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CNN: Special Investigations Unit

On Deadly Ground: Women of Iraq

Aired March 15, 2008 - 20:00   ET



ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Arwa Damon. For years, I have been reporting on the war in Iraq. In the next hour, you will meet the women of Iraq. Some are struggling for survival. Others are working to pave the way for future generations of women. Each woman's experience is very different, but they all share one common bond. Their home is one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Life in Iraq is this life where everything that should be abnormal has become normal. On individual parameters of what they can mentally accept and deal with are constantly shifting because if they don't shift, you can't cope. You can't survive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I used to live in Sadr City, in my house. But when I got divorced, I moved here. There was nowhere else to go. When I divorced my husband, I should have gone to live with my family, but they said I would have to give our two kids to their father and I could not do that. So we left and came here.

DAMON: They are squatting in an old building. What you see her going through and her children going through is normal. It has become normal. That is not that extraordinary. They are in fact lucky because they have a wall around them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now we don't have anyone, just God and the Mehdi Army. They come by once or twice a week to check on us. They give us money and rations.

DAMON: The humanitarian activities of the militias do undertake in terms of supporting their own are why they are able to gather popular support.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The man with the Mehdi militia is responsible for this place and he is a nice man, and honest. There is not a man like him. He cleaned up this whole area.

DAMON: They are tragically becoming more and more the norm. The latest figures, 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq. And they live, they squat, they live sometimes 10 families to a home. Or they live in these refugee camps where the conditions are abysmal.

Iraq is a place of stark contrast. Just a few miles from kids living among garbage are the elite who are lucky enough to have a place like this where they can escape for a few hours. This club that we can't name because the owner's management is worried about it is kind of this little oasis of carefully-guarded normal in the middle of Baghdad. The people that you see at this club are basically what's remained of Baghdad's dwindling elite. They largely can leave the country, but they choose not to.

And I think Fatima (ph), who is one of the women who we met there, describes it best. She said she tried to leave twice. Go live in Syria, but she couldn't do it. She missed Iraq so much. She says that when she came back to Iraq, she would have fallen to her knees and kissed the soil.

You meet people and it's kind of this bonding that's bred out of extreme circumstances. So I met this young woman at the club who didn't want to be interviewed, she didn't want to be on camera. She kind of looked at me and she says when you guys first walked in, I was talking to my husband about you and I was like, oh, look at that blond girl over there, I bet you she's American. And then he came up and he started chatting with me. And she goes, I wish we could have been friends.

Another contrast in Iraq takes us to the rise of the oldest profession in the world. It's just another example of what has evolved from chaos and desperation. Prostitution always existed, but it's been on the rise.

The two women who we spoke to both used to work at the cleaners. And one got approached by an employee in the office where she was cleaning homes who tried to convince her that this thing was better and she initially rejected it and didn't want to do it. And then couldn't afford to feed her kids and so she did it once. And once she had done it once, that was it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: everything goes through my mind -- everything. I think I left my kids at home alone or what if one of my relatives found out or is someone going to see me as I'm leaving? My mind is not on what I'm doing.

DAMON: It's not the way you picture it in the west in terms of prostitutes standing working a street corner, trying to look as appealing as they possibly can. It's quite the contrary. It's a very, very subtle approach.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The simplest example is going to the market. They call you on the phone or they say something to you. Right away if you are friendly, they'll know that you do this kind of work.

DAMON: They go into certain buildings. They go to homes. But that comes with a great risk because if they are caught doing that by the Iraqi security forces or by the militias, they get killed. That's why they are so terrified to have their identities revealed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whenever I sit and think about it, I think what if my husband found out? Even though I don't do it every day of the week, it's like I'm a thief. You do it because you can get away with it. The same scenario. I think about it and I say God willing, let me rid myself of this before he finds out.

DAMON: Iraqis to some degree don't want to accept because of national pride that this is an increasing phenomenon.

UNIDNETIFIED FEMALE: I don't imagine that a woman who has what she needed to survive would do this. Impossible. We were not born into this to know such things. Until the fall of 2003, after that, until the circumstance forced us. Now when you show her the money, she goes after him, in all honesty because she has to.




