Scribblings on walls tell tales of 'one-way prison' in Iraq
Stars and Stripes June 10, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The writing is on the wall.
Scribbled on the whitewashed concrete cells are messages of the doomed, virtual last wills and testaments of inmates held captive in the “one-way prison.”
Once in, they never left — at least not alive.
The history, or reputation rather, of the former headquarters of the Secret Iraqi Police doesn’t bother the soldiers of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Polk, La. They have set up their headquarters on the sprawling, sandy compound just on the outskirts of downtown Baghdad.
“It kind of calls to you,” Maj. Lanier Ward, the operations officer, said of the etched messages. “Not until you see it does it really hit home of the brutality that went on here.”
Inside the bland tan stucco, cross-shaped building lived captives who dared challenge the former regime, speak ill of the reigning Baath Party, or even look in the direction of the compound walls, some say.
Curious U.S. soldiers now operating there tour the prison, built to accommodate more than 500 prisoners shoved in tiny two-, four-, eight- or 12-man cells — some with metal bunk beds and some with nothing more than the floor, tiny bathroom and enveloping steel bars.
“They want to see it. It reminds them of why they’re here,” said 1st Lt. Jill Duncan, executive officer of the 502nd Military Intelligence Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd ACR.
“It creeped me out. It felt really cold and you got the feeling that a lot of bad things happened in there,” said Spc. Kathrine Reed, 22, of Detroit.
Creepy is also how Sgt. 1st Class Rita Montgomery described it.
“My God, what was going through these poor people’s minds? It makes me think about my family a lot,” said Montgomery, 49, a mother of four and a new grandmother.
Children’s clothing and toys — party favors, a pinwheel, watercolor paints — littered the center courtyard.
“We’ve been told [the regime] would kidnap families and hold them for ransom until deserters [of the Iran-Iraq war] returned,” Duncan said. “Then they’d release the families, but kill the prisoners.”
Numbered printouts inside plastic sleeves provide translations of the penciled scrawl, marking the route of the “prison tour,” as she calls it. Tour guide Duncan said she means not to poke fun or make light of the atrocities, but to provide a little levity for the troops.
Chinese prisoners, housed separately from the Iraqi ones, might have been migrant workers hired to build the prison and then killed in lieu of being paid by the regime, Duncan said.
One inscription reads: “The Red Army is not afraid. Shang-hai, Beijing. Smoking cigarettes is not leading you to death. I am slowly killing myself. Widen my heart, give me tolerance. I am the last Chinese virgin. My Chinese heart is afire in the winter. I miss my home.”
Others, Duncan says, are vulgar; she has not provided translations for those.
The Iraqi prisoners seemed less poetic, less vocal and willing to document their fears in writing.
Messages etched into gray metal cell doors repeated passages from the Quran; others prompted to remember the rulers. Most instructed to knock on the bathroom door before entering.
Camera mounts posted outside each cell contain no cameras, likely taken by looters brave enough to enter, Duncan said.
In some cells, hash marks served as calendars, counting days of confinement. The lengthiest recording is 60 days. “They weren’t held here long,” Duncan said.
The final fate of the doomed prisoners’ bodies lingers. No graves have been found within the compound that housed the prison, administrative buildings and apartments or dormitories that appear to be where the prison guards lived.
During the war, an American-lobbed Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, destroyed half the building, apparently empty at the time of the strike, Duncan said. No bodies, either of prisoners or Iraqi officials, have been found in the rubble. But while surveying the apartment, which had five and six deadbolts on the front doors, she did find Arabic newspapers dated February and March.
In the bowels of yet another bland tan stucco building next door to the prison, millions of folders containing documents — some quite detailed with Iraqi citizens’ names, addresses, places of work, family trees, and party and religious affiliations noted — are stored. U.S. officials don’t know yet if these kept track of prisoners or citizens for the regime.
Some documents are written in code, like that in a folder containing arresting information on four Iraqis: Abudd Khalil Yousef, born in 1980 and a farmer from Nasiryiah: “Arrested for relations with agent 165.”
Documents mention mass executions, but provide no details as to numbers, method or what happened to the bodies afterward, Duncan said.
Survey Exploitation Teams, made up of Defense and State Department employees, have begun the arduous task of removing and scanning the documents to glean intelligence on the operations of Saddam Hussein’s decades of domination.
Local nationals hired to clean debris from or repair the now U.S.-occupied compound commanded more money than the normal going rate for such work just to enter the mammoth steel-gray front gate, Duncan said.
“They were so afraid to come here, we had to pay them double just to get them to come on the compound,” she said. “They didn’t want to come near this place out of fear.”