Even now, 30 years later, Bushra Jamil pauses when someone asks about the young Iraqi men, hundreds of thousands of them, who went to war against Iran and never came home.
As a longtime Iraqi activist, she also remembers the invasion of Kuwait a few years later and will tell you quite bluntly that her opposition to the war led to her husband’s arrest and torture by Saddam Hussein’s security forces.
And then, on top of it all, came the U.S. invasion a decade later. More bloodshed and destruction but, at least this time, Hussein was gone.
Over the course of four days last month, Jamil testified at a federal court trial in Buffalo and, in the process, provided a history lesson of sorts on her life as an activist and a woman in the Middle East.
“I didn’t really know how bad it was for women in Iraq,” she told the jury.
Jamil, who has dual Iraqi and Canadian citizenship, manages a radio station for women in Baghdad but came to Buffalo to testify on behalf of two colleagues accused of stealing United Nations funds intended for the station.
Her testimony focused on her dealings with Steve Jabar and Deborah Bowers, the defendants later were found guilty of fraud. But it was almost inevitable that she also would testify about her three decades of activism in Iraq and the three wars that dominated her life.
“The whole country was devastated, destroyed,” Jamil said at one point. “We had no hope.”
In her testimony, Jamil talked about her upbringing in Iraq and her first-hand experiences with a society begging for human rights. She told the jury that everyone was pressured to join Hussein’s Baath Party, and those who didn’t were penalized, sometimes severely.
As a college student in Baghdad, she excelled, finishing as one of the top 10 students in her class, a status that would normally entitle her to a graduate scholarship in England. She was denied because of her anti-Baathist beliefs.
Years later, as a teacher, she was transferred to a remote, rural school, again because of her opposition to Hussein’s party.
“To me, it was matter of principle,” she said in an interview. “I was against the core ideals of the Baath Party: the combination of nationalism, socialism and a ruthless dictator in charge.”
During her testimony, Jamil took the jury through more than two decades of war-torn Iraqi history.
She began with the start of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980 and spoke of the massive destruction and devastation left by one of the longest and bloodiest wars of the 20th century.
“And, of course, hundreds of thousands of young men disappeared,” she told the jury.
She also told them of Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait just two years later and the outcry it created among the activists, her included.
“We were totally against what happened in Kuwait,” she said. “Saddam, he made a big mistake.”
It was Jamil’s high-profile opposition to the war that led to her husband’s arrest and torture. Even now, he suffers from hearing loss because of the beatings he endured during his two months in custody, she says.
Shortly after his release, Jamil was arrested and held for 24 hours. She won’t talk publicly about what happened to her but, a week after her release, she and her husband escaped to Jordan.
“We took a car and fled the country,” she told the jury.
Jamil, her husband, and their two children eventually made their way to a more permanent home in Canada, where they spent the next 10 years.
It was during her time in Canada that Iraq found itself facing economic sanctions from the United Nations, including an embargo on imports and exports.
To hear Jamil talk, the impact was widespread and catastrophic. People, especially women, lost jobs. Inflation skyrocketed. And Hussein used the sanctions to pit Iraqis against the West.
“The sanctions,” Jamil said. “That’s what broke the backbone of Iraq.”
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and buoyed by Hussein’s removal, Jamil felt the need to return to Iraq, where much of her family remained. She worked as a gender adviser to the United Nations and eventually joined the U.N.’s Mission to Iraq.
In 2010, she left the organization and decided to run for public office. She withdrew a short time later when confronted with what she calls the large-scale “corruption” that permeates Iraq’s political system.
“We needed a voice in Parliament,” she said. “It was risky but I was willing to take the risk.”
By that time, Al Mahaba, the radio station for women, had been up and running for five years and, given the absence of television and the internet in Iraq, was seen as one of the best avenues possible for communicating with Arab women. The New York Times is among the news organizations that have chronicled the station’s success.
“The culture of radio is very much alive in Iraq,” Jamil told the jury.
The station debuted in April of 2005 with the goal of encouraging women to be free and exercise their rights.
“We are not popular,” Jamil said in 2007 speech in New York City, where she accepted a journalism award. “We’ve been rejected. We’ve been fought. Religious groups are not fond of us, not even the American groups there, though we share the same language and the same objective. But we are determined. And we don’t let fear get into our hearts. That was the agreement we made with everybody in the beginning: no fear!”
Al Mahaba, which means “love” in Arabic, now reaches an estimated 10 million listeners, most of them Iraqi women eager to talk about divorce, careers, religion and other taboo subjects.
“It is the only media outlet in Iraq that is truly secular and independent,” Jamil said.
During the trial, prosecutors tried to challenge Jamil’s credibility. They questioned her about her role in the approval of the U.N. grant for the radio station and quizzed about her use of aliases.
She explained that, in a country where radicals and militants are common, it’s sometimes necessary to protect your ethnic, religious or political identity.
And yet, despite all that, Jamil plans to return to Iraq and her work at Al Mahaba.
“Iraq will always be in my heart,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. I love Canada. I would die for Canada. But Iraq is where my roots are.”