Like everyone else, I am riveted by the images from Iraq of humans being abused and humiliated in U.S.-run prisons. But I also find myself studying the backgrounds of the photographs, looking for something familiar. Thirteen years ago a French journalist named Alain Buu and I spent two weeks inside a cellblock at Abu Ghraib prison.
I had been in the northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk covering the short-lived anti-Saddam Hussein rebellions that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When it became apparent that we would need to flee the city, our guide, an armed Kurd, carefully drew a map on the palm of my hand showing where he thought the Iraqi troops were stationed. He was wrong. Traveling with another journalist, Gad Gross, we drove directly into an Iraqi ambush.
After 17 hours of hiding in a ditch, Alain and I listened as Gross and the driver were captured and executed by Iraqi soldiers. An hour later, we had better luck: The soldiers who found us decided to take us prisoner.
Alain and I were eventually taken to an Abu Ghraib cellblock that was rectangular and two stories tall. It looked a lot like those photos, although the hallway between our cells may have been a little bigger. A pingpong table occupied the middle of the cement floor between the rows of cells, an incongruous note given what happened in that hallway.
Then, as now, the authorities who governed Abu Ghraib wanted information from suspected insurgents, and the methods they used to extract it weren’t pleasant. Hussein’s official interrogators questioned prisoners during the day. If the answers weren’t what they wanted, the guards punished their Iraqi subjects. I saw one questioner repeatedly poke a crying man on the side of the head with a long, thick dowel like a pool cue.
I saw another interrogator hose down a man standing outside on an overcast spring day. As the prisoner stood shivering, the official asked him questions, and when unsatisfied with the answers he zapped him with a hand-held electroshock device. The victim lost consciousness frequently, but as soon as he awoke the questioning began again.
After the official interrogators left at the end of the day, lower-level night guards took over the cellblock. They carried out the worst abuse. One shift of night guards was particularly cruel. When they tired of playing pingpong or dominoes, they’d choose a prisoner.
One night they took their victim to the second floor and placed him behind a steel railing. All through the night, the prisoner made a strange noise, as if he was trying to bleat like a sheep. A guard yelled at him to do it louder, and when the man failed to bleat loudly enough the guard swung at him with a long, flat board.
The guards took turns holding the board and ordering the man to make the animal outbursts, punishing him with another swat after each bleat. Hours into the game, the prisoner was so exhausted that he could no more than gasp, but the guards kept swinging. As dawn broke, after a long, sleepless night, I could see that his feet were flat on the ground while his wrists were tied to the ceiling. Soon after, a rooster crowed somewhere in the farm country outside Abu Ghraib. Only then did I realize which animal the guards had wanted him to imitate. They all broke into laughter, and a few were guffawing so hard that they fell to the floor. I feel certain the torture we witnessed was tame compared with what transpired elsewhere in the prison. Occasionally, we heard faint but chilling cries coming from deep inside the large prison: These were not the sharp cries of pain we heard so often in our area but, rather, sustained wails of agony I hated to contemplate.
Many if not most of the prisoners in our cellblock were released at the end of each week during the two weeks we were held there. The men often fell to the ground and praised Allah, kissing the damp floor before lining up to be escorted out. Most of them, I suspect, were innocent of any crime.
In talking about the coalition’s accomplishments in Iraq during his State of the Union address in January, President Bush noted that without our intervention, “Iraq’s torture chambers would still be filled with victims, terrified and innocent.” When I hear, as was reported recently by the International Committee of the Red Cross, that about 70% of Iraqis recently detained by U.S. authorities were wrongly incarcerated, I worry that the “torture chambers” are still filled with victims.
Neither Alain nor I was ever physically abused by Hussein’s authorities inside Abu Ghraib. But I will carry memories of those days and nights for the rest of my life. The worst abuse we witnessed involved a young boy named Jaffer who was so young, his voice had not yet cracked. A Shiite from southern Iraq, Jaffer was accused of having participated in the anti-Hussein uprisings. The guards, each with a rubber hose in one hand, chased him around the cellblock floor for hours at night, three nights in a row, while he yelped like a dog at every stroke.
Witnessing torture stains the soul. Night after night at Abu Ghraib, I wondered who could allow, much less participate in, such cruelty. Looking at the recently released photos, the answer now seems clear: Torture is done by people just like us.