Searching for Yunis - and how many others?

David Enders

The massive Abu Ghraib prison on the southwest edge of Baghdad dwarfs the small dwellings in the surrounding farming community and was once Saddam Hussein?s most feared detention centre. It is has new occupants and has been renamed “Baghdad Correctional Facility” but things are very much the same as before ? family members of those detained inside wait anxiously in front of the prison gate, standing in line for hours for news of their loved ones. The road from the visitors? parking lot is a humiliating and muddy slog of a few hundred meters, but lawyers and family make the trek to be met by USA military police at the gate who tell them only 20 visits are allowed each day. Two days out of the week are for lawyers only.

“They told me to come back in four months,” said one man as he walked away from the prison. “My son has already been in there for four months and he has been charged with nothing! It was easier to get a visit under Saddam!”

I an attempt to shore up support from Iraqis a year ago, Saddam Hussein emptied Abu Ghraib prison. In ?liberated? Iraq, it is overflowing again.

I an attempt to shore up support from Iraqis a year ago, Saddam Hussein emptied Abu Ghraib prison. In ?liberated? Iraq, it is overflowing again.

Rory McKewan, an independent Scottish documentary maker, has come to the prison trying to locate his friend Yunis. Yunis is a cameraman who was arrested during a raid on his house in the Al-Adamiyah neighbourhood in north Baghdad.

A chunky MP ignores the Iraqis who approach the gate with us and speaks to Rory and I, a pair of westerners.

“How do we request a visit with a prisoner?” Rory asks.

“Do you have the prisoner?s number?”


The MP looks surprised. It is impossible to get a visit without knowing the prisoner?s number, and many families are unable to find out the numbers ? either they are not provided by arresting soldiers or they are not available on lists given to Iraqi offices or misspellings of names during capture and cataloguing prevent a family from even approximating where their relative might be. Yunis? family received his number when another man in the prison who is from Yunis? neighbourhood was released. Before being released, he wrote down the numbers and locations of many men he knew. This is how many families find out the numbers of their detained relatives, written on scraps of cloth torn from the prison yard tents.

“You can stand in line with everyone else and wait to fill out a form,” the MP says.

More than 100 people are already in line, and it is only 10 a.m. Some are unsure whether their friends and family are even here ? they are hoping to match a name with a recorded prisoner. About the same number of people are in the parking lot and more are arriving. There is only one translator working at the gate today; the other one has not turned up for work.

The MP notices I am writing everything he says in my notebook.

“Are you journalists?” the MP asks.

“Well, yes. But I?m just trying to find out about my mate,” Rory replies.

“You need to go to the 800th MP division to get permission to be here,” the MP says. “You need an escort.”

The MP gives me a phone number of an officer I have already emailed, requesting information about the prison. The officer said he couldn?t offer any help ? control of the prison had been ceded from his men to the civilian-run Coalition Provisional Authority a week before.

Not needing to confirm whether Yunis is in the prison ? something which many of the families lined up are waiting to do before they know whether they can even fill out a visit form ? we turn round and begin the muddy slog back to the parking lot. The MP looks down at a small Iraqi boy, about seven years old, whose father is inside.

“You need to smile more,” he tells the boy.

Despite the obviously abysmal intelligence capabilities, occupying forces continue to imprison Iraqis on the basis of unreliable, unchecked evidence.

Despite the obviously abysmal intelligence capabilities, occupying forces continue to imprison Iraqis on the basis of unreliable, unchecked evidence.

Yunis, along with his brothers, Abbass, and Khalid, are three of the approximately 5,000 detainees the Coalition Provisional Authority admits to holding, though many suspect the real number is no less than twice that. Virtually all are being held indefinitely and without charges ? they are “suspected terrorists.” All the families assembled at Abu Ghraib say their relatives are innocent ? picked up largely in indiscriminate raids conducted on bad information. There is little to back up their claims of innocence, but given the number of rumours of people showing up at the prison to find relatives and being arrested themselves, it seems hard to believe anyone would show up if they truly believed their relatives were guilty ? some of those claiming innocence admit they are frightened. It is common for the Americans to raid all of the houses belonging to an extended family or to arrest all the brothers from a single family.

