Torture stories

Wendell Steavenson
22 January 2003

There are 300,000 Iraqis in exile in Iran; mostly Shia from the south. Either deported in the early 1980s as potential traitors during the Iran–Iraq war or escaped since the 1991 uprising through bribed checkpoints, minefields, and smugglers routes across a closed borders, or via Kurdistan. They carried with them fear and the scars of torture and not much else.

Along with deportees and refugees, the Shia organisation, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (SCIRI), has been a fixture in Iran for more than twenty years, since Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shia, came across the border in 1979 after being tortured in an Iraqi prison. SCIRI has several thousand troops and operates guerrilla activities against the regime within Iraq. It also has a document centre which archives the human rights abuses of Saddam’s regime.

Khalid, the head of the documents centre, gave me the broad picture. ‘From the 1980s it was a period of deportations and tragic events that accompanied the deportations. Many young men were kept and detained in prison. After the deportations there were the Anfal operations and the attack on Halabja. Then in 1991 the intifada happened and there were also many tragic events. They dragged people on to the streets, forcing them to drink benzine and then shooting them, destroying their homes, striking the Holy Shrines. Then there was the drying of the marshes, the terminating of religious scholars and targeting the most well-known religious families. They detained ninety members of the Hakim family. The Ayatollah’s brother Seied Ahmad Hakim was executed and there were other tragic events.’

He showed me into a medium-sized room with a grey nylon office carpet, two desks and metal bookshelves lining the walls full of black ring binding folders. ‘We are translating some of these files, we are trying to put them in the computer, trying to add up the numbers,’ he explained. ‘I could not say how many victims we have documented but it is thousands, thousands.’

Bureaucracy of death

He began to point out the classification system. ‘These files are of EXECUTIONS. We have Ministry of Health certificates giving the cause of death as ‘hanging until death’ or ‘death by shooting’. These are DEATH UNDER TORTURE. We have files for the DISAPPEARED. We take statements from the families of those who have disappeared and we sort them according to the reasons they were arrested. Usually they are accused of being a member of the Communist Party or a religious party; but often the charges are never known. Then there is a different file for those who have disappeared and their families deported to Iran because they were said to be of Persian origin.’

He ran his fingers along the shelves, reading the labels on the spines, ‘and here we have DEPORTED FAMILIES, MARSH AREA CRIMES, the CHEMICAL ATTACKS ON THE KURDS DURING THE ANFAL, the TORTURE files, and separate ones for AMPUTATION, CHEMICAL POISONING, MASS GRAVES, DESTRUCTION OF PROPERTY, INTERNALLY DISPLACED FAMILIES, PRISONS – and here are two subsections, one for KNOWN PRISONS and one for SECRET PRISONS. And we have in this cupboard specific documents from the regime brought by sources inside Iraq….’

He took out some files, flipping through the plastic envelopes between the divider and pulled out a single sheet among so many:

The date was 15 June 1983.
Subject: The implementation of the Judgement of Execution.
Text: … ‘By the presence of Comrade Mezban Khadr Hadi, Regional Command of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party and other members of Party branches and a large number of military officers, the punishment of execution of shooting until death was implemented against the criminals listed below.’ There followed a list of twenty-eight names.

‘He was just a regional commander then,’ commented Khalid. ‘Now he is very high up in the regime, an aide to Saddam: a member of the Revolutionary Command Council.’

I asked if he had more recent documents. He opened another file on another shelf and found one pertaining to the Marsh Operations in 1992, orders for companies that were involved in the draining project that would create a desert where there had been water and life and deny rebels their cover. The orders came with diagrams of redirected rivers and schedules that exhorted haste.

Another page dated 2 April 1992. Orders from Ali Hassan al Majid, ‘Ali Chemical’, the man responsible for the Kurdish genocide, at the time Minister of Defence.

Subject: Instruction from the Minister of Defence after his visit to the area controlled by the 10th Brigade on 10 March.

(1) Before occupying new territory works that can help the military group holding the area must be carried out … procedures … minefields, barbed wire.
(2) How to punish the ones considered as cowards who leave their positions during attacks; they should be executed as an example to others.
(3) An insistence that the soldiers train daily using hard work, and good training to raise the level of the military soldiers.

