Escape from Saddam

September 1970

We were trapped in Iraq since the six day war in 1967. Actually since 1963, when the regime of Kassim was toppled, the Jews could not officially leave Iraq with a passport and had to escape illegally through Basra, in the South of Iraq, to Persia (Iran). But even this was closed after the 1967 six day war between Israel and the Arabs and we were caught like rats in a bottle in Baghdad, with my father arrested in the 6th day of the 1967 war.

In March 1970 a truce was signed between the Kurdish revolt in the North and the Saddam regime and an autonomous Kurdish region was established in the North of Iraq. In mid-1970, an Iraqi Jew named Fouad Sawdaye, took advantage of the stop of hostilities and took his family and escaped through the Kurdish area of North of Iraq to Iran. News of his successful escape reached the Jews in Baghdad and now everybody had a hope of escaping this hellhole. Actually Fouad was arrested by the Iranians, who did not believe he was Jewish and was thrown in jail. He was lucky that he had a sister in Teheran who assisted in releasing him. All these details were not known then – but we knew that one bird has succeeded to escape from the Iraqi cage..

Now everybody wanted to escape also, although we did not know how. The Jewish agency in Israel sent some emissaries through the North to Baghdad and they met some prominent Jewish families in Baghdad and asked them to arrange an organized escape of Iraqi Jews.  However these few families were just selfish and just took the opportunity to escape and did not organize anything for the rest of the 5,000 strong Jewish community trapped in Iraq.

In this atmosphere of hope that we might be able finally to leave Iraq and the uncertainty of how to actually do it, my father Ezra, being an enterprising and dynamic person, who has suffered a lot by being put in prison for a year and a half and having his pharmacy business taken, travelled to the North under the pretext of selling pharmaceuticals and met a Kurdish smuggler in a coffee house in the Kurdish area. My father asked him if he is ready to take us across the border to Iran. The man said yes and he set up a meeting with my father in Baghdad. But he never came. So my father took my mother with him and they went again to the North to meet the potential smuggler. He again promised them to come to Baghdad; but again he never came.

This time I decided to go myself with my mother to meet him. We met him at his house in Sulaymaniyah. I started to talk to him and I told him we are Jews and we want him to smuggle us outside of Iraq to Iran. I was surprised to hear him say: “Your father did not tell me you are Jews and that is why I never came - actually I thought your father was a government agent and I was scared of him and that is why I never came to Baghdad. Now that I know you are Jews I am ready to take you personally across the border tonight, then later I will take your parents and your brother and sister across.” It was very tempting to hear that I was so close to freedom, but I told him that he has to come to Baghdad and arrange how he will take us all together across the border.

I went with my mother back to Baghdad. Every morning as I shaved, I looked at myself in the mirror saying: “You were so close to the border and he was ready to take you across, but you chose to come  back to Baghdad and wait for him”. Every day in the afternoon I went to look for him in the coffee house where we set our meeting. He came in the sixth day. I took him with his assistant to our house in Hindiyah district in Baghdad.  We sat with him in our spacious guest room, richly furnished with fine Persian carpets. We discussed with him the plan to smuggle us across the border. He said he is doing it for us because Israel has helped the Kurdish freedom fighters in their revolt against the Iraqi regime. He then nonchalantly said he will need some small expenses for the way – 15,000 Dinars! A very huge sum of money, worth about $50,000.

It was clear it was a mistake to take him to our guest room in our house – he assumed we were very, very rich. I knew he was bluffing – so I started negotiating with him and I quickly dropped him to 2,000 Dinars, in itself a huge sum of money for a Kurdish smuggler! As they were leaving my mother asked him if it was safe to escape with him – he answered that she did not have to worry as they were heavily armed! Hearing this, my mother waited until he left and she said she is not ready to go with him through Sulaymaniyah – we should all go to Erbil in the North, where all the Jews started going, since the rumor was out that whoever arrived to Erbil, will be helped somehow to escape across the border!

