Skip to comments.Among Saddam's Victims
Posted on 12/04/2003 2:43:55 AM PST by kattracks
BY LATE October, there seemed widespread agreement in the Western press that the United States was failing in Iraq, where I had been living for the past month and a half. Saddam Hussein, I was reminded by television reports and pieces on the Internet, was still at large; the weapons of mass destruction that had been the ostensible reason for American intervention were looking like figments of "sexed-up" intelligence reports, if not a plot by the Bush administration to deceive the American people; and, by precipitously overturning the rock of the Baathist regime, the U.S. had succeeded only in releasing thieves, kidnappers, rapists, terrorists, and suicide bombers to prey at will on the Iraqi people. With its faked reasons for embarking on military adventurism and its patent inability to fulfill its postwar promises, America had earned the enmity of the world. And rightly so. In Baghdad, however, the picture could not have looked more different. Waiters smiled at me when I identified myself as an American, cabbies brushed their palms together in a good-riddance gesture as they declared, "Saddam gone, America great!," and on the campus of Baghdad University I was approached by a man who wished to tell me "how honored Iraqis are that the Americans came to rid us of a tyrant." Opinion surveys attested to the conviction of most Iraqis that their lives would improve over the next five years, and their desire that coalition forces remain in the country at least until law and order were restored. With additional numbers of Iraqi police on the streets, this was already happeningrates of all major crimes were dropping.
As for those elusive weapons of mass destruction, in my six weeks in the country I met precious few Iraqis who even alluded to them. Instead, they were focusing, with relief and gratitude, on what was perhaps the major reason Bush had cited for going to warthe removal of Saddam Hussein. "Even if those weapons turn out to be an excuse for America to invade Iraq, I say fine," remarked Nasser Hasan, a poet and former member of the Iraqi national chess team whose translation skills and insights I would find invaluable during my visit. "Whatever it took to finish Saddam." Or, as a painter named Muhammad Rassim put it, "in our minds, the end of Saddam Hussein was the reason for going to war."
How bad was Saddam? The ques tion may seem naive: the answer, after all, lies in innumerable journalistic stories and has been documented, in hideous detail, in human-rights reports for everyone to see. But to appreciate the depth of Iraqi suffering under his decades-long rule you have to visit the country and absorb the seemingly endless individual tales of brutality and violence. They, in their nightmarish sum, constitute justification enough for the war against Saddam.
My own direct education began on my first day. The twelve-hour drive from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad ran through the area west of the city known as the "Sunni Triangle"the traditional stronghold of Saddam loyalists. Here, in towns like Ramadi and Faluja, was where Baathist holdouts and their foreign recruits were still ambushing U.S. soldiers. As we drove, stretches of lush greenery rose up inexplicably from the surrounding desert. An Iraqi-American traveling with me explained that, to reward his followers, Saddam had created this "Garden of Eden" by diverting water from the Euphrates. But, as with everything in Iraq, that was not the whole story. In the early 1990s, seeking to suppress a revolt in southern Iraq, Saddam had dammed, burned, and bombarded nearly 12,000 square miles of marshes, causing catastrophic ecological damage. "In his way," commented my traveling companion, "he both turned a desert into a garden and a garden into a desert."
Like most moderately informed Americans, I had read stories of Saddam Husseins cruelty: the estimated 5,000 killed in the 1988 poison-gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja, for example, or the grisly 1999 murder of the Shiite cleric Sadeq al-Sadr (Saddams thugs drove nails into the grand ayatollahs head after first raping his sister in front of him). I had tended to relegate such tales to a familiar catch-all category: more evidence of the sorry state of world affairs. Not until the fall of the tyrant and my decision to see postwar Iraq for myself did I begin reading the documents prepared over the years by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other monitoring groups. They were shocking.
