Thursday, August 27, 2020

My James Bond-style escape from Iraq: Part 3

Desperate to leave Iraq under the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein,  in November 1970 Lisette Shashoua Ades was finally given the opportunity to escape the country with the help of Kurdish smugglers, and out to freedom in Iran. Here is the third, and final part of her story. Click here for Part I and here for Part II.


I owe my freedom to the family of Haim and Amal Rejwan who accepted to take me with them as they fled. I owe even more to my dear Aunty Marcelle Shamash ( Bekhor) who persuaded my Dad that she would protect and take me under her wing. That helped appease my Father who saw how more desperate I was becoming everyday by lingering on.

Aunty Marcelle and I went to al Naher Street to buy ourselves the black abbaya to blend with the locals ...I had to shorten mine. Our escape luckily was an easy one with a little snag. Haim Rejwan left on the 5th of November 1970, the reason being, if he got caught; We the women and the kids would not be hurt.

That day, Aunty Marcelle and I went with my father to the Khalastchi house (Amal ‘s parents) where Amal, Salman, Yasmeen and baby Frank were waiting for us to leave together. At the Khalastchis, someone mentioned that there was an abortive coup d’état in the north of Iraq (whether that was true or not). It was enough for my dad to halt the whole operation and we all went back to our homes.

Upon my return home that day, a letter had arrived from Canada informing us about the birth of baby Tamara to my sister Hilda and her husband Freddy Rejwan; a new niece to both myself and to Haim Rejwan, since Freddy was Haim’s brother. Tamara was born on  23 October  but since we had stopped using telegrams to avoid any misinterpretation by the censors, we only got the news two weeks later by mail.

 I did not expect my dad to allow me to leave the following day.  I still see it asyet another miracle that he did. It  must be because he saw Amal and Aunty Marcelle’s determination.

 The following day was a different setup. I again said goodbye to my parents and grandmother, really not knowing when and if I would ever see them again. My mum's last words of advice which she stoically gave me with a brave smile, was: “Always wear Lipstick” “and “Always stand straight”. I managed to follow her first recommendation, but I must admit that I am still trying to master the second !

 I left with my driver s license, my University ID, a small suitcase and my abbaya. I only had 60 dinars with me because my dad was afraid that if we got caught and they found too much money on us they would know that we were escaping.

 Our wonderful, albeit temperamental, driver Samuel took me to a Nafarat taxi station. We had to arrive at the exact time that a particular taxi driver was scheduled to leave the station to drive to Erbil because he was one of the people helping us escape.

 When I got out of our car I must have been wearing Aunty Marcelle’ s abbaya since it was too long and I was tripping all over it. I could barely see what was around me - then someone from behind touched my shoulder and told me, “go to the right, the black car”.

I still do not know who it was. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie! Luckily,  I saw Amal talking to someone by a big black car and proceeded to join her. In the meantime, an army officer was about to join us in that taxi, had it not been for sweet baby Frank crying loudly. The army officer, upon hearing the cries, ran off  to take a quieter car, to the relief of all of us, including the taxi driver. This time,  our taxi driver took matters into his own hands: he recruited a big Kurdish man to ride along with us. Thus the unsuspecting Kurd appeared to be the head of our family, sitting up front, and we women and kids sat in the back.

 We knew we had to cross eight checkpoints before we arrived in the safety of Kurdistan.When we reached  the first checkpoint, bristling with army militia, baby Frank was still crying. They had one peek at the car, heard the hollering and let us go.  Amal, Aunty Marcelle and I thanked God and prayed. At the second checkpoint, our lucky charm baby Frank was asleep angelically across our laps this time. Again they waved us through.  We prayed gratefully again.  At the  third checkpoint they only asked the men for their ID papers: the taxi driver and the unsuspecting Kurdish papa. Each time we passed a checkpoint, all us ladies in the back would pray in gratitude!

 We finally arrived in Erbil four hours later. The nervous taxi driver told us that we were safe now, and that he was taking us to his house until we were picked up.  Trembling, he told us how he was wishing he could fly the car during the whole four-hour drive! In his shack,  he introduced us to his timid wife and children.

 His wife prepared chicken swimming in some greasy oily broth for us. I was always a fussy eater at home, yet this time, I was so grateful for their help that I closed my eyes and nose, and ate to show my gratitude and appreciation. Amal and Aunty Marcelle could not eat!

 I later sang a few lullabies to the driver’s children while rocking his son. I finally earned some smiles from his scared wife.

Since no one had 'phones in the north, the driver had no idea if and when Kader was ever coming to pick us up. He told us that it might be a few hours or maybe days. He kept pacing back and forth. I realize now that it must have been this driver 's first time working with Kader, who was a more experienced and confident smuggler. Kader arrived around 9 pm, five long hours after we got to Erbil.

We were relieved to see him. He told us that he was taking us to Haim Rejwan, Amal's husband.  Haim had been worried sick because we had not arrived the day before as we were scheduled to,  and there was no way to communicate that to him. Once we got in the car, Kader gave us Muslim names in case we were questioned: “you are Fatima”,  “you are Khadija “, ” you are Ahmad.“ He gave the kids Muslim names too and kept quizzing all of us with the new names.

