring the heat and checking his mirrors for signs of trouble.
It was 1997, and Abdullah was sick of Arabic love songs. He wanted something new, something edgy, something he'd never heard before.
He just didn't know what.
He knew of only two record stores in the entire country. Neither had large collections of American music. Owning it, listening to it -- that was suspicious behavior. Still, he and his friend decided to risk it.
Music stores in Iraq don't operate the way they do here, or at least they didn't back when Abdullah was a teen. The stores sold pirated recordings. Customers made their selections and handed the shopkeeper a cassette tape. For a price, the shop owner dubbed the original recording onto the customer's tape.
At one of the shops, Abdullah and his friend found a dusty copy of Metallica's 1996 album "Load." They tried to buy it, but the shopkeeper said the tape they'd brought with them was too old to use. Money was so tight Abdullah's father had to take out a loan to buy them a new tape. Soon they were listening to metal music for the first time.
It seemed like nonsense. They loved it.
"They were screaming and everything," Abdullah said. "I couldn't understand anything. I got my father to buy me an English dictionary. We'd play that tape over and over, trying to figure out the words."
Watching movies on TV became more important. They'd try to memorize dialogue, work out the spellings and look them up in the dictionary. Once they went to a Baathist cyber cafe in Baghdad, intending to search for lyrics to the Metallica songs, but there was no privacy, and they feared they'd get in trouble.
"The West, the American ideology, you shouldn't mess with that," he said. "You can't get close to it."
Word by word, though, they were teaching themselves English. At first it was simple nouns, the easiest things to memorize. Then came adjectives, adverbs, verb declensions and articles, which often pose problems for non-native speakers. In time they could shout along with Metallica or watch John Woo's "Face/Off" and understand every word.
They didn't know it, but their language skills were about to become valuable.
Abdullah's eyes fixed on two men.
Nothing about them signaled danger, yet he found himself staring all the same. He watched as they wound their way past the vehicles. They wore clean shirts and jeans, and their mustaches were well groomed.
Abdullah tracked them in his rearview mirror, then his side mirror. His hand gripped the Glock tightly. When they reached his van and continued past it, he got a better view. No sign of weapons. Nothing to suggest they were a threat.
His chest loosened as some of the tension ebbed. Nothing to worry about, he thought. It's all right.
Then the gunfire started.
In America, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything.
The nation watched, horrified, as the twin towers collapsed and smoke rose from the Pentagon. Word that another passenger jet had crashed in rural Pennsylvania merely added to the misery of that terrible day.
It seemed as if everything should stop, as if the world should observe a period of mourning. Businesses here shut down. The skies emptied of planes. Stranded passengers communed with others and reconsidered travel plans.
It was, perhaps, the worst day in U.S. history.
But in Iraq, the terror attacks barely registered. The two state-run television stations, Abdullah said, offered minimal coverage.
"The only way to get the real news, what was really going on, was to listen to the Voice of America, which broadcast in Arabic three hours a day," he said.
Many didn't listen.
"They didn't care because they didn't have a chance to care" about what was happening in America, he said. "All their living went toward staying alive. ... You had to go to work, earn some money to feed your family."
The next year, Abdullah began his compulsory military service as a lab technician in a military hospital. He kept his ear to the radio, hearing the drum beats of war getting closer and closer. In 2003, when it seemed the invasion was imminent, Abdullah's father and brother, a colonel in the Iraqi air force, pulled strings to get him a week's leave.
When his leave ended, Abdullah didn't return to work. He was a deserter.
"I prayed the war would start because if it didn't, I would be executed," he said. "The military puts you up against the wall, and they shoot you. They cover your eyes and shoot you."
He'd timed his departure well. Within days of Abdullah going into hiding, the U.S.-led assault commenced.
"I stayed at home," Abdullah said. "No one could go anywhere. You'd just hear the bombing. It was loud. ... At nighttime, every 30 minutes you'd hear another bomb, a big one. Because there was the Balad air base, one of the biggest in the Middle East, they bombed that base repeatedly."
Local reaction to the invasion is tricky to gauge. While those who benefited most from Hussein's rule saw their wealth and power stripped away, common folk cheered the Americans as conquering heroes. Abdullah said the Shi'a, in particular, were buoyed by the fall of the Ba'ath Party, but Sunni families like his also saw U.S. troops as saviors.
