A group of Jewish students from the Frank Iny school in Baghdad. Most of them would end up escaping Iraq illegally through Kurdistan
Terrorised by the Saddam regime, the 5, 000 Jews still in Iraq in 1970 were desperate to leave, even if it meant risking their lives. Then an illegal route opened up through northern Iraq - Kurdistan. In the first part of his story, Emil Somekh tells how his father found a smuggler willing to help the family escape into Iran, then a friendly state - for a price. (With thanks: Lisette)
We had been trapped in Iraq since the Six-Day
war in 1967. Actually since 1963, when the regime of Kassim was toppled, the
Jews could not officially leave Iraq with a passport and had to escape
illegally through Basra, in the South of Iraq, to Persia (Iran). But even this route
was closed after the 1967 Six Day war between Israel and the Arabs and we were
caught like rats in a bottle in Baghdad, with my father arrested on the 6th
day of the 1967 war.
In March 1970 a truce was signed between the Kurdish rebels in the North and the Saddam regime.
An autonomous Kurdish region was established in the North of Iraq. In mid-1970,
an Iraqi Jew named Fouad Sawdaye took advantage of the halt in hostilities and
took his family and escaped through the Kurdish area of North of Iraq to Iran.
News of his successful escape reached the Jews in Baghdad. Now everybody had
a hope of escaping this hellhole. Actually Fouad was arrested by the Iranians,
who did not believe he was Jewish, and was thrown into jail. He was lucky that he
had a sister in Tehran who assisted in releasing him. All these details were
not known then – but we knew that one bird had succeeded in escaping from the
Now everybody wanted to escape also, although we did not know how. The Jewish Agency in
Israel sent emissaries through the North to Baghdad; they met some
prominent Jewish families in Baghdad and asked them to organize a group
escape of Iraqi Jews.
However these few
families were just selfish and just took the opportunity to escape and did not
organize anything for the rest of the 5,000-strong Jewish community trapped in
In the atmosphere of hope that we might be able finally to leave Iraq and the uncertainty of how to actually do it, my father Ezra, being an enterprising and dynamic person, who suffered a lot by being put in prison for a year and a half and having his pharmacy business taken from him, travelled to the North under the pretext of selling pharmaceuticals. He met a Kurdish smuggler in a coffee house in the Kurdish area. My father asked him if he was ready to take us across the border to Iran. The man said yes and he set up a meeting with my father in Baghdad. But he never came. So my father took my mother with him and again they went to the North to meet the potential smuggler. He again promised them to come to Baghdad; but again he never came.
This time I decided to go myself with my mother to meet him. We met him at his house in Sulaymaniyah. I started to talk to him and I told him we were Jews and we wanted him to smuggle us outside Iraq to Iran. I was surprised to hear him say: “Your father did not tell me you are Jews - that is why I never came - actually I thought your father was a government agent and I was scared of him. That is why I never came to Baghdad. Now that I know you are Jews I am ready to take you personally across the border tonight, then later I will take your parents and your brother and sister across.”
It was very tempting to hear that I was so close to freedom, but I told him that he had to come to Baghdad and arrange to take us all together across the border.
I went with my mother back to Baghdad. Every morning as I shaved, I looked at myself in the mirror saying: “You were so close to the border and he was ready to take you across, but you chose to come back to Baghdad and wait for him”. Every day in the afternoon I went to look for him in the coffee house where we set our meeting.
He came on the sixth day. I took him, with his assistant, to our house in Hindiyah district in Baghdad. We sat with him in our spacious guest room, richly furnished with fine Persian carpets. We discussed with him the plan to smuggle us across the border. He said he was doing it for us because Israel had helped the Kurdish freedom fighters in their revolt against the Iraqi regime. He then nonchalantly said he would need some small expenses for the way – 15,000 Dinars! A very huge sum of money, worth about $50,000.
It was clearly a mistake to have taken him into the guest room in our house – he assumed we were very, very rich. I knew he was bluffing – so I started negotiating with him and I quickly dropped him to 2,000 Dinars, in itself a huge sum of money for a Kurdish smuggler! As they were leaving my mother asked him if it was safe to escape with him – he answered that she did not have to worry as they were heavily armed! Hearing this, my mother waited until he left and she said she was not ready to go with him through Sulaymaniyah – we should all go to Erbil in the North, where all the Jews had started going, since the rumor was out that whoever arrived in Erbil, would be helped somehow to escape across the border!
During the night my mother convinced my father of her opinion and this left me alone in my belief that we should go with him. My calculation was like this: I would rather risk a very dangerous route with him through Sulaymaniyah rather than go with all the Jewish crowd to Erbil since I believed the government could not shut its eyes and would arrest the whole crowd in Erbil! In trying to convince us of her viewpoint, my mother complained that once we gave the smuggler the 2,000 Dinars what guarantee did we have that he would not just dump us somewhere in the mountains!
I said to my mother: if I can convince him to take half the sum at the border and then with the right code word from us he would have have to come back to take the other half from my uncle Naim, would it better for her? She said OK.
I took with me my uncle Mozi and we went to meet the smuggler. Obviously he readily agreed – these were huge sums for him. He just begged me to convince my mother not to pack too many bags since they have to carry them by foot to the border.
