A Grim Foreshadowing?
The accounts of four Iraqis working for Western news organizations who say they were abused by American troops in January 2004 sound hauntingly familiar to the horrors of Abu Ghraib that emerged four months later. But the episode has received little media attention. The government denies that the soldiers acted improperly.
By Jill Carroll
Jill Carroll is a freelance journalist in the Middle East.
NBC cameraman Ali Mohammed Hussein was simply following his news instincts when he set off to track down the crash site of a U.S. military helicopter on January 2, 2004. His brother, a cousin and a friend, all of whom work for Reuters, joined him.
They didn't return for three days. When the Iraqis finally turned up, it was with an outlandish tale of abuses suffered in U.S. military detention facilities. Their story foreshadowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison that came to light four months later. But unlike Abu Ghraib, their ordeal has been largely ignored by the media, and the military does not admit any wrongdoing.
This account of what happened to them is based on interviews in Iraq with three of the men, using a translator, and transcripts of lengthy interviews conducted by Reuters. A U.S. military investigation said soldiers did not abuse or torture the men, but Reuters continues to push for a more thorough inquiry. The Pentagon said it had no further comment on the allegations for this story. (See "Investigating the Charges.")
The four Iraqis were accused not of shooting film, but a OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopter that crashed near Fallujah, killing one U.S. soldier and injuring another. Eventually, they were released and were not prosecuted.
On that Friday afternoon Ali, now 33, was praying at a mosque in Fallujah with his cousin Sittar Jabbar Hussein al-Badrani, 29, a driver for Reuters. When they left the mosque, word had already hit the street that an American helicopter had crashed nearby.
Ali's brother, Ahmed Mohammed Hussein al-Badrani, 29, who works as a cameraman for Reuters, was near the mosque helping a friend fix a broken-down car. Ali and Sittar spotted him and rushed over.
The three, who had been working for Reuters and NBC for less than a year, knew their bosses would need footage of what was likely to be the biggest news of the day. As cameramen, they have to get to the site of an attack before the area is sealed off and the scene cleared. It's no use shooting pictures from hundreds of yards away behind a military cordon. They all hopped in Sittar's car and sped off to find the crash.
As is usual when violence erupts, the U.S. military had closed off the roads leading to the site. So the three men drove up and down roads in the lush farmland surrounding the Euphrates River, which cuts through Fallujah, looking for a way to the crash site. While crossing a bridge, they came across Reuters cameraman and reporter Salem Ureibi, who was also looking for the site, along with his driver. Salem had been working for Reuters in Iraq for more than a decade.
They decided to team up and soon found a spot behind a military checkpoint where they could see the site. They got out several hundred yards from the checkpoint and donned their flak jackets with "PRESS" emblazoned across them. Salem started filming the soldiers at the checkpoint down the road while the others were setting up their equipment.
But then they noticed that one of the military vehicles had started to move toward them. One of the most dangerous places in Iraq is anywhere shortly after an attack. There are angry crowds, jittery soldiers and sometimes another attacker waiting for civilians and security forces to gather before launching a second strike.
Unsure of what the approaching military vehicle was going to do, the men decided it was time to go. They packed up their cameras and got back into their cars. As they sped away, gunfire followed them. It appeared to be coming from the Americans.
They stopped a few kilometers away. Salem gave his driver the film he had shot and sent him to Baghdad to deliver it to the Reuters office. He climbed into Sittar's car next to Ali and Ahmed, and the four set off to find a closer spot to film the wreckage.
They ended up at a school where several other reporters and cameramen had gathered, but American military vehicles weren't far behind. Everyone scattered as the soldiers rumbled up. Sittar drove down a dead-end road.
One of the military vehicles swung into view at the other end of the street and moved in behind them. Cornered, Salem, Ali, Ahmed and Sittar got out of the car, raised their arms above their heads and shouted that they were journalists. Soldiers were moving toward them with guns raised, firing warning shots and shouting instructions that the men couldn't understand.
"We got out of the car, and the soldiers started shouting and shouting and putting us on the ground. But we don't speak English that well, and we couldn't understand what the soldiers were saying, and we shouted, 'Cameraman,' " says Ali, a tall, barrel-chested man with light, yellow-gold eyes.
