Forever a Prisoner

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House of Horror: Nouman, amid the walls that tell her tale

The walls of Lahib Nouman's home don't just talk, they howl. They scream in terror, shout with rage, moan in pain and sob with frustration. All the emotions overloading this tiny woman's brutalized mind she projects onto the walls of her living room. She scrawls on them with maroon lipstick, ocher spray paint and gray lumps of charcoal, in Arabic and a sprinkling of French. It's the only way she knows to exorcise her mental demons, to preserve what remains of her sanity. "There's so much inside here," she says, slapping violently against the side of her head. "I have to take some of it out and put it down somewhere, or I will burst."

The effort seems to have taken over Nouman's life to the exclusion of everything else. Her small home in Baghdad's working-class al-Ghadeer district is filthy; the rooms are damp and smell of rotting garbage. Her pets, a mangy brown pup and two molting cats, have shed clumps of fur on her bed, an old foam mattress on the living-room floor. There are pieces of stale bread everywhere.

But the squalor doesn't seem to bother Nouman. She has lived in much worse places—a succession of prison cells, torture chambers and mental-hospital wards. Her living room may be fetid, but it is home, and she's free. "Nobody bothers me here. Nobody does bad things to me," she says. "I can say and do and write whatever I want."

Even by Iraqi standards, Nouman, 48, has enjoyed little freedom, at least not since 1985, when she ran afoul of Uday, Saddam Hussein's barbaric eldest son. A criminal lawyer, Nouman had the temerity to defend a man Uday wanted punished for insulting his girlfriend, and Nouman paid for it with nearly two decades' worth of torment. In prison, she endured rape, beatings and unspeakable torture. In the hospital, she was subjected to countless sessions of shock therapy and powerful sedatives. Along the way, her mind became unhinged, her memories scrambled and her face frozen in a mask of permanent terror. "They have turned me into a witch," she says, ruefully pulling at her stringy hair, which she has dyed the color of tea. "They have made me horrible."

Until three weeks ago, Nouman was incarcerated at al-Rashad, Baghdad's main mental hospital. When U.S. forces began taking the city, the staff ran away, enabling inmates to escape. Nouman made straight for her house in al-Ghadeer, and has been holed up there ever since, scrawling furiously on the walls. "This is my work now," she says. "This is what I have to do."

Already she's running out of space. She set out to write the story of her life, but the narrative is lost in a maze of digressions. There are religious motifs—a number of crooked crucifixes (she was raised a Chaldean Catholic) and exhortations to Mary and Allah. There are homages to her favorite mutt, Sandi. There are political slogans calling for solidarity among Iraq, the Arab nations and France, where she was educated. And then there are some doggerel verses that don't always make sense but are apparently designed for self-motivation: In the grave, there are no cowards. I will never give up.

This isn't how Lahib Nouman's life was supposed to turn out. Her father was a wealthy dealer in engineering tools. The Noumans lived in the then tony district of Saadun and sent their 13 children to the city's best schools, where they learned Arabic, French and English. Lahib's genteel upbringing is clear. She uses demure terms even to describe the depraved treatment she has endured. Her torturers "made pee-pee and ca-ca" on her, she says in English, and they "made love" to her against her will.

Although the Noumans were Assyrians, an ethnic minority suppressed by Saddam's regime, they were careful to toe the official Baath Party line. Lahib joined the party in 1973 and become an enthusiastic apparatchik. She remembers participating in political debates at Baghdad University, arguing forcefully for Baathist principles like secularism and socialism. She remained loyal even after her father blamed the collapse of his business on the government, which took away his exclusive distribution deals with British and American toolmakers.

After completing a law degree, Nouman took a job as a criminal investigator at the Justice Ministry. Later she pursued a doctorate at the Sorbonne. Her studies were cut short in 1985, when she broke a hip in a traffic accident. Back in Baghdad, she began to take on criminal cases, mostly pro bono. That's how she came upon Naadi, a young Egyptian bellhop who had crossed Uday Hussein. Naadi was being held at a police station and being tortured even as Nouman waited to see him. "They were touching his fingers with a live wire, and I could hear his screams in the waiting area," she recalls. "When they finally let me see him, his first words were, 'Please help me to kill myself.'"

Naadi's trouble began when he barred one of Uday's girlfriends from entering the Babylon Hotel, where he worked, because she was drunk. Soon after, he was accused of stealing videotapes out of Uday's house. Nouman persuaded Naadi to let her represent him. The charges were so obviously false that the court threw them out without much argument. But the clock had begun to run down on Nouman's liberty. "My friends told me I had cut my own neck," she says. "But I thought Uday wouldn't dare to touch a lawyer, a respected member of society."

How wrong she was. Barely a month after the Naadi verdict, in a casual conversation with law colleagues, Nouman said the fateful words, "There's no justice in this country." Someone informed the police, and within hours she was arrested for contempt of court. Taken to al-Zafaraniya police station, she was, she says, brutally beaten for several days in a row, raped and had a hot candle forced into her rectum. "I kept telling the police, 'You can't do this to me. I'm a lawyer,'" she says, smiling sadly at her own naivete. "They said, 'Once you become an enemy of Uday, you are nothing.'"