During the night my mother convinced my father of her opinion and this left me alone in believing that we should go with him. My calculation was like this: I would rather risk a very dangerous route with him through Sulaymaniyah rather than go with all the Jewish crowd to Erbil since I believed the government cannot shut its eyes and will arrest the whole crowd in Erbil! In trying to convince us of her viewpoint, my mother complained that once we gave the smuggler the 2,000 Dinars what guarantee do we have that he will not just dump us somewhere in the mountains! I said to my mother: if I convince him to take half the sum at the border and then with the right code word from us he has to come back to take the other half from my uncle Naim, would it better for her? She said OK.

I took with me my uncle Mozi and we went to meet the smuggler. Obviously he readily agreed – these were huge sums for him. He just begged with me to convince my mother not to pack too many bags since they have to carry them by foot to the border.  We made a date with him to meet him a few days later at a coffee house at the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, a city in the North, from where he would take us and smuggle us eventually across the Iraqi border to Iran.  My mother prepared five bags with basic clothing and the smuggler took them with him, with the plan to meet us in Sulaymaniyah several days later. I remember being in the movie theater in those days before our escape and having the mixed feelings of fear of the unknown mixed with the hope of finally escaping from hellish Iraq to the free world.

I was having a tooth filling done at a dentist just before we escaped.  At that time to do a filling the dentist drilled the tooth, put some medication and then you had to come back to him in a couple of days.  At our next appointment, I urged him to do the filling but he decided to put medication one more time and gave me another appointment to do the actual filling. The problem was that he set the next appointment at a date later than the date set for our escape. So I thought now, it would be either that I will sit in an Iraqi jail with an open tooth and potential toothache or I will have the filling done by an Iranian dentist!

The evening before our escape, I went with my uncle Naim in his red Cadillac car on the main Abu Nawas boulevard, with all its coffee houses along the Tigris River, to have some last look at that beautiful part of Baghdad. People were strolling along the boulevard pavements, overlooking the river, having a relaxed time, some of them Iraqi Jews I know. I was looking at them hoping that this will be the last time I see them here, hoping to finally escape from this place that hated us and tortured us. That night as I went to close our garden gate, I saw a government secret agent hiding in the distance looking at our house. I said to myself it would be an irony that something would happen to us just the night before our escape.

In the morning of our escape, we had breakfast all the family together in our dining room. The funny thing is that after breakfast, my mother took the dirty breakfast plates to the kitchen sink and washed and dried all of them. I was looking at her in astonishment. I guess it was important for her that the secret police who will probably take over our house after our escape would have a high idea of her as a clean housewife! Or I guess it was just the power of habit! Or it was simply to overcome her nervousness! Then my uncle Mozi came and he started going around the house picking items he wanted for himself – a camera here, a radio there…he even was shaking our olive tree in the garden to get the olives…It looked very strange to me that here we were before the most dangerous move in our life and my uncle was thinking about the olives! Our servant, who was on a weekend holiday suddenly showed up. I told my mother that she must find an excuse to send her off. I did not want her in our house as we were getting ready to leave. My mother told her that we were travelling to the North for holiday and we will inform her when we will come back.

News of our impending escape somehow got around the Jewish community, because maybe they saw my father selling our Ford car. People were suddenly coming to our house asking if we can take them with us. The funniest thing was that the father of my schoolmate George Dallal, who hated me and caused me a lot of trouble because I always beat him in being first in the class, came to us and asked us to take his son with us! The chutzpah – I thought if we were ever really to accept to take him, then we would simply dump him in the middle of nowhere!

I was becoming worried that there are so many people coming to our house. So I told my father, mother, brother and sister to leave the house and go to the house of my uncle Naim, in the same neighborhood, until the time arrives to take the taxi to the North. I stayed alone in the house for some time and then left also, leaving the lights on in the front.

