Al-Arab Blog - مدونة العرب
McAllester's ONLY eight days in Abu Ghraib, Iraq's most fearsome prison !
During the war in Iraq, Newsday reporter Matthew McAllester made headlines all over the world, though not in the way a journalist would wish. The story began, as it so often does in places like Baghdad, with an early-morning knock on the door. It ended in a way it often does not, with the principals largely unscathed. In between, we waited with dread, fearing the worst in a vacuum of information, while McAllester and four colleagues got a glimpse of Saddam Hussein's vast machinery of terror.
"Blinded by the Sunlight" recounts McAllester's eight days in Abu Ghraib, Iraq's most fearsome prison. It's a hair-raising story, but the book would be little more than a footnote to the war without McAllester's journalistic instincts. By refusing to make the story solely his own, by seeking out Iraqis who were trapped in the nightmare of Hussein's rule - jailer and prisoner, torturer and tortured, killer and corpse - McAllester reveals the degradation suffered by ordinary human beings at the hands of the Baathist regime. The metaphor employed throughout the book is of Iraq as one giant prison, filled with informants and spies and haunted by a corrosive paranoia.
McAllester was ensconced in Baghdad with Newsday photographer Moises Saman when the war began. They'd entered Iraq on a visa that allowed them only to follow the Western human shields, whose aim was to make the bombing of particular targets both politically and morally unfeasible. Like any independent-minded journalist, McAllester chafed under such a restriction, particularly during wartime, and chose to flout it. That was strike one. Strike two: his and Saman's visit to a Sufi religious ceremony, whose participants were suspected of fomenting opposition to the Baathist regime. Strike three: a satellite phone. In the estimation of the Mukhabarat, the regime's intelligence operation, these three elements coalesced into a profile of a Western spy.
McAllester, Saman and three other journalists were seized and whisked away to Abu Ghraib just after the war began. No one in the world but their jailers knew where they were. Stripped of their clothes and possessions, they could do nothing but wait, hope, pray - even the agnostic McAllester - and hope the truth would eventually set them free.
Their jailers used isolation and the fear of torture or execution to break the spirit of the prisoners, as they did with tens of thousands of Iraqis. McAllester writes affectingly of his sudden desire to believe in God, his contemplation of suicide as a last option and his decision, which he later regrets, to endanger others in an attempt to appear cooperative to his captors. He tells them about the satellite phone he hid in the home of his driver, Yousef, and of the private dinner he and Yousef shared without the presence of a government minder, a grave offense in the eyes of the regime. Absent the chaos of the war, Yousef probably would have been found and jailed, too.
McAllester's eight days in Abu Ghraib gave him but a mild taste of the brutal, irrational methods of Hussein's long rule. Moving as his own experience is in the retelling, it's the stories of Iraqis that prove most powerful. Some of them, such as Saad Jassim, spent years in Abu Ghraib, tortured both physically and psychologically, despite their innocence. Others met their ends in mass graves such as the one McAllester visited in Muhawil. There, mothers and children were lined up in trenches and shot. Their deaths were a warning against a reprise of the rebellion that followed the 1991 Gulf War - a rebellion encouraged by then-President George Bush, who never delivered the support required for the uprising's success. Relatives of the missing still sift through bones and bits of clothing, seeking confirmation of fears that have shadowed them for years.
McAllester's postwar conversations with regime functionaries - a former bodyguard for one of Hussein's sons, former officials at Abu Ghraib and even, remarkably, the man who interrogated him during his eight-day confinement - are just as chilling. These men betrayed their own humanity to avoid imprisonment and death, thereby becoming tools of imprisonment and death. "[N]o matter how cooperative or hospitable they were, there was an unsettling lack of insight," McAllester writes of his meetings with former security officers. "They insisted on their loyalty to their country and their own fairness and humanity even as they acknowledged beating confessions out of their terrified countrymen." Some of them recite the excuse heard from Hitler's and Stalin's henchmen: I was merely following orders.
Abu Ghraib is the perfect symbol of Iraq's collective dysfunction. McAllester says that prisoners there begged other prisoners with tuberculosis to spit in their mouths, so they could contract the disease and move to the comfort of the TB ward; the executed had their corneas harvested for implants in other Iraqis. The prison was built for 4,000 but ultimately held five times that many, and it was designed by a now-defunct company that once had offices on Long Island.
Abu Ghraib was nearly emptied in the last days of Hussein's regime; he offered amnesty to political prisoners in an effort to appear beneficent and keep his grip on power. Now it is filling up again. More than 13,000 Iraqis have been imprisoned there since the end of the war, and American soldiers patrol the grounds. Americans have another chance to help draw up the blueprints - this time for the whole country - but building and filling prisons is a lot easier than building a civil society from scratch.
Iraq is traumatized by decades of brutality, riven with ethnic divisions and spooked by a pervasive history of betrayal, not only of citizen by citizen, but of the entire country by every outside force to have occupied it. "Behind the different coats of politics and pain, Iraq has a solidity and pride that will see it through these hard times," McAllester writes, in what sounds like a dubious stab at optimism. The rest of this fine book reveals just how difficult Iraq's future will be.
BLINDED BY THE SUNLIGHT: Emerging From the Prison of Saddam's Iraq, by Matthew McAllester. HarperCollins, 284 pp., $25.95.
|"Join this group"|
مجموعة العروبيين : ملتقى العروبيين للحوار البناء من أجل مستقبل عربي افضل ليشرق الخير و تسمو الحرية
|Subscribe to Arab Nationalist|
|Browse Archives at groups-beta.google.com|
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Anti War - Anti Racism
Let the downFall of Sharon be end to Zionism
By the Late, great political cartoonist Mahmoud Kahil