THE FIRST thing I discovered was that it was nearly impossible to compute how many people the tyrant had actually killed, whether by direct or indirect means. In 1980, for example, Saddam initiated his eight-year war with Iran, leading to the combat deaths of perhaps 375,000 Iraqis; in 1987-88, the notorious Anfal campaign to suppress anti-government sentiment in the Kurdish-dominated area of northern Iraq managed to do away with 100,000 people (including the inhabitants of Halabja). In 1990, he invaded Kuwait, provoking Gulf War I, which resulted in perhaps another 100,000 Iraqi combat deaths. Then there were the untold thousands of lives lost in the aftermath of that war, when Saddam brutally put down Shiite revolts in the southern part of the country. As for Gulf War II, an accurate tally of Iraqi combat and civilian deaths is still unavailable, but we can add to the bloody account every loyalist killed by U.S. troops and every innocent Iraqi caught in a crossfire.
This does not include summary executions. The UN and human-rights groups have noted Saddams habit of "cleansing" prisons by killing their inmates. The record is appalling: in 1984, 4,000 political prisoners killed at the Abu Ghraib jail, and 2,500 more between 1997 and 1999; from 1993 through 1998, 3,000 inmates killed at the Mahjar prison, often by machine gun. In the south, Saddam murdered more than 100 prominent Shiite clerics. In 1999, security forces fired into a demonstration and killed hundreds of civilians, including many women and children. "Nonjudicial" executions of criminals and army deserters, often by means of beheading, likewise ran into the thousands.
To dispose of the bodies, Saddam resorted to the expediency of mass graves. More than 100 of these bleak sites have been unearthed from the Kurdish north to the Shiite south, with perhaps hundreds more waiting to be dug up. (In September, British authorities unearthed some 25 bodies buried under a traffic island in Basra.) The discovery of these killing fields has generated heartbreaking television scenes, with images of people frantically untying parcels of bones for evidence of missing loved ones. In one haunting scene, a man held a small bag of skeletal fragments to his nose as if to inhale the scent of his murdered son.
But in the catalogue of Saddams evil, perhaps the most gruesome entry concerned the use of torture. Favored methods included the disfigurement and branding of criminals, such as chopping off fingers or tearing out tongues that had uttered anti-Saddam thoughts. Other methods involved rape, electric shock, beating with an axe handle, the penetration of victims limbs and chests with a power drill, or the gradual lowering of bound captives into a bath of acid. Men were fed alive into wood-shredding machines. A general who had earned Saddams displeasure was devoured by rabid dogs. According to one macabre report, women prisoners were forced to eat chunks of their own flesh that Baathist thugs had sliced from their bodies.
Then there were the refugees: nearly 100,000 Kurds driven from their homes in the Anfal campaign; 500,000 Shiites rendered homeless by the destruction of the southern marshes. Beginning in 1969, Saddam deported from Iraq tens of thousands of so-called Kurd Failyi, or people with the ill luck to be both Kurdish and Shiite; at least 10,000 of these unfortunates who once lived in the area of Baghdad are still missing, their whereabouts unknown.
The list goes on, extending from the massively grotesque to the pettypeople forced from jobs, or denied jobs, or harassed by security officials, or simply forced to live lives of self-censorship and fear. Saddams tyranny was complete, total, inextricably intermixed with the living cells of Iraqi society like a cancerous tumor that, under the worlds neglect, grew and grew until forcibly removed by the United States.
STILL, THESE were only reports, and I needed to hear with my own ears the testimony of survivors. And so one of my first stops in Baghdad was the National Association of Iraqi Human Rights, located in the Mustansiriya district northwest of the citys center.
"I deserted from the army and spent five years hiding from Saddam Hussein," said Asad al-Abady, the associations deputy director. His was one of the milder cases of persecution I heard about over several afternoons seated on a hard sofa in his sparsely furnished office. Founded in 1996 in Jordanwhere its current director still livesthe association has seventeen offices throughout Iraq, making it the oldest and largest of the countrys four human-rights groups. Its purpose is to collect information and personal testimony on a range of issues, from the plight of Iraqi refugees to instances of torture, rape, and execution. The idea is eventually to pre sent the findings to the new ministry of human rights and the ministry of justice.
