Growing Up Under the Shadow of 'Uncle Saddam' The Iraqi-born head of Women to Women International, Zainab Salbi, recalls growing up in frighteningly close proximity to Saddam Hussein -- her father was his personal pilot.
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Growing Up Under the Shadow of 'Uncle Saddam'

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Growing Up Under the Shadow of 'Uncle Saddam'

Growing Up Under the Shadow of 'Uncle Saddam'

Growing Up Under the Shadow of 'Uncle Saddam'

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The Iraqi-born head of Women to Women International, Zainab Salbi, recalls growing up in frighteningly close proximity to Saddam Hussein — her father was his personal pilot.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Commentator Zainab Salbi is following the trial of Saddam Hussein with special attention. Her father was Saddam's personal pilot and she grew up in Saddam's circle in Baghdad.

ZAINAB SALBI:

It scares me to see Saddam Hussein on TV for his trial, even after being away from Iraq for so many years. I hate it when I feel that fear again. Part of me intellectually acknowledges that he's in prison and can no longer hurt me, my family or any Iraqi. But the fear is ingrained. Saddam was like a poison gas leaked into the house of every Iraqi.

As a child growing up in Iraq, I was taught to call him `uncle.' At school, we were taught to sing for him, dance for him, paint for him and march for him. I don't remember reading any book in school that didn't have his picture and a quote from him on its first pages. Uncle Saddam was watching all of us all the time. Growing up in Iraq, every bit of news I heard about Saddam's crimes was through whispers. This is how Saddam kept a grip on an entire nation, through fear, intimidation and isolation from each other and the world.

When I was nine years old, my mother told me I could no longer visit my best friend Besma's house because her father had been executed. Everyone feared talking to the family of an executed man. It could be interpreted as showing sympathy to her father and was thus an unpatriotic act and punishable. I remember the look of fear on my mother's face and later on the teachers' faces in the classroom as they tried to avoid talking to Besma. I cried for a lost friendship.

Sometimes we took risks and whispered things we were not supposed to share. Even then, we had to control our facial expressions. Big Brother may not have heard our voices, but you never knew who was watching our faces. I will never forget the times in my life when I was scared to physically express fear or horror at what I heard. I never will forget the day my classmates in high school whispered in my ears that they had witnessed a man being executed in public. They said anyone on the street who had a gun could just shoot at him because the man was pinned to the wall. I never will forget the time my Kurdish friend whispered to me how Saddam had spread gas on the Kurds and killed a whole village. I was horrified, but I had to keep my emotions inside and a smile ready.

Most of all, I will never forget the whispers in my mother's garden when she and her friends talked about what Saddam was doing to women in Iraq. The rapes of so many Shia women, the rape of Kurdish women, the rapes of women he encountered when he masqueraded in a doctor's white coat for his annual People's Day to help ordinary Iraqis solve their problems.

Now Saddam's trial gives Iraqis an opportunity to stop the whispers. It is time for us to talk about his crimes out loud and clear. To cry and acknowledge the pain so many of us have been through. It is important that we ensure this is a legitimate trial and that Saddam is held accountable for all his crimes. This is a time where we can tell our truth and seek our reconciliation as we move towards the future, a new future without Saddam and I hope with no more fear.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Zainab Salbi is author of the memoir "Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam." She's also head of the aid group Women for Women International.

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