YANAR MOHAMMED, THE ORGANIZATION OF WOMEN'S FREEDOM IN IRAQ: Having slept over the rooftops all night long. We always have to wake up at 8:00 a.m. It's the sound of an explosion. Today it was a very close. I think it was a bombed car. We don't see them. We have to go down. It's not safe here anymore. Then again, it's 8 a.m.

DAMON: Yanar heads the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq. What she basically set up as a watchdog organization to make sure that women weren't losing their freedom.

MOHAMMED: We need to have some breakfast now. Friends are coming over for Friday. Some eggs and we have electricity. We have electricity, we need to celebrate.

When we started this organization, it was myself and two other women. The only thing that brought us together is that we are progressive women who believe that freedoms of women can happen only under secular situations. And we thought of ourselves as the avant- garde women of the society and we started it from there.

DAMON: A lot of women in Iraq will say this was a war that was meant to bring democracy. It was meant to bring freedom. It was meant to bring a better life and in fact, the bitter irony is had it brought exactly the opposite.

MOHAMMED: In four years, we have presented the unvoiced women in Iraq who want a free life. We see over the television, hundreds of officials who say that they have given freedoms to women. But you look at the streets and every single woman is veiled. She is veiled in white, in black, in colors and she cannot go to her education, cannot go to work. We demand that women of Iraq have to be free. We were able to save many women from unwanted killing. We documented hundreds of kidnappings and killings of women and we were able to help a few women to reach to safe havens outside Iraq.

Two explosions today. One at 7:30, the other at 8:00. We are trying to get somewhere. It's not easy. All the streets are crowded and everywhere is closed. Barbed wire everywhere and we don't know whether somebody is shoot you if you are photographing or not. It takes hours to get anywhere, which is walking distance sometimes. Going to work is like taking a risk every day. The price could be your life. DAMON: One of the striking things about Yanar is the realization that she doesn't have to be there. She had this entire life set up for herself in Canada. Today she splits her time between Canada and Iraq. She has dual citizenship right now and she left her son in Canada. She has basically given up watching her own child grow so that she can live in Iraq.

MOHAMMED: Canada for me is the support system that keeps my work possible. If I don't go there, if I don't maintain my sanity, if I do not gather some support to keep this place open, it's hard for me to survive this difficult scene.

DAMON: She has tried to create within her organization sort of an oasis or a sanctuary for those within Iraq that want to be free thinkers.

MOHAMMED: We feel that the only hope is in the youth. And that's why we are holding an event where we bring youth from so-called Sunni and Shiite areas and we just let them improvise poetry.

UNIDENTIIFED MALE: If my roots live in Baghdad, then my branches are in Kurdistan. They are Sunni or Shia or Kurdish or Arab or Sabean or Assyrian or Chaldean. This is who I am. I am Iraqi. I am a human being. I am a human being.

DAMON: There have been multiple occasions where large gatherings of people have been targeted, especially when you are talking about the politically charged issues.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't want the imam who worships the devil. And I denounce the Shana that slaughters the flower.

DAMON: And yet you see her and you see all these other people. The women, the youth, even the men who are part of her organization that are willing to accept that risk.

MOHAMMED: For me, it's not patriotism. This is not what brings me here. This is everybody I love. All the people that I love have been crushed. This cannot happen and should not happen. You cannot watch people being hurt and stay away from it.




DAMON: CNN was the first TV crew allowed inside the women's prison in Baghdad since the war began. And we didn't go there with a specific story in mind. From the moment we walked in, we were just surrounded by women who wanted to have their voices heard. We decided to focus on Samar's story, because hers seemed the most desperate and the most hopeless. We were really only allowed a few moments with her, but she gave us her father's phone number. It was her parents that told us her side of the story. She was seeing this guy Saif who had picked her up in the market. One day, he shows up at her place and says come with me, let's go for a drive. They get to her uncle's house and she is in the kitchen and she hears gunshots. And then Saif comes running into the kitchen, grabs her and says take me to your uncle's money.

He takes $1,000 maybe, a few pieces of gold jewelry and they leave the house. The next day, he dumps her on the street next to her parents' place. She ends up at home and the Iraqi police show up and she is arrested for murder.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): They took her to the police station and tortured her. She didn't confess. They were beating her and she was bleeding. She finally said, write what you want, just stop hurting me. They consider her an accomplice and so he is out there and she is paying the price.