When I asked Abady about the number of case histories his group had accumulated, he responded by holding up a single gray folder. "This is a Baath party list, made in 1987, of 33 people whom the regime arrested in 1980 and who were at that point still awaiting trial. Sixteen years later, we have no idea what happened to them." He dropped the folder into a cardboard box filled with similar folders and slid it across the floor. "If you knew the contents of this one box alone, you would faint." Then he took me to a dusty room on the buildings second floor, where, illuminated by sunlight filtering through a filthy window, stacks of folders lay toppled by their own height and strewn about in unequal piles. "We have," Abady noted, "seventeen more rooms like this in our branches across the country."
A typical case involved an elderly woman named Maha Fattah Karah, whom they summoned to speak with me. Shrouded in black purdah, she settled into a chair in Abadys office and in animated Arabic (translated for my benefit by the poet Hasan) began her story. In the 1980s, her husband had fled to Iran to avoid arrest by Baathists, who claimed that he had been "unfaithful" to the regime. The party then confiscated Mahas home and belongings, throwing her into the street with her three children. A few years later, Baathists arrested her eldest son on the same charge of unfaithfulness and executed himtaking pains, Maha noted, to charge her for the price of the bullet. Hearing about his sons death, Mahas husband returned to Iraq, only to be seized by security agents, imprisoned for five years, and executed. He was buried in a graveyard, but the regime forbade Maha or her surviving children to visit it.
At this point, the woman became so shaken that Abady motioned me to stop questioning her. Rising from her chair, she stretched out her palms and began to plead. "I look to America," she sobbed. "I ask America to help me. I ask America not to forget me." Then, supported by two young men, she turned and left.
BABADY'S OFFICE had by now become crowded with men. When I asked about mass graves, a murmur passed among them. According to one of them, a doctor named Abdul Hadj Mushtak, the group had discovered three huge burial sites just south of Baghdad, each containing between 14,000 and 17,000 skeletons. "Iraqis knew generally where these places were, but not exactly," Mushtak recalled. "Our investigators found them and alerted the U.S. authorities."
The story was taken up by Fadel Abbas Kazen, a lawyer who was one of the first on the scene at a killing field near the village of Emam Baker bin Ali. "Bones and skeletal remains lay just under the surface of the earth," he told me. "I watched as people began digging up bodies, some of them with clothing still hanging from the bones. Some people had been killed before being buried, but some had been buried alive." In some cases death had come so unexpectedly that women who had gone to fetch water from a nearby river were buried with basins still clutched in their hands. "Behind a nearby police station, we found another grave containing fifteen more bodies," Fadel continued. In the following days, he oversaw the reburial of some 670 skeletons. "In a thousand years, there have been few tyrants like Saddam Hussein," the lawyer finished, fingering his prayer beads.
I heard this refrain numerous times in Iraq: Saddams evil was in a category of its own. Because his regime lasted 35 years, because Iraq is a relatively small nation, because he was so open and boastful about his tyrannyand because the outside world seemed so ready to ignore his crimesthere seemed no way for Iraqis to escape his grasp. "I have lived my entire life with that man in power," said Rand Matti Petros, the twenty-six year-old manager of an Internet cafE9 in Baghdad. "I wake up each morning terrified that Ive been dreaming and hes not really gone."
The painter Rassim described to me how the mere act of talking with foreigners at an art exhibition could result in being hauled away for hours of questioning by the dread Mukhabarat secret police. (A sculptor by the name of Haider Wady related that he had had to fend off demands from the Mukhabarat to procure foreign women for them to "date.") Mushtak recalled how his teenage son had once blurted, "I hate Saddam Hussein!" to a group of close friends, only to find himself arrested a few hours later. The police demanded a million Iraqi dinars to free him, and then 200,000 more. "My wife and I never discussed politics in front of our children," he told me. "We never knew when one might accidentally reveal something to an informer."
