Members of Iraq's Only Heavy Metal Band are Refugees; Fear Return

Members of Iraq's only heavy metal group, now struggling to survive in Turkey, will not be joining the flow of refugees returning to their war-ravaged homeland anytime soon -- if they can help it.

"We dare not go back. We'll be targeted even more than before," bass guitarist Firas al-Latif said by telephone from Istanbul, where four members of Acrassicauda are seeking official refugee status.

Ironically, publicity generated by a documentary on the plight of the heavy metal foursome, which was screened at the Toronto film festival earlier this year, has counted against them.

"All this publicity has occurred. Our pictures are all over the Internet. We've become a big thing mediawise," said Latif over a crackly connection.

"Most Iraqis now know about us. To be known in Iraq is not a good thing."

Inspired by US megaband Metallica, the group came together in 2001 and immediately gained local notoriety, which maybe should have been expected of a band playing heavy metal music in a conservative country.

After the American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the musicians felt optimistic about events in the country and even spoke about recording an album.

They drew the attention of journalists of counter-culture magazine VICE who wrote a feature on the hard-rocking group of friends, which helped them garner an international following by what Latif now describes as "courageous die-hard fans."

Backed by VICE, Acrassicauda -- named after a dangerous breed of black scorpion -- staged a sell-out show in Baghdad in 2005, one of only six gigs they were able to perform in Iraq.

The documentary "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" focuses on the VICE team's attempt a year later to find out what had become of the band members after the eruption of bitter sectarian violence across Iraq.

By then four of the group had fled to Damascus amid daily bombings, telephone threats to their lives and the nightly prowlings of death squads on the hunt for intellectuals, professors, actors, artists, poets and musicians.

The documentary makers, finding the band gone, their studio destroyed and a bloody turf war raging in Baghdad, began tracking them along a dangerous trail that eventually led to Damascus where Firas, 26, lead vocalist Faisal Talal, 26, guitarist Tony Aziz, 28, and 24-year-old drummer Marwan Riyak were regrouping.

Along with more than another million or so Iraqi refugees who escaped to Syria, they lived pretty much hand to mouth, helped along by two gigs which brought in some funding.

Syria began cracking down on Iraqis living there earlier this year and the band had to decide whether they could risk going back to Iraq, as at least 25,000 have done since September according to the Iraqi Red Crescent.

They decided this was still too risky so they made their way instead to Istanbul in mid-October, selling their musical instruments and raising limited funds through earnest pleas on their website

"We're staying in Istanbul as refugees. We have registered with the UNHCR," Latif said, referring to the UN refugee agency.

While waiting for a decision on their application, they are meanwhile finding the Turkish people generous and two weeks ago were invited to play at one of Istanbul's best-known rock bars, Kemancy.

"A couple of other groups played with us. I couldn't count the people because there were so many," said Latif. "A lot of famous rock names attended the concert."

For now they are kicking their heels, hoping for another gig or perhaps even a tour of Turkey, where heavy metal, unlike in the Middle East, is popular.

"We know nothing about our future or what's going to happen. We don't know anything. We're just living day by day. We are just waiting to see what the UNHCR is going to do," said Latif.

A blog on the band's website gives a more gloomy and quaintly ungrammatical prognosis:

"My guessing is we will get send to prison then back to Iraq or mabey straight back to Iraq cuz as you already know that we can't go back to Syria cuz of the visa thing so again THE FOUR OF US BACK AGAIN LOST AND BROKE AND WITHOUT GUIDE OUR EVEN EQUEPMENTS OUR PLACE TO STAY IN TURKEY."

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