Mostly the days were filled with sleeping or trying to sleep. As there were only actually a few hours in the early morning when I would be exhausted enough to sleep through the discomfort, I spent much of the time in a bit of a daze, too tired to really be fully functional and too uncomfortable to sleep.
For the first few days I kept on expecting to be released that day and every time a guard came to the door I expected him to call my name. But they never did. I found out from one of the nicer guards that the Chief of the police station, where we were being held, finished work at 4pm everyday and I knew that he was the only person with the authority to release me, so as 4 o’clock approached and passed I would resign myself to the fact that I would have to endure another sleepless night; maybe tomorrow.
After a few days I was moved to a better space next to Caca Mouserie, The Egyptian man who spoke English. My sleeping partner was a young Kurdish man called Ricard. I was quite happy in this spot as I could talk to Caca Mouserie which helped me get through the days and at night Ricard would let me lie on him so that we could both sleep at the same time and during the day he would go to the other side of the cell to chat with some other of his friends leaving me twice the space to stretch out in. Ricard was a strange character. An ex soldier he used to tell me stories about swimming across the Euphrates and driving tanks in the desert. Every Sunday he would remain in silence for the whole day in remembrance of his daughter who had died on a Sunday some years earlier.
After a few days, I can’t remember exactly how many but I do know that it was a Wednesday; our cell had a wash day. A nice Turkomen man from Kirkuk, whom I later became friends with, lent me a small hand towel so that I could wash, and I was given a bucket and a bar of soap to take in to the toilet. Like the daily toilet breaks this was rushed taking less than a few minutes so I had little time to actually wash but I did come out slightly cleaner that I went in. Had I known that this was the only time I was going to be allowed to wash I would have perhaps scrubbed a little harder. Naif ordered someone to wash my t-shirt and give me a pair of tracksuit bottoms to wear instead of my jeans. By changing my clothes I felt that I had begun to accept my fate. I was no longer under the illusion that I was going to be released the following day and as I was no longer dressed in the clothes I’d arrived in, I looked like any of the other prisoners, dirty and disheveled. I looked as though I belonged.
This was the best day that I would have in the prison as we were allowed to stand outside for about forty five minutes while people did their washing. It was a beautiful day and although all we could see of the outside world was a rectangle of blue sky through a wire mesh above us, I got a real sense of being on an adventure in Iraq and even felt quite happy for a while. While we were standing outside one of the guards called me over. He was dressed in the traditional Kurdish dress which is essentially a boiler suit tied round the middle with a big scarf – kind of 80’s workman chic – complete with turban and moustache. He was a tall, young man called Yaseen, with striking green eyes. He, along with everyone else in the jail, wanted to know how I had ended up in this place and what I thought of Kurdistan. His English was ok so I chatted to him while he gave me cigarettes. He was someone who I had avoided up to this point as I thought that he might have been a bit of a psycho but I was wrong and he turned out to be very nice to me. Being nice to me, however, did not qualify someone as a nice person. None of the guards were at all brutal to me. They looked on me as a fool and a nuisance but no more. As I was an outsider I was somehow separate from their anger. This did not apply for the others in the jail as I witnessed one evening.
Our cell was out for our evening toilet break and I was squatting beside the door talking with Naif, waiting to go and join the toilet queue, when we started to hear screaming coming from the cell next to ours. As the screaming got worse I could hear the people around me all muttering under their breath, “Shut up…shut up”. The atmosphere changed suddenly and everyone became quite tense. The two guards on duty went over to the door of the cell and began shouting at him to shut up but this only seemed to make things worse so they opened the door. At this point another guard came and began to usher us back in to our cell. I hung back by the door to see them drag the wailing man from his cell. I couldn’t understand exactly what he was yelling about but got the general idea. I don’t belong here…let me out…I have done no wrong…Allah forgive me. There is something quite upsetting about seeing a grown man cry like a baby but this paled in comparison to seeing that same man being beaten across the face time and time again. We all sat in the cell in silence listening to the screaming and the beating from the other side of the door that continued for some time until eventually the man either fell unconscious or decided that he’d had enough. Even though this wasn’t an unusual occurrence it shook everybody up a little. No one more than me. One of the guards doing the beating was Yaseen who had given me the cigarettes a few days before.
