Tales from the Tigris riverbank

Saleh Mohamed Fawzi is a ferryman and his life story is the story of Iraq. He talks to Robert Fisk as they journey through Baghdad

The Independent

08 July 2004

Across the lettuce-green waters of the Tigris river, we drifted yesterday, past Saddam Hussein's old school, past the 13th-century Mustansariya University, past the bomb-smashed wreckage of the ministry of defence. Saleh Mohamed Fawzi had turned off the boat's engine as we slid side-on beneath a great, old British railway bridge. "I can tell you everything about Saddam because he grew up just over there," Saleh said, and pointed a long, dark arm towards the steaming streets of al-Khurkh. The playground of Saddam's school backed on to the river, a wall of yellow concrete topped by a set of cheap football nets.

Saleh spends his days ferrying passengers across the Tigris for a few dinars - it saves the long walk over the bridges or the oven-like search for taxis in the Baghdad streets - and yesterday was a special day because he was asked by The Independent to take his boat right through the city. All he had to do to make a good fare was to tell the story of his life.

"Our journey will cost you but my own dialogue is free," he said. It was a good deal. Saleh is only 35, but his tale of war and military desertion and fear was a little history of Iraq. He is a Shia, and much of what he wanted to say was about religion and violence, and about America. He was also a soldier in Saddam's supposedly "elite" Republican Guard.

"I studied at the technical institute in Baghdad and all we wanted to do was avoid the war with Iran," he said. "When the war started, they closed the river between the presidential palace and the ministry of defence but all we were hearing were the stories coming back from the front. We knew that so many of our men were being killed fighting the Iranians. We studied very hard to avoid the call-up. And we succeeded. The front meant death. I never got sent to the front. But we lived in fear. In just my area of Baghdad alone, Saddam's men killed 55 of our people, just for praying in the mosque. That is because they were Shias."

Saleh's voice rises in pitch as he turns on the old boat's engine to avoid collision with a tree that is moving gently over the water towards us. "It was a gift from America to Saddam at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war - an American Johnson engine - and still it is working." I suggest that this is a compliment to American technology. "All the world knows how good that technology is," Saleh replies. "But you foreigners must not leave us alone with the Americans. Please don't leave us with them and let them dominate us. Bring your countries to do business with my land and share our benefits."

This was to be a theme of Saleh's story, that those who destroyed the leader he hated should not benefit from his downfall.

The wreckage of that regime lines the Tigris. We sailed quietly by the great compound of the old ministry of defence, its walls torn open, many of its buildings in concrete shards across a parade ground. The windows of a less-damaged central barracks were now lined with thousands of breeze-blocks: homes to hundreds of Iraqi refugees who now live where Saddam's generals once planned the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Alas for Saleh, that was a war he could not escape. "My family was here in Baghdad and I was sent to the southern desert - on our side of the border, just opposite Hafr el-Batn - and we were bombed so many times by the Americans and the British. My family lived near the Ameriyah bunker where hundreds of other families were killed by American missiles. Afterwards, people became ill. My daughter Hoda developed a sort of cancer. Her skin cracked open and she looked very old. I still take her to doctors who can't cure her. They say it's not cancer but she still hurts inside."

Three hundred and fifty miles to the south, Saleh was trying to save his life. "We were in a very isolated part of the desert and nothing grew there. The army had amassed thousands of shells and gunpowder and guns because they thought this would be a long war. In one place, they had tons of sugar and biscuits which they had stolen from Kuwait. But we had no food. They didn't resupply us. We were hungry and abandoned. So I deserted."

Saleh's boat was moving under the gloomy arches of a Saddamite bridge, a massive, pre-stressed concrete job that was constructed to repair a bridge destroyed in the 1991 war. He looked up at it in the semi-darkness that enveloped us the moment the white-hot sun had been hidden. It was as if Saddam's shade was still ruling his life. Saleh reached his home in Baghdad as the Iraqi army collapsed under Anglo-American air assault, then, avoiding the great rebellions breaking out in the Shia south, hid with his family. "God's mercy made this war short and humiliated Saddam and his front-men. Saddam gave an amnesty to deserters, so I gave myself up."

But Saleh was sent back into the Iraqi army, this time to the northern city of Irbil. "I hated it. I did not want to fight any more. So I ran away again. You know the punishment for desertion is death but I refuse to fight. It is a sin for a Muslim to kill. So I came home again and eventually I managed to bribe some officers to take my name off the conscript list. I didn't meet the officers. There was a money-agent who bribed officers for soldiers who had deserted. It cost me about 12,000 dinars (£400) and my wife sold all her family gold to get the money."

The sun had blazed back onto our little boat as Saleh started his khaki-and-green military engine again. Bull rushes stood in clumps along the water's edge. Because Saleh told his story in so matter of fact a way, it was easy to forget how brave he was. And how religious.

"Our Imam Ali said that a man is either our brother in religion or our brother in humanity and we believe this. You must live with all men in perfect peace. You don't need to fight him or kill him. You know something; Islam is a very easy religion, but some radicals make it difficult. We are against anyone who is killing or kidnapping foreigners. This is not the Muslim way. The Grand Marjas (religious teachers) have told us this."

I plunged my hand into the warm waters of the Tigris. What did Saleh feel about the river - the Tigris is the Dichle in Arabic - which he had been sailing upon since the age of 11? "I am a fisherman as well as a boatman and I also swim races and compete in rowing-boat races. The Dichle is part of me because it is the river which connects all my country and passes all the holy places and it joins the Eufrat (Euphrates) which goes by all the holy shrines. But the cement factories and the sewage make this river so dirty and it must be cleaned."

Saleh was in his boat when the American air raids started in 2003. "I found a body floating just over there and I took it back to the shore. It was in the water, back upwards and face down. It was a young man. But he had no identity. We buried him in the grounds of the British embassy close to us. When the British arrived after the invasion, they found the corpse in the garden and dug it up and sent it to the morgue. I never found out who it was." We were moving through countryside now with trees and lawns coming down to the water's edge. Sharp-eyed youths sat on the bank and pointed at our boat, shouting ajenab (foreigner) which I do not like to hear these days in Iraq. Deliberately, I had asked my driver to meet me on the edge of Baghdad, miles from the slumland pontoon where I had boarded Saleh's boat. First rule for foreigners in Baghdad: do not go back to the place you start your journey from.

But Saleh was still contemplating the nightmare of Saddam. "When he was young, he had to borrow all his clothes from his cousin, Adnan Khairallah. We think he didn't have a father because we've never known where his father is buried. Saddam had psychological problems. He kept talking about protecting Iraqi women but then he killed so many of their husbands that they were left penniless. Look what happened at Halabja."

When did he first hear about Halabja, I asked? "My brother was also in the Republican Guard. He was fighting in Kurdistan. He knew about the gassings. He told us. But there is something you should know. America and Saddam were together. America made Saddam. In this last war, their student was destroyed and his teachers took his place in my country. Please don't leave us alone with the Americans."

We said goodbye at a little jetty bathed in white heat that had bleached the colour of the grass. "Now I must tell you to be very careful and take care because you are a foreigner," Saleh said. "I hope this new government will work. I like to be an optimist. But things are bad." He revved the old military engine and puttered back into the great, green, greasy Tigris river. He may be suspicious of the Americans but it is good to find a brave and decent Iraqi these days. May the Salehs of this world survive.