NEW CARROLLTON - When she stepped from her car yesterday morning, an icy wind billowed the silken skirt Tanya Gilly wore beneath her long overcoat. But the 30-year-old mother of two, a native of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, paid scant notice to the 10-degree chill that reddened her face and swept her hair as she made her way to the Ramada Inn in New Carrollton on this momentous first day of the rest of her life.
After you've fled your homeland as a child, lost kinsmen in mass graves, and learned of government agents trying to assassinate your parents, a late-January freeze is a minor obstacle when the moment has come to exercise your political freedom for the first time.
"I never thought this day would arrive," Gilly said to a gantlet of reporters as she strode toward a security tent - taking the final steps in what, for her, has been a long personal journey. "Here I am, alive, voting in a free, democratic Iraqi election."
Gilly and her husband, Dara Khailani, from Germantown, were among the first of about 2,000 Iraqi nationals expected to cast their votes at the highly secured hotel this weekend, joining Iraqis around the world to elect the 275 members of their country's new Transitional National Assembly. The site was one of five set up in U.S. locations, including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn.
"There are not words to tell you how this feels," Gilly said as she headed for the warmth of the voting room. "After this weekend, nothing in my country will be the same."
Years of repression
Just the afternoon before, Tanya Gilly had a chance to be more reflective. At a pamphlet-strewn table in a sparsely furnished Washington office, she considered the significance of a day for which she had waited and prepared, in many ways, since she was a child.
The daughter of an engineer and a homemaker, Gilly was born in Kirkuk, an oil-rich city of about 700,000 at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. Life there was a lesson in Middle East fractiousness - and the cruelties of Baathist Iraq.
Before she can even remember, Saddam Hussein - a "thug-turned-president," she called him - commenced an "Arabization" program that aimed to rid the city of its Kurdish influence. The ethnically distinct Kurds, an Indo-European people dating back at least 3,000 years, saw Iraqi Arabs offered money and favors to displace them. Many were moved to outlying villages; thousands disappeared.
She grew up used to an Iraqi society centered on Baghdad, where her people were second-class citizens. On family trips to the capital, her family spoke Arabic, not Kurdish, to steer clear of trouble.
"In Iraq, when 'dumb' jokes are made, they are about the Kurds," she said with a shrug. "Idiotic, isn't it?"
She also recalls the repression of Hussein's regime, where satellite TV and cell phones were forbidden and even in calls to friends "you spoke in a sort of code - 'How are you? How is our friend?' - because Big Brother was listening." Her father, Talat, an outspoken critic of the regime, often held forth on human rights. "In spite of everything, it was a politically aware household," she said.
The family fled Iraq in 1986, when Gilly was 12, for another Middle Eastern country. Even outside Iraq, she says, Hussein's agents "tried to assassinate my father, then my mother." The Gillys moved to Canada, where she finished her education.
From afar, they heard reports of widespread atrocities against Kurds, including Hussein's infamous Anfal, the campaign of chemical-weapons genocide he undertook in the late 1980s. During a trip back to Kirkuk, traveling to an uncle's funeral, she saw the rubble of ruined homes.
"All the way, I cried," she recalls, "asking, 'Why can't they just let us be?'"
The plight of women
One might have asked the same question about women, whose suffering Gilly considers the untold story of Hussein's Iraq. Thousands were widowed by war, thousands more by political execution; gang rape was sanctioned as a political tool. Even after Hussein "turned more religious," she says, it aided his repression.
"In a more Muslim Iraq, if women opposed him, he could accuse them of adultery and prostitution," she said. "Funny how so many he beheaded were doctors and engineers."
After moving to the United States five years ago, she and two friends formed Women for a Free Iraq, a nonprofit group aimed at "putting a human face" on women's suffering - and at exploring new roles for women in a post-Hussein Iraq.
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank, supplied funding and contacts. Members met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and persuaded the new provisional government to ensure that at least a quarter of the members of the new national assembly would be women.
"We aren't anti-Islam," Gilly says, "but we do support a federated, secular, democratic Iraq government [with] free religious expression. We want to be certain women enjoy equal rights and know what their options are."
In the two years since Hussein's fall, Gilly has twice traveled to Iraq to organize women's conferences. She recalls a 19-year-old woman who approached her with an Arabic-language copy of the Swiss constitution - and endless questions about how democracy works.
"There were a lot of misconceptions," she said. "I explained, for instance, that the majority rules, but minorities are protected. This is new to Iraqis. People who have been spoon-fed everything for many years have trouble knowing what freedom involves.
"But women are already engaging with these matters," she added. "I'm so optimistic about the voting" that will take this weekend.
'The right thing to do'
Don't trouble Gilly with negative takes on America's role in toppling Hussein. "People say America went in for the wrong reasons," she says, her voice rising, "but tell that to my people; tell that to the families who had daughters and sons in the mass graves. [Going in] was the right thing to do."
Her vehemence is tempered, of course, by personal experience. She returned to Kirkuk a year ago to visit neighborhoods she knew as a child. Her guide, a family friend, told her firsthand of the ways in which Baathist agents, in the aftermath of Kurdish uprisings, killed nine people, including an aunt and cousin.
"They shot my uncle, too," she said, her voice shaking. But "my uncle survived. He is so happy to have a chance to vote. He'll be there on Sunday" when voting takes place in Iraq.
Most eligible Iraqis will join him, she predicts - 90-plus percent in Kurdistan, she guesses, and 50-plus percent in the bloody Sunni triangle. "More are going to vote than will say so in public," she says.
She counsels patience with democratization.
"My friends in Iraq say that what is broken there can be fixed - the water, the electricity. Terror under Saddam could not." She agrees with President Bush that self-determination will bring stability and a more vibrant economy that will, in time, remove the thirst for terrorism.
In time, she may move her family back to Kirkuk. Her parents and older sister have already moved back. Her father is one of more than 200 candidates on the weekend's ballot.
Yesterday, Gilly and her husband, a 38-year-old software engineer, were among the dozens who took the first awkward steps toward a new Iraq. By noon, expatriates from the north, from Mosul and from Basra - and from homes all over the American Northeast - had cast ballots, their purple index fingers, marked for security reasons, serving as mementos of the day.
Inside, Gilly completed her new civic duty and stepped from the booth. Her traditional, patterned Kurdish dress now in full view, she spotted an old friend, Paiman Halmat, a Germantown neighbor who left Iraq 25 years ago. They embraced and burst into sobs.
Television cameras surrounded them. Neither seemed to notice.
As they made for the exit, arm-in-arm with her husband, Gilly dabbed at the pools of mascara below her eyes.
A reporter stopped her. "Why did you break down?" he asked.
She looked at him with surprise.
"It's history," she said.