Dying To Come Out: The War On Gays In Iraq
Ali Hili tears through the extravagant mass of CDs that line the walls of his messy home office and fill every horizontal surface with corkscrews of jewel boxes. He collects rare recordings of diva vocalists, from Aretha Franklin to Edith Piaf, but he’s looking for something by his favorite, Dalida, the Franco-Arab sensation known for her emotional lyrics and tragic life. Like other singers of a certain pathos, Dalida enjoyed a huge gay following throughout the Middle East and especially in Baghdad in the 1990s, when Hili worked as a DJ in gay-friendly clubs at the Palestine Hotel and the luxurious al-Rashid Hotel.
“Gay men are really, really into her in Iraq,” he says with great animation. “She’s very icon.”
He finds the disc he has in mind, but before he can play it, his cell phone rings, and he checks the caller ID and quickly snaps the phone to his ear. Hili, who is 34 years old and ruggedly handsome, doesn’t say much beyond a few greetings in Arabic. And then he kind of moans, and tears soon form in his eyes. “It is Hussain,” he finally whispers to me, “the Baghdad correspondent for our group.” (The names of some Iraqis have been changed to protect them or their families.)
Hili’s group is a loose network of Iraqi exiles and their supporters called Iraqi LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender). From a crowded office in London, they work to protect gays still inside Iraq, where for more than a year, in the midst of the waves of chaotic violence, an especially brutal campaign has been waged specifically against homosexuals. Hili has received hundreds of reports of attacks and has evidence that over forty have been killed, most at the hands of men in Interior Ministry police uniforms.
Some of the dead are people he knows from the clubs. One of the first victims, a 40-year-old transsexual named Haider “Dina” Faiek, was one of Hili’s oldest friends. She was beaten by uniformed officers who doused her with gasoline. Witnesses said observers were cheering as she burned to death. “She was one of my first gay friends,” Hili tells me, shaking his head. “I really loved her.”
Searching the Internet for more news about her slaying, Hili discovered information about a second and third victim, both men he knew from the clubs. Then he found the unifying thread: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the single most powerful religious figure in Iraq today—a man the Bush administration plays up as a partner in peace and many have promoted for a Nobel Peace Prize—had posted a fatwa against gays on his Web site in October 2005. According to a translation, people “involved” in homosexuality “should be killed in the worst, most severe way possible.” It went unnoticed by most of the world. But Sistani is the spiritual leader of the Shia Muslim majority, especially followers of the main Islamic fundamentalist group called the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose armed militants in the Badr Organization have infiltrated the Interior Ministry police force. The Badr Organization is reportedly responsible for many of the antigay executions.
Hili crafted a press release about the fatwa and received some minor media attention. Quietly, last May, the death decree was altered slightly, though not completely withdrawn, and the killings have not stopped. Since speaking out, Hili has received several death threats, including an anonymous e-mail a few days before I arrived at his apartment that read: The street is always watching you Ali.…
So he takes what precautions he can. He seldom travels alone through London at night and has frequently changed SIM cards in his cell phone, making it difficult to trace him or his overseas contacts. And he uses a nom de guerre even among friends. He says he chose “Ali” in memory of his first love in high school, who was killed by a land mine in the aftermath of the Iraq-Iran war. “Hili” comes from a famous Iraqi pop singer from the ’70s named Sadi Hili, a Middle Eastern Engelbert Humperdinck whose deep, romantic voice and hypermasculine style has spawned countless jokes concerning his presumed homosexuality.
In September 2005, Hili formed his group to help generate political pressure to stop the killings. But given the chaos and fatal violence gripping all of Iraq, their eff¬orts have seemed a bit frivolous to some. So, working over cell phones and the Internet, Hili and his comrades have been forced to set up a vast underground railroad with collaborators in many Iraqi cities and in countries throughout the Middle East and Europe. And they established sixteen safe houses within Iraq, where they shelter gays and transsexuals who can’t hide their sexual orientation and are in imminent danger. Some have been hiding this way since 2004, often in tightly curtained rooms, unable to leave. A network of supporters and “correspondents” deliver food to them and see to their medical needs, then pass status reports up through channels that ultimately reach Hili, who scribbles the updates into his records.
At the end of his conversation with Hussain, Hili wipes his eyes and hands me the phone. “He speaks a little English,” he says. “He wants to talk to you.”
“If you want a story, I will tell you,” Hussain begins breathlessly, without introduction. He sounds very young, though he is 32, and his voice is full of fear and anger. “This is my best friend. They killed him. I want to tell you a true story.”
Hussain explains that he is in charge of monitoring safe houses in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, where several men have been hidden by a local family in exchange for rent money. One of them was a blond transgendered woman named Emad. Until the troubles began, Hussain and Emad had been roommates, but for the past few months Emad had been on the run, sure he was targeted for execution. When Hussain arrived there earlier in the day, he learned that Emad had been killed three days before. He weeps with rage as he describes the condition of the body, which showed signs that they killed him by running him over with a car. His corpse was left alongside the road, and passersby openly debated if he was a man or a woman. A friend—another gay man—went to study the corpse after hearing the chatter; he confirmed the identity to the victim’s family.
“I got very devastated,” Hussain tells me frantically. “They said informers in the community reported him. His family didn’t hold a funeral ceremony for him, because they didn’t want anyone to know that he was killed because he was gay.” After a series of shallow breaths, he adds, “I am worried. I’m sweating all the time, fearing that something might happen to me while I’m doing what I’m doing.”
When he hangs up the phone, Hili puts the notes he made in a pile under a teacup, unsure if anybody will care about Emad’s passing. “We’re a community helping each other, with a little outside help,” he says. “Just like the Jews at the Nazi time.”
