Iraqis are beginning to see the hidden side of the regime of ousted leader Saddam Hussein. Videos showing the gruesome execution of Iraqi political prisoners, as well as glimpses into Hussein's personal life, are more popular in Baghdad than any Western "Rambo"-style productions. The video fever in Baghdad illustrates the efforts by ordinary Iraqis to reconstruct what happened in their country during the last 30 years. RFE/RL reports from the Iraqi capital.
Baghdad, 12 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A man in his early 20s steps into a video store in Mansur, a middle-class district of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and declares: "I want a video on torture."
Muhammed, a shopkeeper at the Black and White Video shop, takes a video CD from the shelf and sells it to him for $1.50.
Muhammed tells another customer that he's currently out of stock but asks him to leave a deposit. He says seven popular films will be available in a few hours: "Dictator 1," "Dictator 2," "The Crimes of Ali Hassan Al Majid," "The Crimes of Khalupsa," "The Executions of Political Prisoners," "Birthday Party," and "The Battle for Baghdad's Airport."
The video CDs are of poor quality and are wrapped in plastic bags. They contain excerpts from documentaries widely seen in the West and feature scenes of the aftermath of the 1988 chemical weapons attack on Kurdish civilians in Halabja, executions of political prisoners by Hussein's forces, and footage of the interiors of Hussein's palaces. The images are interspersed with reports on the recent Iraq war from the Arabic Al-Jazeera and the U.S. Fox News satellite TV channels.
The videos are dull from a Western point of view. Scenes from a birthday party for Hussein's daughter Hala, for example, simply show the family of the Iraqi leader celebrating. What makes the videos so popular in Baghdad is that such glimpses into Hussein's personal life have never been seen before, and information about the war and the actions of the regime came only from state-controlled television.
Heidar, a customer in the Black and White Video shop, says everything about Hussein's rule is unknown to him. He says that by buying the videos, he is trying to fill in his knowledge of what really happened in his country bit by bit.
"Yes, it's nice that we are discovering the facts we didn't know about. And now we can see it. In fact, we feel that we have been deceived [by Hussein]. He was presented as a great leader of the people. That's what the slogans on the Ba'ath Party offices were saying," Heidar says.
Heidar says he no longer supports Hussein after seeing images of the aftermath of the 1988 chemical attacks on the Kurds, in which some 5,000 are believed to have been killed, and the execution of political prisoners by detonating explosives packed around their bodies. However, he says he still fears Hussein.
Heidar says it was a new experience seeing the video featuring Hussein's daughter's birthday party. He says he had never seen the former dictator in a family atmosphere, stroking his kids, and joking with family members.
"We saw him only during the parades or during his official speeches," Heidar says. "Seeing him in a family atmosphere is completely a new thing for us."
Heidar says that after watching this video, he got the impression that Hussein's family was also afraid of him. "Look how relaxed they became when Saddam left the room," he says.
Seeing Hussein celebrating in his lavish palaces, he says, while ordinary Iraqis were working for meager wages makes him angry.
"You watch how they were having fun and people were working from early morning till late at night for 1,500 dinars [about $1] per day. This sum is nothing," Heidar says.
Ali, the owner of a video shop in the Al-Hadir district of Baghdad, tells RFE/RL that people are buying the video CDs because they are silly and because most Iraqis are ignorant about their recent history. He says he himself finds nothing entertaining in these low-quality products but that they make a good business for him.
But Ali says it is not the video of Hussein's daughter's birthday party that gets the most requests. "Torture -- torture is mostly in demand, not 'The Birthday Party.' "
Fadul, a customer, says he is buying the execution videos because he wants to be informed about his country's recent past and he wants to see the real Hussein.
"He wanted to show us that he was the father of freedom and democracy, a just person, not a dictator, but a great leader. In the end, you find the reality you could not imagine even in your wildest dreams," Fadul says.
Ali, the shopkeeper, says it's been three days since he sold a birthday party video. "All they want," he says, "is torture."