Files, videos, memories

After looking through the files I watched a video of Ali Chemical and other high-ranking cabinet members beating prisoners captured during the uprising. The prisoners’ heads were cowed, their hands bound; they were being led and dragged by ropes around their necks, pushed to the ground, slapped in the face, kicked at. The violence was a sort of derogatory sport, oddly inept and real – the punches sloppy, misconnected boot kicks; its purpose merely to reinforce object over human being. The human being was gone behind blank eyes that did not look up, already buried in the earth. It was obvious the prisoners were suffering their last moments before being shot.

There was a second video from Najaf during the uprising. The scene was set in a corner of a shrine filled with civilians wounded by the bombing. Khalid said they had moved the wounded into the shrine because the hospitals were being targeted. The camera focused on a figure lying misshapen on the ground, leg and arm blown off hanging tangled gore. A woman doctor in a white coat stood with her arms outstretched amid the carnage speaking angrily but clearly, as though there was someone beyond the lens who could hear her. ‘We have no medicine, we have no electricity … look at these people.’

There were other videos too, of the chemical victims of Halabja lying in the street crumpled, babies lying across the breasts of dead Madonna mothers, a whole truckful of unescaped corpses; the cab door open and the driver collapsed and lying prone beside it.

After the videos, they showed me posters of artists’ impressions of various torture techniques and photographs of torture victims with their arms missing and unimaginable, indescribable, horrendous scars. Khalid saw me flinch and apologised for showing me such things. His apology was ridiculous but I was grateful for it. I did not want to be a pathetic woman looking at these pictures and recoiling, but the pictures of Halabja had made me cry.

Two days later I went to Qom, the Shia centre of learning, two hours south of Tehran where many Shia Iraqis have settled; to be close to their own religious schools and mullahs, and because the rents are cheaper than Tehran.

I met a woman from Basra with a dark face and a bridge in place of her front teeth that were knocked out when she was beaten in prison. She knelt on the floor, a black triangle of enfolded chador, and told me her story very clearly, without excess emotion.

Her husband was arrested because of his participation in the uprising. She was arrested two years later. ‘One of the mujahideen who participated in the intifada mentioned our name during interrogation, the security forces and soldiers, they call them emergency forces, they came to my house and arrested me. They didn’t give any reason; they just said my name and, when I said yes it was me, they took me. They forced me to leave even without my shoes.’

‘For the first seven or eight months they interrogated us. They beat my feet and put electric shocks in my ears. They told me: ‘You must give us information on those in the intifada and those families who have crossed into Iran.’

She was released during a general amnesty. She took her seven children and escaped. Her husband was released six months later and managed to join the family in Iran. He had spent three and a half years in prison. ‘He was in a miserable condition because of the torture. He was nearly dead,’ she said. ‘He could barely move his hands because he had been hung from the ceiling.’ Relatives took him in and fed him, but the unaccustomed nourishment destroyed his intestines and he had to have an operation to remove part of them. ‘Until now when he sleeps he can wake suddenly nervous, like he has been shocked.’

The family live with difficulty in Iran but they manage. Her sixteen-year-old son works repairing shoes, her husband is an occasional welder. The family of eight lives in two rooms off a small cement courtyard. They have had to suffer the news that her sixty-year-old mother and two of her brothers were arrested after they escaped. They released her mother and one of the brothers; the other brother was executed. She told me this in the same clear tone of voice that she used for the rest of the interview. Her hands were very mobile and flashed and because of the black mass behind them looked like they operated independently of a body.

‘Was it because your family escaped?’

‘Yes, because of me.’

‘How did you take the decision to leave?’

‘I was just very frightened.’

‘Do you have any contact with your family in Iraq now?’

‘No, there is no chance.’

‘Would you like to go home?’

‘Yes, of course I want to go home.’

I asked her what she thought of the US invading Iraq.

‘We hope they help us to be rid of him and we can go back to our homes,’ she said. ‘We don’t know, only God knows, their real intentions. We only want to get rid of that man.’

