Baghdad prison gives up its secrets




By Mark Huband in Baghdad

Financial Times, 23 May 2003

The tapping of a hammer inside a brick oven paused at the sound of military boots on the broken glass and smashed tiles. A dog howled outside, pigeons cooed, and the wrinkled, soot-caked face of a man appeared at an opening in the wall in which the cooks of Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison used to bake their bread.

The ransacking of Iraq’s most notorious prison – the man in the bread oven was stealing bricks, which he had neatly piled in the centre of the prison kitchen – has left much of the vast complex in ruins. But its atmosphere is intact.

A team of US and UK troops trawled through the mounds of partially-burned prison records and faded photographs of inmates holding up their prison numbers, searching for evidence of the violence with which the prison was associated throughout Saddam Hussein’s rule.

They waded through the dust and ash settling on the cells, corridors and offices in which the deposed Ba’ath party regime institutionalised brutality. The cell doors, hundreds of them, all painted recently in bright blue, lay open, the cells onto which they opened empty, the evidence of redecoration suggesting that the regime had plans for the place which hardly countenanced its overthrow.

On the corridor walls, as if designed to compound the misery and fear of those trapped within, brightly coloured murals depict a swan and its cygnets gliding along a pleasant stream, a horse galloping across open grassy plains, a sailing ship plunging through the sea without a crew, a boy washing his donkey in a fast running river watched by a stag and a family of deer.

According to human rights groups, the regime executed 4,000 prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 1984 alone. In February and March 2000, 122 political prisoners were executed there, and in October 2001 a further 23 political prisoners. A nearby graveyard is one of many in Iraq to have revealed grim secrets since the fall of the old regime.

The inmates were a mixture of dissenting voices, common criminals and those who had the misfortune to fall from grace with the regime. If ever they forgot whose rules they had broken, they could strain their eyes to the end of every one of the cell blocks and see the face of the dictator – smiling, holding a shotgun, laughing with children, dressed as a peasant.

“The last time I saw him was here.” Abdul Jaber Mutashir unrolled a piece of white paper. On it, a photograph of a man in Arab dress. “It was this cell.”

He was not talking about Saddam Hussein. He had shown the team of foreign troops to a two-storey building. It was the only one in the many acres within which Abu Ghraib sprawls, on which trees gave some shade. There was grass, and bougainvillea growing against a wall. The shadow of the trees would have shaded the building had it not been midday.

“Then he was taken here.” Abdul Jaber pointed to a heavy metal door painted grey, opened it, appearing to know his way, and walked inside a room which rose through the two storeys of the building.

There was no bright blue paint, just grey. A mezzanine at the top of the ramp was bare but for a metal box with two handles. Above it, two large metal brackets were welded to the ceiling and directly beneath them in the floor, two rectangular holes opened onto the concrete floor below.

Prisoners were hanged here side by side. Abdul Jaber Mutashir wondered aloud who had been hanged beside his brother. He wondered if they had spoken together before the handles were pulled and they fell.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.