A few people I met had suffered worse and lived to tell about it. One was a former high-ranking Shiite cleric whom I will call Ahmed. In the late 1990s, accused by the Baathists of collaborating with anti-government Shiite groups in Europe, he was arrested and imprisoned for several years. In prison he underwent torture. "My hands were tied behind my back and I was hoisted off the ground, sometimes for as long as three days." He went on to describe how his captors shocked him with electric wires charged by a hand-turned military generator and beat him with thick rubber cables. Ahmed was now a broken man: the right side of his body had lost much of its feeling and his right leg, withered by disease contracted in prison, was no thicker than a mans arm. Growing more agitated as he concluded his story, he confessed that the greatest damage from the torture was spiritual, that "it made me question my faith. Today, I am an atheist."
STORIES LIKE these, defining the reality of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, made me begin to wonder how Iraqis were dealing with the fact that many outsiders seemed to question the value of their countrys liberation. Among those I talked to, the prevalent reaction was sheer disbelief. "If they had lived for five minutes under Saddam they wouldnt think like this," expostulated an Iraqi translator for the U.S. military. Yet right in Baghdad itself there were quite a few such people: journalists, representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), peace activists, and others who seemed to ignore the record of Saddams crimes as they vented their anger against the war.
I met "humanitarian workers" in Baghdad who, even as they decried the U.S. "occupation" of the country, would fall into an embarrassed silence when I mentioned Saddams atrocities, and "peace activists" who suggested that the terrible image the world has of Saddam Hussein was largely the creation of "U.S. propaganda." One Dutch photographer argued that Saddams attack on Iran was no worse than "Americas invasion of Vietnam" and that Baath-party members were mostly "guys just looking for jobs." When I tried to describe to a worker for a Canadian NGO some of the findings of the human-rights association, he shrugged and waggled his hand as if to say, "Yeah, yeah, weve heard all this before." Impatiently, he burst out: "Yours is the real rogue nation."
I asked Hasan what he thought of the seemingly worldwide resistance to acknowledging the horrible reality of Saddam Husseins crimes. He began by reminding me that some Iraqis practiced their own form of denial: for the most part, these were small-business owners, older artists, and intellectuals who, while not actively collaborating with the Baathists, had nevertheless thrived on their support. (I had encountered a number of such individuals myself.) Then he turned for wisdom to Shakespeare. "People who forget about Saddam are like Gertrude in Hamlet. She chose to forget about the murder of her husband to get on with her life, and encouraged her son to do the same. But the voices of the dead will not be silent. Like the ghost of Hamlets father, they will not rest until some sort of justice is brought to Iraq."
Justice: ask an Iraqi and you will be told that, along with freedom and stability, justice is the third reason why America needs not only to be in Iraq but to stay there. Because of U.S. power, Iraqis already enjoy an independent judiciary and a police force no longer made up of thugs and gangsters. Though Saddam himself remains uncaught, the continued presence of coalition troops is a pledge that his henchmen and fedayeen will not escape unpunished or fall into the hands of a vengeful mob but will face the just retribution of law. It is by means such as these, my interlocutors urged upon me, that Washington has given the Iraqi people, and perhaps the Middle East as a whole, something they never possessed beforea future. "There are no barriers for us now," a young Iraqi said to me gleefully.
That is not true, of course; there are barriers aplenty. The work of reconstructionpolitical, social, and cultural no less than physicalis gargantuan, long-term, and beset with peril. But increasing its difficulty is the historical and moral amnesia exhibited by the anti-war camp toward the crimes of Saddam Hussein.A0Castigating the United States rather than the tyrant it deposed, refusing to acknowledge the great good our nation has accomplished, these peace activists, Western politicians, international journalists, and intellectuals threaten the rebirth of the country for whose fate they profess to care.
As I recall they came to this conclusion long before the first shot was fired.