DAMON: Samar has been on death row for about two and a half years.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't sleep at all on Wednesdays. I stay up from morning until night because that's the day they carry out the executions. So I'm always scared until the day is over.

DAMON: We were in touch with her lawyer. He has appealed a verdict and a sentence. But every appeal failed. There no other options. Unless she is pardoned, Samar will be put to death.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I couldn't tell her. I was afraid she would do something to herself.

DAMON: They don't think that she can survive prison if she knows she is going to die.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't want anything. Just commute it, even if it's life in prison. She's a young girl and her future is lost.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I thought she was guilty, I swear I wouldn't go see her. I have nothing left that I didn't sell. My house, my car, my belongings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They always try and comfort me. My family always comes to visit. I don't know what to say. I have created so much stress for my family. My father has paid so much, but to no result.

DAMON: What's happening right now is the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq is trying to get her off of death row. They have sent countless appeals to the government. Samar's parents drafted letters appealing to the presidency council, begging for her daughter's life and they don't even get a response anymore. The last time I spoke with her, I said what's happening with this case? Have you gotten any reaction? And she says no, not a single word.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They are all good to me here, but I feel I'm not like the other girls. I avoid people so I don't get into trouble, even by hearing something I should. Some girls don't want to talk to me. They feel I'm bad luck because of my sentence.




WURUD: I don't love Britney now, but when I was a kid, with my room Britney and Backstreet Boy, yes. I would listen into them instead because my brother and sisters were.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wurud, 14 -- on the one hand, she is your classic 14-year-old teenager obsessed with some blond pop singer. Talks like an American girl almost.


DAMON: And then at the same time, she's got this maturity and this part of her that's such an adult because of what she lived through.

WURUD: When a bomb blows or something explodes, you know, I just keep on sitting here. I don't move because that's when you realized if -- when you die, your fate will come to you.

DAMON: We were not expecting to interview her as extensively as we did. Wudu's father is the spokesman for Iraq's Ministry of Interior. So very, very public figure. He has said to us, he was boasting about his daughter and like how good her English was. So, we went over to meet his family. And she just had a lot to say.

WURUD: Daddy is handling everything in my life. Everything I need, he gives it to me.

DAMON: Do you worry about him?

WURUD: Well, I'm telling you something. I get worried, but not too worried. You know why? Because I think daddy is too much right to be worried. He can handle everything. He's a big hero of mine.

DAMON: They used to live in downtown Baghdad and their home came under attack so many times. And he eventually got shot, survived, but then he moved the family into the green zone.

WURUD: Those are the twins Shiva, Shilfa (ph). This is Maryam (ph).

DAMON: What do you, guys, talk about?

WURUD: We talk about Jesse McCartney. He's the only pop singer I love. So, we hang out, like just keep listening to music, chatting on IMview, winkyworld. That's me.

DAMON: So, you made this model? WURUD: Yes.

DAMON: She surfs the web and tries to create this bubble of a non-Iraq life. Making friends all-around the world.

So, what do people ask you when first they start chatting with you and they find out that you live in Iraq?

WURUD: Sometimes they ask me about how is it going there. Sometimes they don't. They just chat.

DAMON: What struck me about her is that in so many ways it's as if you could actually transport her into another place, pops her down and that's where she belongs. But then you realize that this person is living in Iraq, in Baghdad.

Do you get scared sometimes?

WURUD: No, never. I haven't ever been scared.

DAMON: If there is one thing you wanted, people your age around the world to know about your country, what would it be right now?

WURUD: There is lots of good people here. And they are all trying to go ahead and build the country back over. Our government, I trust them. I trust daddy and I think people like him will build our country back over, you know.

There people like Wurud who support the government and the coalition's effort. And then you have the other side -- the insurgency, which can be split into two basic groups. Al Qaeda and those affiliated with it. And then what is known as the Nationalistic Insurgency. Those that view America as being an occupying force that want foreign troops out of their country, but who also believe that they are fighting for a greater nationalistic good.

Amub Dalah (ph) is the wife of a member of this Nationalistic Insurgency. And she did agree to be interviewed on cam, but wanted to keep that thin veil covering her face. And she didn't want us to use her real name.

