Crisis-Tourism at Saddam’s Old Prison




We could see them beyond the dirt yard, standing in the heat beside their sand-brown tents, the razor wire wrapped in sheaths around their compound.

No pictures of the prisoners, we were told. Do not enter the compound. Do not go inside the wire.

Of the up to 800 Iraqis held in Abu Ghraib Prison, on the outskirts of Baghdad, only a handful are “security detainees”–the rest are “criminal detainees”–but until now almost all of them have lived out here in the heat and dust and muck.

Which is why the Americans were so pleased to see us at Saddam Hussein’s vile old jail yesterday: things are getting better.

So first, the good news. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, commander of the US 800th Military Police Brigade, has cleaned up the burned and looted cells for hundreds of prisoners.

A new medical section with stocks of medicines, x-ray machines and even a heart fibrillator has been installed. There is even a kindly Iraqi doctor called Hussain Majid who praises the new Iraqi Ministry of Health and the occupation authorities for sending him–and paying for–“all the medicines we need”.

In the newly painted cells, there are blankets and toothpaste, toothbrush, soap and shampoo for every man, neatly placed for them–and for us, I suspect–on top of their prison blankets.

Crisis-tourism is a pastime in New Iraq but yesterday’s little trip around Abu Ghraib was, well, odd.

Karpinski is obviously a tough lady–she was an intelligence officer in 7th Special Forces at Fort Bragg and served as a “targeting officer” in Saudi Arabia after Saddam invaded Kuwait–but she had a little difficulty at first in recalling that there was a riot at the jail in May in which US troops used “lethal force” when protesting prisoners threw stones and tent-legs at American military policemen. The troops killed a teenage inmate.

But Karpinski was remarkably frank about other events, such as the fact that the Americans in Abu Ghraib are attacked four out of every seven nights with mortars, small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

That’s 16 times a month. And that’s a lot of attacks.

Then came the head doctor of the prison, Majid. When I asked him what his job was when Saddam used the place as a torture and execution centre, he replied that he was, um, the head doctor of Abu Ghraib Prison.

Indeed, half his staff were running the medical centre at the jail under the Saddam regime.

“No, I didn’t ever attend the executions,” he said. “I couldn’t stand that. I sent my junior doctors to do the death certificates.”

Except at night, of course, when the security services brought in political prisoners for hanging. Then Majid would receive an instruction saying “no death certificates”.

The politicals were hanged at night. During the day, the doctor said, it was the “killers” who were hanged. Killers? Of course, there was a statutory visit to Abu Ghraib’s old death chamber, the double hanging room in which thousands of Iraqis were put to death. Karpinski gave the lever a tug and the great iron trap-doors clanged open, their echo vibrating through the walls.

Majid said he had never heard them before; that he was never even a member of the Baath Party.

So let this be written in history: the chief medical officer at Saddam’s nastiest prison–who is now the chief medical officer at America’s cleanest Iraqi prison–was never a member of the Baath Party and never saw an execution.

Of course, there are things which only those with a heart of stone cannot be moved by–the last words written and carved on the walls of the filthy death-row cells, just a few metres from the gallows.

“Ahmed Qambal, 8/9/2000”, “Ahmed Aziz from Al-Najaf governorate, with Jabah, 2/9/01”, “Abbad Abu Mohamed”.

Sometimes they had added verses from the Koran.

“Death is better than shame. Death is life for a believer and a high honour.”

What courage it must have taken to write such words, their very last on earth.

But there was something just a little too neat about all this. Against Saddam’s cruelty, any institution looks squeaky-clean.

Yet there’s a lot about Abu Ghraib that doesn’t look as clean as the new kitchens.

There is still no clear judicial process for the supposed killers, thieves and looters behind the razor wire. There was no mention–until we brought it up–of the mortar attack that killed six prisoners in their tents last month.

The Americans sent psychologists to talk to the inmates afterwards and found that they believed–surprise, surprise–the Americans were using them as human shields.

And you can just imagine what those same prisoners feel in their tents on four out of every seven nights when the mortars explode again around the old jail. Which is one reason, of course, why Karpinski wants to get her prisoners into their new cells.

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s forthcoming book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.


Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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