Iraqi Translator's Service Comes at High Cost
By Cpl. Veronika R. Tuskowski, USMC
Special to American Forces Press Service
ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq, Sept. 22, 2004 Sally's children were taken away from her more than six months ago. Her husband beat her. Her brother threatened her life while holding a gun to her head. Her own father contracted her death with a $5,000 reward.
Sally, serving as a translator for multinational forces in
Iraq, holds up an coin she received from the commander of the unit she serves.
The 28-year-old was born in Baghdad and has been working with the coalition
since last year. Her family has placed a $5,000 bounty on her head for
cooperating with U.S. forces. Photo by Cpl. Veronika R. Tuskowski,
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Sally, an Iraqi translator working with Multinational Force Iraq, lost everything by working to help Americans rebuild Iraq. Still, she feels her service with Americans is the right thing for her country.
"I lost everything I have, but I have gained so much," Sally said. "If I had to do it over again I would. I help the Americans, help my people."
Sally masks her real identity. She agreed to be interviewed on the condition her location and identity remained hidden. She is still a wanted woman with a price on her head.
Sally, 28, was born in Baghdad to a wealthy family. Her Turkish Christian mother died giving birth to her. Her Muslim father from Fallujah had ties in Iraqi oil. She wanted for little as a child, even under the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein.
Her father had another wife who raised Sally as her own child.
She was educated at a private Catholic school from the age of 5 until she was 12, learning English and several other languages. She grew up with a cross- cultural experience unknown to most Iraqis.
"Since my mother was Christian and my father was Muslim, I studied the Bible during the week and went the Mosque every Friday to study the Quran," Sally explained.
Still, there was a parochial and detached feeling to her formative years. She visited her family on the weekends and one month of the year. When she did visit her family, Sally explained that women had little power and could not make any choices of her own.
"My father. I can't even eat at the same table and eat with him," she said. "I must always say yes to everything."
The day she graduated from her Catholic school, her father told her something that would change her life. "I was 13 years old," Sally said. "I will never forget this. He sits beside me and says, 'Honey, you must marry.'" Three days later, she was married to her fathers' friend, 27 years her senior. "He wasn't mean at first, and he wasn't nice," she said. "He looked like my father."
She gave birth to her first son at 14 and continued studying engineering in Baghdad. Her family grew over the years to include three more children. It was a life not unlike that of many Iraqi women.
"I liked my husband, because he let me go to school," she said. "I was a child. I didn't know any better. All my life I was with one guy, and I didn't know if he was good, I didn't know if he was bad. He was the only thing I knew. He taught me what to think."
Sally's family did not like Americans, and when rumors of a war began circulating last year, her family decided to leave for Turkey. Still, Sally stayed. "I love my home," she explained. "I told them I would never leave, and they left without me."
Early one morning when the war started, she heard yelling outside her home. Americans in a Humvee were talking to one of her neighbors.
"They were speaking English and trying to talk to a man," she said. "They were going to arrest him. So I went outside to help him and talked to the Americans for the man. The Americans were very appreciative and (offered me) a job. I told them they know where I live if they ever need my help."
She thought being a translator would be a great way to help out her country. She took an English test and was accepted to become a translator.
Sally's decision, though, was unpopular with her Iraqi neighbors.
"My neighbors found out that I was helping the Americans, and they beat my children," she said. "They threw rocks at my daughter and broke both arms on my son. They told me to watch out or I will be killed."
It wasn't just her neighbors who harbored hatred for Sally's assistance to the coalition. Her family was infuriated.
"When my family came home from Turkey and found out, they told me that I would be killed," she said. "They called me horrible names like 'bitch' and 'whore.' My brother put a pistol to my head and threatened to kill me."
She lived only because her mother intervened. It wasn't a measure of love, but rather of family honor.
"My mother stopped him by saying, 'She is not your real sister, and it's not your honor to kill her,'" she recalled. "She is not even my daughter; her real mother died when she was born."
Sally fled her home and took residence with her husband and children in Baghdad's Green Zone. She continued to help the Americans, translating at checkpoints. Her family began looking for her to kill her for betraying them.
"While I was at work, my brother found my husband and told him that I will kill your wife if I find out she is working with the coalition forces," she said. "He lied for me and told them that I was not."
Her life continued to crumble. She found her car missing and asked her husband if he knew what happened.
"I asked him about it, and he said someone stole it," Sally said. "I could not believe it. I asked who would steal? The Americans? The Green Zone was such a safe neighborhood. There was nowhere for it to go."
Her husband became enraged. He flew into a tirade.
"He messed up my face and body," she said. "He had such an angry face."