We made a date with him to meet him a few days later at a coffee house at the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, a city in the North, from where he would take us and smuggle us eventually across the Iraqi border to Iran. My mother prepared five bags with basic clothing and the smuggler took them with him, with the plan to meet us in Sulaymaniyah several days later. I remember being in a movie theater those days before our escape and having mixed feelings of fear of the unknown mixed with the hope of finally escaping from hellish Iraq to the free world.
I was having a tooth filling done at a dentist just before we escaped. At that time to do a filling the dentist drilled the tooth and put in some medication. You had to come back to him in a couple of days. At our next appointment, I urged him to do the filling but he decided to put medication one more time and gave me another appointment to do the actual filling. The problem was that he set the next appointment at a date later than the date set for our escape. So I thought - either I would sit in an Iraqi jail with an open tooth and potential toothache or I would have the filling done by an Iranian dentist!
The evening before our escape, I went with my uncle Naim in his red Cadillac on the main Abu Nawas boulevard, with all its coffee houses along the Tigris River, to have a last look at that beautiful part of Baghdad. People were strolling along the boulevard terraces, overlooking the river, having a relaxed time, some of them Iraqi Jews I knew. I was looking at them hoping that this would be the last time I would see them here, hoping to finally escape from this place that hated us and tortured us.
That night as I went to close our garden gate, I saw a government secret agent hiding in the distance looking at our house. I said to myself it would be an irony if something happened
to us on the eve of our escape.
On the morning of our escape, we had breakfast - all the family together in our dining room. The funny thing was that after breakfast, my mother took the dirty breakfast plates to the kitchen sink and washed and dried all of them. I was looking at her in astonishment. I guess it was important for her that the secret police who would probably take over our house after our escape would have a lofty view of her as a clean housewife! Or I guess it was just the power of habit! Or it was simply to overcome her nervousness!
Then my uncle Mozi came and he started going around the house picking items he wanted for himself – a camera here, a radio there…he even was shaking our olive tree in the garden to get the olives… It looked very strange to me that here we were before the most dangerous move in our life and my uncle was thinking about the olives! Our servant, who was on a weekend holiday suddenly showed up. I told my mother that she had to find an excuse to send her off. I did not want her in our house as we were getting ready to leave. My mother told her that we were travelling to the North for a holiday and we would inform her when we would be coming back.
News of our impending escape somehow got around the Jewish community, maybe because they saw my father selling our Ford car. Suddenly people were coming to our house asking if we could take them with us. The funniest thing was that the father of my schoolmate George Dallal, who hated me and caused me a lot of trouble because I always beat him to the top of the class, came to us and asked to take his son with us! The chutzpah – I thought if we were ever really to accept to take him, then we would simply dump him in the middle of nowhere!
I was becoming worried that so many people were coming to our house. So I told my father, mother, brother and sister to leave the house and go to the house of my uncle Naim, in the same neighborhood, until the time arrived to take the taxi to the North. I stayed alone in the house for some time and then left also, leaving the lights on in the front.
We took the taxi to the North. Along the way the radio was blaring typical Baathist propaganda: unity, freedom, socialism. You also saw those slogans written on the government arches, constructed along the road to the North. How ironic! Saddam's Ba'ath party talking about freedom, while being one of the worst tyrannical butchering regimes in the world! But this is the nature of dictatorship – they think they can control your body and mind, using physical power, terror and incessant gibberish propaganda. I hated this propaganda with a passion. It was an insult to intellect and to logic. Hearing the radio spewing the propaganda, I was wondering if it was really feasible that within 24 hours we would be in Iran, free from this intellectual garbage. It was a great dream and I dared to dream.
On our way to Kirkuk my mother was still having doubts about going with our armed smuggler through Sulaymaniyah and was still badgering me and my father to go with everybody else through Erbil. At the Kirkuk junction, the final decision had to be taken – Sulaymaniyah or Erbil. I prevailed – I was adamant that we must go through Sulaymaniyah. My father was not swayed by my mother’s entreaties and he accepted my decision.
I had purposely sat at the side of the driver because I had an identity card as a teacher where only my private and family name were written, skipping the customary father's name used in Iraq. Since my father's name was Ezra, a typically Jewish name, my teacher's identity card would identify me as a Jew. But by leaving out my father's name, the identity card showed my name as Emil Somekh, which could be a Christian name and had no indication of being Jewish. I purposely asked my father to sit on the far left side in the back so that whenever we were stopped at any of the police or army checkpoints on the way to the North, they usually just asked me to show my identity card and I showed them my teacher's identity card and they waved us onwards.
But as we approached a major checkpoint close to Sulaymaniyah, the soldier asked also my father sitting in the back for his identity card. As he saw his Jewish name, he smiled and then took it and entered his command post to consult with his superior. It was a tense moment, but finally he reappeared and he waved us onwards. What happened in his consultation with his superior we could not know, but obviously his superior just told him to leave us to continue, assuming we were going for a short holiday in the nice climate of the northern mountains of Kurdistan, the Kurdish portion of Iraq.
To be continued tomorrow