When Hashmia Jassem was younger, before her brother was executed and her son was shot on the street, before her hair turned gray overnight in the torture chambers of Basra's secret police, her father warned her about Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
"He told us, 'Don't ever join these people,' " she recalled. " 'These people are going to treat us very bad.' "
For the four days since Hussein's government collapsed in Basra, Jassem has lived as a squatter in an abandoned party neighborhood headquarters. She tore down the portraits of Hussein before she moved in, but the sign on the brick wall outside still exhorts, "No pride without Saddam." In one room, there is a weapons cache the family is afraid to touch -- ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells and the tube to fire them. "If they come back," she said, crying quietly, "they will hang me in front of this place."
At 57, Jassem has been afraid of the Baath Party for nearly half her life.
In the early 1980s, her brother ran away from the Iraqi army during its long war with Iran, and was executed for it. In 1984, she was arrested and accused of tearing down a picture of Hussein -- a crime for which she says she was tortured and then imprisoned for four years. In 1991, during the chaos of the post-Gulf War uprising in Basra, her son was killed on the street by government forces. A few weeks ago, rather than fight for Hussein in this latest war, another son deserted the army.
In many ways, her story and that of her family -- a tale of war and prison, poverty and separation -- is the story of Iraq's often persecuted Shiite majority, which is concentrated in southern Iraq. Jassem lost not only her brother and her son, but also her health and her marriage. Two of her six children live in exile, and she cannot contact them. Now she has also lost her house, to the invading U.S. and British forces that bombed it inadvertently as they fought for control of Basra.
"We can say that all of Iraq is a big prison," she said, "because of Saddam Hussein and his people. "Everyone should die who did this," she added. "I was not the only person who was tortured, many people were."
Jassem appropriated the house where she is living from the Baath Party on Monday. It is located on a quiet side street in Basra's Andalus neighborhood, an area of middle-class bungalows belonging to many of the party's former functionaries. Seven relatives also live here, the children's faces covered by bug bites. In the one habitable room, the remnants of the family's possessions are stacked against the wall -- along with a party file cabinet she says she is keeping as a memento.
Wearing a white head scarf and a head-to-toe black robe known as an abaya, with her glasses pushed back on her head, Jassem told her story, occasionally puffing on a cigarette or crying. A daughter waved a fan across her face.
Her story started and finished at the same place -- her 1984 arrest. A neighbor who was a Baath official informed on her, she said, falsely claiming she had ripped down a picture of Hussein. "That's how it was here: Anyone who hates another person would do that sort of thing," she said. First, the police came for her, then she was blindfolded and taken to the secret police.
"The first time they slapped me. They said, 'Why did you tear the picture? You don't know that Saddam Hussein is the one who is letting you live, giving you food.' " Jassem said they suspected she hated the government because of her brother's 1982 killing. "They told me, 'You are doing this now because your brother was executed.' "
Jassem said the secret police also burned her back with a metal rod and beat the soles of her feet. "They tortured me in every way," she said.
Afer seven months, she was taken in a windowless truck to Baghdad, to the Rashid prison where she spent more than three years. There was no torture there, Jassem said, but there was daily humiliation of another sort. She lived in a cell with 46 women, all of them imprisoned on political charges. The guards had "no sympathy for us, as if we were bugs or something." For infractions, food was withheld. They slept among rats and human waste.
Every April, on Hussein's birthday, the women were forced to celebrate. They had to dance inside the prison and some were taken out to demonstrations, where they were made to chant, "We're with Saddam, happy birthday," before being taken back to their cell.
While she was in jail, her husband divorced her, abandoning their five children. Her son, Laith Jemmah, dropped out of school and went to work as an auto mechanic to keep the family together. "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be living right now," she said. Pulling back her scarf, Jassem showed her white hair. "I got it overnight," she said. "I used to see in the movies [how characters would] go to jail and suddenly they just get white hair. I used to not believe it."
A few years later, in 1991, another son, Mohammed Jemmah, was standing on the street near Basra's Sheraton hotel, in the midst of the bloody repression by government forces of the Shiite uprising that had spread throughout southern Iraq after the country's defeat in the Persian Gulf War. "He was not fighting," Jassem said, but standing with a young woman. They were both shot; Mohammed died. Asked who shot them, Jassem replied, "the Baathists."
During the recent invasion by U.S. and British forces, her son Laith was serving in the Iraqi Army's 10th Division near Amara. In the first days of the war, he said, "they shot more than 100 missiles at us, so all the soldiers left." It was not without risk. "The only people who stayed were officers. They told us, 'If you run away, you will be executed.' " By the second day of the war, Laith said, "the soldiers started to swear at Saddam."
For him, running away was as simple as telling his officer he was going outside to make a phone call. Then he threw off his uniform and simply went home, along with seven others in his unit.
But the war was waiting for him. British troops had encircled Basra but had not yet entered it. Jassem and her family lived in a neighborhood where the Iraqi forces were hiding. "The fighters, the Baathists, were protecting themselves in these houses," she said. The bombs destroyed their rented house in the first week of the war.
When they found their new home, Jassem's 86-year-old mother, who can barely stand even with crutches, was so happy, "she stood outdoors. She said today is the only day I want to see in my life," Jassem recalled.
Jassem, too, seemed to delight in the irony of her new house, but she has yet to let go of the fear and anger that brought her to this place.
Her fear is that the Baathists will return and remember the piece of paper she signed after her arrest, the one that said she would be executed if she ever did anything against the party again.
Her anger is reserved for the neighbor who long ago informed on her for a crime she said she did not commit. "When I think of her," Jassem said, "I just wish to eat her and drink her blood."