March 20, 2003. Operation Iraqi Freedom blew across Mesopotamia. The world watched the edited spectacle on their television sets. Night vision images. Shock. Awe. All that.
The day before, Haj Ali was the mayor of Al Madifai district, close to Baghdad. As the dust settled over the following months, Ali found himself trading mayoral robes for a job as a parking attendant at a mosque. And then in October of that year, another set of robes (and often none) for the camera. Iconic images in every major media outlet across the world. Haj Ali says he became the faceless face of the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture and abuse.
Four years later, I’m in the Internet cafe of my hotel in Amman, Jordan, when the man at the terminal beside me strikes up a conversation. “Oh, you studied journalism,” he says. “That’s great. Let me show you something.” He pulls up the picture shown above. “Do you know this?”
“Yes, that’s from Abu Ghraib” I reply, proud that I know, nervous of whether that’s the answer this stranger wants to hear.
“I know this man. You should meet him. Tonight. We’ll go.”
An adventure in Amman. This man sounds believable. Would be an interesting story. My mouth sums up the thoughts in my head: “Sure!”
In the evening my stranger is in the lobby promptly at 7pm. I try to memorize the journey as we walk down a main road, zigzag through dimly lit byways and arrive at a house that looks like every other two-storey, whitewashed stone building on this narrow street. We’re ushered into a room set up to be an office, the fluorescent tube light casting it’s dull glow on a couple of sofas crammed beside a big desk. My stranger introduces me to the heavyset man sitting behind the desk. “This is Haj Ali, the man I showed you.”
Ali shakes my hand and I introduce myself. My stranger translates from English to Arabic. Ali nods. His smile is sad. His eyes are sad. This room is depressing. I hate fluorescent lighting.
My stranger tells Ali I would like to hear his story. I studied journalism. Ali looks at me and through me. I have no idea what he’s thinking. I don’t know what to say. I just smile back. He begins his story.
“The Americans had bombed the airport and then dumped the rubbish in my district. There were human body parts mixed in there. My area is poor. The children would go play in the dump and they got sick. So I complained to U.S. forces. They did nothing. So I went to the western media and within two days the U.S. forces cleaned up the dump.”
He lights his cigarette. His heavy eyes fall over photographs on his table.
“A few days later I was walking to Amariya and the U.S. soldiers stopped me. They arrested me and took me to Captain Phillip (Ali does not give a last name). The Captain said, ‘We don’t want you. But a higher level wants you.’ I don’t know who or why they wanted me. The next day they took me to Abu Ghraib.
“They put a bag over my head, like one you use for vegetables at the market. It’s difficult to describe how I felt with that bag on my head. But worse than the bag is the questions they asked: ‘Where is Saddam Hussein? Where is Osama bin Laden?’ I told them Osama is in Aghanistan. They asked, ‘How do you know he’s in Afghanistan?’”
Ali lets out a small, sad laugh. You’d be forgiven if you mistook it for a whimper. He’s a big man, unable to move his scarred hand – a chain to the horrible memories that he won’t escape in this lifetime.
“When they ask you these questions, all the prisoners are scared. They asked, ‘Are you Sunni or Shia?’ When Saddam was president, you couldn’t ask if one is Sunni or Shia. Even in marriage you don’t have a right to ask anyone are you Sunni or Shia.
“There were strange questions. They asked, ‘Are you anti-Semitic?’ They took us to these tents in a camp called Fiji Land. They questioned me over the next 20 days. These were civilian contractors questioning us. One of the contractors was a girl who tried to show her body to the prisoners. It was one of their ways of trying to get information; one contractor would be a good person, another would be a bad person, and this one girl showed us her naked body.
“They said, ‘You are a danger for us and you have to give us names of people who are dangerous. If you give us names we will consider this the beginning of collaboration for us. Otherwise we will send you to Guantanamo and put you in a situation that even dogs don’t live in.’”
Ali pauses. His mind seems to have been pulled somewhere else within his thoughts. He stares at the carpet and rubs his damaged hand with his good hand. I stare at his damaged hand but don’t want to interrupt.
Suddenly he is back. “After three days, they called me. It was Ramadan and we were fasting and 10 minutes before our evening meal they called me. They tied my hands and legs in iron chains and put a bag over my head. Then they put me in a Hummer.
“When I got out I looked down through the bag opening and saw I was walking over small stones and then into a room. I started hearing dogs barking and people screaming and crying. They uncovered my head and I saw five people in the room, one black, the others white. One white man told me in Arabic to take off my clothes. I did, but refused to take off my underwear. They forced it off! They put a hat on my head, glasses on my face, and took a photo.”
I interrupt and ask what is going through Ali’s mind right now as he remembers this incident.
“Very hard things.”
