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Free at last, from Saddam’s prison
- Indian back after 13 years in jail for dissent

Mumbai, April 24: Thirteen lonely years in Saddam Hussain’s prison. Today, home, sweet home.

It has been a painful journey for Mohammad Anis Basheer Saboowala, who touched down on the land of his birth this morning after wasting a greater part of his youth in an Iraqi jail.

Now, only one word describes what he feels — “relief”.

The 45-year-old is relieved that he could escape certain death after being jailed for “voicing” his opinion against Saddam’s policy of confrontation against Kuwait.

He is relieved that he can “smell the fragrances of my country again”. Most of all, he is relieved that he can spend the rest of his life in the warmth of his Dongri home.

He does not know the fate of his little shop that sold perfumes and watches in Baghdad. “But who cares' I am back to my family and my children,” he says. “Ab to main apne watan waapas aa gaya, ab chain ki saans le sakta hoon.” (I am back in my country and can breathe easy.)

Rani — “that’s the name my father always called me by”, says his 17-year-old daughter Sazia — could not stop crying when she reached the airport to see her father getting off a Royal Jordanian Airline plane at 7.30 in the morning. “I was four when he suddenly disappeared,” she says, “I am a woman now. God has been most merciful to us. I have a father again.”

Spotted fleeing from a prison by an Indian TV crew after American troops fought their way into Iraq, Saboowala found shelter in the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. The only Indian prisoner in the Abu Gharib jail, indeed in the whole of Iraq, Saboowala soon caught the attention of the Indian embassy.

He was issued a fresh passport and put on the Jordanian aircraft last night — on credit. “He had no money with him,” says Abdul Majid, Saboowala’s younger brother. “We will pay the Jordanian airline tomorrow.”

It has taken some time for the large Saboowala family — five brothers and four sisters — to let the feeling sink in.

Zaibunissa says she had lost all hope of getting her husband back. “We tried everything to free him,” she says. “We even wrote a letter to Saddam Hussain pleading with him to release my husband but there was no reply. We just prayed after that.”

But in the joy of reunion, the family remembers to thank the Indian embassy. “The embassy officials would meet him on the 20th of every month and pass on to us the few lines that he wrote to us in Gujarati,” says Saboowala’s father Bashir. “This small thread of connection went on for all these years.”

It was the embassy again that informed them that Saboowala had not died during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. “We lost all communication with him but the embassy wrote to us in 1993 that he was alive but in jail,’’ 70-year-old Bashir says.

But happiest of all is 13-year-old Khairunissa. She was just a few days old when her father disappeared. “All these years I had only seen his pictures,” she says.

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