 We drove a while and arrived in Kurdistan where Haim was. I believe he was staying with Massoud El Barazani Junior (future president of Kurdistan) at the time. Haim was really distraught because of our delay and the Kurds were trying to appease him by saying, “we told you they were coming “we told you not to worry.” “Here they are, see, they are safe and sound! “

 Azoury Attar was with Haim waiting for us too. We all got into a jeep along with Kader while a Pesh Merga fighter was driving. There was no road and no lights, it was dark wilderness, and since there was no satellite navigation, at some point Kader and his partner lost the way in the wilderness. Lo and behold an Iraqi army car appeared.  They seemed to know Kader. They asked him what he was doing so late at night.  He told them that he was taking the family for a spin! Phew  - another narrow escape ...prayers again. Eventually they took us to a hotel with no tiles on the floor; they gave us clean blankets.

We all slept fully dressed on cushions on the floor and were woken up around 2 am.  We were taken to Darband and to the khashba, a log of wood we had heard about in Baghdad marking the border between Kurdistan and Iran. To us, this log represented our freedom. We got to the border, and the huge log I had imagined was nothing but a thin tree branch that a man pushed over with one hand. Freedom was beckoning just beyond that branch.

But they soon sent us back, telling us hat the proper authorities and the sochnut (Jewish Agencyin Iran should first be informed about our arrival before we could cross. Luckily it only took a few hours and we were back before dawn. This time,  the tree branch (khashba)  had been moved aside. wow, what a thrill! FREEDOM just a few feet away.

It was time to send the code back to Baghdad to say we arrived safely. The code was  a note worth a quarter of a dinar torn in two halves. My dad kept one half and once we arrived, Amal was supposed to send the other half with Kader to take back to my Dad. But it was dark and windy, so the quarter dinar note flew away. Amal wrote a message saying that the quarter note  had flown away and that a baby boy was delivered easily (meaning it was an easy crossing). If she had written” a girl was born”, it would have meant that it had been  a difficult crossing!

We finally crossed to Iran and arrived at  Khana. At once we saw pictures of the Shah of Iran and the beautiful Farah Diba. In spite of that, Haim needed reassurance that we were actually in Iran He broke down in tears when we were told,” yes, you are now in Iran.”

 I left Iran for Israel on 2 January 1971. On the flight to Israel, who do I find myself sitting next to on the 'plane? None other than the founder of our Baghdad school, Mr Frank Iny himself and his lovely wife Mouzly.  What a coincidence! We attended Frank Iny school without ever knowing what he looked like (unless you were detained at the Principle’s office and maybe caught a glimpse of  what we thought was his picture).

 Frank Iny left Iraq soon after he opened the school in 1951. His children and grandchildren grew up in Europe and the United States : they never attended the school their father had built. Ironically, neither Frank Iny’s immediate family, nor the tightly-onded family of at least 1, 000 students and alumni of Frank Iny School got to know each other ! On the short one hour flight, I found Frank Iny to be a giant of a man, yet kind and gentle. Tomy delight, he even knew my parents well! I learned my first Hebrew word from him when we touched down in Israel: bahnou  - meaning, we arrived! We had arrived in Israel.

Lisette resettled in Montreal and became a flight attendant with Air Canada.

Epilogue:  It was ironic how I could fly anywhere in the world, but I could not go back to Iraq to see my parents since I was now denationalized, like every Iraqi Jew living outside Iraq.

 I often had terrifying nightmares of going back to Baghdad just to see my parents on a 24-hour layover and getting stuck trying to find a family to escape with again. Now now there was no one left to flee with anymore, since almost all the Jews had left.

Finally a miracle took place after a ten-year war with Iran ended. Iraq lifted the ban on travel and even granted passports to the seventy remaining Jews. My parents, who resisted escaping in order to remain Iraqi nationals in the futile hope of salvaging even a few of their properties, decided to apply for a passport  and come out to visit us.

The first time I heard them on the 'phone, after twenty long years, I could not recognise my own mother or father’s voices! They came to London and were visiting us in Montreal with the intention of going back to Iraq. They truly believed that everything was going to open up, in the same was as the ban on travel from Iraq had been lifted.  Saddam, however, had other plans: he invaded Kuwait and the rest is history ...

The war on Iraq, Desert Storm, broke out. This time, w put our collective foot down and insisted that our parents forfeit all they owned and not go back. My dad Menashy was eighty years old when he came to Canada. His entire wealth remained frozen in Iraq! None of the children of my grandfather Shaul Shashoua nor those of my equally wealthy grandfather Eliahou Meir Heskel Haim were able to enjoy their families’ fortunes.

Not only did my parents come out with nothing,  they missed out on every happy occasion in our family for more than twenty years. They were not able to attend any of their daughters’ weddings nor enjoy the births of any of their four grandchildren. They were still stuck in Baghdad at all the Bar- and Bat Mitzvahs of my nieces and nephews. They only got to meet their grandchildren, Kevin, Carol, Tamara and Dan, after they became teenagers. The tragedy was that they were strangers to each other:they had to get acquainted.

 We survived Iraq and the humiliations and persecutions, but our emotional and financial suffering did take a toll on our family.

Yes, there was one more happy occasion my parents were able to attend. On 3 August 1993, they actually walked me down the aisle when I married Albert Ades, who was accompanied by his parents Suzette and Jacques.

Lisette and Albert Ades on their wedding day

No comments: