Aswad’s Story

Today, recognizing the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, is a day to share a story I was able to document in Syria this past month. It is a difficult story, one many Americans would like to deny, and unable to do that, many will simply chose to turn their backs. There is ample opportunity for this. One could point at the outgoing administration, brand them as criminals, say their actions are a thing of the past, and leave it at that. Others could point to the new administration only weeks away, thinking our problems are solved, that change is on the way. But this also would be a mistake. Our complicity in these matters runs deeper then these simplistic deflections of responsibility. If we are to address the fundamental, systemic issues facing our nation and the world, reflection followed by action is necessary. As you read the story of Aswad and his family, recognize his story is one of thousands and his perception of America as purveyors of terrorism is based solely on his personal experience.

Aswad was fast asleep in the early morning hours of November 6th, 2003 when a commotion in the house woke him up. He looked up to see a room full of American soldiers pointing automatic weapons at his head.

He had arrived in the village of Al-Yarmouk on the outskirts of Mosul just the evening before, breaking the Ramadan fast with his friends and going to bed early. He had been following the same routine since early 2000, every couple of months purchasing about $300 worth of galibayas and other articles of clothing to sell on the streets of Mosul. This was to supplement his meager income as a farmer. Farming was backbreaking work and at 48 years old, he was hoping to find another way to support his wife and 9 children.

Now, people were shouting at him in a language he didn’t understand, binding his hands behind his back and blindfolding his eyes. Someone speaking Arabic asked him his name, and demanded, “From where?” He told them he was from Syria. They emptied his pockets, taking his passport and $400 in cash. Then they dragged him to his feet and took him out into the night. He knew that at least two of his friends were taken with him; he could feel one in front and one behind him as they were dragged across the courtyard.

The prisoners were taken by helicopter to an unknown destination and isolated. When he arrived he was placed between an idling steamroller and a barrier. As the ground shook from the heavy equipment he was certain he was going to die. He was told he would never see his family again. He recalls, “I thought they were just going to make me a part of the road.” At times over the next 8 days, Aswad thought that would have been a preferable outcome. His clothes were taken and he was forced to stand naked, except for the blindfold covering his eyes. His arms were shackled behind his back and legs shackled at the ankles. He was beaten with a club. He was hit so hard across the abdomen that he fell unconscious 3 times. Each time he was doused with freezing water until he regained consciousness, he was stood up, and beaten again. They shackled his wrists in front of him and made him hold two heavy cartons. Each time he dropped a carton, the beatings resumed. He was not permitted to sleep. Aswad recalled the only warmth he felt was the hot blood flowing from his forehead and broken nose down over his face and chest.

Near the end of his beatings he was confronted by a man dressed in civilian clothes who claimed to be Egyptian officer, but Aswad is certain he was not who he pretended to be. His Arabic accent was not Egyptian, nor was he American. Aswad thinks he may have been an Israeli, but he is not certain. He was questioned at length about attacks on Americans, each time he denied any knowledge about the attacks. Prior to his arrest he had been sleeping. He didn’t hear any shooting. No weapons were kept in his friend’s house. After each denial he was tasered. His body had been so severely battered by the beatings he endured that he didn’t feel the pain as he fell to the floor.

Throughout his ordeal, Aswad thought about death and hoped it would come quickly. He recognized his captors were merciless. When he asked for water, his tormentors poured it over his head while they laughed. At one point, he felt two naked bodies pressed up against him. His captors shouted at him, but he didn’t understand their taunts as they were shouting in English.  He tells me that he was blindfolded and couldn’t see anything. Looking away, embarrassed and ashamed, Aswad repeats this to me four times.

On the eighth day of his detention, Aswad was transferred to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Once the site of some of Saddam’s most heinous interrogations, it was now run by the Americans and they followed suit with their own brand of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses of detainees. It was November 14th, 2003, months before any hint of wrongdoing would seep from under the cages of Abu Ghraib. Aswad arrived at the prison disfigured from his beatings. Doctors examined him, asking him where he felt pain, but never questioning what had happened to him. As he was recuperating from his beatings he was a witness to some of the abuses that would later be reported by mainstream news media in the United States. In the hallway outside his cell he saw a naked prisoner terrorized by an attack dog. He witnessed the “naked pyramid” later to become an infamous photograph with American guards gloating in the background. And he witnessed 4 soldiers strip an Iraqi woman in the cellblock, but he turned his back to her because he felt ashamed for her. Eventually, the commotion died down. He does not know what became of her.

