How a holiday to Iraq in the summer of 1990 turned into a months-long nightmareby Sameer Rahim / July 17, 2020 / Leave a comment
Waiting in the immigration queue at Saddam International Airport, I was feverish with anxiety. I watched as my father, Sadiq Rahim, leaned into a glass booth where an Iraqi officer slowly checked our family’s passports. Taped on the glass was a photo of Saddam Hussein in sunglasses and a black beret. Before flying out, our parents had warned my older sister and me that Iraq wasn’t like Britain: a stray joke or misplaced comment could land us in serious trouble. Our one protection was our British citizenship—Saddam being an ally of the west. Cigarette smoke drifted from the booth. Then the officer stamped our visa pages and nodded us through. The date was 28th July, 1990. Five days later Iraq invaded Kuwait, and our short tourist trip turned into a months-long nightmare.
Thirty years on, I find it hard to describe what happened to me in Iraq. The bald facts are that, at the age of nine, I was locked up for a month in a Baghdad hotel with my family. We were pawns in a larger diplomatic battle. After the UK condemned the Kuwait invasion and threatened retaliation, all British citizens in Saddam’s control were held as bargaining chips. I left with my mother and sister when women and children were released at the end of August. My father was forced to stay on until mid-October.
We were usually described in the press as “human-shield hostages,” but that still sounds melodramatic to me. The theory that Saddam kept us close to military targets to deter Allied bombing makes little sense—by the time the Gulf War started in January 1991, he had released us all. Hostages? Well, we weren’t allowed to leave our hotel floor and the lifts were guarded by armed goons. But no one actually put a gun to our heads—at least not our family. Saddam called us his “guests,” which he might have been delusional enough to believe. The Rahims always refer to it as the time “we got stuck in Iraq,” as though we had been caught in motorway traffic. Perhaps a better description would be “enforced lockdown.” Like coronavirus, Saddam was unpredictable and potentially lethal; and like now, panic spread by seeing how others, seemingly at random, suffered more than we did.
Perhaps because of the sheer weirdness…