Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Abu Ghraib

It appears that Abu Ghraib is destined to remain a dreaded name by the majority of Iraqis. In the middle of the small suburb west of Baghdad stands the largest prison compound in Iraq for decades. When you hear someone mention Abu Ghraib, you don't think of the many palm groves gracefully shading simple scattered houses and green meadows, you don't think of the main vegetables marketplace (Alwah) which provides over 5 million residents of Baghdad with most of their daily meals, you don't think of the second largest graveyard in Iraq which lies on its main road, you don't think of Khan Dhari, you don't think of Baghdad university's colleges of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, you don't think of the numerous archealogical and historical sites. Instead, what immediately jumps to your mind is the image of the tall sinister double walls, surrounded with barbed wires and several guard towers, housing at least a hundred thousand people at a time.

The name 'Abu Ghraib' has always been associated with regular summary executions, systematic torture, endless periods of detention, and the worst living conditions ever imaginable. Former Abu Ghraib inmates have lovingly nicknamed the prison 'Abu Geneve' (Geneva), some choose to call it 'Sweesra' (
Switzerland), so it was not an uncommon thing to hear someone say "When I was in Abu Geneve, I did so and so.." It is disputed how the nickname originated, but the explanation that makes most sense is mocking Uday Saddam Hussein when he was 'punished' and detained in Switzerland for murdering Kamil Hanna, his daddy's bodyguard, in the late eighties. The old prison was expanded when Saddam came to power, and divided into three seperate compounds, all within the main prison borders. A compound for extremely dangerous criminals which was called 'Thaqila', one for the rest of the convicts, and the other 'Alahkam Alsiyasiya' for political prisoners, and any other Iraqi convicted with crimes against the state and the regime. Prisoners placed into the third compound were most often held indefinitely with no trial or conviction of any kind.

I once visited the prison in 1998 with a couple of friends at the monthly 'Muwajaha' visit. We had two friends who were held in the political convictions compound, they had forged high school degrees in order to be accepted into Medicine colleges, and they were eventually caught after one year of college. They just disappeared mysteriously one day without a trace, and it took two months of search, mediations by tribal sheikhs, and bribery of security officials to locate them.

We hesitated much before deciding to visit our two friends, but their families had asked us and we couldn't possibly say no. The procedure, as far as I can remember, works thus; a prison guard dressed in khaki announces the names of the prisoners one by one at a side gate which is the visitors entrance, when the name of your relative (or friend) is announced you step forward, get frisked by another guard and enter. Once you're inside, you head over to a small building (which is the only place behind the first wall) where they take your name and the name of the person you are visiting, get searched again (more efficiently this time), someone stamps a 'visitor' sign in red ink on your forearm, and then you board a small bus on the other end of the building which takes you through the inside gate of the prison and drives you to the final destination on closely guarded paved roads. You enter the main political convictions compound this time, where you are herded by guards along with the rest of the visitors through long dimly lit hallways with jail cells on both side (when you pass by the cells you would hear inmates excitedly calling names of relatives and friends who are visiting while crowding at the small openings of jail doors), at the end they check your arm for the red sign, quickly frisk you again, and you exit into what is supposed to be a football field which is where you meet prisoners. The field also surrounded by high walls and guard towers. After a few minutes, the inmates are released to the field and you can spend two hours with whoever you are visiting, have a meal with them, and hand them money, food, and supplies.

I remember the look on my friends' faces, they just stared gratefuly at us, begging us to tell them about Baghdad and other friends, and refusing to tell us anything about the treatment they were receiving. They were bruised and looked exhausted. We learned later from them (after they were released) that if you had enough money (plus appropriate connections) you could avoid mistreatment, and that most of the abuse came from fellow inmates, some of whom had hidden razors in their teeth, used psychotic drugs, and were extremely aggressive to other inmates. They had endless interesting stories to tell about the year and a half they spent, for instance one of my friends had a small radio that he used at night to listen to music and he had it hidden at ingenious places, which caused much frustration to the guards (radios were prohibited). Of course my friends were fortunate, their time would be considered a holiday in 'Geneve' when compared to others.

When we were leaving the field I remember freaking out while the prison guard paused to check my 'visitor' stamp on my forearm, evidently suspicious, it was incredibly hot and sweat had caused it to fade. He grabbed my arm and stared at it for some time while I was thinking "That's it, he's definitely going to mistake me for a prisoner attempting to sneak out among the visitors". My thoughts raced, and I
had resigned to my fate and started to turn my mind to planning how to give up all the money I carried just to make a phone call, to try to remain as composed as possible, imagining what the toilet may look like, where to sleep. The guard suddenly let go of my arm and shoved me through the door. When I was finally outside the prison I impressed upon myself never to visit my friends again despite promising them to do so.


Now, regarding the disgusting images from Abu Ghraib that the whole world had witnessed in the last few days. They didn't come as a surprise at all, we have been hearing stories about the abuse of prisoners for a long time from released detainees and from humanitarian organisations. It doesn't shock me at all that some American soldiers are so sick and devoid from any humanity. You need to have a cousin pushed off from a dam by some in order to learn that. What surprises me
though are people saying "Saddam did worse", or the soldiers responsible claiming they were 'never taught anything about running a prison', and 'No one gave us a copy of the Geneva conventions'. We have a saying for that over here, "An excuse uglier than the guilt".

The fact that the soldiers were merely relieved from duty and reprimanded wasn't surprising either. In fact it is to be expected. The outcome of the investigation indicated that systematic psychological and physical torture, mistreatment, or abuse (whatever) was indeed routine in US detention centers throughout Iraq. Military Intelligence officers had encouraged it, referring to it as 'setting the conditions for subsequent interrogation', and of course soldiers follow orders without questioning. Keep in mind, though, that former Iraqi Security and Mukhabarat officers also employed appropriate measures to 'set the conditions', and we thought we were over that now.

While Saddam Hussein sits safely in his comfortable cell in Qatar or wherever else he is being held, Iraqi detainees are being put into the most humiliating and degrading conditions that can be imagined. While the guilty are free to wreak havoc, and take refuge in holy cities, the innocent are detained and mistreated for months without charges. But it seems like that is life.

They may be just a few soldiers, it may be an isolated case, but what's the difference? The effect has been done, and the Hearts and Minds campaign is a joke that isn't funny any more.


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