The next morning he apologized to her and told her to go to work because she was going to be late. Her face was beaten, black and blue. She tried to hide her husband's crime with sunglasses and a hat. Her ruse didn't work. Another translator saw the marks.
"I lied and said I did it to myself," she said.
She then told him that her car was also stolen. Then her world fell apart.
"He said, 'Your husband divorced you a month ago and took your car, your money and your apartment and gave it to your best friend because you are working with Americans,'" she recalled. "So I went back to my apartment and found my car in the garage and went inside."
She found her best friend inside with her husband.
"I was so angry I yelled," she said. "I went crazy. I took my keys and took off."
She drove to a nearby restaurant and parked thinking about what just happened.
"I was sitting there in the parking lot and I saw him walking up to me," she said. "I was relieved. I thought he was going to apologize. He told me to unroll the window."
When she did, he picked up a nearby rock and repeatedly hit her face. She awoke in a hospital two days later. An Army captain arrested her husband, but she insisted on finding him.
"I saw him cry," she said. "Iraqi men never cry. I was trying to get him out. I didn't care what anyone said."
She was warned to leave him in jail, that he would kill her. She insisted on his release.
"After 15 minutes of getting out the jail, he beat me up and put me in his car and took me to the apartment and locked me in the bathroom for three to four days with no food," Sally said. "I begged for water. He said 'No, I am ashamed of you. You are an interpreter, that's why I divorced you.'"
Her husband threatened to tell her family where she was, sealing her death sentence.
She escaped only because of her oldest son.
"My older son, who is 13, opened the bathroom door and said, 'Mom you need to run away,'" she recalled. "You cannot stay here. They will kill you. Mom, they will kill you!"
Sally said she did not want to leave her children behind.
"He pushed me out the door and I ran," she said. "I don't know where, but I ran."
She left with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, a picture of her kids and a stuffed tiger her son slept with at night. It was the last time she saw her children.
She returned to work with coalition forces.
Master Sgt. Tim D. Curl remembers seeing her in the chow hall days after escaping.
"She was directed by her command to seek medical attention for her wounds," Curl said. "But instead, she went to the chow hall. She got up to get something and all of a sudden she collapsed. The place when completely silent."
She spent three weeks recovering in a hospital.
When she returned to work, she opened up an e-mail from her friend to find out there was a price on her head. A poster was being distributed: a $5,000 was offered for her, dead or alive. It was offered by her father.
"He is trying to pay my friends for information on where I am," Sally said. "If I go to any Arab country, my father would find me."
Still, she doesn't fear the warrant.
"What can they take from me?" she asked. "I already have lost everything. I see the dead all the time. One of my best friends and three other interpreters were killed - beaten to death - by a knife because they were working with coalition forces."
Her commitment has earned praises from Marines.
"Sally risks her life to be here," Curl said. "Many translators we have here have had their lives threatened and their families' lives threatened. She goes on convoys, combat patrols, and they go through the same attacks we do."
Sally understands the risk, but still continues to work with Americans because of her love for the job.
"I love my job, I am helping out my people," she explained. "I am doing something for my country. This is the first time in my life I choose what I want in my life. My father would never let me choose. Now I am fighting for what I believe in."
Her family now is the circle of Marines and soldiers with whom she works. She hasn't heard from her children, but believes they are still with their father. Her worry gnaws at her.
"I can't sleep, because I think well maybe my kids are tired," Sally said. "Why should I be able to sleep? I can't eat because I think maybe somewhere my kids are hungry. I can't enjoy a nice, hot shower because I think maybe they are dirty. I can't laugh because maybe my kids are sad."
Sally hopes for a better future, possibly in the United States. She's had offers to help her get settled. She's got a passport and recommendations, but no visa. She even aspires to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
"The Army taught me how to march, how to shoot a pistol and martial arts," she said. "I want to live in America. I want to become a lieutenant for the Army. I want to go airborne."
The risks of military service, she said, are already known.
"(We) translators, we are at great risk," Sally explained. "We just want help. I will go to America. I will still work for the military. I just want this chance."
However, she hasn't forsaken her commitment to her children.
"If I do get to go to America, I promise I will make it back," she said. "It might take me 10 years, but I will be back to find my kids."
For now, though, Sally continues her work, serving as the link between Marines and Iraqis, bridging communication and cultural gaps, even as she seeks to heal her own life's wounds.
"You (soldiers and Marines) come from America to help my country," Sally said. "I must help you help my people. I see these soldiers that lose their lives for Iraqis. They come into our country and die for us. We must appreciate these guys. I appreciate the Army and Marines. I love them."
(Marine Cpl. Veronika R. Tuskowski is assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.)