With the men lying on the ground, the soldiers searched them, pulling satellite phones, identification cards and money out of their pockets and slipping them into plastic bags. The men's hands were put behind their backs and secured with plastic handcuffs called "flex-cuffs." The thin plastic strips bit into their skin, tightening if they struggled and leaving marks that would remain for weeks.
Hoods were slipped over their heads. The soldiers grabbed the Iraqis by their belt buckles and their shirts and tossed them into a Humvee like sacks of potatoes.
"Even until this moment I wasn't afraid. I thought they would release us. This is my job, and I have an ID showing I work for an international company," says Ali in a steady voice. "I didn't expect the coming things would happen."
After a short trip the Humvee stopped. Blinded by the hoods, the men struggled to gain their bearings and decipher what was happening from the shouts in English and the noises of an armored vehicle nearby.
They soon knew the armored vehicle all too intimately. Ali, Ahmed and Sittar were grabbed by the soldiers and shoved face-down on the floor under the seats of what they came to call "the tank." Salem was tossed across a row of seats.
The seats were pushed down on top of Ali, Ahmed and Sittar and locked into place. Ali bulged out of the space. The lock securing the seat to the floor cut into his leg, he recalls, reaching to his thigh and rubbing the area.
Soldiers sat on top of the three men and squeezed their boots around Ali's, Ahmed's and Sittar's heads, which were poking out the ends of the rows.
"I couldn't breathe because of the bag on my head, and I was squashed into a small space," Ali says. "I was only thinking they would search us and release us. When they put the handcuffs and bags on our heads, I thought they were just trying to scare us into not [filming a crash site] again. When they put us in the tank, I began to feel something was wrong."
Talking was forbidden in the tank. But Ali, Ahmed and Sittar say the pain of the bouncing ride and pressure from the seats squeezing them made it impossible to keep quiet. "I was shouting 'I can't breathe,' " Ali says. The soldier sitting on him hit him with the butt of his gun in response. The soldier said, " 'Shut up, shut up,' and I asked Salem [who speaks some English] to translate that I couldn't breathe, and the soldier told Salem to tell me if I didn't shut up, he'd put a bullet in my head."
Ali recalls it all calmly now, looking down at his feet, gaining steadiness by striking a monotone. He asked to recount his experience alone, and the others volunteered to leave the room while he spoke. Being older than his relatives, and particularly as Ahmed's big brother, it's shameful for him to discuss his humiliation in front of them. (Salem declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the difficulty of discussing the experience and the fact that little had come of his telling his story in the past.)
"It was winter, but I was sweating all over," Ali says. "I tried to gather all the strength I had to relieve the stress on my chest to breathe better, but I couldn't." He puffs up his shoulders and chest to show how he tried to relieve some of the pressure of the seat crushing him by pushing against it.
"I felt like I was dying, and I wanted an explosion [to come] and finish this torture," says Ali. "This was the worst part of my life, these few hours in the tank. I told my brother Ahmed to take care of my daughter."
The bouncing metal floor of the tank beat bruises across Ali's, Ahmed's and Sittar's faces. Sweat was pouring over their bodies, and slowly they lost feeling in their limbs as the flow of blood was pinched off by the seats pressing them into the floor. The ride seemed to last for hours.
Then the rumbling stopped. The back hatch of the vehicle opened, and suddenly the seats popped up and air came rushing into their lungs.
"I felt like life was coming back to me again when the soldier stood up. I could breathe," Ali says. But when they pulled him out of the vehicle he couldn't stand on his own. All four were laid on the ground. They inhaled deeply, relishing the fresh air, and they began to get feeling back in their limbs. The plastic handcuffs were cut off and their hoods removed, revealing a night sky.
The men sat upright on the ground, distracted by the cold wind whipping through their sweat-soaked clothes.
English started flying at them: "Name," "address," "hometown," asked a new group of soldiers. The four stammered out answers, which were recorded on a badge that included one more piece of information about their arrest: a "C" or "G" label. They are unsure which letter it was but soon learned not to forget it. They realized it entitled them to punches, insults and harsh treatment not meted out to other prisoners. Neither the men nor Reuters knows what the letter stood for.
"When [soldiers] would look at our ID, they would say, 'Ooooh,' " Ali says of the label.
They still didn't know why they were being held, but that first night the seriousness of their situation finally hit home. They spent it on a cement floor, shivering two to a blanket in a long hall with dozens of other detainees from Fallujah. Soldiers walked the length of the breezy hall, forcing the prisoners to stay awake.
