- Virginia Johnson
She was an educated daughter of the privileged class—granddaughter of two of Iraq’s heroes from its pre-Saddam era. A successful journalist and later owner of a printing business, she seemed to live a more charmed life than most of Iraq’s citizens. But as the door of the women’s prison closed behind her, leaving her virtually entombed, she realized that her sense of security had been nothing more than an illusion, and as one prisoner after another was dragged away to be tortured, she understood the true horror that underlay her world. Mayada: Daughter of Iraq: One Woman’s Survival Under Saddam Hussein is her story as shared with fellow writer Jean Sasson.
Author Jean Sassoon has helped to tell several first-hand accounts of women in the Arab world (Princess: A True Story of Life behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, Love in a Torn Land : Joanna of Kurdistan, Growing Up Bin Laden). Before the Iraq War, Sasson discovered that Mayada Al-Askari, who had served as her translator on another assignment, had been imprisoned. Mayada’s ordeal began in August of 1999 when she was summarily arrested on false charges of having printed anti-government propaganda. In the notorious Baladiyat Prison, she and 17 other “shadow women” waited to be routinely tortured for their crimes. Some died under the treatment. Others lingered for months. None had trials. For many, a particularly terrible aspect of their existence was that they, like Mayada, had been snatched off the streets with no word to their friends and relatives. They worried as much for the defenseless ones they left behind as they did for themselves, for these were brave and strong women who had been the support of their families. Each woman’s story illuminates an aspect of daily life in the days before the Iraq War.
At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., one way that is given to understand the human suffering of so many people is to follow the destiny of an individual, discovering his path--whether it led to death or freedom. In that way, the experiences of the estimated six million lost acquire more immediacy as seen through the lens of a single person’s destiny. In this story, though it be set more than a half a century later and on a different continent, there are clear parallels. In this crime against humanity, Mayada is one of the luckier ones, but she will never forget what her people endured under a man no less tyrannical in his methods than Hitler or Stalin, and after reading her account and the stories of her fellow prisoners, it is unlikely readers will, either.