When he was 19, Ali Hili, the elder son of a professor and a housewife, was studying English literature at the University of Baghdad and working nights in a record store. He quickly earned a reputation for his knowledge of rare and esoteric European and American recordings, and the few foreigners in Iraq back then often came into the shop to talk with him. Among them was a 30-year-old man I’ll call Ivan, an Eastern European posted to his embassy in Baghdad. Hili does not want anything written about Ivan that might expose his identity. He is married to a woman and still in government service.
The two met when Ivan asked the clerk for assistance, and a ?irtation ensued. They soon began an aff¬air, and before long Hili was in love. When Ivan promised to leave his wife, Hili believed him.
On the appointed day, Hili, his cousin, and Hili’s father stood outside the Cinema al-Adhamiya, in a bustling Baghdad shopping district, waiting for a late-model blue Mitsubishi. When it arrived, driven by a lone Iraqi intelligence officer, they piled in.
“He was very relaxed, very nice—very gentle,” Hili tells me over tea one afternoon. “He introduced himself to my father and said, ‘We think your son is someone good, and we need him to do something for his country. He’s very intelligent, very smart, well-presenting, speaks very good language, and he has very good communication skills. We’re proud of him. We want to have him helping and working with us.’ Of course, my father can’t ask—my cousin even can’t ask—what type of mission. It’s unnegotiatable. Then he said to me, ‘I need to see you in a few days.’ We said good-bye and drove home. And I remember my father said to me, ‘Listen, no matter what they say, just say yes. They pull a gun and want to shoot you, say yes. Don’t ever negotiate or discuss or question or say no.’ ”
At subsequent meetings, the intelligence officer told Hili he knew about his sexual orientation. He gave Hili an ultimatum: Either cooperate with Iraqi intelligence or they would reveal his secret. Hili didn’t fear prosecution. Under Hussein at the time, homosexuality per se was not illegal, but he was afraid that his family and neighbors might learn the truth. Iraq is a tribal society where homosexuality is regarded with extreme disdain. Honor killings were not uncommon.
Hili’s assignment was to begin spying on his lover. Hili never learned why, and he never received any money for these services. He simply did as his father instructed and agreed to the intelligence officer’s demands.
“He was my partner. He was my lover. He was my friend. He was my brother. He was everything to me. I didn’t want to betray him. But if I don’t, I lose my family. For almost a year, I did what I had to do. I used to write everything we used to do, me and Ivan, and everything I observed him doing. If he takes a spoon,” says Hili, lifting a spoon from the saucer of his teacup in his apartment and examining it between his pinched fingers, “and washes it and puts it on the ?oor”—his pantomime continues—“that’s what we need. How he does things: how he walks, how he stands, how he sits, whatever he does! What’s his favorite drink? How does he like his food? How much salt? All those little details I have to put in writing and hand it to the Iraqi intelligence.”
One day Ivan announced that his wife was pregnant, startling news that Hili took as infidelity despite the fact that he was betraying Ivan with every report that he wrote.
Through the year, his assignments grew more convoluted. On several occasions, Hili says, he was instructed to make compromising audiotapes of himself and his lover. One night he was told to lure Ivan and one of Ivan’s coworkers to an apartment where the bedroom was wired with video-recording equipment. Two women were assigned to accompany them, the goal being to produce blackmail tapes in whatever sexual pairings Hili could direct.
But as the evening wore on, Hili says, Ivan’s coworker showed no interest in sex, and Ivan, perhaps worried about his sexuality being revealed, flirted openly with one of the women, even going so far as to pull her into the bathroom momentarily while the video equipment cranked away in the empty bedroom.
Hili’s handlers went berserk. They blamed him for thwarting the plan. “I went to hell after that.” Hili says he was thrown into a detention center called Murkaz Tadeib Wa -Thabat, which translates as Center for Control and Rehabilitation, a division controlled by the notoriously cruel Qusay Hussein.
Hili has given conflicting accounts of how long he stayed there—three weeks or three months—and his descriptions of harsh treatment he experienced while detained are generally vague and sometimes seem improbable. In one account, he reported being hog-tied and hung up for days, and in another he said his eyes were doused in acid, though he shows none of the lasting damage that either torture technique would necessarily leave. In another he said he was raped with objects so large he required hospitalization for the extensive damage to his rectum. Officials at the Iraqi embassy in Washington aren’t able to confirm Hili’s allegations of torture. In fact, I was unable to confirm anything about Hili’s intelligence work. “As the country collapsed, records went all kinds of places,” says Noah Feldman, who, as a constitutional adviser to the occupying authority after the U.S. invasion, interviewed Hussein’s alleged torture victims. But Hili’s story is not unusual, he says. “Many, many people were informants for the Mukhabarat in one capacity or another, without choosing to do so and without being paid.”
Hili’s lawyer, a top asylum solicitor in London named Wesley Gryk, attributes the contradictions to a commonplace tendency among refugees to blur and exaggerate, made worse by an imprecise command of English. “They think, ‘No matter how bad the situation was that I ?ed from, I’d better make it sound worse.’ Whereas my job is to say, when I feel the client is putting too many eggs in the cake, ‘I don’t believe this, and the Home Office won’t believe it. The truth is good enough—you don’t have to bolster it.’ ”
The truth, says Gryk, is that Hili was detained and tortured, that he was hog-tied and put in stress positions for hours at a time, repeatedly, over a number of days, and sprayed with a substance like pepper spray or tear gas that caused him great pain but no lasting damage. Medical tests confirm debilitating anal scarring, whether it happened during the first detention or the second. “He was treated very badly, there is no question about it,” Gryk tells me. “But as far as what happened on day one, what happened on day two? Some people aren’t good at that kind of detail. He is better at recalling emotions.”
Upon being released, Hili saw Ivan only once more, in a chance meeting in the lobby of the al-Rashid Hotel, where Ivan and his wife and baby had been dining with family friends. They spoke briery and formally, Hili recalls. Ivan announced he was being transferred to another country, leaving almost immediately, then whispered in Hili’s ear, in English: “I know you had to do what you had to do.”
