A small town north of Baghdad has a dark history but, it is a town with a future, too.
At first glance it could be a small town anywhere in the Middle East. But what happened in Balad, 80 kilometers north of Baghdad, is both horrible and typical and typical of what has been kept secret in Iraq for over 20 years. The population of Balad is predominantly Shia. When Saddam invaded Iran in the early 1980’s, he became concerned that the Shia population in the Balad area would rise up against him. Now the people of the town want to tell the world what happened.
"He thought that they are loyal to Iran so he began to kill everyone, not only in this town, it spread all over the country, all over Iraq ... " said Ahmed Abdul Ameer, a doctor in Balad.
The walls of a room in the local community center are lined with the pictures of what the town’s people call martyrs. "We call them martyrs because there aren’t any real accusations," Mr. Ameer said.
On the tenth of July 1982, Saddam’s security services came into the town and rounded up 115 families, men, women and children. The Ridha family was one of them.
Yasimin Ridha told us that on that night the family had gathered here at home with other relatives when Saddam’s security services knocked at the door about 2 a.m. They asked them to come to the security headquarters for an investigation that would only last a few minutes. They were imprisoned for four years.
The three families we interviewed in Balad told a similar story. All of them were tortured in various ways. Including children. Taha Hamed was 11-years-old when his family was arrested.
He told us they would beat him severely and hung him upside down from a rotating fan. On one occasion, they pulled his toenails out. Even younger children were buried in the sand up to their chests. And their families were made to sit and watch.
Saddam took other actions against the people of Balad.
Mr. Ameer pointed to one area in Balad that had 65 houses before 1982. "All of the houses were pulled down,” he said.
Saddam also ordered the security services to burn the town’s date palms and fruit orchards.
"He destroyed everything. The animals, the plants, the lands, people…" Mr. Ameer said.
In the town center on a wall hangs a banner with the names of the town’s martyrs. There are many similar stories in towns all over Iraq. For the people of Balad the lessons of the past are important. But even more important is embracing the future.
"The first thing, we want freedom," Mr. Ameer said. "We want freedom. And we want democracy."