Haider Jaber thought life as a gay man was harsh under Saddam Hussein. Then came the invasion. And the aftermath. Brian Whitaker reports.
This article originally appeared in GT magazine, March 2007.
By the time he reached his teens, Haider Jaber knew he was different. Maybe it was the way he walked or talked, but other kids noticed it too. Some of them used to hit him or throw stones.
“They would gather round and call me ‘gay boy’, ‘woman’ or ask me to suck their penis,” he said.
“Sometimes, I would have to wait in school until everyone else had gone for my parents to collect me, or I would take very long routes home to avoid them.”
In many countries Haider would have had people to help and support him, but growing up gay in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq there was little chance of that. “In my society it was something that I had to hide,” he said.
After finishing at school, Haider went on to study medicine at a university in Baghdad, where he hoped the students would be a little more understanding. As a precaution, he tried to hide his gayness and “hung around with girls a lot” but it didn’t do much good. “People still suspected that I was gay and some of the older students abused me,” he recalled.
In the meantime, he was secretly having an affair with Alaa, who he had met in a video shop.
“Alaa was interested in western music and movies just like me, and we shared a lot of things in common,” Haider said.
They were friends for a year without discussing anything about their sexuality - though eventually they became lovers.
Haider was in the midst of his final exams when Alaa urged him to have a break by going for a drive.
“He thought it would be nice to take me out from the environment of studying and revising. We went to a bridge where it was romantic … I used to like that place and he knew that.”
Just as were kissing, the Iraqi police spotted them.
“We were pulled out of the car and the policemen were very aggressive,” Haider said. “One of them slapped me on my cheeks very hard and I started crying. They dragged me into the police car and they told Alaa to follow.
“I was begging them and telling them I had done nothing wrong. They said: ‘son of a bitch, we will fuck your mother and sister in front of you’, ‘we’ll put the pistol in your ass if you keep moaning’, and a lot of other things.
“They drove towards the police station but did not actually get into the building. We were driven a bit away from the police station and then taken out of the cars. It came about that they basically wanted money.
“They said we should pay them so that they would leave us alone. They asked for about $1,000 dollars in the beginning. I was only a student and we said we could not afford it. They agreed at last on $400.”
In comparison with today, those were the good times for gay Iraqis. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein Iraq has been engulfed in a new kind of tyranny as militias and vigilante groups roam the streets, enforcing their own rules and imposing mob justice on those whose behaviour they disapprove of.
When the war began in 2003, Haider was working as a doctor in a Baghdad hospital and had struck up another relationship - this time with Ali, who he had met in a clothes shop.
“I used to be seen going to my house with Ali,” he said. “People then started to approach both of us asking us why were we going home together. They were men from the neighbouring houses and men who used to own shops there.
“At the end of 2003, I was coming back from the hospital and I was stopped by about four or five men, one of whom I knew as he was a neighbour.
“I tried to walk away but I was grabbed by the collar of my shirt. They asked me about Ali and why was I bringing him to the neighbourhood. I said he was just a friend of mine. They said they knew I was having sex with him. I denied it. They said that if they saw this man [Ali] again in that area, they would cut his legs off.
“They told me that I had to change … That I had to be heterosexual. I had to marry a woman. I was told to grow a moustache and beard.
“I was told not to wear jeans or tight clothes and that I must not grow my hair long and that I should not wear bright colours or shirts with English writings or western style. I must attend the mosque frequently for prayers and lectures to be a good man. They said they had decided not to execute me but to change me.
“I said this was unfair. One of the men punched me on the face. One of them then pushed me on to my side and I hurt my back and they started kicking me. I was just about to pass out when one of them said that they should ‘just leave the animal there’.
“There was no one who could help me … they would also have been beaten. A lot of people were watching from a distance (women, children, old men, boys and other young men), some seemed to enjoy the scene and others were encouraging and cheering them.”
A few weeks later, Haider received a threatening letter issued in the name of the Badr militia. It accused him of not changing his ways and said he had been “sentenced” to exile in order to “cleanse” the country - adding that if he failed to leave he would be killed.
A month passed, then four men with red scarves around their heads and faces burst into the house where he had been living and searched it, looking for him. Haider, fortunately, was working in the hospital at the time. His uncle told the men he had gone abroad but they said they didn’t believe him.
Another month passed, then two men turned up in the hospital, apparently with connivance from the hospital’s security guards. One of the doctors tipped off Haider that they were looking for him, and he fled by an emergency exit to the female doctors’ residence.
“I had to hide in the female doctors' residence for, I think, a complete three days. I was stuck, as I knew the security people had seen me come into the hospital. The female doctors were worried and said I would have to leave the hospital.
“A doctor friend came up with the idea that at night-time the security would be less. He said he would take me down to a car and they would take me out of the hospital in the boot of the car.
“I managed to escape to my aunt's house and contacted Ali over the phone. I told him that I had to leave Iraq and that he had to leave too. I had heard that three gay men had been killed in public at that time.”
A few days later four men forced their way into the house where Ali was living and took him away - never to be seen again.
“His family have been told by men who were close to Badr militias that Ali was tortured and killed but they have never received the body,” Haider said. “They held a funeral for him but without the body.
“I was absolutely terrified and I knew that my life in Iraq had reached an end.”
He set out in a shared taxi on the dangerous overland route to neighbouring Jordan.
“It was terribly scary. We were expecting to get stopped at any time by a gang of terrorists. They used to stop people along the way to see if there were any foreigners, or to ask for money or even the car itself sometimes. But we were lucky that day as the car which left Baghdad before us was stopped and the passengers were asked to give all their money.”
Since leaving Iraq, Haider has been in touch with friends by email and phone. “They told me that it is a disaster and I should never think of retuning,” he said.
“A person I knew called Mazin was killed at the beginning of 2005. I knew him through the sports club in Baghdad where I went swimming. My friends told me that he had been executed for being gay.
“This is only one example of the slaughter of gays in Iraq nowadays. A lot is going on till now and nobody seems to take serious action.
“Members of Badr militias are hunting the gays by arranging faked dates through the internet chat rooms, meeting them, torturing them and ultimately killing them - mostly by binding their hands behind their backs and shooting them with a bullet in the head from behind.”
Eventually, Haider reached Britain and applied for asylum - which is never a simple matter, even in a case that is as harrowing as his. At first he was refused but then, after an appeal, received the good news last November that he will be allowed to stay.
At 28, he now has a new life, working at a hospital in Scotland. But he still grieves for his murdered lover, Ali.
“I really miss him,” he said. “He did not deserve what happened. I just want his body to have buried. They think that we [gay people] do not even deserve a proper grave.”
Brian Whitaker is a Guardian journalist and author of “Unspeakable Love - Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East” (Saqi Books, £14.99).
Assistance and information on seeking asylum on the basis of sexual orientation is available from the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group.