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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Collaterally Damaged: An Iraqi native searches for peace in Madison
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Credit:Phil Ejercito

At night, when the lights go out, Ahmed Etaymish, 29, is transported from Madison back to Baghdad, where he relives the horror that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Sometimes he reimagines his brushes with death or the murders he's witnessed. Other times he's choking on the mist of human tissue that lingers in the air following a car bombing. More often he's back in the morgues searching for his father, a university professor abducted by insurgents in 2005.

But the worst are the phantom pains, inflicted by the ghosts of the soldiers who beat and tortured him.

"In the dark I hear people [who] come to hurt me, and I cannot control the situation," Ahmed says, in a soft and shaky voice. "I hear my dad struggling. I see the eyes of the people being killed."

He sleeps with the lights on to quiet the memories. "Even when she touches me," he says, looking to his wife, "I cannot feel safe."

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with combat vets who served in Iraq and other wars. But for Iraqi civilians whose neighborhoods became battlegrounds, the symptoms of PTSD tend to be more difficult to treat because the war was constant. There was no tour of duty from which to return home.

Soldiers "have families and social institutions," says Dr. Roger Garm, a Madison therapist who has worked with Hmong victims of torture and war. "They have a culture, a language, a way to make a living. Refugees by definition don't come home. They've lost everything."

But Ahmed isn't a refugee in the classic sense. He came to the U.S. following his 2009 marriage to Madison resident Kate Vestlie. His story provides a harrowing snapshot of the grisly day-to-day realities Iraqis faced during the occupation, lending a human face to what the military calls "collateral damage."

And as Israel and the U.S. flirt with war over Iran's nuclear capabilities, the miseries endured by Ahmed and his family during their final years in Baghdad remind us that war exacts a high toll from innocent civilians as well as soldiers.

Though violence forced Ahmed from Baghdad in 2005, love led him to America. He and Kate speak at length about their unlikely union following a dinner of lamb, which Ahmed helped slaughter days before. Their Bahá'í Faith has been a helpful guide across bumpy cultural terrain, but treatment for Ahmed's trauma has been hard to come by.

"All we hear is, 'Sorry, we can't help you,'" says Kate, holding their 2-year-old son, Samir. "This country went into Iraq and started a war; now no one wants to help."

Peace in Madison hasn't translated to peace of mind. Even here Ahmed remains mentally tethered to the war.

"What I need is to kill the past," he says. "The past is showing day by day; I didn't expect that. Coming here I thought I was starting a new page."

'Freedom's untidy'

PTSD is a psychic trauma that arises from a violent, fear-inducing event like a threat on one's life or witnessing the deaths of others. It poisons the stream of consciousness, inciting symptoms that, in Ahmed's case, include crippling anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares.

"It's like they're always hopped up and always under threat," says Dr. Garm. "We never see anyone go back to the way they were."

Born in Baghdad in 1983, Ahmed lived through two wars before he was 10 years old and, as a teenager, suffered like most Iraqis under economic sanctions that crippled the country's once thriving economy.

Life under Saddam Hussein was uneasy, but the surest way to avoid being snatched by state security was to remain apolitical. "Anyone against him, they would disappear, like my uncle," Ahmed says. "He was against him, and we don't have any information since 1979."

When war visited Iraq again in early 2003, Ahmed was studying for a degree in civil engineering. Like others across Baghdad, he and his family gathered the supplies necessary to weather the American bombs.

"We learned from the other wars to prepare for war before it's coming," he says. "We prepare as a family, to be in one place so if we die, we die together."

On March 21, 2003, Ahmed and some 30 family members huddled in a cramped bunker as the bombing commenced, emerging 20 days later to witness the first hints of the bedlam to come.

"We could see in the street people killing [others], [police] officers stealing from the banks," he recalls. "They thought this was freedom."

As allied forces overtook the country, government institutions were dismantled and the army was disbanded, but no steps were taken to secure the country. Soon, the car bombings and abductions began.

