First of all, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Tiba Atheer Kallas. I’m 14. I’d like to start this letter by telling you about my dreams and asking you – the people of Poland and the people of Europe – to judge the crimes I’ve committed. The crimes that put my family and me in prison.
We are publishing a letter from Tiba Atheer Kallas, an exceptional person who survived dramatically difficult days and nights on the Polish-Belarusian border. Tiba has shown courage that is unprecedented for someone of her age. In her letter she addresses Poles and Europeans. Read this moving testimony.
I was born and raised in Iraq. In that time we counted time in the minutes of explosions, attacks, shots, and innocent children’s deaths. We, the children of Iraq, were robbed of all of our rights, even our right to take a breath not filled with horror. Neither of us had real, tranquil life. However, like all children we like to have free time, we like to play but we don’t know what it is like to play without being scared. When we go outside, our thoughts are paralyzed with fear about whether we will see our parents again. Because in Iraq explosions, especially car and school bombings, happen every day.
daily life in iraq
I was eight. I’d just finished school for the day when I heard the sounds of death. There was an explosion at the school gates and I didn’t die because I stayed a little longer in the corridor with my friends. I left the building and I saw the bodies of my peers covered in blood. One boy’s body was massacred to a point where I couldn’t recognize who he was. This sight never parts with me. Similarly, it’s a cause of my extreme fear of school, or rather of going to school. I hate school, not because I’m lazy, I’m actually smart, but because I’m scared of death. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to experience anything in the only life that I have.
After some time I managed to get used to this shocking reality but the streets of Iraq remained horrifying. You can never know what hour and place your soul will get taken away from you. Ever since I can remember our parents walked us to school because they were afraid. They were afraid that the streets of Iraq would swallow us: our lives were constantly in danger. We always asked our father to take us away from Iraq because we wanted to have a normal life. He used to say “tomorrow it will get better, Iraq will become a better place.”
Different political parties started harassing my beloved grandfather and uncles because they’d worked for Americans. After everything they went through, they left Iraq. I felt like I’d lost everything, the heart of my family, my grandfather, my closest relatives. I felt like these parties had taken them away, but that wasn’t enough for them. They also started harassing my aunts because women, too, are not safe in Iraq. They tried to take away my parents because we lived in my grandfather’s house after he left. My siblings and I saw with our own eyes how they burned our mother’s hand with fire. We saw them torture our father. After all this, we decided to move to the industrial part of Bagdad.
We lived in the fumes, we never saw our dad because of threats. We’d see him sometimes, maybe once a week. We knew we had to leave the country after they found us and shot at our house, while dad was away. I know what I felt, what my mother and my little brothers felt. I thought it was the end of my life. We started saying goodbyes to each other while lying on the floor in an embrace so that we would all die at once so that none of us would have to wake up alone and hurt.
a flee from iraq
We had to flee from Iraq. I thought this journey would be the only passage to safe life and a beautiful future. I thought about walking the streets of a city, about breathing without fear. We always heard about Europe as this beautiful place and about the rights children have there.
We decided to go through Belarus. It was supposed to be an experience that would change our lives for the better. No matter how long I will speak about this journey and how much detail I will go into, I will never manage to explain the fear we have come to know. Me, my brothers, my mother, and our father walked in complete darkness. My brother’s bodies were as if dead, they were alive but not really. It was so cold, awfully cold. It was dead bodies that were crying tears and exhaling fear. My sister Zeinab and I were pretending to be brave. We didn’t want them to worry about us.
It was really shocking to me when we met Belarusian border control officers. They beat up my father and all of the other men who were with us in the forest. They took everything: water, food, money. Officers put a gun to my father’s head so that he wouldn’t move and they let out the dogs after me and my sister. We cried and ran begging for our father’s help, but he couldn’t do anything. The dogs chased us, the soldiers were laughing and joking till we passed out from exhaustion on the wet ground.
They don’t know mercy. Their hearts are empty. After this they made us go to Poland. We walked for a long time in total darkness. Polish border control does the same. We heard shouting: “Come back where you came from!”. We stayed in the forest for a month, having only this little campfire that gave us warmth. I can’t describe all of the details, because whenever I think about it I get this strange, scary feeling.
between poland and belarus
Last time we tried to cross the Polish border we were in a group of five families. All of our hands were like one, we supported each other like one family. We followed a path in the forest and we encountered the Polish military. I was in shock. One soldier said: “Go, I’m looking away”. He pointed his hand and said: “Go that way”. So we went, happy, we said to each other: we are safe, everything is good, we are in Poland, the end of this is near.