When he was sufficiently healed from his wounds, he was transferred to the Abu Ghraib camp. He remained there for a month before he was transferred to Camp Bucca, a “Coalition Theater Internment Facility” or TIF. Located in the desert southwest of Basra, within a few miles of the Kuwati border, Bucca is a desolate place housing up to 10,000 prisoners many of whom are held as “security detainees”. The ability of US forces to continue these detentions has been left vague in the new Status of Forces Agreement. The definition of an “imperative security threat” is someone who may not have committed a crime, but is imprisoned anyway because he may commit a crime in the future. Even the US military estimates that 70% of those incarcerated are not insurgents. Aswad remained in Bucca for 9 months- through the remaining winter months and the following grueling summer. The conditions were calamitous. Thirty men shared a 12 meter by 6 meter canvas tent. They slept on thin mattresses on the ground and were given only two thin blankets to ward of the cold. In the summer, temperatures reached 140 degrees, and there was no escape from the heat. In the spring, flies and ants inundated the camp. The toilet consisted of a barrel cut in half. When it was full, the prisoners were required to dump it. The food rations were inconsistent and often inedible. Throughout this period, the International Committee of the Red Cross visited Aswad regularly. It was through the efforts of the ICRC that Aswad’s family learned of his incarceration many months after his disappearance.

After one year in prison, Aswad was transferred back to Abu Ghraib. He traded his orange jumpsuit for a blue one and was paraded in front of TV cameras along with several other detainees. The announcers said they were Arab terrorists just captured in battle at Al Fallujah. Years later, Aswad’s neighbors would comment on this news piece- asking the obvious question- “How could you be an Arab terrorist in Al-Fallujah when you were imprisoned?” Apparently moved just for the TV charade, after fifty days in Abu Ghraib, Aswad was returned to Camp Bucca.

During this time period Camp Bucca was growing and prefab huts were replacing the canvas tents. The prison was beginning to take on the look of a permanent structure. The prison population was exploding as well due to the increase in military operations. The prison’s two-mile perimeter contains 12 compounds, six on each side of a dirt and gravel road. At the corner of each compound, guards with automatic rifles stand watch from three-story wooden towers. The quality of the food was also beginning to improve, three meals a day are served — bread, cheese, jam and tea for breakfast and dinner, rice and stew for lunch.

Shortly after his return, in January 2005 a riot broke out at the prison. The riot began during a search for contraband when soldiers desecrated a Koran. The riot quickly spread to three additional compounds, with detainees throwing rocks, chunks of concrete and dirt clods at the soldiers who retreated to outside the wire. From there they fired tear gas and shotgun rounds at the prisoners. The riot ended when 2 soldiers opened fire with M-16’s on the prisoners in Compound 5.  Four prisoners were killed and six were wounded.

Another riot broke out in April when guards ordered the transfer of prisoners including 4 Shiite clerics to a new unit. Again, prisoners threw stones, chunks of concrete and dirt clods. . Some prisoners fashioned slingshots to hurl pieces of cinderblock at the heavily armed soldiers outside the prison wire. The soldiers responded with pepper spray, tear gas, and shotgun volleys.  A video taken by a soldier captures soldiers calling for more shotgun ammo and laughing after particularly accurate shots of tear gas into the crowd. Twelve prisoners and four guards were injured in the melee.

After two years of incarceration, Aswad was again transferred to Abu Ghraib. On January 7, 2006 he went before an Iraqi court. The judge asked the American officer why he was being held. The officer replied that Aswad had entered Iraq illegally. This was the first time since his arrest that Aswad had heard any charges against him. He denied the charges, telling the judge his passport was in the possession of the Americans. The American officer was asked about the passport and admitted it was in his possession. He claimed that in fact Aswad has crossed the Syrian border legally but failed to get an Iraqi stamp. This was easily determined to be a fabrication when the judge reviewed the passport and saw the Iraqi stamp right next to the Syrian stamp. Everything was legal. The judge ordered Aswad freed. As he was returned to Abu Ghraib the military lawyer told him he would be released soon. The interpreter asked him if he would agree to a release from Camp Cropper another detention facility at Baghdad Airport. Aswad said, “i don’t mind where you release me, just let me go!” He was returned to Camp Bucca. Two days later, he was loaded onto the “Happy Bus” (the designation for the bus that transferred prisoners due to be released) and he was transferred back north to Camp Cropper. Eleven days later, without explanation, he was again returned to Camp Bucca. This happened 2 or 3  times over the next several months. Each time he boarded the bus, his spirits soared. Each time he returned he felt as if his spirit had been murdered, again. He was never told that military commanders could overrule the Iraqi court and continue holding “security threats”, nor was he told why he was transferred back and forth so many times.

