Welcome to Iraq… At last! Part 3 in Chris Afir’s gripping tale of life in a squalid Iraqi prison cell and the eventual, long-awaited taste of sweet freedom
The next day was a terrible day for me but a great day for Iraq and especially Kurdistan. It was the first day that I had no real hope of leaving anytime soon. The Red Cross hadn’t seemed to do anything and I had given up on the prison letting me go. I will never forget that day, but neither will many of my cellmates as it was the day that Jalal Talibani, a Kurd, was sworn in to office as the new president of Iraq. We all listened to it on Naif’s radio and it was an incredibly emotional time. There was complete silence in the cell save the crackly voice from Baghdad and the tears from many of the older Kurdish people in the room.
During the time of Saddam it was a tradition on important days such as this to open the prisons and release all inmates held without charge. In Kurdish this pardon is called afoo. We were all up most of the night discussing the possibilities of afoo for us. Innocents held without charge in a Kurdish police station, surely we would be some of the first to be released. I remained sceptical as it just all seemed a little too good to be true that they would just open the doors and let us all out. After all there were one or two bona fide terrorists in there with us. Surely they wouldn’t just let us all go.
Being neither Kurdish nor Iraqi meant that I found it hard to get really excited about a new president so I excused myself from the heights of festivities and put a towel over my head in an effort to sleep.
After not too long I woke to find Mohammed Fil poking me and taking the piss while many others were laughing. Mohammed Fil was the boss’s best friend and a real joker. He was also a complete Nazi. I tried to ignore him hoping that he would soon get bored but he continued, drunk on the idea of a new Kurdish Iraq, until he started to touch my dick to rapturous applause. I am not a violent person so the first time I let it slide, but when he did it for a second time I sat bold upright and punched him square on the chin. I have never punched anyone in my life before or since so it came as much as a shock to me as it did to him. Needless to say he stopped what he was doing and looked over to Naif for support. Thankfully Naif had been watching what was going on and found the whole thing rather funny so I didn’t get in any trouble and returned to my towel unmolested scowling at everyone. Let that be a warning to the rest of you!
This little episode marked the end of my “honeymoon” period in the cell. The novelty of having a stupid tourist in the cell had worn off and I was treated more and more like the others. With 50 people in the cell now there was no room for moving any more so I had to remain in the same place all day and night surrounded by the same people. I was no longer free to clamber over to the other side of the cell to chat with this person or that. Life became even more stagnant than it already was. Tempers began to fray, the heat and the smells, the B.O. and the bad breath, the stink of our clothes and the lice that infested them, the constant scratching of your scabies-riddled neighbour at all hours of the night, the lack of drinking water, the constant fucking praying and above all the lack of space to even sit down in. There were arguments everyday and I had grown to really hate some of the people sitting near me, not because they were bad people just that I couldn’t stand the sight of them and their filthy habits. But as I hated them so they hated me as we were all as filthy as each other.
There was no one I hated more than Ahmed from Mosul, who I was sharing with by this time. He was a scheming little cunt, undoubtedly a criminal, who would always wake me up early and demand we swap places then refuse to swap back when it was my turn, he would eat most of our food and leave me with none and, as he was new to the cell and the novelty of seeing a white boy in the space next to him hadn’t had a chance to wear off, he would constantly be trying to joke with me wanting to be my friend. It drove me to despair. So much so in fact that after about five days of his incessant selfishness and thievery I demanded that Naif move me, and so it was that I came to be sharing with Nebhan, perhaps the nicest person in the whole cell.
I remember Nebhan from my very first day. As I stepped in to that room for the first time and they all looked up at me it was Nebhan that I saw first. He had a long Taliban style beard looked to me just like the kind of person that would chop off my head and post the video on YouTube. He had a very inquisitive stare that scared the shit out of me and I was properly afraid of him for my first few days in the cell. I could not have been more wrong. Nebhan was a sweet and gentle man about 26 years old, who lived and worked as a shepherd in the countryside outside of Mosul. He didn’t speak any English but he knew hundreds of seemingly random English words as if he had memorised pages from a dictionary and was crazy about football. His general knowledge was incredible and we would talk for hours naming world leaders, capital cities, and of course football facts, managers and world cup winners. He also seemed to be a wealth of knowledge on Iraqi history, but this is where his lexicon ran a little dry and so much of his teaching was lost on me. Despite looking like something out of the CIA ‘How to spot a terrorist’ handbook, he was an amazing person and it was my privilege to share with him.
Nothing is ever all good though. Sitting next to me and taking up half of my space was a huge brute of a man named Naza. A gentle giant, but a giant nonetheless, Naza claimed to be a trucker by profession but I had my suspicions that he was in fact a tramp, not least because of his habit of always picking people’s used cigarettes out of the ashtray and smoking them right down to the butts. He was crawling with all manner of creepy crawlies and was always scratching himself until he started bleeding and would then move on to another part of his body. At least a third of my body was in constant contact with this man 24 hours a day. The first night I slept next to him he had is back to me and he kept hitting me with his elbow. After a while I presumed that he must be masturbating, but this seemed a little too much even for a filthy bastard like him, so I peered around to see that he was in fact just vigorously scratching his groin. Relieved, I returned to my sleep but the scratching continued for at least another ten minutes.
During my time next to Nebhan and the giant tramp there was an influx of young Kurdish boys, caught without passports in Greece and Turkey trying to escape to Europe. Two of them had been arrested in a nightclub in Istanbul and so they were sitting over in the corner still with their leather jackets and skin tight flares on.
