A tale of how one Iraqi lived in fear

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

The story of Jawad Amer Sayed is one of the more remarkable -- and inspirational -- tales to emerge from Iraq in the aftermath of the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein.

In fact, to the people of Iraq, Jawad Amer Sayed's tale is already legendary.

Of course, if you come back from the dead, it tends to get people talking.

Actually, Sayed wasn't dead. He was just believed to be by friends and even most of his family. For 22 years, Sayed hid from Saddam Hussein's police because he had been a follower of the Dawa Party, the Shiite Muslim group that battled Saddam Hussein for decades. Secret police had arrested two of Sayed's friends and executed them.

Instead of fleeing into exile, Sayed decided to stay at home and hide. Here's the remarkable part: Sayed lived inside a false wall he built between two rooms of his house for most of his adult life.

The small chamber measures a yard wide by about seven feet long. He had to negotiate a trap door barely wide enough for a slender person to squeeze through.

His life was that of a prisoner. He had a small peephole through which he got to watch his brother's wedding in a courtyard. He had a light bulb for when there was electricity. Mostly there was not.

He also had a kerosene lamp, paintbrushes to dust himself off with, and an electric hot plate for the rice and beans that were brought to him by his mother, one of the few people who knew he was alive. There was also a radio and a few books.

Sayed decided he would stay in his self-imposed cell for as long as it took.

He probably never thought it would take 22 years. But it did.

Sayed came out only twice, both times to repair the wall that encased him. Most of his friends and family thought he had been killed by Hussein's thugs. But Sayed stayed out of sight, losing a good deal of weight and all his teeth. Sayed is showing anyone who wants to see the teeth, which he kept in a match box to help mark time.

Police looked for him twice. A mentally ill sister who had begun to talk about Sayed living in the wall had to be sent to relatives so she wouldn't tell the secret.

During the war, he heard the bombing, which raised his hopes. Finally, he realized Saddam had been defeated, and Sayed came out of his hiding place.

This is one of the good stories to come out of Iraq. It is also testament to the fear that the Iraqi people lived with every day. How fearful must one person be to hide in a wall for 22 years? And how strong -- mentally and spiritually -- must that person have to be to survive?

Fortunately, most Americans will never personally experience what Sayed has been through. That's the point. There are some in the United States who are clamoring for weapons of mass destruction to be found, suggesting that if they are not, then the war in Iraq should not have been fought.

But it's people like Sayed -- and the millions of Iraqi people who know first-hand the horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime -- who could tell them otherwise.

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