Tales From Abu Ghraib

by Riverbend
(Contributed by Con Carylon)

Con Carylon writes:

Each day from the anniversary of Riverbend’s last post on October 22nd until the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, I will printing an extract from Riverbend’s blog, Baghdad Burning.

Monday, March 29, 2004

At precisely 5 p.m., yesterday afternoon, my mother suddenly announced that we were going to go visit a friend of hers who had recently had a minor operation. The friend lived two streets away and in Iraqi culture, it is obligatory to visit a sick or healing friend or relative. I tried to get out of the social call with a variety of tired excuses. It was useless- my mother was adamant.

We left the house at around 5:40, with me holding a box of chocolate and arrived at the friend’s house less than five minutes later. After the initial greetings and words of sympathy and relief, we all filed into the living room. The living room was almost dark; the electricity was out and the drapes were open to let in the fading rays of sun. “The electricity should be back at six…” my mother’s friend said apologetically, “That’s why we haven’t lighted the kerosene lamps.”

Just as we were settling down, a figure sitting at the other end of the living room rose in a hurry. “Where are you going?!” cried out my mother’s friend, Umm Hassen. She then turned to us and made a hasty introduction, “This is M.- she’s a friend of the family… she’s here to see Abu Hassen…” I peered hard across the darkening room to get a better look at the slight figure, but I couldn’t make out her features. I could barely hear her voice as she said, “I really have to be going… it’s getting dark…” Umm Hassen shook her head and firmly declared, “No- you’re staying. Abu Hassen will drive you home later.”

The figure sat down and an awkward silence ensued as Umm Hassen left the living room to bring tea from the kitchen. My mother broke the silence with a question, “Do you live nearby?” She asked the figure. “Not really… I live outside of Baghdad… on the southern edges, but I’m staying with some relatives a few streets away.” I listened to the voice carefully and could tell that the girl was young- no more than 20 or 25… probably less.

Just as Umm Hassen walked into the room with the tea tray, the lights in the house flickered back to life and we all murmured a prayer of thanks. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the glaring yellow lights, I turned to get a better look at Umm Hassen’s guest. I had been right- she was young. She couldn’t have been more than 20. She was wearing a black shawl, thrown carelessly over dark brown hair which was slipping out from under the head cover. She clutched at a black handbag and as the lights came back on, she shrank into herself at the far end of the room.

“Why are you sitting all the way over there?” Scolded Umm Hassen fondly, “Come over here and sit.” She nodded towards a large armchair next to our couch. The girl rose and I noticed for the first time just how slight her figure was- the long skirt and shirt hung off of her thin body like they belonged to someone else. She settled stiffly in the big chair and managed to look even smaller and younger.

“How old are you,M. ?” My mother asked kindly. “Nineteen.” Came the reply. “And are you studying? Which college are you in?” The girl blushed furiously as she explained that she was studying Arabic literature but postponed the year because… “Because she was detained by the Americans.” Umm Hassen finished angrily, shaking her head. “She’s here to see Abu Hassen because her mother and three brothers are still in prison.”

Abu Hassen is lawyer who has taken on very few cases since the end of the war. He explained once that the current Iraqi legal system was like a jungle with no rules, a hundred lions, and thousands of hyenas. No one was sure which laws were applicable and which weren’t; nothing could be done about corrupt judges and police and it was useless taking on criminal cases because if you won, the murderer/thief/looter’s family would surely put you in your grave… or the criminal himself could do it personally after he was let out in a few weeks.

This case was an exception. M. was the daughter of a deceased friend and she had come to Abu Hassen because she didn’t know anyone else who was willing to get involved.
On a cold night in November, M., her mother, and four brothers had been sleeping when their door suddenly came crashing down during the early hours of the morning. The scene that followed was one of chaos and confusion… screaming, shouting, cursing, pushing and pulling. The family were all gathered into the living room and the four sons – one of them only 15 – were dragged away with bags over their heads. The mother and daughter were questioned- who was the man in the picture hanging on the wall? He was M.’s father who had died 6 years ago of a stroke. “You’re lying,” they were told- wasn’t he a part of some secret underground resistance cell? M.’s mother was hysterical by then- he was her dead husband and why were they taking away her sons? What had they done? They were supporting the resistance, came the answer through the interpreter.

How were they supporting the resistance, their mother wanted to know? “You are contributing large sums of money to terrorists.” The interpreter explained. The troops had received an anonymous tip that M.’s family were giving funds to support attacks on the troops.

It was useless trying to explain that the family didn’t have any ‘funds’- ever since two of her sons lost their jobs at a factory that had closed down after the war, the family had been living off of the little money they got from a ‘kushuk’ or little shop that sold cigarettes, biscuits and candy to people in the neighborhood. They barely made enough to cover the cost of food! Nothing mattered. The mother and daughter were also taken away, with bags over their heads.
Umm Hassen had been telling the story up until that moment, M. was only nodding her head in agreement and listening raptly, like it was someone else’s story. She continued it from there… M. and her mother were taken to the airport for interrogation. M. remembers being in a room, with a bag over her head and bright lights above. She claimed she could see the shapes of figures through the little holes in the bag. She was made to sit on her knees, in the interrogation room while her mother was kicked and beaten to the ground.

M.’s hands trembled as she held the cup of tea Umm Hassen had given her. Her face was very pale as she said, “I heard my mother begging them to please let me go and not hurt me… she told them she’d do anything- say anything- if they just let me go.” After a couple hours of general abuse, the mother and daughter were divided, each one thrown into a separate room for questioning. M. was questioned about everything concerning their family life- who came to visit them, who they were related to and when and under what circumstances her father had died. Hours later, the mother and daughter were taken to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison – home to thousands of criminals and innocents alike.

In Abu Ghraib, they were separated again, and M. suspected that her mother was taken to another prison outside of Baghdad. A couple of terrible months later- after witnessing several beatings and the rape of a male prisoner by one of the jailors- in mid-January, M. was suddenly set free and taken to her uncle’s home where she found her youngest brother waiting for her. Her uncle, through some lawyers and contacts, had managed to extract M. and her 15-year-old brother from two different prisons. M. also learned that her mother was still in Abu Ghraib but they weren’t sure about her three brothers.

M. and her uncle later learned that a certain neighbor had made the false accusation against her family. The neighbor’s 20-year-old son was still bitter over a fight he had several years ago with one of M.’s brothers. All he had to do was contact a certain translator who worked for the troops and give M.’s address. It was that easy.

Abu Hassen was contacted by M. and her uncle because he was an old family friend and was willing to do the work free of charge. They have been trying to get her brothers and mother out ever since. I was enraged- why don’t they contact the press? Why don’t they contact the Red Cross?! What were they waiting for?! She shook her head sadly and said that they had contacted the Red Cross, but they were just one case in thousands upon thousands- it would take forever to get to them. As for the press- was I crazy? How could she contact the press and risk the wrath of the American authorities while her mother and brothers were still imprisoned?! There were prisoners who had already gotten up to 15 years of prison for ‘acting against the coalition’… she couldn’t risk that. They would just have to be patient and do a lot of praying.

By the end of her tale, M. was crying silently and my mother and Umm Hassen were hastily wiping away tears. All I could do was repeat, “I’m so sorry… I’m really sorry…” and a lot of other useless words.

She shook her head and waved away my words of sympathy, “It’s ok- really- I’m one of the lucky ones… all they did was beat me.”

Last 5 posts by Con Carlyon

Last 5 posts by Con Carlyon