After a week of near constant torture, Nouman recounts, she was taken to al-Rashad hospital on the outskirts of the city. There she had the first of countless sessions of shock treatment. When she was released a month later, Nouman recalls, she felt "like a nightmare was over." It was just beginning. She had been out only a few months when the police picked her up again, this time for allegedly saying (she denies it) "I hate Saddam." She was taken, she says, to the Khadamiya Prison for women, for a six-month spell with long stretches in solitary confinement. She was tortured and beaten by other prisoners.

"The wardens told the other women that since I was an enemy of Uday, they had permission to do whatever they wanted to me," Nouman says. "The women wanted to please the wardens, so they were constantly slamming me against the walls." Again she was sent back to al-Rashad.

Nouman's life settled into a pattern. She would be arrested, thrown into prison for a few months of torture, then forced to spend a month in the mental hospital. She would be released for a few months, and then the cycle would begin again. Looking back, she has difficulty remembering the chronology and duration of her incarcerations. "There were too many," she says, "and after all those years of taking drugs at the hospital of madness, my memory is mixed up." But if the repeated punishment was meant to silence Nouman, it had the opposite effect. "When I realized that they could arrest me whether or not I did anything wrong, I thought, Why not speak my mind?" She recounts how she tore up Saddam posters in the street, chanted anti-Uday slogans and, on one occasion, refused to take a 100-dinar note in change from a shopkeeper, declaring, "I don't want another picture of Saddam Hussein."

Her most famous act of defiance came in 1988, after Uday personally murdered Kamel Hanna Jajjo, Saddam's majordomo, for acting as a go-between for Saddam and one of his mistresses. Word of the scandal spread through Baghdad—even to Nouman, in prison. At her next court hearing, she stood up and delivered an impromptu speech. Uday had killed a man, she said, and he should be brought to trial and imprisoned. "I said what every Iraqi was thinking," she says. "I just had nothing to lose. What could they do to me that they were not already doing?"

In Baghdad's working-class districts, Nouman gained a certain amount of fame as the crazy woman lawyer who dared to stand up to Uday. Even some of the staff at the mental hospital came to admire her tenacity. "She never stopped speaking against Uday, not even when she was getting shock treatment," says Jabar Rubbaiyeh Lefteh, an ambulance driver at the mental hospital. "She was braver than any man I know."

like all of iraq's prisons, the fudeiliya facility on the northeastern edge of Baghdad now stands empty and wide open. After the Americans entered Baghdad, looters quickly stripped it of furniture and electrical fittings. Returning, along with a journalist and photographer, to the prison where she spent most of 1991, Nouman quickly draws a crowd of curious onlookers from the neighboring houses. She confronts them angrily: "When I was tortured here and screamed for help, did you not hear me?" The crowd remains mute.

She turns away scornfully and strides to the women's wing of the prison, where a number of large cells open onto a courtyard. A net of barbed wire hangs over the yard. The cells, now empty, are deceptively light and airy. "When they were full, I could only sit like this," says Nouman, crouching against a wall and pulling her knees against her chest. Set off from the main courtyard is a row of isolation cells. She spent several weeks in one, and hesitates before entering it now. It is relatively big for an isolation cell, 15 ft. by 10 ft., with one small barred window close to the ceiling and no toilet. ("I had to make pee-pee and ca-ca in the same room," she says.)

Nouman points to an officer's room, now deserted, where she says she was tortured, "every day, sharp at 10 a.m." The officer, she relates, made her sit on an empty beer bottle until it had penetrated her rectally and filled up with blood. The officer also "made love" to her, she says, shuddering at the recollection. He was a big bear of a man and smelled of cooked meat. "I thanked God when they took me from here to the hospital of madness," she says.

While her parents were alive, Nouman, who never married, had family to return to whenever she was released from the hospital. But after her father died in 1988 and her mother passed away in 1991, her siblings refused to have anything to do with her. Over the years, most of them emigrated, without leaving forwarding addresses. Only three of her sisters remain in Baghdad, and she says they won't allow her into their homes. "What her brothers and sisters did was worse than what Uday did to her," says Mushtaq Zanbaqa, parish priest of the Chaldean Catholic church Nouman frequents. "Maybe they were afraid that Uday would punish them, but to turn your back on your own sister is a terrible, terrible thing." The three sisters declined to talk to TIME. Neighbors said none of the three ever married because Nouman's reputation frightened away potential suitors. Unless the sisters have a change of heart, Nouman may wind up in the mental hospital again. With the Saddam regime gone, she would probably be treated more gently, but the thought of returning fills her with dread. Although she was happy to walk a journalist through the prisons she has lived in, she refused to visit al-Rashad. "That is Satan's place," she says. Besides, she says, she can't go anywhere until she has written the story of her life on her walls. "I have to finish this, to get everything out of my head," she says. "Then I will be at peace."

She has one other ambition. In all the years she suffered his vengeance, Nouman never met Uday. Before the war, she says, she didn't want to. Now she would love to confront her tormentor. "I want to see him, and I want him to see me," she says, thumping her chest. "I want to tell him, 'Look, I am still here, still saying what I want to say. You tried to stop me and couldn't. What can you do now?'"