In the summer of 2007 the Multi-National Force Review Committee (MNFRC) board was created. Every detainee is able to speak to a panel regarding their detention once every six months, and the board reviews their files to determine not whether they are guilty or innocent, but whether they are still a security threat to coalition forces, the Iraqi government or Iraqi citizens.

On September 4th, 2007 Aswad was brought before the Multinational Force Review Committee Board, a board he characterized as the “Lying Committee”. He was asked about his illegal entry into Iraq and a new accusation was presented- he was asked why he participated in an attack against Americans. Aswad explained that he entered Iraq legally, his passport proved it, and that an Iraqi court ordered him freed. He was arrested while he slept and no weapons were present. He asked the panel, “When a death sentence comes down from an Iraqi court, it seems you can’t hang the prisoner quick enough; yet it was determined in January of 2006 that I am innocent and I remain imprisoned. Why is that?” He was returned to prison.

Six months later, in February of 2008 he was again brought before the review board. The actors were different but the questions and Aswad’s answers remained the same. On March 17th 2008 Aswad received his release papers. On July 18th, 2008 Aswad boarded the Happy Bus for the last time. Only after confirming his immanent release with the International Committee of the Red Cross did Aswad allow himself to believe his ordeal was coming to an end. On July 19th Aswad boarded a Red Cross flight to Damascus. Finally, he was free.

As we sit sipping coffee in Damascus, Aswad, reflecting on his interment, says, “It is an inhuman prison system run by criminals.” When I ask him what he believes finally caused the review board to release him, Aswad doesn’t know. “They do as they like. There is no reason to it. Their life is OK, their children are well, and they don’t care. We have a saying, ‘Who is full doesn’t know hunger’. You are full.”

For five years Aswad’s only contact with his family was through messages relayed by the Red Cross. On his release, he didn’t know his family. His oldest daughter sat him down and told him about his children, whom he could barely recognize. His family had suffered throughout his imprisonment. When I asked him what his children said about the time he was gone, Aswad said, “On my first phone call, my youngest son, now eight years old, said, ‘My dad, my dad, come here! Come here! We don’t have anyone!” His oldest son, who left school when he was 15 to provide for the family, confessed that he cried for the first two years because he couldn’t provide enough bread for the family. His boy carries cotton, barley and wheat from the fields- 88 lbs. of cotton translates to about $1 US dollar. “You see this situation has destroyed my family. This is what American democracy did for me!” he says with a smile and a tear in his eye.

The United States played a major role if formulating the Declaration of Human Rights document in 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt, in endorsing the Declaration of Human Rights said, “This declaration is based upon the spiritual fact that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity. We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this declaration. But having them put before us with the moral backing of 58 nations will be a great step forward.

Discussing the abstention of the USSR during the vote at the UN, Roosevelt went on to say, “We must not be confused about what freedom is. Basic human rights are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition; the right of men to be secure in their homes and free from unreasonable search and seizure and from arbitrary arrest and punishment.

We must not be deluded by the efforts of the forces of reaction to prostitute the great words of our free tradition and thereby to confuse the struggle. Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.” It would be wise for us to reflect on these words and the policies of our own government, especially the ill-conceived “War on Terror” over these many years.

Sixty years on, we must reflect on our failure as a nation to uphold the principles set forth in this document. It is our individual responsibility to safeguard the principles that we take for granted so that others may share in them. It is our collective failure that fuels the terrorism so rampant in the world today.

JOHNNY BARBER has traveled to Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon to bear witness and document the suffering of people who are affected by war. He has just returned from Jordan & Syria where he worked to document the issues facing Iraqi refugees. He can be contacted through his blog at





Johnny Barber writes on the Middle East. He can be reached at: