Cover

LETTERS F ROM HELL

‘The torture usually begins at 12 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 a.m.’ ADNAN R. KHAN runts how he secretly corresponded with an inmate of Abu Ghraib prison.

May 24 2004
Cover

LETTERS F ROM HELL

‘The torture usually begins at 12 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 a.m.’ ADNAN R. KHAN runts how he secretly corresponded with an inmate of Abu Ghraib prison.

May 24 2004

LETTERS F ROM HELL

EXCLUSIVE

‘The torture usually begins at 12 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 a.m.’ ADNAN R. KHAN runts how he secretly corresponded with an inmate of Abu Ghraib prison.

“I AM A PRISONER at Abu Ghraib.” With those words, Mohammed Jassim al-Jabouri and I began our short-lived correspondence. It was a haunting first sentence, in a letter smuggled out of Iraq’s most notorious prison by a local worker not long after disturbing images of torture and abuse surfaced in the media. Despite the words’ simplicity, they were chilling—as is the rest of this story. After three short letters, my go-between has disappeared, there has been no more correspondence from Mohammed, and his family lives in fear after American troops searched their home.

I first met my contact, Hassan (not his real name), outside Abu Ghraib prison.

The photographs of torture and abuse had become public a day earlier; desperate families were swarming the prison gates, wanting news of loved ones but kept at bay by razor wire, concrete barriers and U.S. Marines. Some carried newspaper clippings of the horrifying images as they demanded information from Abdul Rahman Wahham Arar al-Rawy, the prison’s Iraqi liaison officer. Many had not heard of their family members in months.

Hassan was not at Abu Ghraib to visit relatives—he was an employee who gathered up litter from the prison grounds and ran errands for his American taskmasters. His family lives in abject poverty in a ragged village not far from the prison; to top up his meagre stipend, he also, on occasion, smuggled out letters from prisoners to family members who paid him a few dollars in compensation. “I’ve only done it a few times,” he told me during our first meeting. “It’s dangerous. The Americans search me, but I have a good hiding spot.” He reached down and showed me, pulling back the sole of his tattered sandal.

The next morning he brought me the initial letter, scrawled on the back of foil from a cigarette package. It reminded me of my first visit to the prison, in April 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime had fallen. Abu Ghraib was then a symbol of the horrors of Saddam’s rule: thousands had died there. Looters and vengeful former inmates were tearing the place apart. On the wall of one of the cells on death row, I saw the last desperate plea from a condemned prisoner: “I am a prisoner at Abu Ghraib. May God have mercy on me.”

It seemed inconceivable that the prison would ever be used again. But a year later, the guard towers are again manned, prisoners are packed into its small cells, or corralled into tent compounds on the sprawling grounds. According to one Red Cross assessment, as many as 90 per cent of the detainees are there without justification—a disturbing estimate considering the escalating evidence of abuse behind those menacing walls. “What was our sin that makes us deserve this punishment?” Mohammed asked in that first letter to me. “We appeal to human conscience to raise a voice.”

That note was delivered inconspicuously on the outskirts of the prison, out of sight of the guards, behind mounds of upturned dirt. Hassan, on his way to work, slipped into my car and hurriedly pulled the letter from his pocket. My translator read it to me in English and I then dictated a response that Hassan stuffed into his sandal. It would take a couple of days for a reply to arrive, he said. “And you should give me some paper that Mohammed can write on.” I gave him a sheet from my notebook. The meeting lasted all of five minutes.

WHILE I WAITED for Mohammed’s response, I decided to visit Abdul, the Iraqi liaison officer at Abu Ghraib. During the course of the day he would appear intermittently, climbing up onto one of the prison’s barriers. He promised visitations, admonished people for expecting too much, and, in the wake of the abuse allegations, defended U.S. actions. “These pictures are very old,” he yelled at people brandishing newly published images. Those being abused were “Baathists who worked for Saddam.”

Abdul refused to talk to me at the prison, but a local told me where he lived. We staked out the house for the afternoon. Abdul didn’t show up but a steady stream of families did, looking to talk to their only lifeline to imprisoned loved ones. They soon left in frustration. Abdul’s brother, Karim, said Abdul often stayed away if he saw a crowd gathered at the house. “He is under a lot of stress,” he told me. “Look at all of these people waiting for him. Every day there is a crowd demanding something of him.”

We returned the next afternoon and again waited. This time Abdul arrived. He invited us inside his dingy home, making certain to point out his poor living conditions. “Do you think I do this job for money?” he asked, sitting down to a dinner of flatbread and scrambled eggs. “I want to help my people. That is all.” He again defended the American soldiers pictured in the photographs. “We must sometimes give rights to the Americans as well,” he argued. “Those are criminals in the photographs.”

Abdul is 36, and a martial arts expert. During the Saddam era, he tutored the Iraqi special forces in the art of killing. Every person we spoke to in his neighbourhood and at the prison told us he was a member of Saddam’s fedayeen militia, a ruthless division whose members were chosen for their deep loyalty. Abdul himself admitted he was one of the first prisoners housed by the Americans at Abu Ghraib. “I came to the prison on July 23 of last year and was released at the end of August,” he said. “The Americans immediately hired me on.” He claimed he had not witnessed any torture. “Besides,” he argued, “I’m not sure what crimes these people committed, so I can’t say whether or not they deserved that kind of treatment.”

HASSAN MET US the next morning with a second letter. “They subject us to many kinds of torture and humiliation,” Mohammed wrote, “like physical beatings, electric shocks, and even the rape of some honest men and women. Where are the human rights that America is claiming when we only see lies?”

It was becoming more difficult to continue the correspondence, Hassan told me. “The Americans have tightened up,” he said. “Mohammed says it’s very difficult to pass the letters to me. He is scared.” I told Hassan we still didn’t have enough to be sure the letters were authentic. We needed more details, names and, most importantly, Mohammed’s home address so we could visit his family. “I have that,” Hassan said, to my surprise. “They’re not far from here.”

As it turned out, Hassan lived in the village Mohammed was from and their families knew each other. When I went there with my translator, an old woman wrapped in a traditional shawl opened the rusted metal door to the walled compound where Mohammed’s family lived. We only had to mention Hassan to gain entry, and waited while a girl ran across the dirt road to find Mohammed’s brother. Tea was served, while curious children poked their heads into the room before running off giggling.

Mohammed’s brother arrived a few minutes later, closely followed by his mother. We explained the reason for our visit; I passed the two letters to Mohammed’s brother. “That’s him,” he said when he saw the handwriting. “But that’s not his real name. He’s probably too afraid to use it.” Mohammed’s mother asked her son to read one of the letters. He only made it through the first two sentences before she broke down in tears.

Mohammed’s brother explained that he had been arrested five months ago during a raid on the car repair shop where he worked. The family hadn’t seen or heard from him since. “I know the shop had a couple of AK47s,” he said, “but every business has weapons. These are dangerous times.” The family had implored Abdul to arrange a visit, but to no avail. “Abdul doesn’t do anything for poor people like us,” Mohammed’s mother said. “He is a fedayeen. He will only help you if you pay him.”

Since the publication of the prison-abuse photographs, she said, she had barely slept. “He is my favourite son,” she said through a stream of tears. “Every morning before going to work he would kiss my hand. You can’t imagine the pain a mother goes through.” I tried to point out that Mohammed hadn’t specifically said he’d been tortured. “In the second letter he mentions that ‘we are facing torture,’ ” I pointed out, trying to console her. “We know from people who have been released that the situation inside is much worse than the pictures show,” Mohammed’s brother said. His mother added, “We were less fearful of Abu Ghraib during Saddam’s time. Now we feel a horror because of the mystery, because we cannot visit our loved ones.”

The incommunicado detentions have taken their toll on the families of other detainees. At the prison gates, relatives still flash visitation chits bearing dates that have long passed, and with no visit granted. People complain they are told every week that they will be allowed in—always next week. Frustration is mounting, and with it pressure on U.S. authorities to take action. The released photographs have added to the sense of urgency, forcing the American jailers into damage-control mode. A visitation centre was set up last week, while prisoners are now being released. But many still remain inside, cut off from the outside world.

TWO DAYS LATER Hassan brought us a third letter from Mohammed. It began by thanking me for my efforts, and then gave more details about life in Abu Ghraib. “There is little food,” Mohammed wrote. “I am feeling weak and haven’t eaten since morning. The torture usually begins at 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 4 a.m. We beg the human rights committee to speed up our release from this terrible prison.” I wrote back asking for more details. What was their daily routine? Had things changed since the publication of the photographs? What were their living conditions like? Hassan said he would have a reply in another two days.

But this time, Hassan didn’t appear. We waited for two hours, hoping he’d simply been delayed. We paid another visit to Mohammed’s family; they asked us to stay away because American troops had raided their house the day before, searching it thoroughly before leaving without explanation. “We are afraid they know Mohammed has been sending out letters,” his brother told me.

Had Mohammed and Hassan been found out? The following day we returned to the prison, well before the employees were scheduled to arrive. I waited in the car at the spot where we had normally met Hassan, while my translator went to the gate to see if he would come from a different direction. Nothing. Now, even as I worry about Mohammed and Hassan, I can’t help but wonder what Mohammed may have written in that last letter, the one I will likely never receive. The mystery of Abu Ghraib has infected me, and it feels like a virus. fifl