The next day a friend of mine was released, which was a great relief as I had begun to wonder if anyone ever got out of this prison, but the release of Nebil made me feel like perhaps I would be freed too. We had shared food for the first few days and he spoke some English. He was a portly little man from Baghdad who had been trying to escape to Europe but had been caught in Greece without a passport and sent back to Iraq. He was wearing a woolly jumper with a tweed shirt and had a well kept beard. He reminded me of an old geography teacher I had in school. Looking at him I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised to discover he was a Christian. As such he was a bit of an outsider and so we bonded in the first few days as neither of us really fitted in. For the most part though, he kept to himself. He was a very paranoid man as had been badly beaten on his first day, a few days before I arrived. He said that they had confiscated his bible and was convinced that the room was full of spies. He was released because he was a Christian and therefore not a threat to the new Iraq, so I assumed that I would also be released forthwith.
Some time later on in the week I was called out of the cell. I put on the first two shoes that I could grab from the pile, two sodden left shoes of different sizes, and shuffled after the guard my feet squelching with every step. I was taken by a short little grumpy soldier out of the compound and in to a building opposite. As I looked around me on every corner there were bored looking guards nursing their Kalashnikovs. “No chance of escape then”, I thought to myself.
Once inside the other building I removed my ill fitting shoes and was pushed into a corner while my hands were cuffed behind me. I caught a glimpse of a few men sitting cross-legged on the floor, their hands tied behind their backs and blindfolds tied over their eyes. Shortly afterwards I too was blindfolded and led into a room and put in a chair. Being blindfolded is a seriously frightening experience, the room began to spin as if I was drunk and I was bracing myself for a punch in the head or a bucket of cold water to be thrown on me. I managed to wriggle my head enough to move the blindfold slightly so that I could see a small piece of floor out of one eye which made my head stop spinning and sat in silence not knowing who was in the room with me or even how many. After about five minutes a man started talking to me in English. He asked me if I spoke Kurdish or Arabic, I apologized. Then he asked me about my religion. He was very calm and precise, even though his English wasn’t that good. He obviously had my passport with him as he was asking me lots of questions about where I had recently been. In fact I had two passports, which made me look even more like a criminal as my old passport had become full up so I had got another one from the embassy in Ankara but my Turkish visa was still in the old, now invalid, passport meaning I’d had to present both at the border where they were confiscated. Many of the visas in my old passport were from countries that the authorities have deemed as ‘rogue’.
My interrogator was under the impression that I had converted to Islam and had been trained by someone in Afghanistan and had come to Iraq to fight a holy war against America and the Iraqi people. He simply refused to believe that I had been on holiday. I had recently spent a month in Pakistan, the same in Afghanistan. I had visas from Jordan, Russia and Iran not to mention that my new passport had an unused Syrian visa which led him to believe that that was my intended route out of the country. There was nothing that I could say to make him understand why I had come to Iraq. To him my reasons seemed too absurd to be true.
We went on like this for a while and then suddenly without warning I could hear him walking towards me. He stood behind me for a moment, untied my blindfold and then returned to his seat behind a desk. We were the only two people in a room that was a very normal looking office. The walls were a pale yellow and there were lots of filing cabinets. On the wall was a picture of Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and now the President of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region; and a Kurdish flag. There was another smaller flag on his desk. I was on a chair right in the middle of the room facing a young man behind a desk. I had pictured a much older person wearing a uniform. This guy was wearing a suit and seemed about the same age as me, in fact when I asked him he said that we were born within a few weeks of each other.
The questions continued and he began to ask me about Zim. Zim is American but his family is Yemenite Jew. He looks like he is from Yemen, he looks like a Muslim.
“…but your friend is Muslim.”
“He is not a Muslim.”
“What is his religion?”
“I don’t know. He is probably a Christian. But he is definitely not a Muslim.”
“We found Koran in bag. He is Muslim.”
“No. He is not.”
And so it went on. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If I say nothing then ‘he is a Muslim and therefore a terrorist.’ If I say he is Jewish then…I am not sure what might happen. Eventually he called for the guard to take me away. The last thing he said to me was that he would see me again at one o’clock, but that turned out to be a lie. Many days later I found out to my great disappointment that everything that this man said was a lie.
