She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
Linked with our presentation The Iraqi Women’s League (IWL).
She says: “The rationale of my life is best expressed in what Goethe once said: ‘All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of actual life springs ever green’.”
Susan Ahmed-Böhme – Iraq
She works for the Iraqi Women’s League (IWL).
Born in 1953 in Baghdad, Susan Ahmed is a biologist and a member of the Iraqi Women’s League. Due to her covert work on issues of ethnic and religious diversity and her opposition to the former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, Susan and her family faced severe persecution in Iraq. Her father was tortured and her sister was murdered.
In 1982 she fled to East Germany, where between 1991 and 2003, she campaigned courageously against Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime as well as US imperialism. Her campaigns continue to this day. Susan emphasizes, “There is always an alternative to war.”
Susan Ahmed, member of the Iraqi Women’s League (IWL), has opposed Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime as fiercely as she resisted the U.S invasion of Iraq.
“Shatha has big, black eyes, short hair, a soft face, direct gaze, like someone who won’t let herself be intimidated. She was a beautiful young woman in the prime of life, whose name means ‘scent of flowers’. That was my older sister,” says Susan Ahmed, pointing to a photo on the wall of her house in Berlin. In 1980, her sister Shatha was 29 when she was arrested in Baghdad. As members of the IWL, they had fought together against Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime. “There was not any clue to trace her, nothing at all. The fate of my sister caused a deep wound in my family,” says Susan. “Had we been able to bury Shatha, at least we would have a place to mourn her death. Perhaps then we could have known how she died, who killed her, and the crime she had supposedly committed. Yet her fate remains an enigma, a black hole that swallows up the energy and emotions of my family.”
Shatha’s picture hangs on the wall in a newly built one-family house in a suburb of Berlin. Susan has lived in Berlin since 1982, and in 1997 she married a native German. When you talk to Susan Ahmed you sense entrenched pain overwhelming her life. She has an unswerving character that never wants to give up. “We Iraqis have a strong self-pride,” says the 52 year-old woman, with eyes sparkling behind her glasses. “We are a rich country with a 7,000 year-old culture.”
Susan’s entire family was persecuted and she wished nothing more than to see the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Nevertheless, she strongly opposed the toppling of the regime through a US invasion. “There were alternatives to war,” she says. Not only her sister, but also the entire Iraqi people were victims of the power game in Iraq.
Born in 1953 in Baghdad, Susan Ahmed is almost as old as the IWL (founded in 1952), the organization that she and her sister had joined in the 1970s. The League was founded by middle-class Iraqi women doctors, teachers and lawyers, and in its most active time represented 42,000 members. It offered self-help programs, elementary education classes, health and social services, and perhaps most importantly, counseling services for women’s rights issues. The League was most active in 1958. That year the Iraqi king was executed and a revolution brought to power a moderately progressive military junta, which included the first female minister in the Middle East.
In the following years, however, Iraq was shaken by violent battles for power and control. The military forces, proponents of the Arab-nationalist Baath Party, Communists, Nationalists and Democrats fought fiercely against each other. “My father, an admirerer of communism, was threatened and beaten up many times. People threw stones at us in the street because they thought we were ‘atheist’ communists. Once they set our house on fire,” Susan recalls after a long sad sigh. “They poured petrol over the house, while we were inside, and set fire to it. Luckily, in the last minute we managed to escape and save ourselves.”
Iraq’s oil supply, the second largest in the world, is both a blessing and a curse. It has inflamed almost all of its internal and external conflicts, as in 1963 when the military leader Kassem was toppled, with the support of the CIA. In 1972 the Baath regime announced nationalization of the country’s oil resources. “We went into the streets and celebrated. We all hoped for a better society, for freedom, democracy, social development and respect for women’s rights,“ explains Susan. Soon, as OPEC countries had cut down on oil production during the Arab-Israeli 1973 war, Iraq quickly became a rich country. The Baath Party built refineries, industrial complexes, schools, streets, universities, and an exemplary health care system.
In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein slowly, but massively, took control of the government. In economic terms, people were living better than ever. At the same time however, the nine secret service agencies, all competing with each other, watched over all social activities. Gatherings of more than two people were banned in public places. Today the number of people who were persecuted, arrested, tortured and killed is still unknown. The toll could go up as high as hundreds of thousands,” says Susan.