A million stories untold

Jabbar Abid is now the Vice-President of a Madrasa that was originally founded for ex-Iraq prisoners. He is a good-looking dynamic mullah, brown abaya, white turban, black charcoal beard.

He came from a small town in the Najaf Province called al-Heira. He went to a technical college, but when he graduated in 1984 he refused to join the Ba’ath Party and became known as a mosque attender. He was arrested.

‘I went many times through torture and interrogation in those two years. They were asking for names of deserters and those who avoided the army and those who attended the mosque. They tied my hands with handcuffs and hung me from the ceiling and put electric shocks to sensitive parts of my body. Sometimes they beat my feet. There was also psychological torture. They would say, “we will bring you someone who will rape you” or “tomorrow you will be killed”.’

He pulled up his trousers to show me small circular dents in his shins. ‘I did not give them any names.’

His story continued. It is a feature of Iraqi exile stories that they do not end with a single horror episode; they are more like a terrible serial, a chain link, as Khalid would say, of tragic events.

After two years he was released on the condition that he join the Ba’ath Party and joined the military service. ‘I found it was better to head towards the marshes,’ Jabbar said simply. ‘I went there because they were safe places the regime could not reach. I could hide and live there.’ He lived in the marshes for one year. But because of his flight, his family was arrested and so he surrendered and was put in a military engineering battalion.

He was stationed with the engineering battalion in Baghdad. The soldiers talked among themselves. They complained about Saddam, about the war. One of the soldiers talked about trying to get out to Saudi Arabia. A group of them began to plan to try to escape together. There was to be a rendezvous, but when Jabbar walked towards the designated house he noticed plainclothes security watching it. He realized the whole thing had been an inside mukhabarat sting operation and walked away. The security forces found him at once; one of them said, ‘let’s take a walk to discuss things.’ ‘As we walked I saw a car parked further down the lane and I understood that it was an ambush.’ He ran off, they shot at him, but he escaped. Later they arrested his brother and his brother’s sons. They sentenced him to death in absentia for trying to cross the border. ‘I remained in the marshes until the intifada

In 1991 he fought in the uprising. At one point the rebels took over the security forces headquarters in Najaf. He saw documents with the names of secret agents who were spying on people, instructions to use weapons against civilians and assassination arrangements. The bombing was intense. ‘Many people were killed. I saw twelve people in front of my eyes killed in Najaf when the Republican Guard tanks attacked. Children were lying dead in the street. In another place there were twenty bodies that we could not bury because the bombing was so bad. Helicopters fired rockets at our houses. Three or four times I saw Scud missiles.’

Everything was chaos, Saddam had not yet regained control, Jabbar got through the Saudi border.

Now he lives in Qom, he has a good job and a fine thick pile carpet on the floor of his apartment, an intelligent wife and five children. He seemed a happy man and, as I left, we did a good round of inshallah-ing, hopeful that Saddam would be soon finally ousted.

Talking to Iraqi exiles is like a torrent of nasty stories, brother executed, husband deserting, missing, arrests, attacks, moving, house confiscated, twenty years or more of it, tumbled out stories lost in a maze of detention, amnesty, prison, police, mukhabarat, the uprising. There are thousands of these stories, millions. They are sadly already trite, individual distinctions blurred among the numbers.

The exiles are less than half the story. The full weight of things, of living and dying still inside Iraq has yet to be heard. It is not that those stories will be materially different from those who have managed to escape. It is awfully true that, after a while, torture stories all begin to sound the same. But, socially, exiles are apart; their national experience has been amputated at the moment of departure. For those who have had to exist in Iraq, and who have managed to, their everyday must bring a more complex shading of relatives and friends and colleagues, fear, foreboding, small victories, grey area and dilemma, people around them – even people in the regime – good and bad mixed in different situations at different times.

Many of the exiles have been in Iran for twenty years or more; they have become, perhaps a different parallel generation. Will they think in the same way as the countrymen they have left behind? We are trying to understand Iraq and so we are listening to Iraqis who are able to talk to us because they are outside Iraq. One day, hopefully soon, we will be able to listen to all of them.

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