Questioned about the growing unrest, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blithely replied, "Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

With the borders wide open, militants from several Arab countries poured in. "We thought the war would bring freedom, but the terrorists came, and now the Iraqis live with terrorists," Ahmed says.

The anarchy grew worse by the day. Ahmed's mother, Asna, pleaded with her husband, Hasan, to leave the city for Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. (Asna's and Hasan's names have been changed because Asna lives Iraq, where Bahá'ís are still persecuted and have been targeted by militants.)

Things got so bad by the summer of '05 that Asna, who visited Madison recently, says she finally convinced her husband to move.

"Ahmed, he had final exams to do, so [Hasan] say, 'Just wait until September,'" Asna says.

That August, the family traveled to Jordan, where Ahmed's sister was getting married. At the wedding, Ahmed learned of an American Bahá'í named Kate, whom his cousin, Hala, encouraged him to friend on Facebook.

But the courtship would have to wait.

Back in Baghdad on Aug. 23, 2005, Asna called Hasan - who always carried two phones in case the battery in one of them died - and got no answer. The city at the time was under a strict 9 p.m. curfew.

"Two hours I'm calling him," she says. "I said, 'If he don't come back at nine o'clock he is gone.' I worry always about the boys, but I do not think they would kidnap him."

'Kidnap your mother'

Being the eldest son, Ahmed had to find Hasan. Between classes he searched morgues, hospitals and dumpsters throughout the city. Sometimes he'd inspect the human heads insurgents staked on fence posts throughout the city, snapping pictures of those that resembled his father. "All of the bodies are in bad shape," he says.

Danger lurked everywhere. Insurgents were known to kill relatives who came to identify corpses, which some days arrived by the hundreds. Bodies laid in dumpsters were often booby-trapped with explosives.

Trouble had a way of finding young Iraqi men. One night, after an American Hummer struck a roadside bomb, U.S. soldiers rounded up every male in the area, including Ahmed, whose hands were bound and a bag placed over his head.

"There were many Iraqis with me, and the Americans, they were very angry and were hitting and yelling, but we cannot see," he says.

Ahmed credits his Bahá'í Faith for aiding his release the following day. "The Americans didn't know anything about Bahá'í," he says. "The translator told them it means 'non-Muslim.'"

Unable to keep up with the volume of corpses, Ahmed and Asna ignored their instincts and reported the abduction to police. "We afraid of the police because we can't trust anybody, not ever," she says. "Nobody speak the truth."

Days later, Asna received a call from a man demanding a $100,000 ransom for Hasan. The caller settled for $2,000, but Asna no-showed after he failed to confirm that Hasan was alive. "I said, 'I will not come. I have to hear his voice,'" she recalls. "Then they say, 'You will see him in the [morgue].'"

The family suspects police were behind the calls. "[Police] used to do this, because they have the information," says Ahmed. "We told them, 'We can't pay unless we have the proof.'"

The caller then raised the stakes.

"They told us, 'Give us the money or we kidnap your mother,'" says Ahmed. "We decided to leave [Baghdad] the same night."

'The American lady'

After graduating high school in 2000, Kate Vestlie took a job in Perth, Australia, where she met Hala, the daughter of an Iraqi expat. The women, both raised Bahá'í, became instant friends.

They got reacquainted in 2005 while volunteering at the Bahá'í World Center in Haifa, Israel. Hala had since gotten married and felt it was Kate's turn. "So I told her to hook me up the Middle Eastern way: arrange a marriage," Kate says.

Hala recommended a cousin in Iraq and invited Kate to join the family during a wedding in Jordan. "Ahmed will be there," Hala said.

Kate couldn't afford the trip, but three years later she noticed Ahmed's Facebook profile while reading Hala's updates. Now living in Kurdistan, he accepted her friend request later that day.

"His first message was very short, but it brought me so much joy!" Kate recalls. "I was a changed woman."

