The 40-day prisoner
A drive through the streets of Baghdad can turn into a nightmare for an ordinary citizen. Karim Gawhary tells how
Mohamed spent 40 days in an American prison in Iraq after being arrested in August while driving through the streets of Baghdad. The 44-year- old owner of a small take-away food stall was never a major criminal figure; none would expect his arrest to be announced at a press conference with the words, "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him". But Mohamed's story is a prime example of what prisoners less prominent than Saddam Hussein are subjected to at the hands of the occupiers.
It was simply not his day; Mohamed had no idea what was in store for him as he drove through the Karada area of Baghdad on 7 August. He ran into the usual traffic jam in the main shopping street, but what Mohamed didn't know was that an American patrol had run into an ambush just two kilometres down the road. Two soldiers had been killed; the perpetrators escaped and the Americans had set up the usual roadblock -- hence the traffic jam.
Unaware of the situation, Mohamed turned off the main road into a side street, and the trap was sprung. "About half a dozen soldiers rushed towards the car pointing weapons in my face," he recalled. "I was terrified and stayed in the car. Then they dragged me out of the car, threw me to the ground and handcuffed me." In the heat of the moment, while lying on the ground, he shouted the infamous American "f" word at the soldiers. Somebody hit him in the back. He was left lying on the ground with guns pointing at him for about half an hour. His car was searched but no weapons were uncovered; all that was found was a bottle of Johnny Walker whisky, which would end up playing a major role in his arrest and detention.
Mohamed was taken to the American headquarters in the Sajud Palace, a former residence of Saddam Hussein's, and was left outside in the tennis court with other recently-arrested for six hours before his first interrogation. During the interview, a US officer questioned him about his relationship with the terrorists. The conversation became quickly heated when Mohamed, who speaks English, noticed that the Lebanese translator was not translating his responses properly. Mohamed was hit from behind on the back of the head and he vomited on the officer's desktop: the interrogation lasted another two hours.
At one point, he requested permission to ring his family. "These days, if you don't turn up at home after a while, people worry," he said. Speaking in English, he explained to the officer that, "in America detainees have the right to a phone call." He learnt this from watching American films, he told the officer. "This is not America," came the reply, "and the law here is occupation law."
Mohamed was later taken to the airport. One of the two terminals handles the few incoming flights, and the other is used as a high-security prison where most of the former high-ranking officials of the erstwhile government -- the faces on the infamous pack of cards -- are held. Mohamed was held there in a camp for three days. "It was awful," he said, "having to spend time outside in the August heat. There were 30-40 prisoners in each tent, and the drinking water in the metal containers was practically boiling."
He was interrogated time and again, asked about his relationship with Islamists, and which Ba'ath Party members he knew from his neighbourhood. On several occasions he was visited by friendly young men dressed in civilian clothes who would take him for a walk, a smoke and a chat. "CIA interrogators, I suspect," said Mohamed.
He was finally transported in a military truck to Abu Ghreib Prison in west Baghdad, the country's largest and most notorious detention centre during the reign of Saddam, which is still used by the occupiers. Mohamed had never been inside an Iraqi prison during the long years of Saddam's reign. He had always endeavoured to keep a low profile, and now, in post-Saddam Iraq, he was thrown in jail for the very first time.
Each prisoner is given a card on arrival at the prison, and Mohamed was finally made aware of the reason for his arrest: "drunk while in control of a vehicle and resisting arrest", was printed on the card. But there was no mention of the period of detention in Abu Ghreib. Mohamed was neither charged nor had seen a judge, either Iraqi or American. His family had not been informed of his whereabouts.
"I was sure my husband was dead," his wife says, with the entire family gathered together in their modest home in Baghdad. She even tried to prepare her two daughters Iman and Rania for the news that their father may not be coming back. Mohamed finally managed to give his wife's telephone number to a released prisoner. "I was so relieved to find out he was still alive," she said. But she was unable to do anything to help her husband. No visitors, neither legal counsel nor family members, are allowed access to the American Abu Ghreib Prison.
Mohamed spent the following 36 days in a camp at the edge of the prison together with 500 prisoners, surrounded by walls, barbed wire and watch towers. He shared a tent with a dozen other murderers, looters, and rapists, as well as others who had been arrested under circumstances as strange as his own. Shots could be heard periodically from outside and on two occasions the camp was attacked by Iraqi guerrillas convinced that the prison was an American military camp.
When the camp came under mortar fire, the American guards retreated into the building leaving the prisoners in the tents to their fate. It was a day Mohamed would never forget. "We carried the wounded to the gate and begged the Americans to take them away," he recalled, but the Americans had taken refuge in the building. That evening Mohamed counted seven dead and more than 50 wounded. The camp was attacked again a few days later, and the guerrilla attacks only stopped after the prisoners managed to get a message to the neighbouring village explaining that Iraqi prisoners were behind the wall, and not American soldiers.
Mohamed, the only prisoner who spoke some English, soon became the official camp translator, and he also became friendly with some of the soldiers. "A lot of them were homesick," was how he described their state of mind. One of the soldiers had just lost his father, and the wife of another had given birth; and none of them had the chance to go home. "When I get home," a sergeant told Mohamed, "I will never again vote for George Bush." The same sergeant, by now on friendly terms with Mohamed, checked the computer regularly for any details about his release. And finally the news arrived. "Tomorrow you're to be released, and you'll be freer than any US soldier here."
"All the best, and sorry for the unpleasant situation," said an officer to Mohamed as he was leaving the prison, adding that, "there was actually no reason for you spending the last month here."
Mohamed was a changed man when he returned home, a fact confirmed by his wife. Now he is afraid to drive and spends most of his time at home with his family. "The only way of guaranteeing that nothing like this will ever happen to me again is to emigrate," he says. He is thinking of moving with his family to one of the Gulf states, but is somewhat reluctant since he does not want to have "to start again from scratch".
And how would he sum up his experience in a single sentence? Mohamed pauses a while. "The most bizarre thing was to be imprisoned by the very people who claim to be our saviours."