Nowhere did that seem more obvious than in Baghdad's Firdos Square, a public space near the Sheraton Ishtar and the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists were staying. About a year before, a 39-foot statue of Saddam Hussein had been installed in the square for the tyrant's 65th birthday.
Soon after U.S. forces rolled into the square, Iraqis set out to topple the statue with a sledgehammer and rope provided by American forces, according to an article in the Jan. 10, 2011, edition of The New Yorker. After awhile, when it became apparent the Iraqi effort wasn't working, a heavily armored American M88 Recovery Vehicle pulled down the statue. With so many journalists present, the event was broadcast worldwide -- a shining symbol of American altruism.
Only later did people question whether the statue's fall had been staged for the cameras and if the number of cheering Iraqis had been overstated. Within Iraq, one thing was obvious:
"The joke in Iraq is that Iraqis couldn't even bring down the statue on their own," Abdullah said. "Even for that, they needed American help."
A couple cars ahead of Abdullah was a brand new BMW. He'd noted it, not without envy, as he waited in the line of stalled traffic.
Now, he could see, the two men who'd roused his suspicions earlier had pulled out guns and were firing into the air. He watched as one pulled the driver out of the car and forced him to the ground.
Abdullah's pulse raced. He couldn't let this happen. He was armed. He could stop them.
But what if they weren't alone? They'd come from somewhere behind him. His eyes darted to the mirror. Were there more of them coming?
Working for the coalition
Against their parents' wishes, Abdullah and his friend volunteered to serve as translators for the U.S. troops.
They sneaked out one morning and took a taxi to the east gate of the Balad air base, which was now occupied by American forces. There were some scary moments at first. The guards didn't know what to make of them, and they ended up face down on the ground with pistols held to their heads.
When it became clear they weren't threats, they were told to return the next morning. They didn't ask for money, but the military paid them $5 a day, an amount Abdullah described as a "windfall."
Within a few months, that amount increased. They signed on with San Diego-based Titan Corp., working as linguists for about $600 a month. At first, it seemed like a brand new Iraq.
"Before 2003," Abdullah said, "people were suffocating. They are breathing now. Everything's better. We have cellphones. We have electricity. We can talk, and we can move. People are throwing kisses at the soldiers and raising thumbs up, saying 'Good Bush. Good Bush,' because that's all they know how to say in English."
Not everyone was so welcoming. From the start, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had called for Americans to leave the country, declaring that he had more legitimacy and authority than the Iraqi Governing Council.
"Muqtada had an opportunity to become a power broker, if you will," said Army Col. Jeffrey Madison, who worked with Abdullah in Iraq. "He had close ties with Iraq's neighbor, Iran, which is unusual. Shi'a were in charge there. He took every opportunity with his Mahdi forces to stir up the pot. ... He just kept things off balance."
In April 2004, insurgents rose up against coalition forces in several cities, most notably Fallujah. Al-Sadr sent assistance to Sunni rebels there, even as his own Mahdi Army engaged coalition troops elsewhere.
"The spark was in Fallujah, where they killed American contractors and burned their bodies and hung them," Abdullah said. "That was the spark of it, and it went on all over from there -- not just the Sunnis, but the Shi'a, too. Muqtada al-Sadr, oh my God, he's the cause of all the deaths over there.
"His army, his militia, they wear all black. They're authorized to stop any vehicle to ask any question. These youngsters are on drugs, on pills. We don't have actual drugs over there, but they would take prescription medications and get high on those."
In 2006, Abdullah got stopped by one of al-Sadr's followers in Baghdad.
"I was taking a certain route to try to go faster," he said. "That was at the peak of sectarian violence. I realized I was the only one on the street. A guy in black went running out in front of me with a (Kalashnikov) RPK (machine gun). I slowed down and stopped. Fortunately, I had my AK-47 and was wearing black. ... I had to pretend I was with the militia so he wouldn't kill me. I'm so lucky I survived."
Abdullah's eyes scanned the rear and side mirrors, looking for other gunmen. It was hard to see anything.
Those drivers who had exited their vehicles were moving away from the gunfire like a school of fish panicked by an approaching predator. Their movements were erratic, confusing.
His gaze swung back to the BMW ahead of him. An attacker was pointing his gun directly at the head of the driver, who was crawling on the ground.