We took the taxi to the north. Along the way the radio was blaring the typical Baathist propaganda: unity, freedom, socialism. Also you saw those slogans written on the government arches, constructed along the road to the North. How ironic! Saddam Baath party talking about freedom, while being one of the worst tyrannical butcher regimes of the world! But this is the nature of dictatorship – they think they can control your body and mind, using physical power, terror and incessant gibberish propaganda. I hated this propaganda with a passion. It was an insult to intellect and to logic. Hearing the radio spewing the propaganda, I was wondering if it was really feasible that within 24 hours we would be in Iran, free from this intellectual garbage. It was a great dream and I dared to dream.

On our way to Kirkuk my mother was still having doubts about going with our armed smuggler through Sulaymaniyah and was still badgering me and my father to go with everybody else through Erbil. At the Kirkuk junction, the final decision had to be taken – Sulaymaniyah or Erbil. I prevailed – I was adamant that we must go through Sulaymaniyah. My father was not swayed by my mother’s entreaties and he accepted my decision.

I had purposely sat at the side of the driver because I had an identity card as a teacher where only my private and family name was written, skipping the customary father name which was usually used in Iraq. Since my father name was Ezra, a typical Jewish name, then if it was written in my teacher identity card, then everybody would identify me as a Jew. But by leaving out my father name, the identity card showed my name as Emil Somekh,  which could be a Christian name and has no indication of being a Jewish name.  I purposely asked my father to sit in the far left side in the back so that whenever we were stopped at any of the police or army checkpoints on the way to the North, they usually just asked me to show my identity card and I showed them my teacher identity card and they waved us onwards. But as we approached a major checkpoint close to Sulaymaniyah, the soldier asked also my father sitting in the back for his identity card. As he saw his Jewish name, he smiled and then took it and entered his command post to consult with his superior. It was a tense moment, but finally he reappeared and he waved us onwards. What happened in his consultation with his superior we could not know but obviously his superior just told him to leave us to continue, assuming we were going for a short holiday in the nice climate of the North Mountains of Kurdistan, the Kurdish portion of Iraq.

It was a long trip of several hours. In the evening we finally reached Sulaymaniyah and the taxi took us to the open air restaurant where we had defined our rendezvous with the smuggler. I noticed that the place was nearly empty and the smuggler was nowhere to be found. After some time he showed up stealthily and told me that he had spotted some secret government agents in the place and that he cannot take us now. He advised us to sit there, order food and he will come to pick us later. As we were eating some starter delicacies I was wondering if it could be our last meal. We ordered also main dishes with grilled meat on skewers. But it was delayed. I was thinking that the smuggler might come at any time and I did not want to miss the delicious meal. I went to the place where they prepared the meat on the fire and I was urging them to hurry up. Just as the meat was ready, the smuggler arrived. So I asked them to wrap the grilled skewers for us and we paid and left the restaurant with the smuggler.

Just as we left the restaurant we saw the smuggler’s truck. It was a standard truck for transport of goods with a driver cabin that can seat just 2 extra people, besides the driver. So my father, mother and my young sister Zetta squeezed besides the driver. The funny thing was that Zetta was then 12 years and she was dressed in mini-skirt and a shoe with high heels and no matter how much we have entreated her in Baghdad to wear something more suitable, our requests fell on the deaf ears of a typical teenager. So my mother had to cover her legs with a cloth as she squeezed between my father and mother besides the driver! My brother Terry and I were instructed by the main smuggler to climb on top of the driver cabin and to sit there in open view with our Baghdadi clothes, which were completely out of place in this area where everybody was dressed in Kurdish clothes.

The smuggler told us that if the army stopped him he plans to tell them that our car has broken down and he has found us and picked us up! That is the reason also why he did not give us any Kurdish clothes to wear and he left us in our Baghdadi clothes. So it looked to me that maybe he was preparing to just simply abandon us to the Iraqi army at the first obstacle – not an easy feeling at the start of the second phase of our perilous journey into the unknown!