I had really been looking forward to speaking to someone in authority as I thought that they would instantly see that a mistake had been made and set me free. On the way back to my cell I began to feel even worse than I had before as I realized that they really believed all of the shite that they were saying about me. It would have almost been funny had the situation not been so dire. Since being detained at the border I had also been accused of being a spy and a drug smuggler both of which I thought were much more plausible and easier to disprove. The problem with being accused of being a terrorist is that the burden of proof lies with the accused. Once accused it is very hard to convince people otherwise especially if you don’t speak the language and spend all of your time away from your accusers in a cell.
I remained in a depressed state for much of the day and well into the next. The following evening, however, there was some excitement. At the insistence of the ICRC (Red Cross) some of the prisoners were being transferred to another prison to relieve over crowding. Despite being told by many of the people in my cell that the other prison was luxurious in comparison to ours, with only eight to a cell and access to a TV and books, I was very scared that they would choose me too. I had just got used to this place and, more importantly, it had got used to me. I was no longer a freak from the west; I had become just another prisoner. As well as this I was frightened that Zim and I would be split up. I never saw him, but I did get some comfort in knowing that he was not far away. Better the devil you know. My worrying proved to be pointless as I was not chosen for the transfer but unfortunately many of my friends were. Most of the English speakers, including Caca Mouserie, as well as an Iranian called Yousef, who spoke French, and whom I had befriended, were scheduled to leave later that evening. In my paranoid state I was convinced that this was because of me. I had already been told that there were spies in the cell reporting to the guards, and now I thought this was their attempt to alienate me from the others.
I was sad to have lost so many friends but on a positive note twelve less people in the cell meant more room for the rest of us. We were now down to thirty seven people which was much more bearable. Naif moved me to Caca Mouserie’s space, which meant that I didn’t have to share with anyone so I could sleep all night and sit up against the wall during the day, I still had the same amount of space – or lack of space – but I no longer had to move every three hours.
One Sunday, sometime after lunch, there was a knock on the door and a woman’s voice came through the peephole. I was half asleep but someone beside me woke me up as something important was obviously happening.
“Salaam Aleikum”, she shouted in to the cell.
“Wa’aleikum a salaam Miriam”, everybody replied in unison. Hang on I thought. Who the fuck is Miriam? How does everybody know her name and what on earth is she doing here, in prison?
Miriam, it turned out, was from the Red Cross, who visit the prison every few weeks to make sure everything is ok and to register all new prisoners to make sure that people aren’t simply disappearing. Their main role as far as the prisoners are concerned is to act as a messaging service between those inside and those on the outside. As we had been denied all contact with the outside world this was an invaluable service. Most of the people in my cell had been ‘abducted’ from work or the street or even the mosque and simply never heard of again. I am sure that there were many families who were mourning the loss of people who were in fact alive but incarcerated with no way of contacting home.
The Red Cross had visited the day before I arrived in the cell and had given out toothbrushes and towels, although brushing teeth was forbidden, so I knew that they visited from time to time and had pinned all of my hopes on them coming soon and contacting my embassy to arrange my immediate release.
“Jadid, Jadid?” came her voice again through the hole. “Are there any new prisoners?” I stood up and said my name. She was shocked.
“Where are you from?”
“The UK”, I replied
“You don’t have a Muslim name?”
“No, I am a Christian”. I had temporarily adopted Christianity in an effort to seem less like a Mujahid.
“What the hell are you doing here?” She asked
“I was hoping that you could tell me.”
She disappeared for a while and then came back and asked me to step out of the cell.
She took my details assuring me that she would be in immediate contact with my embassy in Baghdad and instructed me to write a letter home. Quietly confident of my imminent release I couldn’t understand why I had to write a letter. Surely I would be out of this hell hole in a matter of hours, a day at the most now that the Red Cross and my embassy were involved. I wrote the letter anyway and after an agonisingly short time talking with her I was sent back to the cell. This time however I passed through the door and greeted everyone with a huge smile on my face. I had no longer disappeared, my whereabouts was now known and wheels had been set in motion. My release was assured – at least that is what was going through my head at the time.
Later that night we had a new arrival in the cell, which meant that I had to move to share a space with one of the many Mohammeds. At 17 Mohammed had the dubious honour of being the youngest member of our not-so-happy family. Not only that, he was also incarcerated with his two older brothers and his father, who were all in separate cells, in order to flush the fourth brother, the only one they actually wanted, out of hiding. My time next to Mohammed was the most comfortable of the whole ordeal as he was the cell bitch so would spend much of the day giving the bosses massages and sleeping near them, leaving me space to stretch out. Unfortunately he only spoke Arabic and so we couldn’t really converse much but despite this, or perhaps because of this, we got on really well. He was an incredibly pious boy and took his daily prayers very seriously. Watching his lips move as he muttered prayers under his breath, palms out in front of him, his eyes closed I couldn’t help but wonder how someone who had experienced so much injustice could possibly believe in a god.
