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Iraqi Exile Visits Home, Recounts Painful Memories - 2003-06-06


Under Saddam Hussein's almost 30-year rule, roughly three million Iraqis fled their homeland. Now, some of those exiles have gone home, and many others are considering it. One Iraqi exile returned last month, but only briefly, and in a very different way than he fled more than 20 years ago.

It was 1981 when Marhab Abunayla fled Iraq, curled up in a dark cabinet in the back of his cousin's truck. After a short but dangerous journey from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, Mr. Abunayla crossed safely into Kuwait.

22 years later, he returned to Iraq, again in cramped quarters, but this time he was seated in the cockpit of a 747 jumbo jet, as its pilot.

Mr. Abunayla was flying the first civilian plane load of medical relief supplies to Iraq, not long after British forces secured the Basra airport.

"It was a sensational moment for me when I entered Iraqi airspace again from Kuwait because that is how I left Iraq as well," he said. "I left from Basra to Kuwait. After all those years, it was a nice coincidence."

Mr. Abunayla is a pilot for the airline Virgin Atlantic. The airline operated the flight in conjunction with the Royal Air Force and several aid agencies. It delivered 60 tons of pharmaceutical and medical supplies donated by several companies.

As soon as he heard about plans for the medical relief flight, Mr. Abunayla volunteered to pilot the plane.

Mr. Abunayla has been a pilot for 28 years. Before leaving Iraq, he flew for Iraqi Airways, until the government accused his brother of belonging to an organization that opposed the regime. Punishing the whole family, the government refused to provide any more exit visas for Mr. Abunayla, ending his career as an international pilot.

"As one of Saddam's method of collective punishment, the whole family had to be punished as well," he said. "I had to leave the country without the knowledge of the authorities. That brother, we haven't seen or heard from him since then. He just disappeared along with five of my cousins."

After fleeing Iraq, Mr. Abunayla worked for several airlines before joining Virgin Atlantic in 1989.

Mr. Abunayla has two brothers and four sisters still living in Iraq. He says that as a single man at the time of his escape, it was easy for him to leave. But his brothers and sisters could not go because, like many other Iraqis who wanted to flee, they had families of their own.

"There was no way for my other brothers to leave the country," said Mr. Abunayla. "They had their life as well and it's not easy for someone in his fifties, he's got a wife, four or five kids and they're all grown up-to leave everything and just go abroad in exile. It's very difficult. So people took their chances in staying in Iraq, hoping one day Saddam would go. And that day has now arrived. Hopefully, their life will be for the better now."

Mr. Abunayla hopes to fly more flights to Iraq, especially to Baghdad where he could visit the rest of his family.

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