“I couldn’t warn you!” Hili remembers replying. “I would lose my life and my parents!”
“I don’t blame you,” Ivan said, before rejoining his party. He shook the young man’s hand. “I was selfish, too. I chose my family, and I let you down. Everyone chose his own ways.”
I tried confirming this exchange with Ivan. A Google search showed he was posted to an embassy in the West, but when I called there, I was told I had missed him by just a few days. “He and his wife left last week,” a receptionist told me. She could not provide a forwarding number. “They are traveling and will eventually return to [their home country],” she said.
Ivan’s departure didn’t free Ali Hili from the obligations of his intelligence handlers. Instead, he says, he was given an ever expanding list of targets to befriend, embassies to visit, sexual idiosyncrasies to exploit. As the months and years went by, he set himself up as a stereophonics expert, advertising his services to the diplomatic community so he could befriend well-connected foreigners for the government. He also hired himself out as a party planner and compiled dossiers on his clients, which included a diplomatic-wives’ association, as well as on visitors to the clubs where he DJ’d and to the TV station where he produced a talk show. He dwelled on detailing their sexual appetites, which his handlers found useful. Hili had become extremely deft at soliciting these details, he says; people showed a ready willingness to confide in the handsome, ingratiating, and soft-spoken young man.
Soon the intelligence service, in an apparent sign of faith in his abilities, established and stocked a record store in one of Baghdad’s most exclusive shopping districts. He says the government gave him a new name and identity when they put him in charge of the shop, but again no salary. Hili put the place on the map immediately. Diplomats traveled from across the Middle East to shop there. He made friends easily and filed nightly surveillance reports with every detail.
Except one. One oven-hot day in June, Hili was swimming with a friend at the posh al-Rashid Hotel when an older European man approached him. Not wanting to give away his nationality, I will call him X. “I became aware of his sexual interest in me when he touched me immediately under the water in the pool,” Hili wrote last year in his asylum petition to the British government’s Home Office. Knowing it was wrong, he invited X back to the shuttered record shop for some after-hours sex in the back room.
I was able to track down X, who is currently living in Africa. Though pleading for anonymity because he is closeted, X confirmed every detail Hili provided of their decade-old tryst, including its irrelevance. “I went to the record store with him, in the back room,” he tells me, “and it was all over very quickly.”
Why didn’t Hili put this in his report? To this day, he’s not sure. “I let down my guard. Sorry to say it, I thought he was just a shag, nothing more. It was a mistake. It was a big mistake.”
Either Hili was under surveillance, or X’s every movement was being observed, or else X himself was filing diaries to the Iraqi authorities. There is no other way to explain what Hili says happened next. Several days after their meeting, Hili was confronted by his handlers. “How about X?” they demanded. “You never said a word about X.”
Again he was sent to the catacombs beneath the Center for Control and Rehabilitation, he says, this time for months. Repeatedly, he was forced to write out the specifics of his brief encounters with X, what was murmured, promised, and confided—the times of day, the people they passed, the things they overheard or should have overheard, detail upon detail of the few short minutes that made up their time together. He describes these interrogations as being almost unendurable. He remembers other aspects of his detention in shallow splashes of data. A broken nose (a scar shows on his bridge), sleep deprivation, prolonged standing in coffinlike rooms, prolonged squatting inside hot metal boxes, a searing pain radiating from his core: “They burned me—from inside my anus. They inserted a hot metal object inside me, and they damaged it,” he tells me softly, as if describing a botched dental procedure.
Gryk, Hili’s lawyer, says his client was just an ordinary gay man and that they used that fact to turn him into a spy. “They put him in a position of compromising other gay and bisexual men. And then they punished him cruelly for not being especially good at it.”
It is almost impossible for Hili to urinate. Opening his urethral muscles, which were also damaged during torture, requires hot compresses and extreme concentration. Extensive scar tissue keeps him from having ordinary bowel function and has left him with erectile dysfunction. Two botched surgeries in Baghdad failed to give him much relief. For that he blames the U.N. sanctions, which had left the country’s infrastructure in tatters and starved its medical establishment.
Though he had little money and was still serving as a reluctant intelligence agent, he hired a succession of smugglers to move him across the border, but they took his money and never returned. Finally, in 1999, he managed to get a tourist visa to Turkey, and with nowhere else to go, he headed there, traveling by car to the northern border.
Along the way, he made a stop at the office of X, whom he had not seen since his detention two years before. (Hili did not tell me about this visit; X brought it up when I called him.) Hili, he said, appealed to him for help getting refugee status. “I remember, when I saw him, I was very surprised, and when he asked for help, I was even more surprised,” X says. He admits he rushed Hili from his office, denying him the assistance he sought. “It was very dangerous for both of us for him to be there,” he says.
When I explained that Hili had been -detained and injured as a consequence of their meetings, X expressed shock, then grief. “Oh, the poor guy,” he said, loudly fumbling to light a cigarette. “Poor people, poor people, poor people.”
Hili was amazed when I recounted this to him. “He admitted we’d had sex?” he asked. “He admitted he turned me down? I can’t believe it.” He sat in silence on the telephone for a time. “I was convinced that day that he was with the Iraqi intelligence. He made me feel like shit. He said, ‘You can’t stay here. You have to leave now.’ I walked out of the office, and I didn’t return.”
He drove immediately to the Turkish border, he remembers. But guards there arrested him on charges of traveling with falsified documents. The forged passport he was using didn’t fool them, and they turned Hili over to the Iraqi army, where he says he would serve a seven-to-ten-year sentence if convicted. He pleaded with army officials to turn him over to intelligence, hoping they’d give him a break.
