05/23/2007 06:17 PM

The Dangers of Being an Electrician

Escaping a Baghdad Death Sentence

By in Alvesta, Sweden

Mahir's bad luck was doing something to help improve Iraq. The electrical engineer became a target for helping repair power substations. He left for Sweden after seeing his colleague gunned down on the streets of Baghdad.

Seeing him self-consciously fidgeting on the edge of a bed in a cramped, two-room apartment located in the tiny town of Alvesta in south-central Sweden, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to murder Mahir. But back home in Baghdad, there are plenty of people who would like to see the 26-year-old electrical engineer dead.

He had been working to get the power grid up and running, doing his best to eliminate the frequent blackouts that make the lives of Iraqis -- in addition to the sectarian violence, the frequent suicide and car bombs, the kidnappings and assassinations, and the discomforts of living in an occupied country -- that much more difficult. His bad luck was that the substation he was assigned to was located inside a military zone.

One day early last year, he was seen leaving the job site on his way home. That is what Mahir believes, anyway. Soon afterwards, he and his colleagues received a threat, coupled with a demand that they quit their jobs. Whoever issued the threat clearly thought Mahir was working for the Americans.

Mahir, though, wasn't even working for them. Nevertheless, he took the death threat seriously and laid low for a while. Eventually, though, he got a similar job working on a power station in the southern part of Iraq. "I stayed one or two months," he recalls. "If I had free time, I would go home to visit my family, but the neighbors all thought I worked for the Americans. When I was at home, I got another death threat." The message, he says -- which someone slipped under his door -- said if he didn't quit he would be killed.

"They target everyone with an education," says Mahir. "Doctors, students, engineers, and basically anyone with an education is at risk."

The list, of course, doesn't stop there. Throughout 2006, the inferno of sectarian violence in Iraq continued to develop a brutal and bloody momentum. After the bombing of the Al Askari Mosque in February 2006, Shiites, who until then had largely avoided being drawn into sectarian warfare, could no longer resist their thirst for revenge. Murders and bombings of Sunnis became commonplace as the followers of Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr became radicalized. And in Baghdad, a violence-driven population shift began with Shiites leaving Sunni neighborhoods and Sunnis vacating those that were Shiite dominated. Those who stayed behind risked being killed or kidnapped.

Mahir, for his part, knew the threats he had received were serious. Two of his colleagues who had continued working had already been murdered. Then a third colleague, a good friend of Mahir's, called to tell him he was leaving the country. He wanted to say goodbye.

The two met up in Baghdad on a sunny day in November. When it was time to part, Mahir walked his friend out to a main street to send him off in a taxi. Instead, a car bristling with three gunmen pulled up. Mahir was lucky. "I ran into an entryway or around a corner. I don't remember anymore I was so scared."

His friend, though, was shot in the hip and again in the leg before collapsing onto the pavement. "He couldn't get away. I heard them shoot him again and again," Mahir recalls.

Just in case Mahir hadn't gotten the message, his hunters called him soon after the attack to say they would kill him too. Mahir stayed at home for two days before moving in with a friend in another part of Baghdad where he stayed for three weeks.

"I stayed in the house the whole time. I didn't leave once and didn’t see the sun the whole time," Mahir recalls.

When he finally did emerge from hiding, it was only briefly. Mahir was one of the lucky ones who managed to get a visa to come to Europe. He went straight from his friend's house to the airport and jumped on a plane to Sweden. Word had gotten round to him that the Swedes were accepting Iraqi refugees.


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