In 1976 Susan finished her academic studies and got a job in a laboratory working on vaccines in Baghdad. At night Susan and her sister had worked secretly for the Women’s League, which was banned in 1975. “We visited other families who had relatives in jail. It was an extremely difficult time. People were unjustly arrested and tortured,” she recalls. In the spring of 1980, Susan was warned of her imminent arrest. She remembers: “Someone told me that it would be better if I leave the country for a month. So, I went off on vacation for one month. During this time they arrested my sister. In the middle of the night my father and my youngest sister were arrested too. She was only eighteen and had nothing to do with politics.”
Her father spent three months in Saddam Hussein’s prison, where he was tortured. He passed away in 1999. “My father had suffered so much. He searched for his daughter for years. He went to the Intelligent Office, to lawyers in Iraq, but because it was political issue no lawyer would want to accept the case,” recounted Susan.
Susan eventually fled to East Germany in 1982. Through the Iraqi Women’s League she came to the International Democratic Women’s Federation (IDFF) and found an administrative job with it in East Berlin. She could work more or less freely, write articles on women living in the Third World and in Arabic countries, translate bulletins or organize events, because “the East Germans were not interested in our Women’s Federation,” she exclaimed, “perhaps because they were only women.”
In January 1991, Susan Ahmed fought desperately against the war on Iraq, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. She went on demonstrations, held talks and met others in the Iraqi opposition who have called for a hunger strike at the Green Party’s office in Berlin. In February she was invited to Amsterdam, where she criticized the Netherlands’ logistic support of the U.S campaign, and she called for holding an international Peace Conference in the Middle East.
In respect of the 1991 and the 2003 wars against Iraq, Susan believes, there were alternatives to war and toppling the dictator. “The Iraqi opposition had developed different scenarios. The international community could have, from a political and diplomatic point of view, isolated Saddam Hussein, making him feel that the whole world was against him. Afterwards, the United Nations could have summoned a conference with all Iraqi opposition groups to discuss the future of the country. UN member states could have put massive political pressure on him; Iraqi international monetary assets could have been frozen. The diplomatic measures were in no way exhausted! The Arab League and other organizations in the Middle East could have played a more positive role. Of course, this would have taken longer than a war, however the region would have had a more lasting stability. But the U.S did not want these measures to be taken,” said Susan.
“I cried every day after the Americans entered Iraq, on March 20, 2003,” Susan admits. “To me, the occupation was like a rape. Yet as the regime was toppled on April 9th, I was indescribably happy. On December 14, 2003, as the former dictator was found in a hole in the ground and arrested, I sat for hours in front of my TV laughing and crying: my whole body was shaking,” she added.
At one point, she could not take it any longer to be away of her beloved home country. She decided to visit Iraq for four weeks. ‘Baghdad’ that she saw in October 2003 looked totally alien to her. She described it: “There were barricades, barbed wire, more walls, and between them stood bullet-riddled buildings with shattered windows. Garbage piled up at every corner in the streets. The buildings were all covered with an oily film of ash that settled after the war. The wall on the street of her parent’s house was around 1.8 meter high, now it is almost three meters. People were holing up in the liberated city, isolating themselves. Fear was still felt everywhere; it had only changed its name. Above all, the occupiers were walling themselves in the ‘Green Zone’, where the U.S Civil Administration is stationed and where the U.S largest Embassy with its 3,000 employees is being built. Many of the workers had never left the ‘Green Zone’ since coming to Iraq. They are living in their own world, a plastic world. On Thanksgiving Day, in November 2003, the U.S. President flew into the country and gave them a plastic turkey on a silver tablet. They do not know how the world looks outside their ‘Coca-Cola island’. They are governing the country blindly. They don’t understand the language, the culture, the local diverse traditions, and they absolutely know nothing about people’s actual feelings.
In July 2003 the human rights organization ‘Human Rights Watch’ published a report on the rapid rise in sexual violence against girls and women in Iraq. Nine year-old girls were being kidnapped and sexually abused, fifteen year-old girls were being sold as sex slaves, old women with connections to the former Baath Party were raped as revenge. The victims of this violence found justice neither from the Iraqi administration nor the occupying forces. Some women were murdered by male members of their family because they had tainted their ‘honor’. Parents have forbidden their daughters to go to school. Women do not feel safe going to work or on the street, and, above all, they do not feel safe at political gatherings, where the future of Iraq is being decided.”
Susan Ahmed believes that war can never settle down disputes; on the contrary, it fosters feelings of hatred and antagonism between nations. Despite the sufferings that she and her family have endured, she still committed to advocating for peace and justice in the world.
ESCWA Center for Women;