They did. According to each asylum claim he has filed with Britain, Hili says he negotiated his release by agreeing to carry out an espionage mission in Dubai, the principal port city in the United Arab Emirates. His assignment was to infiltrate an Iraq-based holding company there, Al-Najah Trading, and report back on the personal habits of the president and the business practices of his various deputies. In Dubai, he would become a world-class spy, however unwilling.
AL-NAJAH is a major shipping concern headquartered in Baghdad, with satellite offices in a half-dozen Middle Eastern ports as well as in Pakistan. The company’s subsidiaries o¬ffer a wide range of services, including bodyguards and industrial-construction teams, petroleum goods and equipment, agricultural supplies, crude oil, and research-grade chemical and biological compounds. The Dubai offices comprise a number of floors in a nondescript office tower.
Ali Hili went about his business at Al-Najah, shadowing one of the managers through the streets and reporting his findings once or twice a week at an apartment Iraqi intelligence had secretly rented outside the city. He befriended an Iraqi who worked at the company and regularly found excuses to visit him at work, where he could take note of the activities inside. Once, he managed to pocket his friend’s office key, which he copied. Thereafter he snuck into the building on nights and weekends, coming and going with surprising ease. He rifled fax in-boxes and read company e-mails, photocopying whatever he found, regardless of content. He was never quite sure what to focus on.
Eventually, Hili says, his superiors would direct him to look around for specific documents or correspondences carrying certain signatures or insignia. “I started to see lots of money moving between Dubai and India, Dubai and China, and other transfers through Hong Kong, Singapore, the U.S., and Canada,” he says. “That’s what they started becoming more interested in. They tried to get someone in the bank who could give them all the bank-transfer details. They would have paid any amount of money to hack into those bank details.”
As before, they were paying Hili nothing for his work. So he once again sought legitimate employment to pay his bills, arranging a clerk position at a place called the Music Box. He also began to establish a personal life, setting up in a simple apartment and making friends. But he never forgot for a moment that he was an undercover Iraqi agent. He says, “They approached me wherever I was—on the bus, at dinner—always to let me know they were watching me.”
Then, on the evening of September 21, 2000, he locked eyes with a tall blond businessman from Texas named Spencer Lockhart. The setting was Jules, a popular club at the Meridien hotel known as one of the few places in the Emirates where gay men can meet one another. Lockhart, who at 39 was eleven years older than Hili, had been directed there by a discreet concierge at the hotel where he was staying. As vice president for a Houston-based company recruiting foreign-born nurses for U.S. hospitals, he had traveled all over the developing world, becoming something of a connoisseur of gay cultural outcroppings like Jules.
“It was very nice, the place,” Lockhart tells me in an interview in Houston. “They had a typical Filipino ?oor show. The lead singer was a Filipino male who was extremely e¬ffeminate, quite amusing to the audience.” He remembers the crowd included men and women from all over the world, plus an assortment of female Eastern European prostitutes. But a sizable minority were gay men. “At first it was low-key, and as the night advanced, it became more apparent,” he says. “Slight eye glances, occasional smiles, maybe a wink or somebody o¬ffering to buy you a cocktail, that sort of thing.”
He first spotted Hili sitting alone at a long table and immediately took note of his striking looks and sullenness. Lockhart, an imposingly large man, is quite shy, particularly in such situations. “I was thinner then and a lot blonder,” he recalls, “but I never did well with Anglos particularly.” He waited for Hili to say hello, then fell into an unexpectedly intense exchange about everything from music to gay life to personal goals. They retired to Lockhart’s room, where they spent the night. Lockhart said he had no expectation of starting a relationship, but over the next two months, as he traveled through Asia and the Middle East, they talked every day by telephone. By early 2001, realizing he had an opportunity to make Dubai the base for his world travels, Lockhart proposed they take an apartment together.
That’s when Hili confided about his history with the intelligence service and his current duties as Saddam Hussein’s spy in Dubai. “I just kind of looked at him and thought to myself, ‘My God, how could you of all people, who seemed so nice and easy, get into this sort of thing?’ I always knew he was running from something, but I never knew what it was. I thought, ‘Maybe he’s not right in the head.’ ” But in time, the story made sense to him; it surely explained the melancholy that surrounded Hili, his quickness to anger, and the myriad physical problems he tried to disguise.
As Hili recalls it, Lockhart had an odd response to the revelation. “He said, ‘You have to leave this,’ ” Hili says, eyes widening at the surprising simplicity of the idea. “He told me to walk away.”
Lockhart recalls it similarly. “I felt this was unlike any other thing that I had been challenged with in my life,” he wrote in an affidavit to the British authorities. “I advised Hili that if we were going to move forward as a couple, that he had to find a way to get out of the al-Mukhabarat. I explained to him that I would do anything I could do to help.”
With Lockhart by his side, Hili decided to end his unpaid career in espionage. He stopped visiting the Al-Najah plant to pillage desks or the Iraqi embassy to give his lengthy reports. He left his job at the Music Box, vacated his old apartment, changed his mobile phone, and abandoned his usual routines. For most of 2001, even after the September 11 terror attacks on America and Washington’s growing conviction that Saddam Hussein had something to do with them, life seemed uneventful.
IN EARLY FEBRUARY 2002, Lockhart traveled to Amman, Jordan, on an extended recruiting mission with a colleague, retired lieutenant colonel James R. Broyles, the company’s president for education and nursing. It was not uncommon for them to spend three months in a country, since prospective candidates needed extensive training and testing before they were hired, followed by rigorous bureaucratic e¬fforts on their behalf to attain green cards for them and travel documents for their families.
But a few weeks into the trip, Lockhart fell ill with kidney stones and spent a week in a local hospital. When he returned to his hotel room, he found it had been ransacked and that his in-room safe was emptied. He lost calling cards, travel documents, and an expensive ring. The intruders had even searched his laptop computer. Lockhart was startled to see that it had been turned on. When he complained to management, the response struck him as suspicious, Lockhart says. “They just said, ‘That couldn’t have happened.’ It was really weird.”
