Abu Ghraib, May 23 — With the recent court-martial trial of one of the soldiers complicit in the widespread torturing of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison having come and gone, Iraqis see the newest promise made by the U.S. — to clean up their act regarding the treatment of detained Iraqis — as being yet more empty words.
In the dark humor that has become so popular in Baghdad these days, one recently released detainee said, “The Americans brought electricity to my ass before they brought it to my house!”
The promises to bring justice to soldiers involved in these heinous acts, along with promises to make Abu Ghraib more transparent and accessible, have fallen on the distraught ears of family members who wait outside the gates of the prison to see their loved ones inside.
Yesterday I went to the dusty, dismal, razor-wire ensconced waiting area outside of Abu Ghraib. Amidst the distinct feeling of despair and hopelessness pervading the heavily guarded area I found one horror story after another from melancholy family members, hoping against hope to be granted their chance to visit someone inside the awful compound.
Men, women and crying children congregated at this dire patch of barren earth, expressing bewilderment and outrage at their continuing inability to visit or gain information about loved ones held inside.
Sitting on the hard packed dirt in his white dishdasha, his head scarf languidly flapping in the dry, hot wind, Lilu Hammed stared at the high walls of the nearby prison. It was as if he was attempting to see his 32 year-old son Abbas through the tan concrete.
He sat alone, his tired eyes unwaveringly gazing upon the heavily guarded Abu Ghraib. When my interpreter Abu Talat asked him if he would speak with us, several seconds passed before Lilu slowly turned his head to look up at us.
“I am sitting here on the ground now, waiting for God’s help.”
His son had been in Abu Ghraib for 6 months following a raid on his home which produced no weapons. He had never been charged with anything. Lilu held a crumpled visitation permission slip in his hand that he had just obtained which allows for a reunion with his son … on the 18th of August.
Lilu, along with every other person I interviewed there, had found consolation neither in the recent court martial or the recent release of a few hundred prisoners.
“This court-martial is nonsense. They said that Iraqis could come to the trial, but they could not. It was a false trial.”
As for the recent release of several hundred prisoners from Abu Ghraib, he added: “I know someone who was captured for counterfeiting money, and they were released. So the thieves are released, and my innocent son is still inside!”
Another man tells of his brother, Jabbar Atia, who was detained without a reason given by the U.S. military.
“I don’t know why he is here!” he says in despair. “Even my brother does not know why he is here. Please tell me why! I am always coming here waiting for him to be released, but it never happens.”
He, too, feels the court-martial trial was bogus, and said: “It was a false trial. The Americans are only interested in capturing Iraqis. They don’t care about the facts.”
Yet another horrible story is that of Tu’amaa Mola Hassan Sabeeh, a 67 year-old man with Alzheimer’s, who had wandered from his home in Baghdad on June 29, 2003, and has been missing ever since.
His son, Rassem, standing in front of the checkpoint of Abu Ghraib, said, “We searched all of Iraq for him, and couldn’t find him. Then three weeks ago someone who was released told us he was here.”
Now the family members take turns coming out and waiting for his release. “We have not been allowed to see him, and if he is released, he can’t remember where to go, so we need to come here everyday to wait for him in case he is released.”
He said the entire family is affected, as the time away from their jobs is draining them financially. He added, “We’re all crying now. All our time is spent waiting. We don’t know his number, since they use numbers instead of names in there. So we know he’s there, but we cannot contact him. Where is the justice?”
Another man whose nephew is inside the prison, said, “I was depressed to see that my nephew remains in jail while others are released.”
When asked about the trial, he laughed deeply, then collected himself and said, “It was a movie. It was not real.”
The mother of Sadiq Abrahim was despondent when discussing both the detention of her 20 year-old son, as well as the recent trial. “An Iraqi judge had already found my son innocent, but he is still in jail,” she said. “I was happy to see the other prisoners released, but it made me sadder for my son.”
Of the recent trial in Baghdad she commented: “None of us believe the trial. It is not a real punishment.”
According to the mother of another prisoner, Jilal Samir, her son Habib was walking down the street when he was looted by thieves. Habib found some U.S. soldiers to ask for help, and was detained immediately. “He has been in jail for 10 months now, and what did he do to be here? Where is the justice?”
With tears in her eyes she told of trying to reason with a soldier while attempting to gain access into the penitentiary. She asked him if he would feel sad if he had a mother and couldn’t see her, and the soldier, in a smug effort to dismiss her plea, replied, “No.”
Holding her hands in the air, with more tears she cried, “Do the Americans have no feelings? They may not feel, but we do!”
Another convoy of Humvees full of soldiers with their guns pointing out the small windows rumbled out of the front gate of the penal complex. The huge dust cloud they produced quickly engulfed everyone waiting at the checkpoint.
Mrs. Samir, waved away the clouds of dust which billowed around her face. “We hope the whole world can see the position we are in now!” she said.
