AWJA, Iraq—From the very start of the war, this was a village of the damned, and everybody who lived in Saddam Hussein's birthplace knew it.
It was just after dawn on Monday when the U.S. Marines of Task Force Tripoli rolled into Awja, located just outside the northern city of Tikrit. When the Americans arrived, not one of the 1,500 villagers was left. Saddam's closest relatives and tribal kinsmen, his most trusted bodyguards and scores of senior military officers all had fled.
"They left a few days before the war started," said Hussein Ali, 30, a Tikriti man who said he had been named after the dictator and was sorry to see the regime go. "They scattered in all directions, mostly to Syria and Jordan. There's nobody left."
Awja was a dirt-poor flyspeck of a place when Saddam was born here—he'll be 66 in two weeks, if he's still alive—and its name in Arabic means "crooked." Iraqis say the village, originally founded by Bedouins who wanted to settle down, used to be well known for its tasty watermelons.
But Saddam, his relatives and political cronies turned Awja into an upscale little settlement on the Tigris River, a place that could almost pass for a middle-class, stuccoed development outside, say, Fort Worth or Albuquerque.
There is no memorial to his birthplace or a museum glorifying his boyhood in Awja, just the Saddam Hussein Secondary School for Boys.
His biographers say Saddam was a tough, bright street kid who stole chickens and loved horses. His family was like most in Awja at the time—impoverished and illiterate—and it was the sort of family that the Arabs here say "eat with all five." That is, at mealtimes, the whole family would gather around a large pot of mush or beans and eat communally, with their fingers.
The main entrance to Awja is marked by a large mosaic panel of a smiling Saddam. Some Marines have used the sign for target practice, and it now bears the spray-painted logo "USMC."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.