They became serious after logging countless hours on Skype, and Kate decided to visit Kurdistan with Ahmed's sister, who lives in Indiana. The experience was otherworldly.

"The fact that I was landing in Iraq, meeting this guy, and his whole family was going to be there, it kind of hit me," she says. "Then all of a sudden his family is mobbing the car. I couldn't even open the door there were so many people."

News of the unusual visitor had spread. "They were excited to see the American lady," says Ahmed. "Iraq is closed and hardly ever sees foreign people, especially from America."

Initially they planned to wait until the end of Kate's three-month visa before deciding on marriage, but were engaged three days after her arrival.

Per Bahá'í custom, members of each family gather so the groom's father can make a formal proposal. In Madison, Kate's father, Russ Vestlie, gathered his wife and children before the computer while Ahmed's uncle, assuming Hasan's role, made a proposal over Skype that Kate's parents promptly accepted.

Russ and Kate's brother attended the wedding in Kurdistan. However, months passed before Ahmed could join his bride in America, pending approval of his visa. The process necessitated several nerve-racking trips to Baghdad.

Says Ahmed, "I was very afraid."

Off the chart

The Vestlies' search for a therapist has been stymied by time and financial constraints. Also, Ahmed's symptoms are so off the chart that local therapists have told him they don't know how to help. Medication has eased the anxiety and dulled the nightmares, but ordinary sounds can still trigger full-blown panic.

Last year he began therapy at the Margaret Kolver Center in Chicago, which assists immigrants traumatized by war. The center took Ahmed's case, but the twice-weekly drives to Chicago became too expensive and time consuming.

He hopes to resume his therapy once his sister moves to Chicago, allowing for overnight visits.

In addition to his psychic wounds, Kate and Ahmed have also faced challenges typical of any crosscultural marriage. "Twenty-six years of being there, it's hard to change," says Ahmed. "We had some struggle in the beginning, and maybe we still have it."

According to Kate, the biggest challenge has been fleshing out gender roles within the marriage. In the Middle East, for example, men almost always have the final say.

Kate anticipated these challenges. Over the years she became familiar with Arab culture from getting to know various Saudi Arabian students who've lived with the Vestlies while studying at the Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute.

"Kate's a strong woman and she likes strong men," says her father. "She actually kind of likes the assertiveness of Arab men because she can spar with them."

Once, a student from a very conservative Muslim background bullied Kate while his parents visited. After she stood her ground, the boy's veiled mother gave Kate a thumb's up from beneath her burka. "On the way out she gave permission for us to beat their son," says Russ. "That's a high compliment."

Kate and Ahmed's Bahá'í Faith has helped them bridge the divides. "In Bahá'í, no marriage is going to look the same, so the man and woman have to learn how to consult [with each other], and that creates the unity," Kate explains.

Bahá'í, which originated in 19th-century Persia (now Iran), teaches that the prophets of all religions descended from the same God. Around the time Russ began exploring Bahá'í in the late 1960s, Bahá'ís in Iraq were widely suspected of working for Iran and faced indefinite detention. In 1973, Asna, then 23, was imprisoned after refusing to denounce her faith. In 1979, Iraq's new president, Saddam Hussein, released the Bahá'ís, but warned they would hang if they practiced their faith.

"I couldn't speak like this, the details, until Saddam goes in 2003," Asna says. "Even now people don't talk. He put the fright in the hearts of the people."

Ahmed suspects that his father's 2005 election to Iraq's Bahá'í National Assembly made him a mark for Islamic militants. In spite of his family's persecution, Ahmed's fidelity to Bahá'í's pacifist principles remains intact.

"Sometimes if he hears certain accents at the wrong time he'll go back in time and have these crazy flashbacks," Kate says. "But you'd never know it because he's very calm and peaceful and loving to everyone. Even those people who tortured him he still loves."

'A horrible night'

During the last six months of 2009, Ahmed made frequent trips to Baghdad to complete various steps for his visa. Kate had by this time returned to Wisconsin after learning she was pregnant.

