News and opinions on situation in Iraq
19/5/05 Working for the Americans – Dahr Jamail’s Iraq Dispatches

May 19, 2005

Her name is Ahlam Abt Al-Hassan. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of when she was shot twice in the head by member of the Mehdi army while waiting for a taxi to go to her job with Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) in Diwaniyah.

After nearly three months of work searching women as they entered one of the US bases in Diwaniyah, she was paid a total of $475 from KBR. In return she has lost her eyesight, had to move from Iraq and can’t return because of threats from the Mehdi Army. Her ex-employers will not return any of her calls or requests for assistance.

From Diwaniyah herself, she’d finished her studies at the university as an Arabic teacher.

“Of course there were no jobs, so my friend told me I could work for KBR and they hired me when I went to them,” she tells me today in Amman.

The 25 year-old sits wearing dark sunglasses, her black hijab wrapped around her head with her hands resting in her lap as she tells her story inside an organization funded by a Saudi group who gives assistance to training blind Arab women.

“My two bosses at KBR, Mr. Jeff and Mr. Mark were very good and gentle with me,” she explains, “They told me it wasn’t dangerous to work for them.”

Living with her aunt and cousin, she had to work since she was the sole supporter.

“We needed many things, so I wanted the job,” she says softly, “Many people were working with the Americans so I felt it would be ok.”

But the militia of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had long since warned Iraqis of collaborating with the occupiers, and said they would not allow anyone to do so. The situation in her area degraded enough for her bosses to tell her to stay home for two weeks.

“After this, I went back to work because my bosses told me the security was better,” she adds, “But after I’d been back to work one week, at 7:30am I was waiting for a taxi as I always did to go to my job, and I felt as if I was thrown to the ground but I felt nothing else. My bosses had told me it was secure now.”

After a short time someone came up and held her hand.

“I asked him why he did this to me, and he told me he didn’t do it and he would take me to the hospital.”

She asked him if she was going to die. Two bullets passed through her head, taking her eyesight before exiting.

“He took me to the hospital in Hilla,” she explains softly, “And when I was there I told people I worked for KBR. Someone at KBR told the people at the hospital they would come to visit me.”

But they never came.

After being transferred to two more hospitals in Baghdad, there was still no word from them.

“But then Mr. Jeff called by his translator after I was in Baghdad for 45 days, and Mr. Jeff told the hospital worker that I was in a hospital inside the Green Zone,” she tells me before holding out her hands as if to ask why. She raises her voice for the first time, “But I was not in the Green Zone!”

She had just had surgery on her injured cheek in an area where one of the bullets passed through, and was unable to speak on the phone. She had her friend tell her boss that she wasn’t able to talk because of the pain.

“After this, they have made no attempts to contact me,” she says.

After her “accident,” as she puts it, she has lost everything. Her sight, her family has had to move, and now she has nothing and lives in the Saudi funded house, not knowing what her future will bring when her training as a telephone operator ends in 10 days.

“I don’t know what to do now,” she explains, “I can’t go back to Iraq because it is too dangerous.”

Within a couple of months of her “accident,” the security deteriorated to a point where, as Ahlam knew of it, KBR moved from the area and let all the other employees go. She had worked at one of the two US bases in Diwaniyah, located inside a medical university. US Marines had taken over the area after the Spanish contingent withdrew from Iraq.

“Before they left, I asked my friend who was still working for KBR to get the full name of my bosses, phone numbers, or an email, but they were unable to obtain this information.”

She tells me that as an employee she was never given this information, and knew no other Iraqi there who had it.

I ask her if she was ever made to sign anything with KBR, or if they offered any benefits.

“The only time I was ever asked to sign my name for them, it was only to pick up my paycheck.”

When she was hired, there was no contract to sign, and of course no benefit package.

She was told by friends that her bosses at KBR told everyone that she was alright, “But neither Mr. Jeff nor Mr. Mark every called me again, and nobody ever asked about me.”

“I am so annoyed now,” she says while leaning forward, “I was very good with them: always on time, never left early, and they were happy with me. But when I needed them the most, they were not there.”

She is crying now.

“The doctors told me my right eye is gone, but there is hope for my left eye if it can be cleaned internally,” she says after taking off her sunglasses.

Her right eye stares straight ahead, covered by a grayish hue while her left eye constantly looks at the ground.

Ahlam speaks English well. The college graduate has now completed a computer course at the assistance home where she lives, and soon will finish her training as a telephone operator. After that, she does not know if she will be allowed to stay in her room.

“Right now, I don’t know my future, and this is very difficult for me.”

Abu Talat, my photographer colleague, Linda (who is a friend of Ahlam), and I sit in the uncomfortable silence. Linda then asks Ahlam if we can go outside to take some pictures.

Outside in the small courtyard, after some photos, Ahlam hugs Linda for a long time.

I give my email to Ahlam, a feeble attempt to provide some sort of comfort as I don’t know what else to do. Another friend of Linda’s is working to get Ahlam to the states for medical treatment, but so far the visa is up in the air.

I thank Ahlam for her time and tell her I’ll write her story. I look for some words I can give her. Some hope.

“I promise you I will write your story Ahlam,” I say awkwardly, “And maybe someone will read it and be able to help you.”

She hugs Linda again. Abu Talat offers to take her back inside but she tells him she can do it herself.

Abu Talat watches her as she gingerly walks towards the stairs. He stands watching as she slowly climbs them.

We walk to the street and stand for a moment. There are no words as we stand under the hot sun. I stare at a minaret of a distant mosque.

“How many others are there like her,” Abu Talat asks, not necessarily to me.

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