Lockhart and Broyles changed hotels, but weird things continued happening. An anonymous e-mail appeared in Lockhart’s in-box giving details of his appointments, where he’d taken meals, what he’d eaten. “Apparently, somebody was following me, keeping track of me, and sort of waiting for the opportunity to do something,” he says. “You don’t know how terrifying it is to realize you’re being studied.”
The same information was e-mailed to Hili back in Dubai. But Hili already knew that their period of calm had come to an end. As he was leaving a record store one afternoon, Iraqi intelligence agents accosted him angrily. Thereafter, his e-mail in-box filled first with letters demanding he return to Baghdad, which he ignored, then notes incorporating transcripts of his phone conversations with Lockhart. Hili and Lockhart replaced the SIM cards in their cell phones, changed numbers, even canceled old e-mail addresses, but the transcripts kept coming no matter what they did. Then, clandestine photographs arrived, making it clear that Lockhart and his colleague were being followed. The two immediately packed and fled the country, abandoning a class of sixty nurses, most of whom had already been hired by a large U.S. hospital chain, costing the company a small fortune.
“The only time I was really scared, the only time I felt 100 percent vulnerable in my life, was [that day] in the airport,” Broyles, a veteran of the first Gulf War, tells me over the phone from Manila, where I found him entertaining clients at a dinner party. “I was terrified. I felt this was really escalating out of control, and if I didn’t get out of this crazy place, maybe something horrible would happen.”
Things only got worse. A typical message came on June 16, 2002, from the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org, with a grisly photograph of a beheading : “THIS COLD HABBENS FOR YOU AND YOUR IRAQI MATHER FACKER SOON, AND ALL HIS FAMILY, IF HE NO LISTEN FOR US AND SURENDER TO HIS GOVERMENT.” On June 19, with another attached photo, came this: “MATHER FACKER, YOU THINKING BECASE YOU SWICH EMAIL ADRESS WE WILL NOT FEGER IT OUT?” Then, on the twenty-fifth: “TIME NOW IS ALL IN OUR HANDS.”
“We were terrified,” Lockhart says. “We decided we needed to get some help.”
Back in the States, Lockhart’s brother Jerry called to ask his senator to intervene. He says his call was referred to the new Homeland Security office, then to the FBI, then to the CIA. Ultimately, an agent flew to Dubai.
In anticipation of the meeting, Hili says he planned one last visit to the Al-Najah offices. He hoped he might find something there that would impress the Americans, who were engaged in a public search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
One weeknight after 7 p.m., Hili says, he sat in his car in the garage below Al-Najah’s offices and called upstairs to see if the porter had gone for the night. Nobody answered. He repeated this precaution five times before taking the elevator to the tenth floor. He let himself in with the key he’d used before, then moved quickly to the fax room. There he found two faxes from a Chinese company called QILU, a company the Iraqis had seemed very curious about in the past. He folded copies of both documents into his pocket. Before leaving, he also took copies of appointment calendars, e-mail addresses, and bank logs.
He says he brought these things with him to the CIA meeting at the U.S. embassy. The meeting did not begin particularly well. “They thought he was a little crazy,” Lockhart remembers, “just like I did at first.” But when he presented his purloined documents, their interest was piqued. The two faxes turned out to add little to the debate, though, and the meeting apparently never improved; they were not off¬ered protection from their harassers, which was their main request.
Hili says a CIA agent, whose name he does not recall, proposed using Hili in the larger propaganda campaign for the pending war. “They told me to lie. They said, ‘We’re going to hand you over maps, photos, data—information you say you brought to us, and we are going to help you tell about this to the world,’ ” he says. He told them no. “I said, ‘I can’t lie about my country. I can’t stand against it with a lie. I won’t be part of causing other people’s death.’ They said, ‘Stop and think about it. Take your time. It’s your chance to get a great life, a wonderful life. You’ll be safe for the rest of your life.’ ”
Had Lockhart and Hili been a heterosexual couple, they might have ended their dilemma by getting married, which would have given them protection in the United States. Or had Lockhart been British or from any European Union country—from one of the nineteen nations that consider same-sex relationships when granting immigrant status—their relationship might have allowed them to find security.
Through a friend Lockhart met at church in Dubai, the two tried appealing to British authorities. But before it could happen, another e-mail arrived, warning Lockhart against cooperating with the English. The anonymous writer promised him $10,000 to deliver Hili to Jordan and turn him over there. “They were trying to be nice, saying my safety would be guaranteed and he would receive a fair trial. I was dumbfounded by that whole thing. We decided to make a run for it.”
Surreptitiously , they began to plan a dash for London. Lockhart, who had by now told his whole dire story to his employer, would be able to work out of his company's offices there. If Hili could make it into the country, he might have a chance with an asylum claim. “Even if they held him in some English facility while he sought asylum, I knew at least he would be safe,” Lockhart says.
But British authorities denied Hili a tourist visa; so did most other embassies, fearful that Iraqi nationals were unlikely to return home with war drums sounding. Only Turkey was still welcoming Iraqi tourists. Hili secured a short-term visa, but Turkey would be a dead end, a place where gays are no less reviled and where the intelligence agents were likely to find them. In frustration, the two began driving to outlying consulates, presenting themselves as a quiet gay couple in need of a holiday. Luckily, in Abu Dhabi they sat across from a Belgian civil servant who, if he wasn't a romantic, was at least a tad greedy. “I told him we had been together for a couple years and were looking forward to a vacation,” Lockhart recalls. “I think I handed him 4,000 or 5,000 dirhams. It was a big risk. He just looked at us. Then he said, ‘Come back in four hours.' ”
Each received what is called a Benelux stamp in his passport, allowing travel to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. From there, they hoped, they might figure out another way into England. But landing in Europe first added new challenges. Under European Union law, an asylum seeker must make his declaration in the first country he enters. To stay together, Hili had to reach English soil without being stopped.