Many of the families have travelled to multiple prisons across the country, searching for news. The trip from the detainment facility in Tikrit in the north to Camp Bucca in Umm Qasr in the south takes 11 hours by car, and prisoners are moved often. Transliterated names, often spelled incorrectly, can also make it hard to track someone down. In trying to track down Yunis and his brothers, McKewan made visits to various Coalition and military offices but eventually located Khalid?s number at the Al-Adamiyah mayor?s office. The numbers for Yunis and Abbass were not on the list.

“The Americans have no system ? he might be in Abu Ghraib, he might be in Umm Qasr,” says Saeed Al-Hammashe, the head of the Baghdad Lawyer?s Association and the deputy president of the Higher National Committee on Human Rights, a local group that formed in April and was highly endorsed by Sergio DiMello, the late United Nations special envoy to Iraq.

Al-Hammashe says he has taken on 20 cases of men detained by the Americans, and that he has been unsuccessful in freeing any of them or even receiving disclosure papers regarding the reasons they were arrested.

“It?s a run-around ? only one person I know has succeeded in getting anyone out, using personal friendships,” Al-Hammashe says.

There are two systems operating in the country ? some of those arrested are sent to jails run by Iraqi police, while others are taken to American-run instalments. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who commands USA troops in Iraq, says the Coalition is working to put more of its detainees into the legal system, but thus far it has been a trickle.

“At the Iraqi police station it is very easy ? we have a system. There is a judge, there are police, there is a lawyer,” Al-Hammashe says. “But what [the Americans] are doing is illegal ? they?re using military law against civilian people.”

Rumours abound that it is possible to buy freedom or a legal visit for detainees. There is no hard evidence of such methods working, but the families assembled at Abu Ghraib brighten slightly when we ask them whether they have tried this.

“Do you know where we can find these people? We are not rich, but we will sell our houses to get our brothers out,” one man says.

Al-Hammashe, who is also the head of the Baghdad lawyer?s association, estimates the number of detained to be around 20,000. The mayor?s office in the Al-Adamiyah says the number is likely as high as 50,000. Men standing in the parking lot at Abu Ghraib surmise the number to be as many as 80,000.

Many of those who have been taken away by occupying forces have not been heard from again.

Many of those who have been taken away by occupying forces have not been heard from again.

“Look at us, all of us know at least three people who are detained,” says Jihad Abbass, who travelled from Fallujah in search of news about his five sons, ages 16 to 22, who were arrested in a raid on his house on the night of his eldest son?s wedding in July. A crowd of about 40 men surround Abbass in the visitor?s parking lot, all telling similar tales of houses raided, valuables taken and long searches for news ? sometimes not knowing whether their relatives are dead or alive.

“We suspect there are two lists,” says Matt Chandler of Christian Peace Team, a USA-based NGO that has been working in Iraq for three years and is focusing on detainments.

For example, Chandler was allowed to visit Camp Bucca in Umm Qasr, which did for a time have an open visiting policy and, according to prisoners, An active International Committee of the Red Cross presence) and received a list of prisoners in the camp totalling about 1,500 names. Chandler believes that based on the size of the camp and the number of men he saw, there were at least 5,000 people detained.

Though the legal visits are allowed, the number of them is exceedingly small ? and that is assuming families have access to a lawyer. USA Lt. Gen. Sanchez has said there is a process by which all detainees should receive legal counsel, but interviews conducted with released detainees call in to question how long it takes for detainees to receive visits with a lawyer and the frequency with which they actually occur. All released detainees reported they had received no legal counsel.

CPT is also raising questions about the treatment of prisoners after released prisoners they interviewed reported being tortured ? having toenails pulled out, being beaten, starved, or left in intense summer heat without shade. The full report, along with thorough descriptions of prison conditions and raids, are available on the CPT website (

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only organization with access to the detainment camps and a mandate for monitoring the conditions, has drastically reduced its presence following the car bombing at their Baghdad headquarters in September. The effectiveness of the ICRC to begin with, however, was in question. In June, an ICRC employee in Baghdad said there were camps within the country to which even the ICRC did not have access. Written contact that the ICRC provided between detainees and their families seems to have trailed off around June. Some families said before that, they had been receiving contact from detainees every 15 days.

All fear the worst when their relatives are detained. One man said he went to Abu Ghraib and was told his son had died in custody, but no one notified the family. Reportedly, the translator who told the man his son was dead was then reprimanded by a nearby American commander, who told the translator he should have told the man his son had been “released.”

