It began like any other day, that Aug. 21, 1994. Qasim Kadim had just opened his Baghdad cigarette shop when secret police appeared in the doorway with handcuffs. So began a seven-month ordeal so haunting that even after his release, he stayed home with the doors locked every year on that date.
"You spend your whole life doing and saying the right things," he says from a doctor's office in Houston. "Then someone comes and cuts your hand off for no reason at all. It's a torture that never ends."
In many ways, Mr. Kadim's story is one more in a file of torture, rape, and mass-murder stories that have trickled out of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But it's also a story of redemption and compassion. One that will end, the participants hope, in lives restored.
Nine years ago, Mr. Hussein had the right hands of Kadim and eight other merchants removed, part of an effort to blame small businessmen for Iraq's collapsing economy. Black Xs were tattooed on their foreheads as a signal to others that they were criminals.
Now the traces of this torture are fading with the help of journalists, doctors, and businesses. Ironically, it all began with a video of the amputations made for Hussein's amusement. After seeing the tape while in Baghdad last summer, filmmaker Don North was moved to produce his own documentary, "Remembering Saddam," finished earlier this month.
Mr. North first heard of the incident from an Iraqi employee who knew of a secret copy of the tape. North, who is also a war reporter, was shocked by what he saw. "I'd never seen anything like it in my entire life," he says. "I had to find the men and get their story."
And as he talked about that story over lunch with a friend at a Baghdad cafeteria, a stranger was listening.
The eavesdropper was Roger Brown, a Houston oil executive working for a contractor in Iraq. He put North in touch with several people in Houston, including Marvin Zindler, the KTRK-TV reporter famous for his 1973 exposé of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Today, he is the ABC station's consumer advocate.
Mr. Zindler asked Houston plastic surgeon Joseph Agris for help and together they lined up Houston companies to donate their services, including Continental Airlines, Methodist Hospital, and Dynamic Orthotics and Prosthetics.
"A lot of people had to get in on the act to get them here," says North, perched on a sofa in Dr. Agris's waiting room.
By the mid-1990s, as Iraq began to fall into economic shambles under the UN embargo, Hussein was looking for someone to blame. So he ordered the roundup of nine small-time merchants from various districts around Baghdad. These jewelers, textile dealers, and cigarette sellers were charged with dealing in foreign currency - illegal at the time.
The evidence against them was flimsy. Laith Aqar, for instance, was a jeweler who called London and New York daily to check gold prices. He says he wasn't dealing in British or US currency, and was simply gathering information for his business. But his phone was tapped and that evidence was used to arrest him.
The group was incarcerated for seven months and ended up in the notorious Abu Gherib prison. They were beaten and took turns sleeping at night because the cell was so small. Finally, after trials that lasted mere minutes, they were found guilty of destabilizing the Iraqi economy and sentenced to lose their right hands.
While some wept, Kadim says he was overjoyed. "I was happy because I expected them to execute us. Losing a hand is better than losing a life," he says. "There's an Iraqi saying: 'When a man faces death, he's not afraid of a fever.' "
The amputations were filmed and the tape, along with the right hands, was sent to Saddam. The men returned to their families and learned to eat and write and work all over again. It was difficult, too, "because, without our right hands, people thought we were thieves," says Ala'a Shubbar, referring to an old Islamic law that calls for such a punishment.
But the youngest of the group, who speaks of his hate for Hussein and his love of Chopin, insists that "the whole experience has made me a stronger person." Hussein "may have put a tattoo on my forehead," he says, "but he didn't take away my self confidence."
The ordeal, says North, forged an incredible bond among the men. Those still in Baghdad meet over meals or help each other at work.
"We became friends after the amputations," says Hasan Albarawi, who escaped to Holland. He still gets calls from his "brothers" in Baghdad from time to time. "Suffering so much has brought us close together."
The men spent their first days at the Texas Medical Center, where they joked and laughed between appointments, remarked on how harried Americans seem, and marveled at light switches that flip up instead of down. They dreamed about what they might see while here - NASA, a ranch with real cowboys, fishing in the Gulf of Mexico - but their first priority is to bring function back to their right hands.
"I showed them everything from a simple hook to a nonfunctioning artificial hand to a $50,000 bionic arm," Agris says. "They all picked the bionic arm."
After some additional surgery and the attachment of the prosthetic arms, the men will need weeks of rehabilitation to learn how to use the new hand.
"You have to realize, these are the lucky ones," says Agris, who will follow the men back to Iraq and volunteer his services to others who need it. "Over 1 million people were executed by Saddam and another 1 million are still missing."
All agree that things could easily have turned out differently. "Lots of people who were considered a threat were sentenced to death," says Baasim Al Fadhly, who is now a journalist in Iraq. "But how could three quarters of the Iraqi people be considered a threat?"
After their stay in Houston, they plan to spend a week in Washington visiting Capitol Hill and sharing their experience with as many people as possible - including a possible stop at the White House.
"I'm happy to be getting a new hand, but even more important to me is getting the message out about Saddam's dictatorship," says Kadim, heading downstairs for more tests.
The first thing he'll do with his right hand? Thank everybody who made it possible - with a hearty handshake.