Predictably, the war complicated his efforts. Once he came to get copies of some official documents only to discover a pair of car bombs had destroyed the government building a day earlier.

"The building is so big that they didn't go in to help the people," he says. "They heard them crying, but they were afraid to go inside."

Fortunately a friend of Ahmed's father, a judge, was able to obtain the paperwork. In December, Ahmed passed a physical. The final step was an interview with embassy officials. If all went well, he'd be in America shortly after the New Year.

But things did not go well. Days before his embassy interview, Iraqi soldiers stopped Ahmed and some friends, demanding to know what religion they practiced.

"Then the big fish came and asked what we were doing there," he says. "They ask us, 'How many people you killed? How many bombs you did? How many people you kidnap? Then they started to beat [us], and put bags over our heads and put us in the Hummer."

At the prison, Ahmed waited in fear as those around him wailed inconsolably. When the interrogation began, he explained to no avail that Bahá'ís are peaceful and non-political. Intelligence agents stood him in water and electrocuted him, after which they hung him from his feet and beat him with a spiked rod.

When Ahmed lost consciousness, the agents cut the rope, dropping him onto the concrete floor. Shivering and bleeding inside the cold cell, Ahmed wept at the thought of widowing his pregnant bride.

"They put us all together and told us you cannot talk," he says, lifting his shirt to reveal the scars. "The old people in the jail say we will be there for two months for torture unless we confess. It was a horrible night."

The next day, the "big fish" informed Ahmed he could go. "The big fish say, 'You have nothing to do with the government; I'm very happy to know about you guys.'"

Making friends

Ahmed dreams of one day showing Kate and Samir the house he grew up in and the streets he played in as a boy. But, for the time being, he knows that's as unlikely as learning his father's fate. Though the Americans have left, Baghdad continues to be rocked by violence.

"We need a new generation to live without war, to live without blood," he says. "I have faith, but my emotions are broken, my heart is broken to see the Iraqis dying every day."

Asna, too, fondly recalls the Iraq of her youth, before King Faisal II was deposed in 1958. "We have it very good when there was the king," she says. "And the security was very nice and the money was very good. The kingdom will never return."

The injuries Ahmed sustained during his interrogation with Iraqi intelligence were serious enough to warrant back surgery, but there wasn't a surgeon in Baghdad capable of performing the delicate operation. Consequently, he lives with chronic back pain.

His civil engineering degree is virtually worthless in America, but he's found a niche business helping Saudi students navigate life in Madison. Raised in a culture where social currency trumps the almighty dollar, however, Ahmed is bashful about asking for remuneration.

"He's a wonderful guy," says Russ. "I've been trying to counsel him as a businessperson, but I think we're only partly down that path."

The Saudi students are a connection to the Arab culture Ahmed wouldn't otherwise have, especially when it comes to honoring a certain custom. "The killing of the lamb is very special because that connects him to home," says Kate.

Ahead of the Bahá'í Holy Day in January, Ahmed and the Vestlies' two Saudi Muslim guests, Mana and Abdul, acquired a lamb for the celebration.

They laid the lamb on the ground so its head faced Mecca. After a brief prayer, Abdul sliced open the animal's throat. Once the life drained from its body, the three of them took about an hour to butcher the lamb.

Ahmed bagged the hindquarters as a gift for an Isthmus photographer and reporter, but was taken aback when they politely tried to decline his offering.

"No, please take it," he said. "This is how we do it. It's important that we share."

It was a moving gesture by a man from whom so much has been taken. He later explained that spreading good will - even among those who've wronged him - is his way of making the world a little bit better.

After the Iraqi army released him in December 2009, Ahmed and his friends returned to the checkpoint to visit the Shi'a Muslim soldiers who detained and beat him.

"I wanted to say 'hi' to them. I wanted to make some friendship with them and tell them that Bahá'ís are different," he says. "They were excited to see us. They say, 'Hey, it's the Bahá'ís!'"

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