If anyone wants to know why Iraqis set bombs for American soldiers, they had only to sit in the two-storey villa in this little farming village and look at the frozen face of Ahmed al-Ham and his angry friends yesterday.
Ahmed’s 50-year-old father, Sabah, was buried just a week ago–35 days after he died in American hands at the Abu Ghraib prison–and the 17-year-old youth with his small beard and piercing brown eyes blames George Bush for his death. “Pigs,” he mutters. Ahmed was a prisoner, too, and his father died in his arms. According to a cousin of Sabah’s, their tragedy began at 3am on 3 August when about 40 US military vehicles arrived in Saqlawiyah, a Sunni village 10 miles from Fallujah, the scene of dozens of fatal attacks on US occupation troops. A framed and undamaged photograph of Saddam Hussein hangs on the wall above us as we talk.
The cousin, a retired farmer with prostate problems who pleads that his name should not be used lest he be rearrested, says that he willingly allowed the Americans to search his home–just as Sabah al-Ham did a hundred metres away–and freely walked across to a group of US officers outside his house when was asked to do so.
“I gave my name and told them who I was and then some military police arrived,” he says. “I was asked to walk inside a barbed wire enclosure where about 30 other village men were brought. Ahmed was there with his father, Sabah. We were kept there for seven hours, sitting on the ground. Then they bound our hands and blindfolded us and put us on a truck. That’s when it went bad. The next night, we were kept in an old army base. Each of us was locked inside a toilet cubicle.”
None of the men was known to be on any wanted list and Sabah–who had high blood pressure and breathing difficulties–was, his cousin says, a mere “under-officer” in the Iraqi army, equivalent to a second lieutenant.
“We complained about our health problems. I can only urinate through a catheter and Sabah kept saying he needed cold water. We were then taken by lorry to a big hall where we had to spend a day, sitting or ordered to stand with our hands bound and then afterwards taken to the prison camp at Baghdad airport. Here they had just three questions to ask us: ‘Have you attacked Americans?’ ‘What type of attacks did you stage?’ ‘Do you know any officials of the previous regime?’ We all said no.
“That was all the interrogation we had. Sabah was always asking for water but they did nothing else for him though we told them he had very high blood pressure. Then they moved us south to Nasariyah, into a desert camp under tents which was about 55 degrees. Sabah was in a bad way.”
After four days, during which an American medical officer administered liquid by tube for dehydration to Sabah, the men were all trucked north again, this time to Abu Ghraib. On the way, according to Ahmed, his father pleaded for cold water but the soldiers would give him only hot water and a tiny piece of ice to put in his mouth. In a tent in the heat again at Abu Ghraib, Sabah quickly lost consciousness.
“We asked again and again for help and they gave him the drip feed again but they wouldn’t send him to hospital or let him go,” Ahmed says.
Ahmed held his father as he died in the medical tent. “I washed his body and the prison imam said prayers over him and then they told me his body would be taken to his family village in three days. They said ‘sorry’.” But when, a month later, Ahmedand the others were freed, they returned to Saqlawiyah to find his family asking where he was. The Americans still had his body. “We dared not tell most of his family that he was dead,” the cousin says.
Only after they had asked the Red Cross for help did the Ham family trace Sabah’s corpse. It had been stored at Baghdad airport, they were told, and eventually found in a refrigeration area close to the old presidential palace in Baghdad. With much anger–and with guns fired into the air–the village buried Sabah on 17 September. No American offered the family compensation or formally expressed regret to them.
The cousin did say that there was a “good American” at Abu Ghraib who believed all the men were innocent. “He told us how sorry he was when Sabah died. And when we were freed, he came up to each one of us and shook us by the hand. His name was Johnson. He was a good man. The rest were bad.”
Meanwhile, the war goes on. In Baghdad yesterday, a roadside bomb blew up shortly after a US patrol had passed–tearing apart a city bus, killing one passenger and wounding 20.
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.