The following day, as I was taken to the interrogation block, I had high hopes that this would be a good day. The routine was the same as before except this time they left the cuffs and the blindfold off. Almost as soon as I sat down in the chair I went into a rather aggressive tirade about the appalling job that the police were doing. We argued for quite some time about the innocence of my fellow cellmates but despite never having even spoken to most of them he was utterly convinced that they were all terrorists hell-bent on destruction and therefore in need of incarceration.
He did however say that he no longer thought that I was a threat and so I would be released in 2 days time. This set me off again. If I was innocent then surely I should be released immediately. You have just told me that there are no innocent people in your jail and here you are sending an innocent person back there. “Does this not seem somewhat wrong to you?” – Apparently not, and so shortly thereafter I was squatting on the floor with my knees tight up under my chin surrounded by the all too familiar lice infested bodies of my cellmates.
As I shuffled over to one of my friends to enjoy an after dinner smoke the door was opened again and four more people were pushed through one of them cradling a broken nose in his hands and bleeding all over everyone. This bought the number back up to 50 which meant less than a square foot per person. One of the new arrivals looked like a younger, more muscular Ben Kingsley. His name was Saddam and he was a mean looking bastard. He was covered in small scars and his shaved head revealed even more. He did speak some English though and so we chatted. He thought that I was just as crazy as I thought he was but he was quite friendly. I have no doubt that he was one of the more guilty people in the cell. He didn’t seem like the innocent type and would constantly ask me what I thought of his namesake the ex president. Saddam the prisoner thought that the other Saddam was a great and strong leader with a great military record having gone to war with Kuwait, Iran and the United States. When I pointed out that he had lost all of those wars my remarks fell on deaf ears.
That evening I was woken by the sound of sobbing. It was Yaseen, the youngest of the new people who was crying out that there had been some terrible mistake and he wasn’t supposed to be here. His cries fell on unsympathetic ears and before long people were telling him to shut up. He was only a few feet from me so I started to chat with him in my broken Arabic and sign language during which I learned that his new bride was expecting their first born in a few months. It was awful to look into this boy’s eyes and lie to him so blatantly saying that it will all be ok when I knew full well that he would be in this cell for the birth of his son and who knows how much longer after that.
Two days after my last visit to the interrogation block, the day I had been promised I would be released; I was again called out and escorted back there. I would like to say that I was happy and excited to be going back over there where I thought I was to be released, but I had come to distrust everything that anyone in authority told me so I shuffled along with the usual ambivalence.
On arriving in the policeman’s office I was greeted by Zim who was already sitting down. This was the first time that we had seen each other since we had arrived so we each had so much to say. He seemed well although he had been beaten by the guards. We compared notes on the conditions of our cells and the various parasites that were living in our skin and clothing.
The policemen then laid out various pieces of paper on the desk all covered in Kurdish writing telling us that once we had signed these we would be free. We refused, naturally, but after some time it seemed like it didn’t even really matter. We were already in jail with no real prospects of release and if we were about to sign a confession for being terrorists then hopefully we would have been sent to a proper jail with beds and space and all manner of luxuries that we had been without, so eventually we did sign the papers. Who knows what we had just agreed to but he seemed very happy and assured us that today was the day. We would have to go back to our cells while he took these papers to be approved by the chief of the police station – I should have smelled a rat – and then we would be set free to travel Kurdistan. He even apologised to us for the inconvenience and hoped that we would enjoy traveling in his beautiful country.
Back in the cell I told everyone that I had been released and it was only a matter of hours before left so started saying goodbye to people. I gave away some of my bracelets and the face towel that I had inherited. For about an hour there was like a little party atmosphere in our cramped little box.
Two hours passed, then three…four…five. That fucking liar! I have never been so disappointed in all of my life. I had grown used to them lying to me but this time I really had believed. How could I have been so stupid as to trust that cunt? I never saw that man again but if there is any justice in the world he is now lying in an unmarked grave somewhere with a bullet in the head.
To be continued…
Author – Chris Afir