Saddam army general finally felled by Cyprus mine

29th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Having survived unscathed from the Iraq-Iran war, the US-led invasion of his country and two assassination attempts, the general was seriously wounded only upon attempting to sneak into Cyprus to seek asylum.

Larnaca -- Former Iraqi officer Flaih Jihad was never wounded in combat but he almost lost his leg when he stepped on a mine as he sneaked illegally into EU member Cyprus to seek asylum.

The former general in the presidential guard of executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein survived unscathed from the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, the 2003 US-led invasion of his country and two assassination attempts.

Now he hobbles painfully on a deformed heel but is happy to be alive after spending the first four months of his European dream in a hospital bed.

The blast which wounded him came last December when Jihad, his wife Shatha and their three boys aged five to 10 were metres (yards) away from safe haven in this Mediterranean holiday island.

Cyprus has long complained that asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are crossing into the government-controlled south from the breakaway Turkish republic in the north via the porous UN-monitored ceasefire line.

Hundreds of landmines are strewn across no-man's land, so trying to sneak across is fraught with danger. Nine people, including Iraqi asylum seekers and UN deminers, were wounded in 2008.

Most of the mines date from 1974 when Turkish troops seized the island's northern third in response to a Greek Cypriot coup to unite Cyprus with Greece.

Jihad, who hails like Saddam from the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, once enjoyed a life of luxury, including three apartments, four cars and all the other benefits that the Iraqi dictator bestowed on his allies.

His comfortable lifestyle ended abruptly following the US-led invasion of Iraq six years ago and in 2004 he fled Iraq after facing two assassination attempts, including a car bomb that killed his only daughter, and moved with his family to Syria.

By last year the family's financial resources had dried up, prompting Jihad to approach smugglers for a passage to Europe.

"I knew from the start that I was putting my life into the hands of the mafia, that it was risky," Jihad told AFP in the southern coastal city of Larnaca. "But I had no choice. I had to leave Syria. It was life or death."

He is recovering from his injuries in a tiny apartment after obtaining a six-month residency permit for himself and his family from Cypriot authorities, who are examining their asylum petition.

Prices to pay

Jihad paid the smugglers 25,000 dollars for the journey, choosing Cyprus as his European destination because it was the cheapest option available, he said.

"The smugglers were asking twice as much to get us France or Italy," he said.

On December 2, the family boarded a bus for southern Turkey and then caught a flight to the Turkish-held north of Cyprus.

But when they landed at Ercan airport northeast of Nicosia, the smugglers threatened to denounce them to the authorities unless they paid an extra 5,000 dollars, Jihad said.

More problems arose when the family was robbed of all their belongings just before being marched under the cover of darkness towards no man's land, along with two other Iraqi asylum seekers.

"We walked behind a Pakistani man (a smuggler) for three hours and crossed three rows of barbed wire," said Jihad.

Just as they prepared to cross into the government-controlled main part of the island, Jihad, the Iraqi ex-officer who prides himself for never having been injured throughout Iraq's decades of violence, stepped on a landmine.

It nearly tore off his leg. His wife Shatha was slightly hurt while their youngest son, five-year-old Ali, was hit in the head by several shrapnel pieces.

The smuggler fled the scene, abandoning them to their fate.

Jihad recalled how he crawled and then was dragged by the two other Iraqi asylum seekers until they reached a road where members of the smuggling network were waiting for them.

The next thing he remembers he was lying semi-conscious on the pavement outside a Larnaca hospital.

Thanks to a Nicosia hospital that saved his wounded leg from amputation at Cyprus government expense, Jihad's dream of "seeing Venice and the Eiffel Tower" remains alive.

But the danger continues for anyone else brave or desperate enough to try to walk across from northern Cyprus into the south.

The United Nations Mine Action Centre (MAC) began clearing landmines from the 180-kilometre-long buffer zone in November 2004 and has removed 10,400 anti-personnel and tank mines.

However, 16 minefields remain, containing an estimated 15,000 mines, according to project director Michael Raine, who hopes to complete the clearance project in 2011.

Cyprus has the highest intake per capita of asylum seekers since it joined the European Union in 2004. According to the United Nations, 11,000 applications are waiting to be processed.

Most asylum seekers in Cyprus are from Syria, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. However, the UN says those who have received positive responses are mostly migrants from the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Iran or even Turkey.

Whether or not his application is granted, Jihad, as an unrepentant Saddam supporter, swears he will never go back to Iraq, "even by order of law."

Jacques Clement/AFP/Expatica

0 Comments To This Article