Is it possible to be a political prisoner of your own volition? Jawad al-Shammari believes that it is. In his 50s now, he spent more than 20 years living in an underground hideaway to escape persecution by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And even though in Iraq, political prisoners are due compensation and assistance with employment, al-Shammari has not really been compensated for the years he was forced into hiding.
Al-Shammari became politically active as a young man and he became a supporter of Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, or “the first al-Sadr” as Iraqis call him, who founded the Islamic Dawa Party. As a result, in 1979, the Iraqi courts, under Hussein, issued a judgment against al-Shammari in absentia: he would be executed.
At the time, al-Shammari had just started studying economics in Baghdad but to escape the hangman’s noose, he fled east and remained in hiding for a year. After a year of being on the run from the authorities, al-Shammari finally decided that he would go underground. Literally.
Together with his mother, he dug a hole in the ground just outside his family home. The space – which measures around half a meter in width and two meters in length - is just big enough to fit a sleeping mat, an old rug and some cooking utensils. There is also a radio, a copy of the Koran and a small gas bottle.
“Sometimes I felt like I was a dead person, everything seemed so black"
Al-Shammari lived in that hole for over 22 years. “My mother installed a plastic tube and hid its outer end so that I had fresh air, al-Shammari says. “That’s what allowed me to survive all those years.”
“I never expected to leave that place or to lead a normal life,” he continues. “Sometimes I felt like I was a dead person, everything seemed so black. The only thing that made me happy was praying, reading the Koran and listening to the news. I used to put the radio next to my ear and listen to the news quietly because I didn’t want them [the authorities] to find me. Preparing food took up a little bit of time but not a lot,” he notes.
Although they came to see him occasionally, his family barely dared visit him and some of the lonely man’s only companions were the bodiless voices of BBC reporters, whose names he came to know well.
Over his head, Iraq was in the throes of the vicious war against Iran but al-Shammari lived in his own, confined world. Occasionally, very late at night, he was able to leave the underground shelter, leaving his small dark space for a larger dark space.
One of the most awful moments for al-Shammari came when his brother was sentenced to death by the regime too; his brother was executed and al-Shammari was unable to take part in mourning or funeral ceremonies. Another difficult time came when his mother fell ill and became unable to bring her hidden son food or supplies.
"I only survived because of God’s blessings,” al-Shammari says. “In fact, the death of family members only made me stronger. It gave me the feeling I should sacrifice myself to rid our country of the oppressor.”
Al-Shammari’s mother also has her story to tell. “I suffered a lot to keep my son alive,” she explains. “The most difficult thing was when people used to ask me about what happened to him.” And this was not limited to friends and neighbours. “The security and intelligence forces always asked me questions,” she says. “They even approached our neighbours and relatives to try to find out where he was.”
Al-Shammari’s existence was secret; one of his cousins admits he thought his relative was dead, that he had been executed and his remains simply disposed of anonymously, like so many other Iraqi victims of Hussein’s regime.
It was not until 2003 – after the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Hussein’s government – that al-Shammari was finally able to leave his underground hiding place for good. He even became something of minor media celebrity in Iraq.
Today he still speaks with pride about his long time living in the prison of his own making. In general his demeanour is calm, almost meditative, and he smiles often. He tells plenty of moving tales of his life underground but it seems that what he is most upset about today, is his current state of affairs.
Upon leaving the hole, one of his first moves was to build a guesthouse around the hole in the ground and to try to share his experiences with others.
One of his neighbours, Ali Sadiq, 35, told NIQASH, how he tried to go into the hole and stay there. “But I couldn’t stay there for more than few minutes,” he exclaims. “The place was very small and very hot. This man’s patience is unbelievable.”
Other than that though, al-Shammari doesn’t feel like he’s had much support – from either the Iraqi government or his former comrades with similar political views. In 2005, he met with high ranking government officials to tell his story. “They gave me IQD5 million [around US$3,200]. And with that money I was able to get married. But that was the first and last time I had any government assistance.”
For the past six years, al-Shammari has been trying to find a job. He submitted his papers to the government, and in particular, to the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, which is supposed to provide at least some assistance to those who suffered under Hussein. But apparently his documents were not enough to secure further government aid.
“The government does not consider me a political prisoner,” al-Shammari explains. “For a person to receive compensation, or to get a job, he needs proof that he was imprisoned. My mother is the only person who knows my story and as such, she cannot provide sufficient evidence.”
According to Sadiq, villagers and members of al-Shammari’s tribe are now supporting the older man. “It’s very sad that this man, who made all these sacrifices, is still unable to find a decent job,” Sadiq says.
Al-Shammari was sitting and listening as his neighbour gave this opinion. But clearly he wanted to forget his problems and his painful memories. So instead he told an amusing but poignant story about his time living underground.
“One day I left the hole for a walk at night,” he recalls. “And one of my brother’s sons saw me - with my dirty clothes, my long, long beard and my bent back. When he saw me, the poor thing, who was only four at the time, fainted. So to make the experience bearable for the poor kid, the family told him he had seen a ghost. Not a human being.”