There have been numerous unconfirmed reports of hunger strikes and prisoner demonstrations against their treatment, and the CPA admitted that three prisoners were killed and eight wounded during an uprising in which prisoners were throwing stones on Nov. 24 at Abu Ghraib.

“Prisoners at BCF began throwing rocks at the military police guarding the gates as well as those in the guard towers. Initially, soldiers were instructed to use non-lethal rounds to try to quell the disturbance, however the riot escalated to other compounds and lethal force was authorized. The uprising was under control in about 10 minutes. Three detainees were killed during the riot and eight were wounded. The wounded prisoners were air evacuated to a nearby medical facility,” the press release from the Coalition reads. “The cause of the incident is yet unknown. The escalation in the use of force was based on the situation and conditions of the incident.”

Families are growing used to the separation as the detainments stretch for months with little information. Eid Al-Fitr, the feasting holiday that marks the end of Ramadan and was celebrated earlier this week, is normally a festive event, but for many this year, it was subdued, especially in Al-Adamiyah, where Yunis is from. The neighbourhood is a centre of resistance and has been subjected to frequent raids.

The occupants of this house were lucky; they could have been bombed out of existence, rather than subjected to an unannounced raid.

The occupants of this house were lucky; they could have been bombed out of existence, rather than subjected to an unannounced raid.

As Khraymer Abbass Salman, Yunis?s father, prepares to tell the story of the raid on his house in which his sons were arrested, his wife leaves the room. She cannot hear the tale without breaking into tears. It is a story similar to ones most of the families who have detained relatives tell.

Early in the morning of Sept. 23, troops landed on the roof of the house from helicopters and came in through an upstairs door while others waited for Khraymer to unlock the front door.

“Then they handcuffed me and took my sons,” Khraymer says. “They also took 5 million (Iraqi) dinars.” (About $2,500 USA.) Khraymer said soldiers gave no reason for the arrests at the time, but returned the next day to say that the house had been suspected of being a centre for bomb-making and counterfeiting, though they admitted equipment for neither was found.

Khraymer said the 5 million dinars contained about 20,000 in counterfeit notes ($10 USA), but that is not uncommon here, where a large amount of counterfeit notes are believed to be in circulation.

The financial burden on the family of having a large amount of money taken and the main breadwinners is overshadowed by the mental strain.

“I tell my children their father is travelling, but they don?t believe me,” Abbass?s wife says. She says she doesn?t know how her husband could have been suspected of being a member of the resistance ? he is a medical doctor with two young children.

Khalid, 21, will lose an entire year of study if he is not released soon. The money in the house was to be used for Yunis?s upcoming wedding.

Yunis worked in a hotel before the invasion, and as a part-time journalist, and began working with Rory in April. He was in Rory?s employ when he was arrested, and Rory shows footages of Yunis conducting eyewitness interviews after the murder of 25-year-old British freelance journalist Richard Wild in Baghdad in July ? a more thorough investigation than Coalition troops conducted.

The family suspects Yunis was arrested because he had been making frequent filming trips to Fallujah, about 50 kilometres west of Baghdad and another site of frequent resistance against American troops. Khraymer says one of the neighbours probably told troops Yunis had been going to Fallujah. Though the USA military refuses to confirm or deny these reports, many Iraqis say informants are paid by the military, which often acts on tips without finding out whether they are legitimate or in some cases, people simply trying to settle grudges. In June in Dhuloiya, a village about 40 kilometres north of Baghdad, nearly 400 men were arrested in one operation. All were released, though some after being held for a few months, and the father of the man who allegedly sparked the raid killed his son to prevent other men in the village from doing so. In some cases, Iraqis say troops even apologize for arresting them after finding out their intelligence is bad or tell them who gave troops the tip that led to their arrest.

Stranger still is what is written on the arrest ticket for Khraymer?s oldest son, Iass, who was released after spending three days in a Baghdad police station. In the box for “reason for arrest” appears “planning assassination of Tony Blair.” Other released detainees have complained of similar such accusations, though it appears to be an accident that Iass was allowed to keep his arrest ticket. He assumes the charge to have been a dark joke, but no one finds it funny.

“I know we are not the only people this is happening to,” Khraymer said.

Published Tuesday, December 9th, 2003 - 09:09am GMT

David Enders is a journalist working for Global Exchange, and the Occupation Watch Centre in Baghdad. 

Article courtesy of Occupation Watch

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David Enders

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