“They made me walk. And I heard them say ’1-2-3, I love dicky, Saddam fucky fucky.’ I saw people crying, dogs, prisoners being taunted. It’s scary. We didn’t know what would happen to us.”
Ali is interrupted again, this time by his nephew walking into the room to offer us tea. He takes a seat. Ali orders him to leave. Ali looks at me, the shame unmistakably visible in his eyes. “I don’t want him to hear the details yet.”
Once his nephew is out of the room, Ali hunches over his computer to show us photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib. “The soldiers told us when they take anyone to that prison, it’s a reception party which will last for two or three days. They tied prisoners to the wall, put guns to our head and yelled at us. The soldiers urinated on the prisoners. They put guns in our anuses. They put brooms in our anuses and it injured us. It injured me.” He pauses. Silence. Discomfort. Pain. He stares at the screen. This room wreaks with the tortured memories of his suffering. At this moment I hate being here.
“At my reception party a man came to me and spoke in Arabic. He uncovered my head and said he was from Israel, a famous interrogator. Give him information or I would be killed. Then he took me to a room inside and tied me to the ground. He brought in a stereo system and played this one song loudly. They uncovered my head and all I could hear was ‘Babylon, Babylon, Zion, Zion.’ I heard this song loudly for over 24 hours and then actually wished they’d cover my head to block out the sound. The Israeli man came back the next day, turned off the song to question me but I couldn’t hear him. After an hour I could hear again.
“They took me to another room, covered my head again, and took photos. I could see camera flashes. When they uncovered my head I saw some other prisoners.” Ali points in front of him as if they are still standing there. “They were naked and I was naked…” He trails off, his voice quivering. He puts his head down to hide his shame and rubs his eyes. “It’s hard to even think of this. It’s too much for words.”
About a minute later he regains his composure and then continues to recount the horror. “Afterward, (Charles) Graner came to me. I had injured my hand a few days before I was arrested and brought to Abu Ghraib. So my hand was in a bandage. Graner ripped the bandage off and took my skin with it. He stood on my hand and crushed every bone with his boots, digging his heels in to ensure maximum damage. I blacked out.
“They tortured us with electricity.” His voice shakes. “They’d increase and then decrease. When they increased the current, blood would come from our tongues! The doctor, when he saw blood from the tongue, he told the soldiers to go ahead and increase the electricity. The doctor opened my mouth with his shoes after I fell to the ground from the electric jolts. For me they only had the electric wires on my hands. For others they put it on the penis, too.”
The memories are weighing Ali down and I can see exhaustion on his face and in his eyes. He rests his head in his hands as his mind wanders again. About 20 seconds of silence and then Ali turns to his computer and pulls up the infamous photo of the man on the box, the man he claims is him. He zooms in to show the hands and covered face. “Afraid….scared…these feelings do not exist in me at the time of this photo. Only pain.”
I’ve been mostly quiet as Ali journeyed through Abu Ghraib. Now I ask him what was the most difficult moment of his ordeal. “The song,” he says. “24 hours of that loud song, continuously.”
I tell him I know one song that has Babylon and Zion in the lyrics: “By the Rivers of Babylon.” And then I regret telling him this. He says he doesn’t know and asks me to sing it. I hesitate, afraid of his reaction if I am correct. Perhaps equally nervous of destroying my ability to like one of my favourite songs once it’s linked to his story. He smiles and asks me again to sing it. I tell my stranger that I shouldn’t. In case I’m correct. Ali understands and asks me to sing. Reluctantly, I start the first verse and I sink with every line. “By the rivers of Babylon…” His smile fades. But his face doesn’t turn away. His eyes don’t move. He doesn’t say stop. Lifeless. “…when we remembered Zion.” I’ve reached the fourth line of the verse and I can’t go on. Ali is looking through me, stone-faced, his eyes like windows into nothing. And then the glass shatters. Tears roll down his now pale face. I took him to that place – the most difficult moments of his torture. We take a minute to regain our composure, both of us hating the feelings we have just experienced, both of us blaming ourselves.
Ali can see the remorse on my face and smiles as if to comfort me. “Have hope,” he says. He talks about the organization he founded: Victims of the American Occupation Prisons. “We take care of prisoners and write reports. People send us reports from Iraq as well and we raise awareness in the media and through international organizations. We will help as best we can to heal prisoners from Iraqi jails.”
The conversation with Haj Ali winds down quickly. There is no denouement. I thank him for sharing and my stranger walks me back to the hotel. What could I say to Ali? How do you comfort a man who’s been through that torture and abuse? They crushed him physically, emotionally, mentally, and tried to squeeze every ounce of humanity out of him. The perpetrators got away with it. The world forgot what Haj Ali cannot.
But he survived. Many didn’t. It’s depressing.