Locally, they told friends they were planning a vacation to Amsterdam. Hili had the names and numbers of human smugglers he believed would help get him from there to Britain. They boarded a plane to Turkey on September 27, 2002, with all their paperwork in order, leaving behind everything they owned. The Turkey layover was meant to be a precaution; they felt a brief visit was necessary for explaining why Hili had a Turkish visa in his passport. But going there had the opposite effect. Turkish authorities, alarmed by something in Hili's travel papers, detained him, refused him entry, and packed him onto a return flight to Dubai. In Dubai, the two turned around to try again. They had little choice—their tickets to Amsterdam originated in Istanbul.
This time, though, they decided to await their connecting flight right in the airport, avoiding passport control. They begged a ramp agent with Emirates Airlines to let them into the locked VIP lounge overnight. Perhaps he saw the desperation in the eyes of the mismatched gay couple. He let them in and hid them behind a partition, where they spent the night, unable to sleep.
Boarding the plane for Europe the following morning was the most anxiety-provoking moment in Hili's life, he says. “When you have had this much adrenaline in your blood, you get used to it. I knew how to manage it, but that day I had a pounding heartbeat. Not butterflies—I had dinosaurs inside me. I knew it was my way to freedom.”
Hours later, when they latched their hotel-room door in Amsterdam, finally alone in the relative freedom of the West, the weight of their ordeal got the better of them. They collapsed into each other's arms and wept. “It was a pretty incredible moment in our life, making that little passage,” Lockhart says. “It doesn't sound like much, but it was a lot.”
Hili looked up the smugglers he'd been told about. One man, a family friend from Hili's old neighborhood in Baghdad, introduced him to a pair who sold him a Dutch passport with a picture of a man with dark features like Hili's. The cost was about $8,000, plus more for an escort through customs. But at the airport, Hili was detained for passing false documents; Lockhart and the escort were somehow shuffled onto the plane and forced to make the trip to London without Hili. Before taking o, Lockhart called Hili's cell phone over and over, but the police had already confiscated his personal belongings.
“I didn't know what was happening,” says Lockhart. “I sat down on the plane and broke down in tears. When I landed in London, I talked to the [escort] guy, and he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Well, he didn't get through.' And he walked o and disappeared. We never saw him again.”
The police didn't keep Hili. Lockhart visited when work permitted, but for the most part, Hili was now on his own in Amsterdam, awaiting resolution of his case. He spent the time trying to figure another route to London. One smuggler he met agreed to help provide authentic travel papers, but the minute Lockhart paid his fee, 2,000 euros, he demanded 1,500 more.
By now Lockhart's bank accounts had run dry. Making matters worse, in November his mother took ill in Houston. He ran his credit cards to their limits in order to visit her in the hospital. To make ends meet, Hili says he started scouring flea markets for rare records and CDs, reselling them to local shops for small profits. Soon, though, he was forced to give up his hotel room and sleep under a bridge for a number of snowy winter nights. He contemplated suicide.
Out of loneliness, Hili answered a personal ad posted by a gay couple looking for companionship. A 41-year-old dermatologist named Jean Philippe de Bliek and his partner, Edwin Dadema, 48, didn't demand sex. Instead, they offered him a drink and a shower. Hili described his efforts to buy passage to London. “We liked him immediately,” Dadema told me when I tracked him down in Amsterdam recently. “That can happen in one second if someone is simpatico and it clicks.” Eventually, they invited Hili to stay in an apartment they owned, along with a number of other gay men they'd met in similar circumstances.
Then, before dropping him o for the night, they stopped at their bank and withdrew 1,500 euros for him, a huge sum of money to be giving to a stranger. But Dadema tells me they'd done it before and since; they are collectors of people, especially young gay men who are passing through in their journey to freedom, of which there are no shortage in Amsterdam , which has become a major stopover on the gay underground railroad. Martin Manalansan IV, author of Global Divas, a book about the gay Diaspora, says an astonishing and underreported wave of gay migration is under way. “There are massive groups of avowed, quite visible, self-identified gays and lesbians moving around the globe today, searching for freedom,” he says.
“We're not overloaded with money, but to share is nice,” Dadema tells me. “We always say, Some people cross your road, and that's not for nothing; if you can help, you help.”
Hili was flabbergasted. “People like this, they deserve a Nobel Prize—though that is not why they do it,” he says. “I know I would not have survived without them.”
Immediately, he made contact with the smuggler and passed along the money, but Hili's luck was not holding out. The smuggler took the money and ran.
By December 2002 , Hili and Lockhart's financial situation had grown perilous; now Lockhart was borrowing money from his employer and relatives, pouring whatever he had into keeping Hili from starving in Amsterdam while keeping an apartment in London and frequently flying home to be with his mother. Rather than trying to buy more false documents, they decided to try boarding the Eurostar train to London without any papers whatsoever. Someone had told them that customs agents don't pass through the cars until the train has entered British territory.
Late in November, they took the train from Amsterdam to Brussels without incident, then bought tickets there for London . But a customs agent demanded their IDs before allowing them on the train, something they hadn't anticipated. Hili was refused passage, and for a period of time the agent detained him for questioning.
Whether out of pure greed or greed limned with compassion, Hili says, the agent didn't arrest him. Instead, he offered to look the other way if Hili could meet his price, another 1,500 euros. Hili agreed, and while Lockhart went on to London, Hili returned to Amsterdam to raise the money and await the agent's phone call announcing what day this could happen. Once again, his Dutch saviors helped him. “This was the last trip on his journey to freedom,” Edwin Dadema remembers thinking, “and that was worth a lot of money, of course.”
