By the time Zaradasht Ahmed had finished his education in 1991 the Gulf War had started and he was conscripted into the army. Instead of serving in the armed forces he made the decision to go to Europe. “I didn’t understand who to fight for so I defected; I left the army and I could not stay,” he tells me.
A common punishment for deserters is “death by shooting”, explains Zaradasht. “They make your family pay for the bullets. No matter what you do you are a deserter, you are a traitor and a traitor must be shot like a dog.”
Iraq was a black hole. It’s still a black hole, but a little bit different.
Zaradasht arrived in Norway where he wanted to be known as Zaradasht the artist, the painter, the Iraqi, the Kurdish guy. But then 9/11 happened and everyone else wanted to define him by the fact he was a Muslim. Europeans “had a very ugly side that I didn’t see before”, he says.
Then the Iraq War happened. As a visual artist Zaradasht used to paint to express himself but after the American-led invasion in 2003 he decided this wasn’t enough. “It affected everything in my life and the way I am, my identity,” he says of the war. So he decided to document it.
His production “Nowhere to Hide” – which will be screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival – follows a male nurse, Nori Sharif, who works in Jalawla. After America withdrew from Iraq in 2011 Zaradasht gave Nori a camera, taught him how to use it and asked him to film his community and the hospital where he works in central Iraq, one of the country’s most dangerous areas, dubbed the “triangle of death”.
Nori filmed his patients, the hospital staff who treat them and the population of the town as they flee the city when the Iraqi army retreated in 2013. Nori and his family remained to witness Daesh advance on Jalawla before eventually moving to an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp.
In both Syria and Iraq doctors have been targeted for assassinations and kidnappings. Is Nori targeted specifically because he works in the medical profession?
“Everyone is targeted in Iraq,” replies Zaradasht. In fact, he explains, as a Sunni Muslim Nori is perhaps more vulnerable than others because the area in which the IDP camp is located has been taken over by Shia militia.
Because Daesh are made up of Sunni Muslims, civilians living in Sunni-majority towns or provinces are in danger of being affiliated with them and are subsequently viewed with suspicion by the Shia militia who run the town.
There are people disappearing, there are people being assassinated, probably because they think they were cooperating with ISIS [Daesh]
“In that sense just to be a Sunni – I cannot say danger directly because I don’t live there – but I assume there is a high level of danger, also for his family.”
In June 2014 Daesh killed some 1,700 Shia Iraqi Air Force Cadets in what became known as the Camp Speicher massacre. There is an “element of revenge” to what is happening in Iraq today, says Zaradasht; “there are lots of misunderstandings and civilians getting killed like that”.
Sectarianism did not just pop up because of the American invasion – rather Iraq is a complicated area and home to many ancient civilisations, which over time has created many conflicts. Sunnis, Shias and Kurds have always lived together but it was in a “fictive harmony” he says. Saddam Hussein was ruling Iraq through a dictatorship, creating a balance based on fear, and once that didn’t exist anymore the harmony disappeared and each set about seeking revenge.
“The war in Iraq became more regional, bigger than Iraq itself,” he continues. Iran is involved – so is Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US. These regional powers manipulate grievances from the past – “they use these old conflicts in order to keep an uncertain reality,” explains Zaradasht. “It’s a territorial war on whose running the whole region.”
Capturing this “uncertain reality” was the original idea for the film, but when he met Nori, Zaradasht changed his mind. “When Nori was in front of me, when I was following him, I could not make that film because he was just the face of that war in front of me.”
Real people from Iraq like Nori rarely make it into the news here in the UK. Part of the reason is that “Nowhere to Hide” took six years to shoot, says Zaradasht, but a news bulletin is just two minutes and there is no space for emotion and sensitivity. Then there’s also the fact that people in Europe don’t have the capacity, or the will to really focus on what’s happening in Iraq.
Perhaps Nori will help change this mentality. “You have to rethink the major problem, why is there a war? When you start to understand through a guy like Nori you start to build a relationship with him and then you empathise with him,” he says.
Despite the warmth of Nori’s character, “Nowhere to Hide” certainly paints a dark picture of Iraq, or a black hole to use Zaradasht’s words. What are his thoughts on the future of his country, on how Iraq can emerge from this black hole?
“I don’t see it too bright; I don’t see it like there is one big conflict and Mosul will be taken back and everything will be in place again and things will work,” he says referring to the offensive currently being led by the Iraqi army to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from Daesh. “I don’t think so. The damage is big, the damage is very deep.”
Many generations have been destroyed in Iraq. Many generations.
“And now on top of that ISIS [Daesh] came and did the worst thing in history that I’ve seen, trying to destroy deliberately the most innocent thing in the world – kids – making them killing machines and that’s a catastrophe.”
“I think there’s a long way to go to make Iraq stable”, he adds as an afterthought. “At least if they divide it into Shia and Kurd and Sunni they will manage by themselves. I don’t see Mosul as, ok, that’s the conflict. That’s a small part that will even make the situation even more complicated. All these Sunnis will feel like they lost.”
The most important quality for any human being is his dignity, says Zaradasht, but you have to really offer it to him, not just “a little bit here and a little bit there” like America did. “They came and brought people who don’t understand the politics; they destroyed one of the oldest armies in the area; they brought a guy caller Paul Bremer who doesn’t have any idea about the Middle East, about its complications.”
“Then Tony Blair came in, and George Bush. None of them had any idea about what they were dealing with. They opened the gate of hell and then they went; so how do you close it and if you close it that doesn’t mean everything will go back to normal.”
As well as capturing the many dark sides of Iraq today, Nori also captures hope; reflecting this, “Nowhere to Hide” will go some way towards helping inspire change, by helping people consider the human consequences of and our global responsibility towards this war. “The film hopefully makes an emotional impact,” says Zaradasht. “That’s the point, to make that emotional impact, to make people feel they are part of that world, of that family and they feel the pain. Then perhaps a lot of reflections like that will make us change.”
“We are all human, we all feel the same things, we have to share and not close the door. We have to lift the other people up. Help them, make the world a better place to live in.”