Meanwhile, in a press released on May 21st: “The Coalition Provisional Authority has recently given out hundreds of soccer balls to Iraqi children in Ramadi, Karbala, and Hilla. Iraqi women from Hilla sewed the soccer balls, which are emblazoned with the phrase All of Us Participate in a New Iraq.”
Baghdad, May 23 — Decades of smiles have left crinkles on his face that belie the sadness deep within his eyes. His hope and love for America has turned to a despair he is unable to express.
“I want to talk to an American general or judge,” says Nihad Munir. “I will give them my guarantee that my son is innocent. I will tell them that if he is not, then they can take me.”
His son, Ayad Nihad Ahmed Munir, was detained from their home during another of the middle of the night home raids the U.S. military is so fond of conducting in occupied Iraq. That was on September 28, 2003. Ayad remains in Abu Ghraib today, and his father has not been allowed to visit him, despite trying everything he can think of to do so.
Of course, as usual, Ayad, married with three children, wasn’t charged with anything.
Mr. Munir carries a small brown satchel, which holds copies of paperwork … the fruits months worth of his futile attempts to break down the untouchable barrier that bars him from seeing his son.
Here is a verbatim transcription of his written account of what occurred:
“On late night 27/28 September 2003 My own house/sons house has been attacked in a very bad and severe unrespectful manner by the American Military Occupation Forces regardless to our Islamic and Iraqi Holy Family Traditional safety and security manners. Claiming they received information about strangers hidden in this living area who are in touch with the recent explosives accidents occurs near the main Highway connecting Abu Kharib Amiriaa/Shouala close to hour house. They put us outside our main gate entrance (I and my sick wife of over 70 years, my son Ayads’ wife and three children, in deep sleep took them out of bed). Our two houses were both thoroughly and too repeatedly inspected for 3.5 hours. Finally they took away along with them my son without explaining the main accusation or charge. This incident resulted to: Losing cash money (son owns $1500 US), three women and men’s handwatches. My sons ID Card, his own passport, N. 459835 issued 3/5/2001 valid until 2/5/2005, and food stuff form NO. 863553.”
Mr. Munir has visited America. His dream is to return there again someday. “I’m a 65 year-old man, do you think I’m too much a dreamer?” he says with a hopeful smile.
I tell him, “Of course not…where are we without our dreams?”
I’m trying not to cry as I tell him this…because in Iraq, for Iraqis today, for Mr. Munir, this is all he has right now.
“I had a brother in Michigan who I so wanted to visit in the ’70s … but he died,” he continues while pulling out a copy of his son’s passport to show me a handsome photo of the detainee. “I visited America, I know Americans are very friendly people.”
His soft, kind voice hides his anguish. While distraught with the actions and behavior of the U.S. military in his country, he still separates this from the populace of the country which produced it.
Smiling gently, he adds: “See my hope? I still want to go to America.”
But the brief interlude of dreams dissipates as the reality at hand sets back in. He shows me a form he’d filled out from the Islamic Party — another document so far proven useless for obtaining contact with his son.
Then there is the letter signed by tribal sheikhs that he wrote last January, when the CPA was granting the release of some prisoners if their tribes swore to be responsible for any crimes the freed detainees may commit. Another useless document.
Mr. Munir’s despair returns: “We are lost! Our Iraqi lawyers are useless, because to the American military here, everything is about U.S. security.”
With gracious thanks he shakes my hand for making the time to visit with him. “I am so grateful for you for talking with me about my son,” his other hand is placed upon mine which he continues pumping. “Anything you can do will be most helpful for us.”
And now I’m in that position I dread again, as I explain to him that I am only a journalist; that although I will write about his story, I don’t know what else I can do to help his son.
Iraqis aren’t the only ones who are powerless in their country today. I hate this feeling … having someone hold hope in my writing … that it might actually change something for them. I never know what to do with this feeling.
The talk with Mr. Munir softens the anger I’ve felt so often towards the injustice which is slammed in my face every day here. The gentleness of his soul, despite his “critical time,” as he calls it, touches the deep sadness that lies beneath the false exterior of anger that usually covers it.
The rest of the evening I am sad. I think of how beneath the fury of the fighting of Fallujah in April, lies a bottomless ocean of sadness here. Under the bloodshed and fighting that rages in the South even now, there is unfathomable grief.
Driving back home with Abu Talat I phone my parents and tell them I love them. We laugh some, they speak with Abut Talat in parental solidarity, and we laugh a little more.
I hang up the phone and stare at the silhouettes of palm trees, the stars, the sliver of moon, and breathe deep so as not to cry … because of Mr. Munir.
“Do you think I’m too much a dreamer?”
Dahr Jamail is Baghdad correspondent for The NewStandard. He is an Alaskan devoted to covering the untold stories from occupied Iraq. You can help Dahr continue his crucial work in Iraq by making donations. For more information or to donate to Dahr, visit http://newstandardnews.net/iraqdispatches