Two survivors who witnessed Saddam's brutality


Once a month, Canadian-born Bernice Shahristani took her children Zahra and Mohamed Ibrahim to visit their father in prison. Sundays and Wednesdays were execution days at Abu Ghorraieb, near Baghdad, where Dr Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear scientist, spent most of his 11-year captivity.

"The coffins would come in the afternoons," Mrs Shahristani (49) recalls. "They would be in a queue on top of the cars. People were told in the morning that their relatives were going to be executed, so they took the coffins and waited. One day our son asked, `Is one of those boxes for Daddy?' "

The Shahristanis live in Tehran now, where they head the Iraqi Refugee Aid Council, funded by the British Overseas Development Administration, the UNHCR and other donors. Along with tens of thousands of Shia Muslim and Kurdish Iraqi refugees living in Iran, the family are first-hand witnesses to Saddam Hussein's brutality.

The couple met at the University of Toronto in 1970, where Hussain Shahristani completed his doctorate in nuclear chemistry. Bernice Holtom converted to Islam and moved with her husband to Baghdad. As a researcher at the Iraqi Atomic Energy Organisation (AEO), Dr Shah ristani often saw Saddam Hussein, who was then vice-president of Iraq and head of the AEO.

When Saddam became President of Iraq in July 1979, Dr Shahristani (now 55) was his chief scientific adviser. Saddam wanted to redirect atomic energy research to military uses. "I told him this violated our signature of the Non-Proliferation Treaty," Dr Shahristani says. "You are a scientist; I am a politician," Saddam chided him. Then he foreshadowed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait: "I will tell you what politics is about: I take a decision. I tell people I am going to do the opposite, then I do something that surprises even me."

Saddam was afraid Iran's February 1979 revolution would spread to Iraq. The Sunni Muslim "regime started mass arrests and executions of Shias," says Dr Shahristani, himself a Shia. He brought up human rights violations at AEO meetings, knowing his words would get back to Saddam. "I thought I was crucial to their atomic energy programme, that they would not arrest me," he says, laughing. "I was wrong." On December 4th, 1979, plain-clothes Iraqi security agents seized him in the AEO offices.

Dr Shahristani was taken to the basement of Baghdad security headquarters and tortured for 22 days: "They tie your hands behind your back and hang you by your hands. After a few minutes, the pain in your shoulders is unbearable. They keep beating you and giving you shocks with electric cattle prods on your genitals and other parts of your body. When you break into a cold sweat, it means you are about to lose consciousness, so they take you down. They keep on doing this day and night. You sleep for a few minutes between torture sessions."

Dr Shahristani's tormentors hoped he would return to the nuclear programme, so they were careful not to leave permanent marks on his body. He saw other prisoners who were burned on their genitals and toes, branded with hot electric irons on their backs and stomachs. Some had holes drilled into their bones, or parts of their bodies dissolved in a tub of sulphuric acid.

Months later, after more torture at intelligence headquarters, Dr Shahristani was taken to a villa where he was visited by Saddam Hussein's half-brother, Barzan Tikrit. "We need an atomic bomb, because this will give us a long arm to reshape the map of the Middle East," Barzan told Shahristani. "I know what you can do and I am asking you to go back. Any person who is not willing to serve his country does not deserve to live."

Bernice Shahristani was allowed to see her husband 39 days after his arrest. "At first I didn't recognise him," she says. "I recognised his jacket, then his trousers, then I realised it was him. I saw one tear coming down his face. I thought, `He's going to be executed; that's why they've brought me to see him.' " Their short visits, always in the presence of Iraqi security agents, would continue for 11 years.

"I wished Bernice would take the kids and leave the country," Dr Shahristani says. "It would have been much easier for me, but she said as long as I was alive she would never go."

The ordeal took its toll on Bernice Shahristani's nerves, and her hands still tremble constantly. Hussain Shahristani suffers agonising back pain from sleeping on a concrete prison floor with only a lice-infested army blanket for bedding. He spent all but a few months of his imprisonment in solitary confinement. Faith and conviction sustained him, he says. "I knew I was doing the right thing. I never regretted the stand I took."

With the help of a Shia prison guard, Dr Shahristani escaped from Abu Ghorraieb on February 14th, 1991. In the midst of the Gulf War, the security forces were in disarray. After participating in the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq, the Shahristanis were smuggled into Iran by a black marketeer. They feel certain Saddam Hussein will fall one day, and then they will go home.