We had to cross the frozen swamp. My father carried all of the children. One after another in his arms through the bog. We looked at our dad, exhausted, legs covered in blood. He went through that pain so that we would all be safe. I don’t wish for anyone to go through what we did. It was hard and horrifying but we had to cross that forest.
no way back
Coming back to Iraq and making it out alive would be impossible. Death and pain follow us. After that, we walked for another ten days. We were crying every time it got dark. I’m afraid of darkness, and the sounds of the night are scarier to me than death, but I tried to pretend to be brave.
We didn’t have any food. My father and two other men and women went away for a while to search for water but didn’t find any. We were exhausted, we didn’t have any strength left to breathe. Therefore we decided to surrender to the authorities. The people from the organization came, gave us water and food, dry clothes, and medical help. The next day the media and an important Polish person came to the forest. They took us somewhere, we were there for eight days. Dad said that it was just a couple more days and we would be safe and free.
closed camp or prison?
Yet again, life disappointed us. We were sentenced to sixty days in prison. We were shocked. I couldn’t look at my parents. Were they lying to us all along? Where is the future they told us about? We knew we had to wait and we had to go to this “closed camp”.
When I saw that building I understood that I was going to prison. It wasn’t a refugee camp. Guards and cameras were everywhere. For me, it was the beginning of another horror because If you take on one hand what I experienced before and on the other what happened in the “camp” the pain in my heart is equal. I was terrified of the military and border control. Even when we slept, they would come to our room to check If we didn’t run away.
Dogs and that place terrify me. Nights are the worst at the camp: I can’t stop thinking about the forest and about what we went through. These dogs chasing us. As a result, even when I’m asleep nightmares haunt me like the dogs in the forest.
All the time I’m trying to convince myself that it will pass. I’m trying to believe that I’m strong enough to survive and that I can make my dreams come true, that a bright future awaits me, beautiful and full of hope. I dreamed that my name would become known and that my actions would have an impact on the world. I could help society and society would help me. Ever since I can remember I have wanted to be a dentist, to learn how to play piano and draw. I have always wanted to have braces, because in Iraq it’s impossibly expensive. To be a child in Iraq and have dreams… that’s impossible too. I also dream about being able to learn how to design, but I wake up in a place where no human being can live.
I sit and I fault myself for what happened to us. The fear, the anger, the screams fill the air in prison. These days I don’t know what is happening to me, everything is trailing away. I don’t understand what is happening till I wake up and my parents say I lost consciousness. Other times I wake up and my whole body is in pain, to a point where I can’t walk. These bouts stay with me, it happens every time I hear someone scream. It rings in my head and I pass out. Often I would get sleeping pills and I would sleep the whole day. I didn’t get any medical help, no one feared for my life because it wasn’t worth anything to anyone.
Ever since we got the decision that our incarceration would be prolonged by four months on December 27th, 2021 I’ve felt that something is wrong with me. I would get strong rushes of anxiety and fear. Therefore my head hurt all the time, I had trouble breathing. These things kept coming. I was convinced that there was no help for me in this life, that we would never see the light because we are criminals, not refugees.
Now I am sitting in our room. I don’t have any energy left, I have no appetite, I don’t want to eat and I don’t want to drink. I wanted to take my life. Doctors in the camp said that I was fine, that they would not help me because I was simulating these bouts. I wanted to know what was happening to me, what these fits were, and if I would die soon? I was afraid of death because I was afraid that I would never achieve anything and I couldn’t breathe, I felt death coming closer. My sister begged one of the guards to call an ambulance. They came and they took me to hospital. The day after they took me to a psychiatric hospital.
I’ve refused to eat for 28 days [03.02.2022]. They are giving me beverages to sustain my life. I am asking for freedom for me and my family. This is my story in a nutshell. Is it a crime to have dreams? Do I deserve to die in prison? I ask you to judge me. I trust the citizens of Poland and Europe because they have mercy and they fight for justice.
Tiba Atheer Kallas
Translation by Weronika Wojda. You can read the translation of Tiba’s letter from Arabic into Polish by Nina Maria Michnik in Gazeta Wyborcza. Tiba’s family is under the care of Podróżnych Ugościć group.
Photo: Podróżnych Ugościć.