Four years ago this August I joined with several Christian Peacemakers to visit Abu Ghraib. This was still seven months before the prison became know for being the site of gruesome U. S. interrogations and flagrant abuse of detainees and not only as the former site of Saddam’s persecution of enemies. On August 29, 2007 we learned that the one remaining officer to face court martial for this abuse, Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, 51 was exonerated by a military jury of nine Colonels and a one star General. Jordan was cleared of charges that he personally abused prisoners.
Abu Ghraib is located near the Baghdad Airport, a 45 minute ride from our peacemaker offices in Baghdad. Families of detainees who either knew or suspected that their family members were held at the prison facility pleaded with us to go the prison, seek admittance and get information. We were less hopeful than they that we could get reliable information about family members but we went. Because of its history, Abu Ghraib struck fear in the hearts of Iraqis. August 2003 was just five months after the U.S. occupation began. Except for the growing group of detainee families many Iraqi people still suspended final judgement about the US invasion but lack of jobs, and public services, including security was stretching their patience and reserves.
When we arrived at the crude entrance to Abu Ghraib, there was chaos. Several hundred Iraqi family members were already there. Many rushed towards us seeking help, anxious to speak to foreigners who might know something. We were overwhelmed. Individually we spoke with as many people as possible. We listened. We took notes and we listened some more. Early in the day we approached the U. S. soldiers who guarded the entrance. Their body language was tense. Guns were drawn. We identified ourselves as Christian Peacemakers and requested entrance to meet with officers and we were told. “No!” We requested a future appointment and were told to go away. We tried to banter with the soldiers – no success.
Finally a Major appeared, probably the security commander and we approached him. He reluctantly spoke with us briefly. He told us that information about detainees was not his responsibility. Then he asked us if we could help get the Iraqis to go away because their presence made the soldiers feel insecure and the situation could become explosive. We explained to him again the purpose of our mission, to support families of detainees and seek reliable information for them. We pressed our point that this lack of response inflamed an already explosive situation. He told us that our intentions were good but that these matters were not his responsibility. He told us to go to the Green Zone to find answers.
As our talk with the Major came to an end, Iraqi people pressed at us grasping for any hint of good news. We explained to them that we had been no more successful than they had been. Some of our worst fears were now being realized. Dealing with the press of hundreds of anxious people is one thing. But, being reminded of the limits of our ability to deliver any good news or even a method for response was discouraging. Meeting, conversing with and otherwise engaging with victims always raises their hopes and hints at a promise to help. Journalists collect facts. Health practitioners provide assistance for physical healing. Our work was support for detainee families and gaining the release of captives. This often little noticed work, requires a long term strategy for co-workers spanning the globe. I believed that nuanced follow through would lead to real long term health.
In mid afternoon we departed Abu Gharib’s 100 degree + heat. We were exhausted. We had not gotten into Abu Gharib. We had not gotten inside information on a single detainee. But the picture was getting clearer. What began as a problem for hundreds of detainees had now grown to tens of thousands. We now understood that crowds like the one we encountered at Abu Gharib were at base entrances across Iraq. We had learned that no one was listen, not soldiers, not commanders, not the Pentagon, not the White House, not Congress, not the world.
Our minds felt garbled with the press of anxious, angry stories. From the chaos we needed to sort out patterns that pointed to threads and trends. We wanted to escape to our apartment, cool off, eat, find some normalcy. But finding normalcy in Iraq is fleeting. Bombing attacks in Baghdad had already begun. The parameters of the problem grew by multiples every day.
The knowledge that thousands of detainees in Abu Gharib and other holding areas were about to undergo debilitating torture was not yet being whispered. Nevertheless for me, the connection to the Tiger Cages of Con Son Island, and the My Lai massacre during the Viet Nam war seemed incontestable. The U. S. Government faced a train wreck. From those Viet Nam days I learned that healing could only begin when the world knew the truth. There is no single plan that works everywhere. Sometimes disappointment and defeat repeatedly precedes success. Some will continue to deny complicity in modern inhumanity. On that hot afternoon we could not have known that the name Abu Gharib would soon awaken a world and become a universal label for horrific abuse.
We were clear that the primary content of our work should be in human rights but we were not yet clear about what an effective approach might be. Every day we had a sense of being overwhelmed by so many anguished people. Our visit to Abu Gharib was one part of our larger month long attempt to get a grasp of the scope, the methodology and the objectives of the escalating detainee problem. In the end we realized that soldiers and commanders sent all of us away, because they were also confused.
The single charge for which Lt. Col. Jordan was convicted was willfully disobeying an order not to contact soldiers regarding the investigation into Abu Ghraib. This was the only conviction secured against any officer in the Abu Ghraib scandal. The verdict means that no officer will serve prison time for the mistreatment of detainees. Those left accountable for the abuse are 11 low ranking soldiers who were identified in the famous photos. The images portrayed horrific acts including detainees in hoods, detainees wearing women’s underwear on their heads, detainees shackled in painful stress positions, detainees piled naked in a pyramid, detainees forced to simulate sexual acts, or detainees with a leash around their necks.
I don’t know how many of the families pleading for help at Abu Gharib four years ago had relatives in those pictures. All of us who waited there that August day learned months later how important that time was in preparing us for hard work ahead. Persistence and vigilance helped us interpret the catastrophe of the lives that have been touched by Abu Gharib.
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