A brave airline worker has told us how he escaped from a paramilitary mob in Iraq while his friends were tortured and killed.
Kasim, as we will call him to protect his identity, was a part of a select group of young LGBTI activists in Baghdad.
In June last year, they posted pro-LGBTI leaflets through doors and stuck posters on walls and pillars in the Iraqi capital one night.
Faces captured on security cameras, the group was rounded up by a homophobic mob. One by one, they were murdered.
Except from Kasim, and today he is telling his story exclusively to Gay Star News.
LGBTI posters that sparked a witch-hunt
‘You are not alone, that was our motto,’ he said.
‘Our small group was created so that we as LGBT people, living in Iraq, could reach out and support others, to communicate with all homosexuals by providing advice, guidance in what it means to be LGBT.’
Kasim worked for an airline at Baghdad International Airport. Thanks to his job, he knew the dangers of the mafia. Posing as army and police forces, these gangs would kill you if they suspected you of being gay. Anyone linked to US coalition forces is also at high risk.
But he wanted to get the message of diversity and equality out there. And so he agreed to help distribute the posters.
With an image symbolizing a male same-sex couple, a lesbian couple, and an opposite-sex couple, the posters read in Arabic: ‘I am equal to you. Difference is the basis of life.’
‘We agreed that when this was done, we would all meet up the following day to see if there had been any reaction in Iraqi society regarding the leaflets and posters that had be placed throughout the city the night before,’ he said.
‘It soon became very clear that there had been and to a level more frightening than any of us could have ever feared.’
‘Give yourselves up within four days or be killed’
On 20 June, a warning letter was pinned to Kasim’s front door. It included a list of every member of the LGBTI support group. What is more, the letter ordered all of them to give themselves up within four days or ‘face the punishment of Allah’.
This meant they would be killed.
Kasim and a friend named Yani fled to a hotel. They sat there terrified as information slowly trickled in. Some had been killed, some had gone into hiding.
‘We felt the net was closing in on us from all sides. We had no family to help us. Our friends were missing or perhaps dead. Gangs were searching for us and our faces were now known throughout the city.’
Luckily, Yani and Kasim knew a closeted gay man who worked as a police officer at the airport.
He had promised them they would be able to give them a travel card, a requisite for all Iraqis to get permission from police to leave the country.
With a way out, Yani said he would leave the hotel to gather money to support themselves. They agreed to phone each other at a certain time.
‘One hour passed, then two, then three and still Yani had not been in contact with me,’ Kasim said.
‘I was suspicious that Yani had come to some harm but how could I know for certain?’
‘I have never been so terrified in my life’
Kasim ran from the hotel with only his passport, leaving his belongings behind. When he arrived at the airport, he didn’t have a flight.
‘I have never been so terrified in my life,’ he said.
‘I spent much of that time hiding in the bathroom. Police and armed security were everywhere and I felt sure if I was in an open public area, my identity would be revealed.’
At the airport, he saw a local news report flash on the screen. It said a well known Iraqi male model had been found dead.
Karar Noshi, known as the ‘King of Iraq Beauty’, had been tortured and viciously stabbed. The news report did not reveal Noshi was a member of the LGBT group and his name had appeared on the letter pinned to the door days before.
Escape from Iraq
Kasim phoned his mother, who told him he needed to leave Iraq immediately. Meanwhile, a friend told him Yani had been tortured and killed. A gang had been waiting for him at his home.
‘As far as I knew, I was alone and possibly the last one alive. I knew that my arrest was imminent and my death would quickly follow.’
Fortunately, he managed to get a flight. However, he still needed to get through the passport checks staffed by armed airport police.
Timing it carefully, Kasim approached the desk with a large group all in a rush.
‘I tried to remain calm and look relaxed, even if I was screaming inside,’ Kasim said.
‘Just as I thought I had been discovered, he handed me my passport and waved me through. I couldn’t believe it.’
Isolated, fired, and nowhere left to turn
Kasim traveled to Oman, where his older brother lived. However his uncle is a government official and was furious. He said being linked with a gay person was a ‘disgrace’ to the family’s reputation.
Kasim’s brother gave him two options: enter into an arranged marriage with a woman or leave and never contact family again.
He left his brother’s home, and arranged a stay at a friend’s house in the same city. Able to keep the same job with the airline, he rented a small apartment.
A month or so later, his manager informed him that he could work in Germany or Ireland.
But then he was asked to come into the office.
‘My manager informed me the Iraqi embassy, along with the police, had posted my image on social media. Pictures of me holding the LGBT poster was now widespread online,’ Kasim said.
‘They were the photos Yani had taken on his phone, the phone he had on him when he was killed.’
The company fired him with immediate effect. Moreover, they gave him just 10 days to settle his affairs in Oman and leave.
But he still had a travel visa for Ireland in his possession. And that is where he decided to go.
‘My life is still being threatened…just because of being gay and displaying a poster,’ Kasim said.
‘I just want to live a normal life, to love who I love and not be in fear.’