Remembering a Friend Lost to Saddam’s Terror

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq has unleashed a torrent of repressed memories — tales of torture, disappearance, and summary executions. Iraqis searching for long-lost relatives and friends broke into prisons only to discover clandestine cemeteries and dozens of mass graves.

Some families did find solace, identifying and burying the body of a loved one taken from them years ago. But most of the dead remain unidentified, including my friend Gad Gross. He was killed near Kirkuk in 1991 while covering the Shi’ite and Kurdish uprisings that were encouraged by the last Bush administration during and after the Gulf War.

Now that the hostilities have finally abated in Iraq, many Iraqis will hopefully have the opportunity to recover the remains of those who have been missing for so long. Hopefully, too, the remains of Gad will be found and identified. I last saw him on the afternoon of March 28, 1991, on the northern edge of Kirkuk.

There were four of us, three young Western journalists and one equally young Kurdish armed guerrilla, Bakhtiar Abdel Rahman, our guide. Kirkuk fell to Saddam’s forces in seven hours. With a Kalashnikov over one shoulder and a pistol tucked into his belt, Bakhtiar led Gad, carrying several cameras, toward some nearby houses under heavy fire, while a French photographer, Alain Buu, and I dove, one after the other, into a nearby ditch.

All night, Iraqi soldiers camped around us. Their machine gunners shot into fields that the day before had been filled with hundreds of Kurds fleeing the city, mostly women either carrying or leading children. Not long after dawn, Alain and I heard a commotion coming from the nearby houses — it sounded as though Iraqi soldiers were capturing people. Within minutes, we heard the burst of an automatic rifle, followed by one long, loud scream, before another burst cut it short.

Peering over the edge of our ditch, Alain and I saw a group of Iraqi soldiers walking away from the scene, one soldier holding Gad’s blue camera bag over his shoulder. We continued to hide until about an hour later, when a soldier saw Alain, who jumped up and surrendered. The Iraqis seemed ready to shoot us, too, until an officer, evidently newly arrived at the scene, intervened.

Wearing the uniform of Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath party, he ordered the soldiers to save us for interrogation. They led us to another Iraqi officer, an army Special Forces captain, who greeted us with angry words: “Your friend, he kill himself. You know why? He had a gun.” I do not know whether Bakhtiar might have given Gad his revolver. But nearby, Alain and I saw Gad’s camera bag. Hanging from it were his laminated press cards, stained with blood.

Iraqi authorities released Alain and me 18 days later. But neither Gad nor Bakhtiar’s remains have been recovered. Gad, like me, was an only child. His mother, Edith Gross, is an ethnic German painter born in Romania who later immigrated to West Germany with her son when he was a young teen.

But they were not welcomed by some German neighbors who disparaged them for their foreign roots. Gad decided to apply to become an American high school exchange student and later won a full scholarship to Harvard.

He returned to Eastern Europe after graduating, and his photographs of Romanian babies dying of AIDS made the cover of Newsweek. Right after I met him, he won the Missouri Award of Excellence for his picture of two Romanian soldiers sitting on a toppled statue of Lenin.

By then, Gad was planning his next step. He applied to Yale law school while he was in Jordan, intending to study the protection of human rights. But he did not live to learn that he had been accepted.

Germany will not recognize Gad’s death without his corpse, keeping Edith without benefits. She wants to bury his remains near her home in Cologne. With so many graves across Iraq, finding Gad’s remains will not be easy.

The writer is the Washington representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.