December 11, 2006
In Baghdad, nobody is what he seems. People invent stories to hide who they are and what they do. They tell their acquaintances they work for a relative, but head off to a job in the Green Zone that could get them killed. Others carry an ID with a Shia or Sunni name to escape death at the hands of the city’s armed militias.
But what happens if you are exposed. What then in a country mired in sectarian warfare, where the discovery of your religious identity or political allegiance could leave you with a bullet to the head? Thirty-three-year-old Dr. Abdul Abbas knows. Since September, he has lived every Iraqi's nightmare after he was unmasked as a Sunni at work.
For two years, Abbas survived on a cover story at Baghdad’s largest hospital Medical City, where the Shia militia, the Mahdi Army, patrolled the hallways. Abbas had heard stories of Sunni patients disappearing and militiamen beating doctors.
He was terrified of what would happen if the Mahdi Army found out the truth: he had been raised a Shia Muslim but had become a Sunni as a young man. His traditional Shia name fooled the other doctors at the hospital. His few Sunni colleagues at the hospital also tried to fade into the woodwork and give the impression that they were Shia.
Abbas took many precautions. He locked the door to his office when he prayed. If he heard the Shia doctors call Sunnis terrorists or insult Sunni religious figures, he kept his mouth shut.
Eventually, his secret life unraveled. In late September, an old acquaintance spotted him walking through the hospital cafeteria.
The man’s name was Qassem. He was a doctor in Diyala province east of Baghdad, but had been visiting the hospital when he was astonished to recognise Abbas. He watched his old friend pass through the cafeteria and didn’t say hello. Instead he told his fellow Shia doctors at the table that Abbas had converted to Sunni Islam ten years earlier.
It was a kiss of death – not only had Abbas committed sacrilege by turning his back on the faith, but Qassem had called him a Wahabist— a reference to Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist strain of Islam.
A friend raced to Abbas’ office and warned him that his identity had been revealed. “They will kill me,” Abbas said. He started to shake. “I have to leave here.”
Immediately, he put in a vacation request. The next few days, Abbas was nervous. He arrived in the
early mornings, stayed a few hours, skipped his duties and left before people saw him. Finally, he stopped coming at all.
In his neighborhood Khadra, he also ran into trouble. Although his parents had moved away, people had started calling Abbas’ family home a Shia house. Already worried about the Mahdi Army, he now had to worry about the Sunni mujahadeen. He woke up one morning to find a bullet wrapped in white paper, with the words printed on it: “Rafidah” (a slur for Shia). Leave your house within three days, or you will be killed.”
Abbas panicked. Within half-an-hour, he moved his wife and three children to his father-in-law’s home across town. He couldn’t believe his luck: Sunni militants wanted to kill him because they didn’t believe he was a Sunni and Shia extremists wanted to kill him because he had abandoned their faith. He was hated by everyone.
Abbas decided to resolve his problem with the Sunnis by going to confront his prayer leader at Khadra’s local mosque. He was terrified that he would go inside the mosque and mujahadeen would shoot him, cut his throat or torture him, that he would end up like one of the blank-eyed corpses at Medical City. Abbas told the sheikh his story and the cleric promised to investigate it.
Then, he waited at his father-in-law’s house. A week went by and the sheikh phoned him and asked him to come in. At the mosque, the sheikh apologized. “It was a mistake. I used all my connections to find these guys. They said tell Sheikh Abbas accept our apology. We didn’t know you were a Sunni. You can come back to your house.”
Now, Abbas thought it was safe to return to Khadra, while he figured out his next move. He hired a local
woman to clean his house. But when he went to pay her, his home was deserted. Suspicious, he drove to her house. When he found the cleaning lady, she was terrified. She said a car had stopped by Abbas' home and three men with pistols had walked out. They asked ‘Are you Abbas’ mother or his sister?’ And then the gunmen grabbed her ID card. She pleaded she was just a worker.
One of them said: “Tell him, we know everything about him. We know he converted to Sunni and we will find him. If he comes back we will kill him. We will take revenge. The man is an unbeliever."
Abbas listened to the cleaning lady's story in shock. He had heard about a shadowy group, called Ghasil al-Ar (Erasing the Shame), which killed Shia who had converted to Sunni Islam.
He could not wait any longer to plan his escape from Baghdad. He flew to Damascus for three days hoping to find work and then went to Arbil in Kurdistan. A hospital there offered him a job.
Returning to Baghdad, he moved secretively. He sold off his furniture, television, heaters, carpets and air conditioner. He slipped by the hospital to get his bosses’ permission for his transfer to Kurdistan. His bosses said the paperwork would take a few months. But Abbas feared every visit to the hospital might spell his death, so he just fled. He had no regrets. “I’m following God’s path," he said.