In a short while I realized how perilous our escape really was! It turned out that the route the smuggler chose took us right through the Iraqi army camps. It seems that according to the terms of the armistice agreement signed in March of this year between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish rebellion, the Iraqi army was supposed to give free passage to the Kurdish fighters. It was like a scene from a James Bond movie. My brother and I were sitting openly at the top of the driver cabin, in full view of the soldiers in the Iraqi army camps. I was incredulously looking down at the Iraqi soldiers, going about their business - just a few hours earlier we were in Baghdad, scared from our own shadows.

We passed several Iraqi army bases, each taking a few minutes to pass. We saw tanks, trucks, soldiers, and army barracks. Then the smuggler told me and my brother to get down from the top of the driver cabin and to sit inside the enclosed part of the truck, where goods are usually put. He said the fact that all the army camps we passed till now have not stopped us is nothing since they could have radioed to the last camp, which we were arriving to and they could stop us there. My father, mother and sister were still sitting besides the driver, in full view to everybody.

As we entered the last army camp, the smuggler started to pray. I knew this must be now the real serious phase of our escape. My brother Terry was looking through a hole in the truck’s walls and I kept asking him whether the camp was finished. It was really a big camp; the last Iraqi army camp before the area of Kurdish autonomy. It took us about 10 minutes to pass this camp. Finally we reached a bridge that had Iraqi soldiers at the start and at the end of the bridge. This was the last bridge controlled by the Iraqi army before the Kurdish Autonomous region. The soldiers at the start of the bridge waved us through. But as we approached close to the end of the bridge we saw the soldiers giving a sign to stop.

At this moment, instead of stopping, the driver put his foot on the gas pedal and speeded up. A shouting match started between the Iraqi soldiers and the armed smuggler and his assistant Kurdish fighter, who were hanging at both sides of the truck. We zoomed past the soldiers stationed at the end of the bridge and I waited for the shooting to start, as we were rapidly travelling away from them.

But the shooting never occurred and we sped away from the soldiers around the bend of the road and into the mountain. My take of the encounter was that the soldiers have met the smuggler and his team before while they moved goods along this road. According to the armistice agreement signed half a year earlier in March between the Iraqi government and the Kurds, the government soldiers were not supposed to stop the Kurdish smuggler. But seeing that he had Baghdadi people with him was something new and that is the reason why the soldiers probably wanted him to stop. He decided to take his chance and he dared not to stop. He called their bluff and they did not dare start a fire fight with him as this could ruin the armistice agreement.

As we turned the bend in the road into the mountain and away from the Iraqis, I though the difficult part of our escape was over. It was 2 am in the morning and it was a moonless night. But suddenly the driver turned off the main head lights of the truck, as he was driving along the narrow mountain road. I asked the smuggler why - he said actually since we are now in an area with no government, actually it has become a No man's land and was full of dangerous bandits. We travelled without lights along these dangerous mountain roads to avoid being spotted by the bandits.

After about 1 hour of driving we stopped for rest at one spot with flowing water in the mountains. We decided to eat the meat that we had picked up at the restaurant in Sulaymaniyah at the start of our journey with the smuggler. It was totally quiet in the mountain and we just heard the sound of the flowing water. I was a bit nervous and I preferred chatting with the smuggler. He was boasting to us about the weapons that have been supplied to the Kurds by the Israelis and how he had smuggled the arms to the Kurdish fighters.

After the rest we continued our journey in the truck towards the Iranian border. We were about to reach the part of our journey where we would have to continue by foot. The smuggler was saying to me that my mother has packed too many clothes in the bags he had taken from us and they were too heavy to carry in our journey on foot. He asked me to open them and throw away some of the contents, without my mother knowing. I told him I do not want to do this and he skipped the idea!