Abdullah reached for the door handle.
Life was crazy for Abdullah for awhile.
He traveled with the Americans, making friends and learning to speak English like a native. For the most part, his tasks were safe and simple, but occasionally violence would find them. He'd fired his AK-47 at his countrymen when they attacked the troops with which he was traveling.
"Ahmed served with Special Forces units, Psy-Ops and a field artillery combat observation labor team," said Madison, a Norman native now working at the Pentagon. "He worked with me; he worked with two different cavalry infantry battalions. If you were moving around in Iraq, you were subject to gunshots, having mortars fired into the camp where you were sleeping. It wasn't a daily activity, but it was far too often."
Outside the job, he experienced still more danger. In September 2006, Abdullah's wife, Linda Al-Rubaee, went into labor in Balad. The hospital was in Baghdad, but it was after curfew. They could be stopped and killed, but Linda needed help. Crying in fear, they took to the road -- and got lucky, encountering three Humvees loaded with American soldiers, who escorted them to the hospital.
The next month, Abdullah's father was abducted by Sunni insurgents. He'd been riding in a taxi with four other passengers when they were forced off the road by two cars.
"They punched my father, put him to the ground and blindfolded everyone," Abdullah said. "They put him in the trunk and drove for about an hour. They took him to a mud hut in bad shape with a little window on top."
The abductors threatened his father's life but ultimately freed him when Abdullah was able to prove that his father was Sunni.
After awhile, Abdullah's fear for his own life and the lives of his wife and family became too much. People were disappearing, including the friend with whom he'd practiced English and discovered Metallica. He'd vanished in 2005.
In 2008, Abdullah began his efforts to become an American. The U.S. State Department authorized Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqi translators. The application process took months and gobs of money, but Abdullah received his visa on March 22, 2010. He and his wife and children left Iraq in May, flying from Baghdad to Jordan to Germany to Newark, N.J., to Dallas to Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport.
Madison, his sponsor, was waiting for them when they landed.
"I couldn't talk, actually," Abdullah said. "I just felt, I made it. That was my goal. When I saw his face, standing there, I gave him a handshake. I hugged his wife. And I said, 'Where is your vehicle?'"
He fell asleep in the car and awoke to an alien landscape. The roads were smooth. Vehicles traveled at high speeds, their drivers unworried about gunfire or explosions. The land surrounding them was green and vital.
I'm going home, he thought. I'm going home.
The gun fired before Abdullah could exit his minivan.
He feared the worst, but then he saw the driver, sprawled in the road, still skittering quickly away. The gunman had fired beside his head, not into it. He was terrifying the driver, not killing him.
Abdullah watched as the gunmen climbed into the BMW and began maneuvering it out of the line of traffic.
No one had died. Not the driver. Not him.
His damp hand loosened on the Glock pistol. Life was cheap in Iraq, but he'd survived another day.
'A luxurious life'
Today Abdullah and his family live in a two-bedroom apartment in Lawton. His wife is learning how to drive a car and plans to get a job.
She cooks Iraqi dishes using American tools. Their kitchen smells like cardamom and curry. They eat lamb and soup and rice, but when they go out to dinner, they enjoy barbecue.
Money is tight.
Abdullah is a prison guard at the Lawton Correctional Facility. He remains astounded by the number of inmates and the crimes they committed.
"According to my religion," he said, "probably 90 percent of them in there should be dead. Rapists, child abusers, molesters, back home they would be executed.
"I was shocked when I went there for the first time and saw all these people. They have cable TV, air conditioning and heating. Oh my God, their mattresses, hot meals. They talk back to the guards. They play basketball. They go to the yard. It's a luxurious life; this is what I call it. ... When I look at them, I think, 'My life in Iraq wasn't this good.'"
He feels safer now, although he worries about his family members who remain in Iraq. He hopes to bring them to Lawton, but that will be no easy task.
He hasn't fully escaped the terrors of his past. He finds himself driving down the middle of the road, as far from the edges as possible. He gets angry when people tailgate his car. His subconscious fears roadside bombs and rebel attacks.
He loves America and Metallica.
"When I hear people complaining," he said, "I tell them not to. Why do you complain? I've spent days without water and food. ... Here I've got power 24/7. In the summer, I can reach cold water whenever I want. I am blessed. I am seriously blessed."