The interview was very short. She was very nervous. She ended it early and it was carried out by yet another one of our amazing Iraqi producers. It took a lot of sneaking around. It took a lot of risk. And it took a lot of courage to try to get something like this, for our part to get something like this. But on her part as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What kind of support do you provide for your husband and his comrades?

AMUB DALAH (through translator): I provided him with a lot of help. Sometimes, he'd ask me to hide weapons and documents for him and the resistance. Sometimes, I'd host his friends at home. I welcome them, give them food, do their laundry, and other things.

DAMON: She's one of these people that you never see. We hear a lot. We see a lot about the fighters themselves, the resistance, the insurgency, but we never really see anything from these people's lives. The women that are behind it that are supporting them, that are feeding them, that are clothing them, that are hiding them, that are bringing up their children.

AMUB DALAH: I'm used to thinking of raids before I go to sleep. We are afraid of raids. And, as women, we are veiled and committed to our religion. So, when they come in and raid us unexpectedly, we could be in a state not ready for that. So, we are afraid of the raids.

DAMON: Members of the Nationalistic Insurgency, especially women, don't want to talk. They don't want to be seen. That's how they are able to operate. It's very difficult to gain access to them. They're the people that are silently standing behind their husbands and believe just as strongly in what they're fighting for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was there a time you were really scared?

AMUB DALAH: Many situations and times. Raids. Leaving the house. Many situations we get scared. We go through a lot of scary and draining moments. Night raids while our children are sleeping and threats at gunpoint. All this is mentally exhausting.



DR. EAMAN AL-GOBORY: Now we are going to see where I am living. It's a small studio. The house could blown away. They gave to me.

DAMON: Dr. Eaman is a children's doctor who also works with the Iraqi government. But her main focus is helping Iraqi children.

EAMAN: I feel I am needed here. As long as I am helping people and changing their life, I feel it is a big commitment. I would like to continue doing it. So for that reason, I prefer staying in Iraq and help my people instead of being safe somewhere else.

DAMON: She has chosen to live at the hospital because she doesn't want to risk her son's life.

EAMAN: I have to keep myself away from all my loved people so they won't be a target.

DAMON: It might be hard to understand why anyone would target doctors, but it's because doctors are known to have money.

EAMAN: Iraq is my life. It's my country. I am working for a better Iraq and for a better future. And this is the chance. And I am not going to escape that.

And he will have a new life. He can talk. He can do his life again. There is always need. As long as we are living here and until the time I will die, there is always a person in need. And I will be always there to help them. DAMON: She has given up seeing her 8-year-old boy because she believes that other people, other children need her more.

EAMAN: I wish I can have him with me. Live with me. You know, raising him. Just show him how to do things better than anything else. I'm sorry. I miss him a lot. But for his safety, I will always be a little bit away.

No mother on this earth do not miss her child. And he's my only one child. Definitely, I miss him every single moment.

DAMON: Despite Dr. Eaman's best efforts to keep her son away from danger, he was injured in an accident in October. There was a bonfire at school. A large fire.

EAMAN: They were burning the old torn books. And there was a lot of children surrounding the fire and he was one of them.

DAMON: And playing like little children play, another child pushed him into the fire.

EAMAN: He was 35 percent badly burned. Second-degree, third- degree and first degree. We were able to admit him to the American Cash (ph) Hospital and they are doing a tremendous great, great work.

I don't know the future of my one child and how he is going to live. How he is going to depend on himself. But I cry a lot. And I wish by the help of everybody and by the help also of my God and supporting me of course that I can get him back to his life again. Helping other children just to keep him alive and happy that is what I am doing. I am doing a lot of -- in a way or another good things for God.

For the sake of let him live and be safe. But this is unfortunately our life and this is what the war has give us that we cannot have a usual life to live.




DAMON: Today, we are going to meet Nahla Nadawi (ph) and she is a woman who works in a radio station. She's a manager there. And hers is not necessarily a unique story because so many people here have lived similar tragedies. But it's a story that needs to be told as many times as we can possibly tell it.

