November 20th - Suleimania (2)
20 Nov 2003
Talking with former political prisoners.
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In Suleimania, within the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, I met a woman called Ashti. Her name means ‘peace’ in Kurdish. She was born in 1966 and, in 1988, joined the Communist Party. All political activity had to be carried out in secret which is why there was little, if any, open and non-party based political activity. If you wanted to be an activist and oppose the Iraqi government, you picked a party and joined it and did your work that way.

About 1:30 am on June 1st 1989 a group of men burst into her family’s home. One of them was called Abu Hadil. She knew they’d come for her because, as far as she knew, no one else in the family was politically active, though her parents didn’t know she was a party member.

“They asked, ‘Who is Ashti?’ I said, ‘I am Ashti’ and they took me.”

“They didn’t hit me when they first arrested me but they took me to the security police headquaters in Suleimania and the beatings started the minute I arrived there. I was a girl, only young, about 22 and used to the comfort of my parents’ home. They started beating me and I was wearing jeans. Jeans were seen as a symbol of capitalist America. They started beating me really hard and asking me are you a communist, you can’t be a communist, how can you be a communist and be wearing jeans.

“I denied any knowledge of or connection with Communism. I said I had no idea why I’d been arrested, so they started beating me again. They threw me in a big room with other women, not from the Communist Party, but from other Kurdish parties.”

She was jailed for about three years altogether, sentenced after one year in the National Security HQ in Baghdad to fifteen years. She was interrogated and tortured throughout that first year.

“The manager of the prison was a woman named San’a but the security guards were men. They were not men, they were wolves. They treated us the way the national security forces did. They’re all security forces. They were really rough. We are a people with traditions and a woman is to be respected, she must have her privacy. They used to do things to us that were very… hard.

“The government didn’t give us food – it was provided by our friends and families. We were allowed 2 hours visiting time per month, during which our parents would bring food. I don’t know why they were so tough on us. I saw my parents from 9-11 once a month. They would bring me food but this only lasted sometimes 15 days and I wouldn’t be able to see them till the next monthly visit.

“When they brought pregnant women to the jail, when a woman was giving birth there, the other women were not allowed to go and help her. If another woman went to help her she was shot. She couldn’t scream or cry out – if she made any sound, sometimes they would stitch her lips to make her silent.

“Because of the torture I have constant pain in my back. They hung me by my arms, behind my back, which affected my spine.

“After I heard the male comrades talking, I don’t understand why, but it was worse for us in the women’s prison. We were not allowed to have pens, paper, even cardboard from detergent cartons. I heard comrade Ali saying they allowed them a radio at one stage. This was never allowed in the women’s prison. For us it was beatings sometimes and solitary confinement. For example on the Kurdish new year I danced the Kurdish folk dance and they put me in solitary confinement for 3 days in a very small room, 1x1.5 metres and gave me no food.”

The men from her party had been allowed to celebrate Niruz, the Kurdish new year, with music and folk dancing.

“I was the only communist activist in the jail among 45 women from the Daawa party so it was hard for me. I wasn’t only sentenced for 15 years. I was also sentenced within the jail for being a communist among the other prisoners. At the beginning they were not nice to me, they wouldn’t allow me to eat with them or talk to them, they told me I was dirty, they wouldn’t have anything to do with me.

“I thought to myself I was destined to be here 15 years so I have to learn to live with them, made an effort and they realized I was nice and not rude. Deep down inside they were all nice and they changed their treatment of me, but still I was kept in a room alone while they shared rooms. Would you be able to live in a room alone inside a prison and a prison owned by Saddam himself? Would you be able to eat alone, sleep alone?

“When I left prison and saw the sanctions outside I felt sad – these sanctions were not on the government. These sanctions were imposed on the people. From the beginning I was against the sanctions. They didn’t affect the Baathists, they affected the poor. The poor didn’t have food in the first place and the sanctions made it worse for them. The sanctions were horrible - food, medicines and stuff that the people needed.

“We were under a dictatorship and now we are live again, but they did not come for us, they came for oil and for our natural resources. Everyone knows the US and British supported Saddam. We found documents and correspondence between them which proved that. When Baghdad fell there was some kind of an uprising and people looted the governmental offices and found correspondence between the US and British governments and the Iraqi regime.

“If they gave us the right of self determination the Iraqi people are good enough to not need soldiers to protect them. We are capable of ruling ourselves. We are ready to do this. It’s not one person from one party who is going to rule Iraq, it’s a group. If this group unites we can make it. In prison the problems between different groups were fuelled by the Baathist regime in order to divide and control us. Without deliberate provocation of conflicts we can work together.

“I will be a Communist until I die. I joined the party in 1988. Those days were very difficult – the Baath party was very cruel. I was a teacher then in Darhandikhan. Many people from there were tortured and I was one of them, but I understood that I could not tolerate capitalism. I knew these things might happen but resistance to oppression is like your blood – could you leave it?”

She told this story with quiet dignity in Kurdish but after, left to her thoughts, silent tears overwhelmed her. The national security building in Suleimania where Ashti’s torture started is now a museum and memorial. It was damaged in a fire fight and parts of it are crumbling. On the way in there are photographs of whole families who were arrested and killed, walls with names scratched on, dates.

An old man looked at the photograph along with us. He had been held in the other jail in Suleimania, arrested with 32 members of his extended family because his daughter and her husband were Peshmerga fighters. He stood, hands behind his back, showing how they had been forced to stand.