They all harbored doubts that the agent would ever call Hili again, but he surprised them. “Remember me?” he said in heavily accented English. “From Belgium ?”
He instructed Hili to meet him in Brussels. There he handed Hili a British driver's license. “There are two colleagues always at the booth,” he said, according to Hili. “Hand me this. I'll look at it. Smile. Don't be nervous, don't be grim. Normal smile. Show it to me. I'll look at it and give it back to you. Then you go to the waiting area. When you get in, you watch me. When I go to the bathroom, hand me an envelope. Hand me the money in an envelope and the driver's license.”
Hili arrived at the train station in the early afternoon, as instructed, with no identification except for the driver's license. He sat on a bench with his eyes on the agent's darkened window, cranking up the music on his Discman: from Dalida's Boxed Collection Number Five, his favorite. At three thirty, he saw the light ?icker on and was relieved to see his contact's silhouette. Hili fell into line at the window, not anxiously first nor stubbornly last. His training as a spy steeled his nerves.
“When it came to me to give him the card, I smiled normally,” Hili says. “I gave him the card, he looked at it, handed it back to me, and said thank you.” It was that easy. Hili advanced to the waiting area as instructed, and in ten minutes or so the clerk—Hili never learned his name—spun away from the window, excused himself to his colleagues, and left the booth. Hili's eyes followed the back of his head, down the hallway and left into the men's room, with the same disinterest he'd practiced as a Baghdad intelligence agent, then removed his headphones, zippered them into his travel bag, and headed to the restroom himself.
Inside, the agent was drying his hands. Hili turned on the water and began to wash. The place seemed otherwise empty, he remembers. After drying his own hands, Hili handed over the envelope and the driver's license. The agent smiled.
And then he did something that startled the breath out of Hili: He grabbed him by the shoulders, yanked him forward, and kissed him hard on the lips.
“I hope I see you in London,” he said.
It wasn't until the train began boarding that Hili felt his journey was reaching an end. So he was surprised when a terror overcame him. When he heard the all-aboard call, his legs went numb. Pushing himself to his feet, he headed for the platform as though wading through wet concrete. “I thought, ‘I just need to go behind these doors—I can see the train!' I was moving very slowly. It takes—I'm telling you—an iron man to act this way: to be cool, calm, unobvious. I tried to pressure myself not to show any kind of abnormal behavior. Police were everywhere, looking at everyone. I heard a rumor that UK immigration people were on that train. I said, I have to try this time anyway.”
He took a seat and placed his bag at his side. The ride was swift, under three hours, and he spent the time removing anything in his possession that might suggest where he'd been recently: Even the SIM card in his cell phone might lead British authorities to discover that he'd spent time in Holland.
It was early evening when the train slowed at the Waterloo station. Hili let the crowds thin before approaching a small cluster of officers on the platform. He was shaking. “Okay,” he began, “I'm here to apply for asylum.”
“Fucking hell,” one of the officers said.
Hili says he was taken to a police station, fingerprinted and photographed, then returned to the train station to be sent back to Belgium. “This is not unusual,” says Steven Watt, a Scottish human-rights attorney now working for the ACLU. “Arab-looking men are being denied entry by countries all over the world because some low-level officers think they might be potential terrorists.” An officer put him on a seat inside the last door on the train, then stood guard at the door awaiting departure. He remembers the other passengers staring; they seemed afraid of him, he thought. He remembers glancing out the open door at the platform he'd longed to touch.
“I thought, ‘That is England. I came and I lost it.' ”
He pulled a belt from his bag and ran out the door, knocking the police officer aside. He jumped onto the platform and knotted the belt around his neck. “I'm killing myself,” he screamed hysterically, over and over. “I won't go back to Iraq.”
Somehow, making a scene made all the difference. He was presented with a formal petition and was released in the morning, temporarily free in Waterloo till a hearing could be arranged. His first call was to his Dutch benefactors—Lockhart was in Houston—and they were so excited for their new friend that they jumped on an airplane and took Hili to his first big dinner in England that night.
Hili's first asylum application contained several inconsistencies. He said he'd traveled from France, not Belgium, and used as his name the one his Mukhabarat handlers had assigned him, changing his parents' names to match his. He infused his torture narration with obvious hyperbole, claiming every imaginable assault on his eyes, anus, penis, and testicles. It might have been enough to say he'd been manipulated because of his sexuality and left physically handicapped. But he wasn't confident. “I didn't want to be rejected,” he admits. “Spencer and I went over this many times, what I should put in. We thought this was the best way to get asylum.”
It backfired. A year and a half ago, the British Home Office denied his claim, calling it “vague,” “contradictory,” and illogical, and concluding that it failed the smell test: His alleged time in detention was unusually short by Iraqi standards, and his torture descriptions matched Hollywood action movies more than accepted descriptions from inside Hussein's feared prisons. The rejection even went on to cast doubt on Hili's relationship with Lockhart, citing inconsistencies regarding the dates of their first meeting and where they lived.
Besides, it said, the world Hili described ceased to exist the minute U.S. and British troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in April 2003. The totalitarian regime, the Home Office wrote, “has completely collapsed, its security apparatus dissolved, and senior officials banned from office. It is no longer a threat either to the Iraqi people or the wider world.”
Hili's lawyer, Wesley Gryk, wasn't surprised at all. Gryk joined the case after Hili had made his claim without representation. He filed an appeal, and through oftentimes angry exchanges, he admits, he forced Hili to pare down his story to its bare facts—some of which contradict what he and his partner said in their earlier filing and conflict with what they've said to me. I suppose it could be that Hili, who was forced for a decade to chronicle every mundane detail of his life in daily intelligence briefings, has developed an aversion to tidy fact sets. People who survive great privations tend to attribute lasting personality traits to their experiences. Slavery's wounds have lasted generations. Surely being made to spy on your own lover could twist a man's mind.