She has a 6-year-old autistic son named Usaid. And Usaid in Arabic means little lion. His parents chose to give him that name because he is born at eight months and he's autistic and they kind of I guess sense that he was going to spend his life needing to fight.

This bridge that was hit today, the Jabriya Bridge (ph) were getting reports that 10 people were killed, 15 wounded when that explosion took place.

Nahla's husband, Mohammed, he was one of the 10 killed in that attack. He was on his way to pick up her and their son, Usaid. The attack, it wasn't even the biggest story to come out of Iraq that day. There was also a car bombing in Karbala that killed at least 50 people and wounded more than 170. And we reported both the death tolls the way we usually do.

But what we so rarely see is beyond these numbers. And into the lives that have been destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I called my colleague at the radio station and asked if they had the casualty count from the explosion at the Jabriya Bridge (ph). They said 10 were killed and 15 wounded. It doesn't cross your mind, this game with numbers. You always think you are exempt from the numbers. You are pained by the numbers, but you are outside of the numbers.

DAMON (on camera): Nahla struck me more than other people like her have. And I'm not quite sure why. I think maybe it was because when she was talking about the most horrific experience a human being could have to go through, she was so calm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We began at the hospitals. At the first one before we I went in, I thought we were over reacting. I wasn't sure this was what I was supposed to be doing. It began to feel serious when we started searching the records.

DAMON: Her husband is a doctor. So her initial thought is knowing him and how much he wanted to help was that he was helping the wounded. Little by little as the day wore on, she began to realize and be forced to accept that maybe that wasn't the case.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were at Yarmuk Hospital and when I finished going through the casualty records, the man at information told me there were also unidentified bodies. I was stunned. He said there are ten bodies that are charred. Do you want to see them? Of course, for me, this question was terrifying. I said how can I look at charred bodies. And then I thought to myself if I saw those ten and I was reassured that he was not one of them, then I would be relieved.

I don't recall exactly what made me go towards the morgue. I began to walk without consciousness. I was walking towards the morgue. It's a hospital and its hallways are clear and then suddenly the hallway reaches a point where if you go to the left, there is an empty area with grass and bloody sheets. The trail of the blood on the ground leads you to the morgue.

I started walking in a fast and emotional pace. When I reached the morgue I told the man I will give you a description and you can see if it fits one of the people that are here. He said there is no way. The ten bodies are melted together.

DAMON: She sends in a family member to go and photograph the teeth from all the corpses. And they bring those pictures out towards. I think that was my husband. But she couldn't say for sure. And at that point in time, she realizes that she doesn't want to take someone else's loved one. So she wants to make sure it's her husband. And then she remembers that he had knee surgery and had pins in his knees.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now you have to decide by a gap in the teeth and a pin in the knee whether this person who you shared your life with is now this burned thing in front of you. I found out they needed to pull one body from the tent and they decided to pull this one. And at that moment I knew I had to see him.

So they chose his body out of all the bodies. They covered it with a sheet and they put it outside with me. I saw a burned skull and I saw a hand because they were still leaning on the car in this position and I saw the inside of the body. And when I took a close look at the teeth, I knew they were his teeth. I looked at the face and the skull and one minute I was saying yes, this is him. And another minute no, that's not him. You don't want it to be him.

And of course at that moment you can't be strong. I would fall to the ground and they would pick me up again. I knew it was him. It was hard. Very hard. It's cruel in a way that you are so calm and neutral and then suddenly this burned thing is the same thing that used to have a beating heart and share a life with you. And a day before he had blood in his veins, and the day before you would hold his face close to yours and it was hard. It was a hard moment.

DAMON: Usaid doesn't know his father is dead. Usaid thinks his father is on vacation. And Nahla hasn't really been able to bring herself to fully explain it to him.

It's almost as if he knew that he wasn't going to be around. That's what Nahla believes. What he did when Usaid was born was put together this memory bag. He takes notes of memories he has with his son as his son is growing up, so he's writing a diary but for her son to read later. He wanted his son to know that he loved him.

If there is one thing that I think a lot of people that goes through Iraq walk away with, it's the sense of awe, because life is so inexplicably wretched. And yet you meet these individuals. These women with this strength, this determination to live. There people that when you look at them and when you meet them, sometimes you actually do think to yourself maybe there is hope for Iraq.