A sculpture is part built in the yard, made of bullet casings, in the overlarge figure of a man, arms crossed in front of his face – the Baathist, ashamed. In one of the torture areas a local artist has tiled the walls with a crazy paving of broken mirrors so that everywhere you look you are surrounded by fragments of yourself, mingled with the reflections of thousands of tiny lights all over the ceiling. In a courtyard in the middle of the complex is a white stone relief of a group of people, adults and children, tied together. “This commemorates a family killed all together.”

Heyman, our guide, translator and friend, indicated a bare grey room about 6 metres square. “This the children’s room.” Children were often detained with their whole families. Then a corridor or so away, “The women’s room.” The room was no bigger than the other, with a single hole-in-the-ground toilet in the corner, shielded on three sides but open on the fourth. “Ninety six women were kept here at a time.” They wouldn’t have been able to sit, let alone lie down.

The solitary cells were no more than a metre square while the shared cells were only a few metres bigger. Names, dates and pictures are engraved on the walls. “They came in the night and took us all.” “I have not seen my daughter for 25 days.” A tree. A flower with leaves growing towards the sun.

Here and there are statues to illustrate what happened in a given place. On a flight of stairs is a blindfolded prisoner, handcuffed to the rail so he can’t stand straight. “Every person who passed would hit him. This was for new prisoners.” Another figure stands alone in a solitary cell.

It winded me as I entered the room: a figure hung by the wrists, tied behind the back so the head was forward and the shoulders wrenched back. The museum guard showed how the interrogators would pull down on the legs to increase the pain. “Men and women were hung here naked.” He pointed out a tear in the armpit of the figure. “Even the statue is broken, so how could a human being bear it?” Electrodes were attached to the figure, wires running to the power source. The floor lino was stained black with blood in irregular patterns.

Tears ran and ran for not even a fraction of the pain that had gone on in this place. How would you ever close your eyes again, or smile, or speak? I had the barest glimpse of why Ashti cried and now I couldn’t see how you would ever stop crying?

Ali Hamid Qadis and Mohammed Arif were both arrested the night before Ashti. Members of any party other than the Ba’ath were viewed as traitors. The military Anfal, Ali explained, was followed by a political one and all the former prisoners I spoke to were clear that Saddam was responsible for what he did to them. But Ali explained: “Britain and the US helped the Baathist regime to overthrow Abdul Kerim Khassim. They replaced a democratic regime with a dictatorship. The US and Britain and Europe in general all helped overthrow Abdul Kerim Khassim. They brought up the new regime in the name of religion and Arab nationalism.

“All of this was to pave the way for the US to invade Iraq now. I personally had this feeling when the US ambassador [April Glaspie] met with Saddam before the invasion of Kuwait and stated that the problem between Arabs is for them to solve and not for the US. This was like a green light for Saddam to invade Kuwait, which paved the way for the US to invade Iraq. The presence of foreign troops in Iraq is an occupation. It was the duty of the people of Iraq and the national parties to carry out change and not for the foreign troops to invade Iraq under the title of liberation.

“The sanctions were nasty and they affected us in prison because they wouldn’t give us enough food any more. We didn’t have electricity or water and we were not allowed to have visitors . Prisoners were eating cats, they would even eat a dog. It only affected the Iraqi people. We knew it would not affect the regime. The sanctions did not contribute to the fall of the regime.

“When Britain took over Iraq after WW1 they could’ve, or France, formed a Kurdish state. Still today they are reluctant to form a Kurdish state but they use the Kurdish cause for their own interests. I once heard of, in prison, a counter-communist committee based in Cyprus. This means that the regime had affairs with systems that were fighting communism all over the world.

“We were interrogated, beaten up and tortured in Suleimania and Baghdad. We were flogged, electrocuted. When we got to Baghdad it was a month before the interrogation was repeated all over again and of course accompanied by beatings and torture. I lost sight as a result of the beating on the night of the 13th of September 1989. The effect of the beating on my head and my body and my back affected my sight so that I bit by bit went totally blind. I was denied treatment.”

Mohammed Arif looked after Ali in the jail after he lost his sight. I can’t begin to imagine the terror of facing all of that in the darkness. “At 12 midnight they would call out someone’s name and would take him to the interrogation. In prison the guards are something but the interrogation committee is something else. I was told that the people who guard our rooms had nothing to do with us except for keeping us in place. At night different people from the interrogation committee would come and question us.

“They used to take us one by one for interrogation and the consequent torture, sometimes for 2 hours, sometimes for 3, sometimes 4. When it was over they would put you on a blanket, carry you and throw you in the air, back into the room. They didn’t care whether you would die or not.”

And you come out, back into the light, and all around are mountains, dark blue against a bright blue sky, and trees and cool air and warm sun, sweeter beyond measure for the knowledge that the man you just met is in darkness forever because he decided to fight for social justice; tinged with sadness beyond description for precisely the same reason.

I know well enough that beautiful scenery doesn’t prevent evil things going on – look at Rwanda, Guatemala, Croatia – but it’s hard to comprehend. Because you stand there, amid the walls inside, among the mountains outside, and the screams haven’t died down. But torture is designed to isolate. You go through it utterly alone and, as loudly as you might scream, no one who can help you hears them. Or no one who can hear them helps you.

The former prisoners were all unequivocal – their torture and detention were the responsibility of Saddam and of the governments which ignored what they knew and carried on supporting him. How many opportunities were there for the British, US and other governments to contribute to an end to the repression? How many decisions were made which, like the police who pulled on the legs of the hanging prisoners, only intensified the agony? How many people tonight will be tortured in the darkness in countries which our governments still support, fund and arm?