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A Visit to Umm Qasr Prison

A Batch of TCNs

by KATHY KELLY

"We’ve given up hope," said 20 year old Mohammed Al Katib, a Palestinian student imprisoned in the Umm Qasr prison camp in southern Iraq. "We don’t think we’ll ever get out of here."

On January 3, 2004, I traveled with Rev. Jerry Zawada, OFM, and several of our Iraqi friends to Umm Qasr, located on the Iraq-Kuwait border. There, in a remote and desolate area where US Coalition authorities have constructed a network of tent prisons, we visited four Palestinian students who’ve been held for many months by US coaliton authorities. In the "Bucca Camp," (named after a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center) prisoners and guards alike battle against monotony, anxiety, and isolation. The prisoners we met listed one more emotional pitfall: despair.

We left Baghdad just after sunrise that Saturday morning and drove six hours to Basra, without stopping, hoping that we might reach Umm Qasr before visiting hours ended. At the outskirts of the prison, a US soldier whose badge read MP (Military Police) politely told us that we were too late. Visiting hours lasted from 9:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m., Thursday–Saturday. The next opportunity to visit would be five days later. Reluctant to leave, we asked if an exception could be made, explaining that we’d come a long way on a difficult stretch of road and that some of us would leave Iraq within the next several days.

The MP, a young dental hygienist from Tennessee, agreed to contact Major Garrity, a woman whom our Christian Peacemaker Team friends in Baghdad assured us would do her best to help. She initially said, "No way, today we already processed a batch of 500 new prisoners." After some further conversation, she hesitated and then said, "Hang on. Maybe we can do something." I think she knew how beleagured the young men we hoped to see were feeling and wanted to give them some small measure of hope. An hour later, jostling on the benches of an army jeep, we were transported over bumpy desert terrain to the prison visitor’s tent at Compound 11, Tampa 11, where Officer Lou, formerly a Miami police officer, had delivered four men in their early twenties, each of them former students in Baghdad.

Prison authorities refer to the young men as "TCNs,"–Third Country Nationals. Four of them were arrested in their dorm rooms on April 10, the day after US Marines arrived in Baghdad. When they asked the Marines what crime they had committed, they were told they were guilty of being Palestinians. The students presume that the Marines wanted to occupy their building because it was one of the tallest in the area and offered a good view. A fifth youngster, Ameer Abbas, a Palestinian who has Iraqi citizenship, was on his way home from his university on June 23, 2003, when a shootout erupted at the local mosque. Clutching his textbooks, he ran in the opposite direction. US soldiers spotted him running and arrested him. His brother, a dentist in Baghdad, has tried repeatedly to secure his release. Dr. Amer Abbas accompanied us to the prison, hoping for a second visit with his brother.

Two other students who were arrested at the same time as Jayyab, Mohammed, Basel, and Ahmed were released in June of 2003, perhaps because they spoke English and were better able to plead their case. Since then, they have tirelessly explored every possible means of helping their companions who remain in prison. Upon hearing that a handful of westerners with Christian Peacemaker Team and Voices in the Wilderness might be able to help, they contacted our small delegation as soon as we arrived in Amman, in late December of 2003. We promised to do our best. In Baghdad, Christian Peacemaker Team members scoured their list of 6,000 prisoners and found the Capture Tag numbers for two of the prisoners. Available details for all five prisoners filled only one sheet of paper.

Guards assured us that prisoners in the Bucca Compound are better off than those who are held in Baghdad prisons. "We give them clothes, they each get a blanket, and we feed them," said a guard. "We try to do everything we can for them." I think the guards feel genuine compassion, but there’s little they can do to help these young men. Certainly no one can do anything about the fact that the students have already lost two years of studies because of missed exams.

Officers in the Bucca camp have recommended release for these prisoners, but the only people with authority to issue releases are the Baghdad based members of the "Sec-Det," the Security Detainees Review Board. A prisoner’s best hope for release rests on their paperwork arriving at the desk of the Sec-Det group as part of a "boarding" process. As our hour long visit came to a close, we promised the five students that we would try our best to bring more attention to their cases by contacting elected representatives in the US, foreign embassies, and the International Commission of the Red Cross.

"Can you think of anything else we can do?" I asked, as we bade the youngsters farewell. "Please," Jayyad Ehmedat said firmly, "there are many here. Help us all."

Please contact Voices in the Wilderness (info@vitw.org) or visit for more information about ways to assist Jayyab Ehmedat, Mohammed Al-Katib, Basel Ali, Ahmed Badran and Ameer Abbas. For more information about the Campaign to Assure Justice for Iraqi Detainees, please visit www.cpt.org

KATHY KELLY is a co-coordinator of the Voices in the Wilderness campaign. She can be reached at kathy@vitw.org