"It was cold. We were just sitting on the ground," says Ali. "If [a soldier] sees someone sleeping, he will kick him or make him do push-ups or heavy exercise. You have to keep your eyes open."
"The guys in the [hall] were not soldiers, they were monsters," says Ahmed, slouching in a chair, his deep, rumbling voice belying his matchstick-like frame.
From then on, everything became a confusing, terrifying swirl. Each individual incident is clear in their minds, but time stretched and bent in their exhausted, fearful state. The men say it's hard to remember the exact order in which everything happened.
When morning broke, food arrived for the prisoners. But the smell repulsed them, and fear had left them without an appetite.
That day they discovered why they were being detained. One at a time they were hooded, handcuffed and led to a trailer that served as an interrogation room. There, the hoods were removed. Two soldiers and a translator sat behind a desk. Each man was questioned separately but their experiences were similar. Each was instructed to kneel on the floor and raise his arms in the air for the entire interrogation.
"'Why did you attack the helicopter?'" the interrogators demanded. "'We found machine guns and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] in your car,'" Ali recalls them charging.
He was dumbstruck at the accusation.
"The only equipment we had was a camera. I am a journalist; it is my duty to take pictures," Ali told them, his arms still in the air, small rocks on the floor digging into his knees.
The questions continued for hours. Where was he when the helicopter crashed? How long had he been working for NBC? Did he have children? Where did he live?
Sometimes the soldiers had orders, not questions.
In the Arab world, sitting so someone can see the soles of your shoes is considered rude. Playing on that social more, Sittar was told to lick the bottoms of the slippers he was wearing, a humiliating gesture. He started to lick the width of the slipper but was corrected by the soldiers and the bearded translator, who spoke Lebanese Arabic.
"Like this," he says, holding an imaginary shoe and demonstrating how they made him lick the sole lengthwise. "If I was one of the attackers, I would admit it. But I didn't do anything. I am a journalist, and look what they did to me," Sittar says.
Then the soldiers said " 'Put your finger in your ass,' " Sittar recalls, leaning forward and putting his hand behind him with an embarrassed laugh.
When it was Ahmed's turn, he also knelt and had to raise his long, thin arms in the air and wave them back and forth. He was ordered not to say "wullah," a common phrase in Iraqi Arabic that means "swear to God."
"When I said 'wullah,' the translator told the Americans, and they hit me," Ahmed says. "When I would say it, [the soldier] would say, 'Hit yourself' or he will hit me."
Other times "they made me suck my middle finger. They told me to stick my middle finger in my anus and then lick it," he said in a transcript of an interview about his experience with Andrew Marshall, chief correspondent in Iraq for Reuters.
The interrogations were finished by that night but, as the men were to find out, the hard part was just beginning.
One by one as their interrogations were finished, the tired, frightened men were brought to a small room adjoining the main hall and told to stand in a corner and face the wall.
"Then they started the torture," Ali says.
It lasted all night. They were ordered to perform strenuous exercise until they were exhausted and to assume humiliating sexual poses. Soldiers would come by the door of the room and watch, the men recall. Some took pictures. All laughed.
"They made us lie on each other like a cross. One of the soldiers forced me to move like I was having sex, and they had personal cameras taking pictures of us," Ali says.
The whole time he kept his eyes on the small, open windows in the room, watching for a streak of sunlight that would bring dawn and, hopefully, an end to the suffering. It seemed to never come.
Every few hours a new group of soldiers would take over. Each time the men hoped the new guards would be kinder, but they just brought a new form of punishment.
Some played deafeningly loud music and forced the men to dance to it. Others would whisper things in their ears--most of which they didn't understand except a few choice swear words--while forcing them to do push-ups or other exercise. "Each time a soldier would pass, they would hit me in the head and shine a flashlight in my eyes," says Ahmed.
Salem understood some of what the soldiers said. "They would whisper, 'Please bring your wife here,' " Salem said in a transcript of his recounting of the incident to Marshall. "I thought they were going to rape us. They were standing at our backs."
The only respite came when a soldier named Jerry arrived and allowed Salem to rest, he said, according to the transcript.
