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POWs from Iraq-Iraq war return home

BAGHDAD, Iraq—When Saber Mohammed Salah last saw home, his daughters were four and seven and his son was two and a half. Today, his daughters are married, his son is an adult, and Salah, after 21 years as a prisoner of war in Iran, feels reborn.

"I feel just like I was dead and came back to life again," Salah said Tuesday, wiping away tears. "My happiness is indescribable."

Salah and 58 other POWs from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war were flown home Monday from Tehran in a good-will gesture aimed at currying favor with the United States.

"No one told us that we will get out," he recalled of his release. "Just four days ago, some officials took us from Al Awas (where he was imprisoned) to Tehran. Then a man from the Red Crescent Society came and told me I was going to Iraq.

"At that moment, I was so happy because I never believed I would see my family or my home again. We thought we would die in Iran."

Now home, Salah found a country he could hardly recognize. So accustomed to the thin soup his Iranian jailers had dished out, he scarcely knew what to do with the spoon he was offered when the International Committee of the Red Cross flew him home on the first direct flight from Tehran to Baghdad.

The garden Salah knew was gone; relatives built shops on top of his prized flowers in order to charge rent to make up for his lost wages. He was 36 when he left. Today at 57, he is a silver-haired grandfather. His commander in chief has been ousted from power.

Even his surroundings are a reminder of a lifetime gone past. Surrounded by relatives in his living room, Salah sat beneath a portrait of himself—as a young man with black hair.

Not far away, other prisoners of war who returned on the same flight from Tehran grabbed bags containing new clothing and health and sanitation kits as they piled into Red Cross vehicles in front of the Um Al-Khoura hotel. Their convoy was bound for Irbil, Mosul and Kirkuk. Another group of cars will carry other POWs to Basra on Wednesday.

Salah was a "raied," an Army rank slightly higher than captain when he was captured in battle on Nov. 11, 1982. He was promoted, like all POWs, to "ameed," something like a general, during his long imprisonment.

Salah recalled that he was first taken to a hospital after his capture, where he was treated fairly well. But once he joined other prisoners, the treatment was brutal, with beatings frequent. He declined to be more specific.

During his captivity he was never allowed to contact his family, and they learned for sure that he was being held prisoner only two years ago—when another prisoner was released and told them he had seen Salah. There was no advance warning to the family that Salah would be coming home.

"I didn't expect to see my father again," said his son, Ahmad. "When I came home yesterday, they said my father is here. I said, `Where is he? Where is he? Do not joke with me.' Then I grabbed him and gave him a big hug."

Salah said he lived in a huge room with hundreds of other Iraqi prisoners until he was plucked—there was no explanation of why he was selected—to be sent back to Iraq.

Neither Iran nor Iraq have said how many prisoners they still hold from the war, which ended in 1988. Both sides have occasionally released prisoners over the years, but neither side has been willing to release all of the POWs.

Marco Kirschbaum, in charge of the POW repatriation for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the returning prisoners were skeptical they were going home until their plane took off. Then "there was a big hooray when the plane reached Iraqi air space," Kirschbaum said. "There was crying, kissing the floor at the airport."

Several of the POWS seemed frightened when asked what they thought of a postwar Iraq without Saddam Hussein, "Sorry, sorry, I must go," said one. "We saw everything on Al-Alam, an Iranian television channel," said another, declining to say any more.

Not every POW will have a family like Salah's to return to.

"Thanks to God I have returned home," said Taha Sobhee of Kirkuk. "I hope I can find my family. It has been more than 15 years without any letters from home."

"I was a dead man," he added. "Now I feel alive again."

As for imagining life without Saddam, or the enormous task that faces a provisional government of rebuilding Iraq's military, Sobhee said, "I don't know. I don't know."

One prisoner of war was so surprised that he was coming home that he died of shock, Salah said.

"On the plane, it was very difficult for me to see chocolate after 20 years," he said, laughing and showing broken teeth. "I just brought it home."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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