Yet the marks on the body of Al-Mountadhar Fadhel, a young Iraqi student of 23 years old, were so undeniably real, shocking, and above all completely unacceptable.
Al-Mountadhar lives in Hay El-houria, one of the poor, run-down neighbourhoods in the outskirts of Baghdad. Most of the streets and allies are inaccessible to cars. They are either too broken up or are drowned in dirty water which nearly reaches up to the sidewalks. “It is the same everywhere since the Americans arrived in Baghdad,” Ahmed, a taxi-driver, explained.
In fact, the destruction of Iraqi state buildings, such as the ministries, the factories, the universities, the administrative centres, the city halls, etc., threw millions of Iraqi workers out of work; including those city employees, among others, who were responsible for collecting the garbage.
All are on forced unemployment, just at a time when there is so much to do to prevent infectious diseases and other epidemics in this extremely hot weather. It is more than 50? and the garbage has not been collected for weeks in Baghdad neighbourhoods. It took us more than twenty minutes to move less than one kilometre and arrive at El-machtel street where Al-Mountadhar lives.
The young man told us that everything had started in the area of the Souk el-bayaa market. “I had gone there to buy a tape recorder, because in these places you can find less expensive products than in stores,” he added. Al-Mountadhar explained to us that in the markets, souks, or other commercial places, you can always find people who are called locally “sidewalk salesmen.”
Sometimes they leave the sidewalk and directly take over the roadway. This was the case on that day. These small, informal merchants, mostly young people, had spread out all kinds of wares on cardboard, or small wooden tables, or directly on the road. In general, these are people who can’t find a job and so create their own work. All countries, particularly in the third world, which are plagued by unemployment, are familiar with these kind of salespeople. “I was in the process of negotiating the price of the product with a seller” continued Al-Mountadhar, “when an American soldier brutally kicked and overturned the cardboard with everything on top of it.”
He pushed me along and then, as I instinctively raised my hands to protect myself, the soldier suddenly threw himself on me, followed by his companions. I tried to protest, but I was hit, my hands were tied and I was pushed towards a vehicle which I was made to enter. As it started to move, my eyes were blindfolded.”
Some people in our democratic countries find it difficult to realise that American soldiers are capable of being just as cruel as the torturers of Saddam or any other famous dictator.
However, it is to the United States that some dictators, especially from Central and South America, send their torturers to be trained.
Hence cases of abuse by soldiers against the Iraqi population take place every day. “Who do we complain to?” people ask me in a desperate tone, “the Americans are both the judges and the torturers.”
The young Al-Mountadhar also found it difficult to believe what he went through, not in the jails of Saddam, but in those of the American army. “The military vehicles drove about 15 or 20 minutes,” continued the young man. Because he was blindfolded, he couldn’t provide any information about the place where he was taken. He remembered that, after getting out of the car, he was dragged for several meters before he was taken down a flight of stairs to end up on the ground.
“The only words I kept repeating non-stop were, “I did nothing! Let me go!” Shortly after, I was picked up and my head was shaved. “I had long hair,” said Al-Mountadhar with a note of regret in his voice. Next, I was pushed face towards the wall and my hands were tied above my head. When the first blows hit my body, I couldn’t stop myself from crying, not so much because of the pain, but because I found all of this so incredibly unjust coming from those who were claiming they had come to liberate us from the oppression of Saddam. They beat me for hours. It was an eternity. At each blow from what seemed to be a thick cable, I felt my flesh tear.
I could hardly hear the words of my torturer, “To teach you to push an American back. Why did you push an American back?” I lost consciousness several times, but each time was revived. It was horrible. I had never thought I would live such an experience outside Saddam’s regime.”
After the beating, the soldiers kept the young man, covered in wounds and blood, late into the night. In the end, it was past 1:00 am when he was released, or rather thrown into a deserted street near a commercial centre.
It was in the middle of curfew, that is, the time when the young man most risked being killed, either by the soldiers themselves, who have a reputation of being trigger happy, or by any of all these forces of evil: bandits, criminals or other networks of gangsters which have flourished in the shadow of the occupation and create terror among the Iraqi population.
“I felt very weak and I had difficulty even getting on to the sidewalk,” continued Al-Mountadhar. “All the while, I was calling for help. Finally, a couple of people coming out of a building approached and carried me to the nearest mosque. The brothers helped me, cleaned my wounds and kept me until curfew was lifted, before taking me home.”
It is important to realise that not all Iraqi victims of abuse like Al-Mountadhar will openly tell about what they have undergone, let alone denounce their torturers. Far from it; the tyranny of the preceding regime sowed among them a fear so deep, that it will take training in a democratic culture and human rights before they will be able to practice them and reappropriate their country and their future. This is one of the great needs which presents itself to humanitarian organisations concerned with human rights. In this area, Quebec and Canada enjoy a good amount of trust from the Iraqi population.
Written by Zehira Houfani (writer and journalist), Montreal member of Iraq Solidarity Project, Baghdad, 30 July 2003. For more information about the International Occupation Watch Center, visit www.occupationwatch.org