Publisher: The Philadelphia Inquirer
Author: By Trudy Rubin; Inquirer Columnist
Story date: 21/11/2011
LARNACA, Cyprus Salam Hamrani is safe for now.
My Iraqi fixer and friend endured two years in a Baghdad jail. His crime: helping American troops nab Shiite mili-tants who were killing his Sunni neighbors. He was finally freed and escaped with his family to Greek Cyprus.
Our reunion in Larnaca was emotional and full of laughter. But Salam's story is a sad tale of U.S. failures and be-trayals in Iraq.
A Shiite whose uncle was hanged by Saddam Hussein, Salam was thrilled when U.S. troops ousted the dictator. As Iraq collapsed into civil war, he was furious when the militant Shiite Mahdi army moved into his mixed neighborhood and started killing Sunnis.
So he started tipping U.S. officers at a forward operating base in his district about the worst of these killers.
When U.S. troops withdrew, family members of one of these thugs got friends in the Iraqi army to arrest him, along with his two sons. A Shiite army general who was chummy with the killer's mother and sister made sure Salam stayed in prison.
Although U.S. civilian and military officials made inquiries (at my urging) and these may have saved Salam's life, they were unable to expedite his freedom. Finally, after two years, an honest judge at great risk to his own life freed Salam (there was no evidence against him).
But his Mahdi army enemies, who had murdered his brother while he was in jail, made death threats against him. And under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki murderous Mahdi army militiamen who killed Iraqis and U.S. troops are being let out of prison.
So Salam sold his property and his wife's jewelry, packed up his family, including his 1-year-old granddaughter, and fled via Syria to Turkey. From Turkey, smugglers took the family in a small boat on a treacherous sea journey to Turkish Cyprus. The family gave baby Fatima a sleeping pill to keep her quiet.
They walked for hours in the dark to cross the Turkish-Greek Cypriot border, hushing Fatima's cries as they passed Turkish policemen. Then they requested asylum. They are waiting to hear from the Greek Cypriot Interior Ministry whether they will get refugee status that will enable them to stay on the island.
I hope they succeed, because if Salam has to return home, he won't live long. The price that Iraqis pay for having helped Americans has become hideously high.
This became painfully clear in the day and a half I spent with Salam and his family in Cyprus.
He's renting a small furnished apartment in Larnaca, where his courageous wife, Nadia freed from her black abaya and veil cooks for the family and plays with Fatima. Salam has not regained the 50 pounds he lost in prison and his features are much sharper than when we worked together in Baghdad.
Son Mustafa, 22, father of Fatima, sits silently, still haunted by his arrest and time in a tiny cell, too small to sit down in. Salam's other son, Marwan, 20, recalls beatings with cables and electric prods. Their army tormentors tried in vain to make them swear that their father was a terrorist.
Marwan now studies computer science and dreams of being able to have a normal adulthood, while Mustafa does little. These young men paid dearly for their father's "crime" of helping American troops.
Salam's gutsy assistance to his threatened Sunni neighbors back home has not gone unrecognized. An Iraqi Sunni businessman whose son was kidnapped by Shiite militiamen and rescued by Salam contributed some money to the Hamrani family's escape.
Another Sunni neighbor named Samer, whom Salam rescued from Mahdi army goons, visited him repeatedly in prison, and then fled to Cyprus. As Salam and I sat at an outdoor table at McDonald's on the Larnaca seafront boardwalk, where Iraqi refugee families come to stroll in the winter's cold, Samer dropped by.
The two men recalled how, when smugglers dropped Salam and his family off in Larnaca in the middle of the night, he called Samer, who rushed to help them. But when the men started discussing their uncertain future, the conversation died.
Salam and his family are still living in limbo. Greek Cypriot officials have told him he will get refugee status (which gives the right to work but not citizenship), yet this still hasn't come through. And despite his work with American journalists, and the huge risks he took to help U.S. troops, Salam's chances of coming to America are slim.
Congress established a Special Immigrant Visa program in 2008 to help Iraqis who are endangered because they helped us. The program promised to grant 25,000 primary visas over five years (with more visas for family members); less than 3,500 have been issued so far. And just when those visas are most needed with all U.S. troops set to leave by the end of this year the program has been frozen by new security requirements.
Only 10 applicants were admitted in August, 40 in September, 98 in October; a backlog of thousands is still waiting. Iraqis who have completed the SIV process are being told they must wait eight to nine more months, even though many face death threats.
I'm getting e-mail from Iraqi interpreters who have had to leave U.S. military bases that are closing, and are moving from house to house lest they be murdered. In eight to nine months, those interpreters may well be dead.
Top U.S. officials tell me they are focused on the Iraqi visa issue; yet, despite their claims, little is moving. They refuse to consider the one act that might save Iraqis under death threat an emergency airlift. They could be taken to Guam, where additional security checks could be conducted before the refugees entered the United States.
This failure to act is a blot on America's honor, a betrayal of Iraqis who risked their lives to help us.
Salam, at least, is safe for now. But as we sit eating ice cream and looking out at the sea, he muses on whether his work with U.S. soldiers had been worth it.
"Why did you do it?" I ask.
"I did it because I like my country," he responds fiercely, "and the Mahdi army was working for Iran."
Then he continues, in a troubled voice: "I made trouble for my family by trusting the Americans. I worked with the Americans for no money because I believed they were friends of Iraq.
"People said they were occupiers, but me, I said no, they were liberators. Why did they forget me? When America takes what it wants and then they leave all their friends, it makes people feel they made a mistake in helping America."
Is this the best we can do for those who aided us in Iraq?
Refugees Global Press Review
Compiled by Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR
For UNHCR Internal Distribution