At times, the men’s frustration boiled over on the people who helped save them. One day during my visit, I was asked to leave before a meeting between the gay Iraqis and the aid workers helping them got started. I was told later that it had been extremely tense, especially when the aid workers told the men that their monthly stipends would be reduced and that they had to try harder to find work. Later in my visit, Long arrived. To some extent, these men owe him their lives. But I watched as he had to deal with their anger and their fears. There was a tone of resentment in their complaints, as if they had been given false promises of a trouble-free life.
“I’ve made a decision to go back to Iraq,” one young Iraqi told Long, as I sat listening. The man was angry. He’d been stopped twice by the local police, he said. He was sleeping on the floor of his shared apartment. He said he’d been promised that he would meet with the Swedish Embassy as soon as he arrived. “I think I’ve been lied to.”
“It’s going to be hard,” Long told the man, but reassured him that he was “very close” to finding a third country to call home. The man backed off his threat to return to Iraq. Perhaps he believed Long, perhaps he thought the move would be suicidal.
All of the men who had escaped Iraq were still very fragile. The evening after I arrived, I met a slim man in his late twenties named Mukhaled. A driver for a Baghdad delivery company, Mukhaled had been in only one relationship in his life, with a man named Ali whom he met in high school. Ali was a year younger than Mukhaled. They lived in the same neighborhood and, as far as anyone knew, were just friends.
One day in April, armed men burst into Ali’s house and shot him dead. There were incriminating photographs of Mukhaled and Ali in Ali’s bedroom, and other personal information that could lead the death squads to Mukhaled. For the next two and a half months, Mukhaled slept at the homes of different friends, and sometimes in a park. He lost twenty pounds. His black hair became streaked with gray. He worried that people were following him and planning to kill him. And then one day a woman named Rasha called him. She said she had been given his name and number by a gay friend of his. She said she was from New York, but was phoning him from a safe city inside Iraq, and asked if he needed any help. Mukhaled left Baghdad for the safe city inside Iraq on July 3, and moved to the second refuge city shortly after that.
One afternoon, as Mukhaled and I drove around his new city, he took out his cell phone and played me his favorite song: “Un-Break My Heart.” He sang along, in halting English, and I asked him if he knew what the words meant. He said that yes, someone he knew who spoke English had once translated them for him. The song was about a woman mourning the death of her lover. He looked out the car window and resumed his mumbled singing.
Fadi and the others still follow events in Iraq closely. Some of the men who have tortured gay men in Iraq have filmed their acts, and video clips have passed from phone to phone. Fadi had one on his phone, and one morning he and Sami showed it to me.
In the clip, a round-faced boy who looks about 13 or 14 years old is standing in front of a wardrobe in what appears to be a private home. He is in a brown-and-white striped dishdasha, the cotton robe Arab men often wear. He looks terrified.
“Take off your dishdasha,” a voice says from behind the camera, in a commanding tone.
Reluctantly, the boy obeys. He is wearing a bra and what seems to be a pair of large red-and-white women’s underwear.
“What are you?” the voice says. “Are you male or female? Are you a girl or a boy? Why are you wearing female clothes?”
The boy holds the dishdasha in front of his body. “Please don’t do anything to me,” he says.
Someone off-camera thrusts what appears to be a stick or a stiff cable toward the boy. He takes a step back into the corner and gingerly moves the dishdasha away from his body. Standing there naked, he pleads for mercy.
Fadi and Sami told me that the boy had been killed after the tape was made.