Finally we reached a spot in the mountains where the truck stopped and we continued on foot, with the smuggler assisting us with the bags. My young sister was still with her shoes with heels and she had difficulty walking in the mountain trail. We walked for about half an hour. As we were walking along a road at the side of the mountain, the smuggler said we had to stop here since we were very near to the border and he cannot continue with us - the Iranians might accept us but for him it is dangerous to get close to the Iranian border post. He said he will leave us here and we should wait till daybreak and then continue along this road until we reached the Iranian border post. He said he will be waiting a close by in a Kurdish village called Tuwaila and if the Iranians turn us back he will take us back to Baghdad! It was a crazy idea I thought – coming all the way here to the Iranian border and then having to return back to Baghdad - no way I said to myself!

The smuggler wanted to leave, but my mother did not accept and told him to wait with us. So he stayed. But he was nervous. We were sitting there on a deserted road at the edge of the mountain, all five of us in Baghdadi clothes, our bags around us, in this location in the mountains, which the smuggler claimed was very close to the border, and hoping that he was telling the truth.

As time passed, the smuggler was getting more and more nervous and he kept asking my mother to let him go because he was scared of the Iranians. Finally my father, who was restless and pacing back and forth, got angry at my mother and he told her that she should let him go. Now we had to give him as agreed half the money – 1,000 Dinars – and we had to tell him a code word that he could say to my uncle Naim back in Baghdad so that he can get the other half – another 1,000 Dinars!

Now this code word was agreed with my uncle to give an indication on how good was this road for escape since we were the first to try it and other Jews will need to use it also. I had agreed with my uncle that if I felt it was a good and safe escape road then the code word would be TV – if it was a medium safe escape road then the code word would be RADIO – and my uncle’s wife said jokingly back in Baghdad that if it was a bad road then the code word would be GRAMOPHONE.

Now really at this point I could not faithfully convey a real message to the others, who might follow, about how good and safe this road is. The road itself was quite dangerous passing through the Iraqi army camps – a fact which the smuggler did not tell us at all, knowing probably that we would never come with him had he told us. It was clear he was using us as guinea pigs to try this escape route and, by keeping us in our Baghdadi clothes, he was hedging his bets and planning simply to turn us over to the Iraqi army, if he could not pass through. Also there was the very tense and dangerous near-armed confrontation with the Iraqi soldiers at the end of the last bridge before the Kurdish area. Also we were now in some location in the mountains, without really knowing that we were really near the Iranian border and we had to take the smuggler word for it.

So according to all these factors the code word should actually have been GRAMOPHONE. But on the other hand I thought maybe he is telling the truth and we are very close to the border. I thought if I said GRAMOPHONE then all the Jews of Baghdad would think that something really bad had happened to us and their imagination would run wild with theories about what befell us! So I decided to hope for the best and assume the smuggler is telling the truth about being close to the border – in that case what we went through is nothing if the result would be success in leaving the Iraqi hellhole and reaching freedom in Iran! So I gave the smuggler his 1,000 Dinars and told him the code word is TV! We bade him farewell and he left us.

Before leaving, he told us to wait till there are some signs of daybreak and then we should continue along the road to the Iranian border post, which he assured us is just around the bend in the road. He said my mother and sister should go about 100 meters ahead so that the Iranian soldiers will see women first. He also warned us that if any local people would pass by us then we should continue immediately to the Iranian post.

We sat there in the middle of nowhere, waiting for daybreak. Time passed slowly. We were listening to the sounds of wild animals that roamed the forests of the mountains at the Iraqi-Iranian border. Just as were seeing the first small signs of daybreak, we saw a local Kurdish man coming towards us. He saw us sitting there, completely out of place, but he just greeted us, SALAM ALEIKUM, and continued on his way.

At this point we decided to move on. Just as the smuggler instructed, my mother and sister went first and we followed them, carrying our bags. Just as the smuggler said, as soon as we turned the bend in the road we saw in the distance the Iranian border post. Since my mother and sister were not carrying anything and we were laden with bags, they opened some distance from us. I saw in the distance that the border post has gone up and that my mother and sister have gone in. We continued with the bags and we soon also reached the border post and went in.

