March 21, 2003 -- They are educated. They aren't required to veil themselves. They can work. But these four women from Iraq say they were missing two crucial things in their homeland — freedom and dignity.
The four women — Maha Hussain, Zainab al-Suwaij, Katrin Michael and Roz Rasool — told ABCNEWS' Barbara Walters stories that could be punishable by death in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Even Iraqis in the United States are terrified to speak frankly about Saddam's regime, largely because they are terrified of reprisals against family members.
The women are speaking out because they feel they are speaking for the voiceless people living under Saddam's regime.
"We know how it looks like inside Iraq," al-Suwaij said on 20/20. "We saw the torture. We saw our relatives and our friends disappearing day after day."
Human rights groups estimate that at least 290,000 Iraqis have disappeared since Saddam took power 34 years ago. Hussain was just a schoolgirl in Baghdad when the reality of life under Saddam hit home. She recalls riding on a school bus at age 13 and seeing a crowd gathered in the center of the capital, around bodies of men hanging from poles. "I remember the blue faces, the long necks," she said.
Saddam's reign of terror extended far beyond public executions. He established a strategy of brutalizing women in order to control their men. Although the stories these women tell are horrific and difficult to substantiate, they are consistent with a pattern of cruelty toward women documented by various human rights groups.
Routine Rapes, Human Meat Grinders, Chemical Baths
Al-Suwaij knows firsthand how even young girls were imprisoned for what seem to be trivial offenses. Al-Suwaij says she had a 16-year-old cousin who was beaten and tortured with electrical shocks for having written something against the government in her school notebook.
And if a man is a dissident or if a man writes a letter or makes a joke about Saddam, these women said, authorities would rape his wife or female relatives in front of him.
"Rape is used as a tool to humiliate the woman, but to also bring men into submission," Hussain said. To compound the humiliation, authorities would videotape the torture and rape and send the tape to family members.
Saddam's contempt for human rights extended to his well-documented use of poison gas against his own people. The horror of one of those chemical attacks still haunts Michael 16 years later.
"Children, women, men … vomiting, screaming, crying with swollen eyes. Everybody was … screaming, 'We are blind. We cannot see,' " Michael said. She said she still has difficulty breathing, because of her exposure to the gas.
Al-Suwaij has seen the inside of an Iraqi prison, and she describes horrific scenes. She said she was shown "human meat grinders" in which people were shredded and disposed of in a septic tank, and chemical baths in which people were literally dissolved.
"You cannot exaggerate about these things. People were slaughtered," she said.
All four women met earlier this month with members of the Bush administration.
They raised the issues they feel need to be addressed in Iraq. They say there needs to be a clear commitment to democracy in Iraq, and that the United States and its allies will need to chaperon the transition.
Protesters Missing the Point
The anti-war demonstrations happening all over the world are disturbing for these women. Rasool believes the protesters are missing the point.
"Knowing what we've been through, knowing what the people in Iraq are going through up to now, and then when we see protesters, that they don't know the reality of the people who are suffering right now," she said. "They don't know about torture, they don't know about rape."
Although these women support U.S. military action, they say they felt betrayed after the 1991 Gulf War when they heeded then-President George H.W. Bush's call to arms. The elder Bush said Iraqis must rise up on their own and force Saddam to step aside. So these women joined with many other Iraqis who risked their lives because they thought that the Americans were going to back them up.
"That was the first time I saw Iraq liberated. I saw the joy and the happiness of the people," al-Suwaij said.
But the uprising was short-lived. The allied army went home, clearing the way for Saddam to regain control. It is estimated that 30,000 Iraqis perished in the ensuing bloodbath.
"After the failed uprising I was hiding for two months until I left Iraq," said al-Suwaij.
These women are saddened that America and its allies backed off and let Saddam continue his brutal reign after the 1991 war. They ask, Where was the United Nations then? Where were all these human rights activists?
Where are they today? the women ask. Just two weeks ago, a Kurdish mother of eight was splashed with gasoline and set ablaze by military police for no reason, she told Kurdish television.
"We're asking the, the whole world, to see our suffering inside Iraq. We ask them to participate in our freedom and liberty," Rasool said. "Iraqi people suffered enough during 35 years, and they deserve freedom."
As U.S. and British troops advance toward Baghdad, these women say their friends and loved ones will welcome the coalition troops with open arms.
No one can be certain yet what the future of Iraq will be. But for now these women share a message of gratitude.
"I want on behalf of everybody from all my heart and my family and everyone here … [to] thank the American people, thank our brave men and women in the military for the sacrifices they are doing," Hussain said. "But I want them to know they are doing it for the right cause."
To read the personal stories of Iraqis advocating for democracy and human rights in Iraq, visit the following Web site: http://www.womenforiraq.org/