As morning approached, the men were told to put their hands on each other's shoulders in a circle. Soldiers placed tape over their mouths and pulled hoods over their heads. Then they were ordered to walk quickly in unending circles.
They kept going until Ahmed, so thin he barely fills out his clothes, collapsed. Sittar asked for water, but he was forced to drink an entire bottle, which he quickly threw up from the strain of physical exertion.
"Because of the bags I could see nothing, but I heard Ahmed coughing and fall and heard Sittar and [Salem] fall," Ali says. "I was the last one standing, and a soldier was saying, 'Oh, you're strong?' and he started hitting me in the mouth and head and groin."
After Ahmed and Sittar collapsed, the soldiers decided the night was over. The men were brought back to the drafty hall and given food and water. It was the first time in hours they had been allowed to sit down. Sick from fear and exhaustion, they could barely choke down the food, even though they had hardly eaten in more than a day.
"I was pretending this food is delicious. It smelled like dead flesh [but] I wanted to encourage them to eat because Ahmed was white and looking weak," Ali says.
But soon they were on the move. The men found themselves in a Humvee, desert wind whipping past them as they jolted and bumped their way to an unknown destination.
"I heard a soldier saying 'Cuba, Cuba' and I was really afraid," Sittar says. The large prison at Camp Buca in southern Iraq is often called "Cuba" by U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
When they stopped, they weren't in southern Iraq, however, but at a base near a town that used to be called "Saddam near Fallujah." It appeared to be run by military police.
"There was no way out. When we got to the military police prison I was thinking of escaping, even if they kill me, because I couldn't bear it anymore," Sittar says.
They were taken in for more interrogation individually, but this time in a warm room where a woman asked them again about their activities the day they were arrested and details about their work and lives. They were even given a chair to sit in.
"The second place was like a tourist trip compared to the first place. There was a bench to sit on" while they waited to be interrogated, Ali says.
This time, at least, no one hit them during the questioning--that was reserved for trips to the bathroom.
Sittar never saw the path to the bathroom – once again a hood was over his head. But he found out the path was lined with barbed wire when the soldiers escorting him pushed him into it. They pulled him by the hood, punching and shoving him.
"On the way back [from the bathroom] I asked for a cigarette," he says. "They said 'No' and hit me."
Sittar, frazzled and beleaguered after days without sleep and unable to eat, says the other prisoners took care of him. They showed him where to get a mattress, two warm blankets and bottles of water, more comfort than he and the others had seen in days.
"The other detainees saw that I was miserable," says Sittar.
They also told him that this was the camp where their fate would be decided. From here it was either freedom or Abu Ghraib prison, notorious for torture under Saddam Hussein.
The next morning, January 5, they were briefly interrogated again. At the end of the questioning the interrogator said, " 'You're going home,' " Sittar recalls. "I said, 'I love you.' "
It would still be several hours, but as dusk fell that night Ali, Ahmed, Sittar and Salem were finally sent home.
"2978, 2978," called out a soldier, Ali says. "The other detainees said, 'It's you.' I grabbed my stuff and went out. I saw the soldiers cutting off the [prisoner identification] bracelets. Even the way of the soldiers was different. They apologized."
The men were driven to the gate of the base, and Sittar's car was returned to them. They got into the familiar vehicle and pulled out past the gates, confused, in shock and guided by two tanks until they got to the main road.
"We were terrified. At that moment they released us, we saw two tanks coming, and we felt it was a joke and these two tanks would capture us and take us back," Ahmed says.
More than a year later they still haven't been able to leave behind the experiences of those three days.
"It's an unforgettable thing. For a week I stayed home in my bed. I couldn't move," Sittar says. "It used to be a normal thing to talk to Americans. Now I don't do that, and when I see a tank, it really terrifies me."
Sittar, Ali, Ahmed and Salem all returned to work shortly after their detention, though Ali considered whether he should do so for a number of weeks. Their jobs demand that they go to dangerous places, risking their lives to bring home the images of Iraq's violent, tumultuous experience. The U.S. military also made clear in public and private statements that they could arrest these Iraqis again at any time, a threat whose significance is not lost on the men.
"I'm very careful what I take a picture of... Each time I hear the sound of a tank or helicopter, I feel like I am the target because of the savage treatment I faced. I have fear inside," Ali says. "I was hesitating to decide to return [to work] for a month. [But] I am a journalist, and I accept the consequences." ###