The Iranian soldiers escorted us to their commander’s cabin, which was atop a mountain overlooking the whole area. Just as we climbed to his post, the sun came out and we saw the most beautiful view our eyes could lay on – right at our feet, down in the valley, we saw the whole route that we have travelled in the night with the smuggler. When he had pointed in the darkness towards some point in the mountain and said that is where the Iranian command is, he was referring to the place where we are now. The commander told us to look down at awful Iraq and he also gave us his binoculars to look down. My father, who has been in Persia for a short time about 30 years earlier, was so exhilarated by the situation that he suddenly started talking Persian! He remembered what he had learnt in that short time, 30 years ago.

We learned that the reason for the warm welcome we got from the Iranians was that the border posts were alerted by the government of the Iranian Shah, which had good relations with Israel that Iraqi Jews were trying to escape. Still we were the first Jews who have escaped through this specific border post. After a short time in the border post, we were taken by a military car to the nearest Iranian army camp for interrogation. There were two major offenses for which you were killed in Iran: if you were smuggling drugs or if you were a communist. My father told the interrogators that we were Jews and we are neither communists nor drug smugglers.

We were treated very nicely by the Iranian soldiers in this army camp. The camp commander’s wife cooked lunch for us. At night, some of the soldiers gave us their beds to sleep in. The next morning they got for us a mini-bus and we were sent, with armed escort, to the nearest big city Kermanshah to continue our interrogation. In Kermanshah we were put under arrest in a hotel. Delicious meals were brought to our rooms - white Rice with Chelo kebab was my favorite.

Just before leaving Baghdad, I had bought shoes with thick soles for me, my father and brother.  I had opened the soles and put several $100 bills in each shoe and then glued the soles back. With these shoes, full with the $100 bills, we had crossed the Iranian border. Now my father said that his shoes were dusty and needed cleaning and polishing. So he decided to send them out to a local shoe polish guy. No matter how much I tried to convince him that there was too much money in them to just send them out, he persisted. The shoes came back with the money inside. I assume the kid who polished it will never again have so much money so close to his hand!

After three days in this hotel, with no possibility to leave, finally we got the permit to move on to Teheran. We were finally completely free. We rented a taxi and we started on the road to Teheran, the capital of Iran. It was a wild ride with the taxi driver – more dangerous than our escape from Iraq. I thought it would be ironic that after escaping the Iraqi hell we would be killed by an irresponsible Iranian taxi driver.

After a few hours we finally reached Teheran in the evening. The taxi entered the city and we had no idea whatsoever where we would be heading. My father noticed a store with Cohen in the title. He assumed the store owner must be Jewish. So we stopped the taxi and we went into the store. My father asked the store owner if he knew Nathan Bakhash and his wife Madeleine, who was my father’s sister who has married and left Iraq to Iran nearly 30 years before. My father had nearly no contact with her during all this period. The store owner knew Nathan Bakhash and he called his home phone number. Then Madeleine was on the phone talking to her brother after all these years. They recommended to us a hotel to go to and they said they will meet us there.

We found the hotel; it was quite new after renewal. We checked in. After some time Nathan, Madeleine and their young daughter Linda arrived. Linda had a captivating smile that had a big effect on me. This chance meeting with Linda was to have a significant effect on my future life. But for the moment the smile had to wait since I was yet to start my free life.

Epilogue: The filling for my tooth was finally done by an Iranian dentist in Tehran and my bold decision to escape through Sulaymaniyah, with all risks and uncertainty involved, proved to be the right one. A few days after we escaped, as I thought would happen, the Iraqi government soldiers swooped in on all the Jews families in Erbil, waiting to escape, and they were all arrested and thrown to Jail – proof that you have always to analyze deeply the situation and what looks like the easy way out might be the most dangerous after all!

Emil Somekh