“It was an event so memorable that the story has been preserved in our family like a precious heirloom.” Would you think the event this refers to is something as simple as a grandfather treating his grandson to a banana? In one simple sentence, the reader is made aware of the price people pay during times of war.
Nandita Haksar’s Forgotten Refugees: Two Iraqi Brothers in India foregrounds the voices of its protagonists. It’s not a very heavy tome; rather it’s a slim book with a large font size. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s an easy read. It’s anything but.
In her Introduction, Haksar explains how the book came about. In November 2021, she met two Iraqi brothers outside the UNHCR office in Delhi. A human rights lawyer herself, Haksar invited the men home and decided to be their voice.
Living in fear
While they were happy to tell their story, the brothers were also worried about revealing their identities. They didn’t want their families, still in Iraq, to suffer as a result. At first, they thought of taking on names from One Thousand and One Nights but finally settled for Babil and Akkad (after the Babylonian and Akkadian empires). This, writes Haksar, “was a way of asserting their claim over their rich heritage — from ancient pre-Islamic times to modern Iraq; a heritage which was subjected to intentional acts of violence and destruction by Daesh in Iraq and Syria.”
This is not to say that the book is all doom and gloom. As Babil says, “Despite living through not one but several wars, my memories of my childhood are sunny and bright.” Babil was born in 1988 and Akkad in 1991 (soon after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait). A particularly poignant tale is how Babil’s father would soothe a three-year-old terrified by the noise of bombing. Another story is of having to tear up a certificate of appreciation from Saddam Hussein in case it got the family into trouble with the Americans and the militia who were against him.
Chaos and impoverishment followed the American-led invasion of 2003, the subsequent civil war and sectarian strife. The last straw is the disappearance of their father. Babil and Akkad fled to India to seek the protection of the UNHCR. This doesn’t solve their problems. Constant fear of deportation and the fear of being Muslims in a communally-charged nation dog their footsteps, while the pandemic-led lockdown only added to their difficulty. “We faced hostility, prejudice and utter indifference,” says Babil.
While the narrative is simple and straightforward, the questions it raises about the international refugee law and India’s stand are complex. In the appendices, Haksar traces the history of refugee protection in India and calls for better processes to be put in place. Processes apart, what we also need is a sense of humanity — a recognition of refugees as people, not statistics — so that those fleeing their own countries do not encounter more violence, racism and sexual assault.
As I close the book, the final lines of the brothers’ story linger: “We long to have a home, our own families, and a place where we can live with peace and security.” Is this too much to ask for?
Forgotten Refugees: Two Iraqi Brothers in India; Nandita Haksar, Speaking Tiger, ₹399.