Recently we have been hearing the word “torture” thrown about by politicians of the highest ranks and we never really stop to ask ourselves what that word truly means. What are the long-term effects of keeping a nation under constant threat of violence and intimidation? I have a horrifying tale to tell, and I hope it will answer those questions and shed light on the mentality of a nation that was in a constant state of fear.
Before I describe my experience in Abu Ghraib, Iraq’s infamous prison, I want to give some context about what it meant to be a political prisoner in Baathist Iraq. The majority of those incarcerated from 1978 to 2003 were political prisoners who posed a potential threat to the integrity of the Baath regime. Among their “crimes” were being educated, young and able, of the Shiite faith, not pro-Baathist enough and defenders of human rights or supporters of charitable causes.
The Iraqi people were under the watchful eye of a special police force that was focused on targeting anyone who posed a potential threat to the party or merely took the party’s name in vain. The state had achieved complete control over all media organizations. That included censoring newspapers, broadcasts, literature, textbooks. They scrambled satellites and forbade copy and print machines. Once the secret police had an individual in their field of vision, that person would be subjected to assault and imprisonment.
Political prisoners all over Iraq were blindfolded for days, tortured, bound, starved and deprived of every basic human need. The daily torture they endured included acid burns, amputation, electrocution, painful contortion and worst of all, being made to watch a loved one being tortured or molested. Many prisoners died, but those who survived were reminded weekly by having to go to their local secret police station and sign their dossier, be tortured and interrogated. While the censorship, deprivation and torture were bad enough to break the strongest activist, the true struggle — for the lucky ones — came after their release. They were systematically alienated by the removal of their right to work, higher education and travel.
In 1979, during the height of the Iran revolution, the Baath regime, along with partner regimes of similar interests, feared a revolt by the people. To prevent a revolution, the regime took extreme measures. Despite all attempts at censorship, the Iraqi people found ways to spread the news of the Iranian revolution and slowly a sense of rebellion spread. After decades of humiliation, religious persecution and lack of personal freedom, the Iraqi people finally saw hope when their neighbours broke free from a totalitarian regime. Iraqis were inspired by the potential freedom and went out on the streets protesting immediately after the regime arrested some vocal political clerics. Protesting, at that time, was a never-before-seen act of defiance in Iraq.
This is where my story as a political and human rights activist began. It would take me to prison three times. I spent a total of three years behind bars. My first arrest was due to my efforts in planning and participating in the Baghdad protest.
Ironically, the true threat to the Baath regime came from within when, in 1979, Saddam Hussein orchestrated a coup to take down Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr, the leader of the Baath party and the president of Iraq, killing 23 of the highest-ranking Baath members and officials in the process. As an act of appeasement, Saddam let some political prisoners go to avoid any attack on his newly formed government. I was one of them.
My second and longest stretch behind bars was in 1984 when I was arrested for making a donation to the families of deceased political prisoners. I had seen many families of political prisoners systematically isolated and intentionally starved. Charity or any form of aid provided to the families of political prisoners was an act of treason and was punishable by death. Being financially independent, I created an intricate network to disseminate my personal donations. Recipients and participants had no knowledge of each other, making it relatively safe from detection by the regime’s security services. In 1984, an acquaintance, who had at one point taken part in my donation network, was jailed and while being tortured, he named me as the organizer of the charity.
I was then arrested, identified by my friend and again subjected to the same torture and conditions I faced in 1979. I was sentenced to 10 years, despite the lack of evidence and my refusal to confess, and sent to serve my sentence in Abu Ghraib. In 1986, I received news that hundreds of my fellow political prisoners and I were to be released and taken into military camps, where we would be forced to serve on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war.
At this stage, the war had been going on for six years and the situation in Iraq had reached a new low. Saddam had slowly depleted his supply of young men and was drafting anyone who could hold a Kalashnikov. Due to a lasting injury to my right hip and leg, acquired through torture, I was unable to walk without the aid of a crutch, which meant that I was not suitable for the front. I was given a position as an engineer in the military and spent my service as an unarmed soldier.
By 1991, I was married with one child and another on the way. I had a lot more to lose, so I attempted to return to normal life, but my weekly dossier signings were a constant threat. I was sporadically imprisoned for a day or two and tortured frequently as a form of intimidation and to serve as a reminder of the torture I experienced in prison.
During the height of the Second Gulf War, when thousands of corpses lay rotting and unclaimed on the battlefront, Iraqi citizens took to the streets and called for an end to the Baath-Saddam regime that had claimed the lives and freedom of all who dared to stand up to them, and of the hundreds of thousands who died and were injured in Saddam’s useless wars. The Baath-Saddam regime feared that I, and anyone who had a political history, would contribute to the uprising and, in a desperate effort to regain some control, they arrested anyone who was a potential threat. For me, this meant yet another stay in prison, this time for three months, as a preventative measure and without a clear charge. That was my last long stay in the jails of a brutal dictator where I was subjected to torture in an effort to get a confession that I had any part in the uprisings.
Anyone who was a potential threat was dealt with by the most brutal methods, particularly anyone who had a shred of conscience and the ability to fight for human rights. Decades of systematic oppression and starvation created a generation of young people who were unaware of their most basic rights and who were too afraid to even dream of rebellion. Certain groups were targeted by the Saddam Baathist regime and tens of thousands lie unnamed in mass graves.
I remember seeing hysterical mothers searching for the remains of their sons in piles of ashes and bones, only to break down upon the sight of a familiar piece of torn cloth. Decades spent in complete isolation and under sanctions from the international world, yearning for a book to read or a song to sing, created a generation that does not even understand its own culture, let alone that of the world.
I recall seeing coalition troops deployed near Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War and I ask myself: “Where was the world when Saddam filled another mass