Or maybe he chose forgetting over forgiving and as a mechanism for survival has willfully lost track of the details. Of course, he could simply be lying. Even his attorney seems unsure of the veracity of Hili's long story. But he says it shouldn't matter. International law should simply concern itself with the love between Hili and Lockhart, the way it automatically provides deference to heterosexual unions. “They're an amazingly devoted couple,” he says. “From day one, it was obviously a case that had to be won, because it was 110 percent clear there was no way they could live together as a couple in Iraq, where no gay relationship would be tolerated. And lastly, Spencer is American and Jewish. They had a right to be able to live their life together. For me that was the core of the case, whether or not he was held upside down for two days or had acid thrown in his eyes.”
His instinct was correct. In a lengthy determination dated August 19, 2005, an appellate immigration judge again rejected the veracity of Hili's long story of woe but concluded that separating Lockhart and Hili would entail a “hardship beyond description.” On humanitarian grounds, the court granted Hili a three-year leave to remain in the UK, renewable for another three years.
At least for now, his journey out of Baghdad seemed to have a happy ending, and Hili celebrated with calls to his old friends back home. One of them delivered the tragic news about Haider “Dina” Faiek's execution, on a busy Baghdad street as she headed to a party. “Do you know what happened to Dina? They burned her alive,” the friend said. Hili was stunned. The two had been friends for fifteen years. Faiek, who worked in the prostitution industry as a transsexual madam, was a fixture in Baghdad gay circles, always loud and fun and quick with a laugh. She never hid her orientation and indeed lived openly as a woman.
Apparently, though, she first came to the attention of religious opponents in early 2004. She was sufficiently scared for her life that she sought out the U.S. command there and asked for travel papers so she could ?ee the country. I spoke to Ibaa Alawi, the Iraqi translator for something called the Civil Military Assistance Center, established by American forces to help ordinary Iraqis navigate the transition away from tyranny. He says Faiek came into the office and begged for protection.
“The major I worked for told me that he cannot do anything for Haider,” Alawi says.
That was Major Jack Nales, an army reservist who has since returned to his civilian job as executive director of the American Red Cross in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Reached by phone there, he says he recalls the case and confirms Faiek was sent away without the protection she requested. “At that time, there were not a lot of systems in place to provide assistance,” he admits.
According to reports, Faiek left her house to attend a party one night in the fall of 2005. The attackers wore police uniforms identifying them as members of the Interior Ministry, but on their heads were black knit ski masks. They beat Faiek for some time before setting her on fire. After she was dead, her attackers ripped at her body, then moved her to the side of the road, making her look like just another bomb victim.
The awful news had barely set in when Hili heard about an attack in the southern provinces. A former employee of Hili's was visiting a friend when a hand grenade exploded on the friend's lawn, sending shrapnel through the windows and embedding it in their faces. When he learned of the attack, Hili called him immediately, he says. “I asked him if he was all right, and he said there was a second assault, and a third.”
The employee, a 31-year-old called Ahmed, told Hili that the assailants had not given up. They returned to hunt down Ahmed's friend a few days later, shooting him dead in his home, execution-style. Then they came looking for Ahmed. They found him one day later as he was entering the local gym with his boyfriend. They opened fire. Ahmed reached the bathroom and hid there; his boyfriend was killed.
“He was terrified,” Hili remembers. “He knew he needed to get out of there.” There were fewer and fewer places left for him to hide in Iraq. (The sixteen safe houses that Hili's group had maintained had eventually been reduced to three.) Hili gave Ahmed's story to journalist Doug Ireland, an American blogger; then he and Lockhart sent Ahmed $400 to help him flee the country. He made it to Amman safely.
But more reports kept coming in: Two teenagers were killed, reportedly for working as gay prostitutes; an actor was holed up with five others in an impromptu shelter; another transgendered woman was assassinated; a lesbian couple from Najaf were slain. Then came news that Ibaa Alawi, the Iraqi translator for American forces, had become a target himself. He received ominous letters at his new position, as a program director at the British embassy in Baghdad: They cited passages from the Koran and promised death to homosexuals. As he was driving home a few days later, a car pulled up behind him, and someone inside it opened fire. Thereafter, he only left the house he shared with his parents and younger sister to do essential errands.
Once, assailants surrounded the house and lobbed a hand grenade onto the lawn. Luckily, no one was home. “The neighbors told us there were armed men wearing police uniforms, covering their heads with these black covers,” Alawi tells me by phone. He left the yard immediately and never returned; after a brief stopover in the United Arab Emirates, he flew on to London, using his British connections to gain a visa. Upon arrival, he filed for asylum. “I lost everything,” he says. “I left a perfect job, a luxurious life, a good home, and my whole family. I had no choice.”
As with Ali Hili, Alawi's claim to the Home Office was declined, he says. “They said, in terms of returning to Iraq, ‘If you return there, you would face discrimination, not persecution.' That's silly. The death which we see every day is persecution.” He remembers what Prime Minister Tony Blair said to him one day when he toured England's Baghdad Embassy: “We are indebted to your services, and we realize when you come here every day you're at risk.”
“The point is,” Alawi goes on, “now Iraq turned from a liberal state to a typical extremist Muslim state. Now you would see that if you walk in the streets of Baghdad, it's absolutely scary. And there's no place for gays there now.”
Last November , Alawi won his appeal, Hili told me in a bubbly e-mail. For a brief moment, he had something to celebrate. But it did not last. Within days, as Hili spoke over an Internet telephone to a clandestine gathering of his Baghdad colleagues, he heard a commotion, then lost the connection. The meeting, it turns out, had been raided, and the men—ages 19 to 29—were detained. They have not been heard from since.
“I'm afraid,” Hili tells me in a voice worn thin with exhaustion and fear. “I have a feeling they're killed. I hope I'm wrong, but that's what happens in most of the cases. That's what they do in Iraq."