On Day fourteen the Red Cross came again and this time they wanted to formally interview me. I was taken out and into another empty room, where I met Johan a Swiss guy, who I later found out was the Red Cross team leader. He wrote down everything I said and spoke to me about possible repatriation. He seemed to know what he was talking about and gave me hope again. He was much more serious than Miriam, who I had spoken to the last time, and I really believed that he would do something to help. I wrote another letter home and he began to ask me questions about life in the jail.
“Did we get the books that they sent?”
“Did they take people out of the cells to ease overcrowding before every Red Cross visit?”
It was such a pleasure to talk to someone in English and I was understandably disappointed when they eventually sent me back to the cell.
Before I go any further I would like to talk about a few of the other people in the cell as we all had become quite friendly. First of all, of course is Naif, the boss, He ran an internet café on the outside but he was singer and even had a few CDs out. Sometimes one of his songs would be played on the radio. As he was the boss he was allowed little perks such as a radio. He was a very kind man and looked after me well. He had been in that cell for ten months.
Haji: A man in his 70s, being held hostage until the police caught his son in law. Ma Talat: The most interesting person in the cell. He was a political prisoner and had spent seven years in jail in Baghdad under Saddam, and the last fourteen months in our cell. During which time he had learned about two thirds of the Koran by heart and would recite surahs every now and again. He was a stern man who you wouldn’t want to cross, but we had interesting chats. He taught me some Kurdish and I taught him some English. He was very generous with his cigarettes and looked out for me too. I was screamed at more than once by him for pissing standing up, which is apparently very un-Islamic. One time, I ended up screaming at him “I am not a Muslim; your fucking rules don’t apply to me so you can all just fuck off!” Unfortunately this didn’t go down too well and I sat in silence for the remainder of the day.
Rewar, Dervish and Farhad: A friendly trio of smiley Kurdish mustachioed men, who sat in the corner and were also very generous with their cigarettes. Samian: Nice guy, terrible teeth; the guy who would shout at us to hurry up in the toilets every day. He was a village postman and a boxing coach back in his real life. One day he and Naif tried to instigate an aerobics program so that we wouldn’t all waste away in that cell. It was a dismal failure. Mahmoud from Syria had been caught in Greece where he had told the Greek police that he was Iraqi so that they might feel sorry for him and not send him to a war zone. They deported him back to Iraq. Khaled Sudani lived in Mosul for eight years. One day he went out to see a friend and was stopped in the street and arrested for being foreign. Yousef Iran was very quiet but when he did speak he could do it in English and French. Another Yousef from Iran was mental. He would have long, loud and very vocal conversations on an imaginary phone with his mother on a weekly basis. He was also the heaviest sleeper I have ever met. Even in our inhuman conditions it would require two people simultaneously kicking and shouting at him to wake. Amaar had studied a psychology degree at Baghdad University so his English was pretty good and he often acted as a translator for me. Mohammed Libya was a proper terrorist, no doubt about it. Everyone in the room agreed. He had been caught in the desert near the Jordanian border without any papers and refused to tell anyone why he was in Iraq. He was fundamental in his beliefs; he returned the towel and the toothbrush given to him by the Red Cross as he didn’t want to accept gifts from Christians. He spent most of the day in silent prayer or reading the Koran. I made an effort to talk to him after a few weeks and he was a genuinely nice guy, I was almost disappointed. Had we met under different circumstance things may well have been different. He had a very soft voice and spoke with a slight stammer. I still think of him sometimes and wonder what became of him.
During my last few days the whole atmosphere of the place became much more serious. Days went by without really talking to anyone and more people came in to the cell further cramping the conditions. One of the new guys came limping in one evening nursing a broken ankle and broken elbow. Neither of these breaks had been set nor put into a cast so he was always in a great deal of pain. His first night in our cell was his 150th in police custody and he had obviously been tortured quite a bit during that time. His inability to bend his leg and arm meant that he took up more room than normal so some people were understandably a little pissed off with him so it fell to me to help him hobble to the toilet as nobody else seemed willing to risk the beating from the guards. One night he showed us his legs which were striped from top to bottom with thick black bruises where he had been hit repeatedly with a metal bar of some kind. He was by no means the most injured person I met.
As the door closed for the night after our final toilet break of the day, and people began to perform evening namaz, the door was reopened and a badly burnt guy who I will not easily forget was forced inside, and for the first time we were all warned not to speak with him. Every new arrival in to the cell had to go through a sort of ritual as they stood up there by the door. After the salaams Naif would ask them if they were Kurdish or Arab. This being Kurdistan, their answer to this question would determine their social standing in the cell for the duration of their stay. Once their ethnicity had been established Naif would decide where they would sit and who they would share with. This newest member of the room was an Arab so he was given a shitty little space near me which gave me an opportunity to see him up close. Sporting a mullet to rival that of a certain Geordie footballer and a red and yellow shell suit that made him look like he had just been plucked from any Liverpool pub, he was the most unusual character I met in my whole stay in that jail. The most disturbing thing about him was his burns. Both hands were badly scarred as if he was wearing a pair of gloves. The line around his wrist, where healthy skin met burnt skin was perfect. Beneath his fantastic tracksuit I could see that his chest was also burnt. His ears, one of which was almost completely missing, were burnt beyond recognition, as was much of the side of his face, but again there was a near perfect line where burn met normal skin. At first I though that perhaps he had been making a bomb which had prematurely exploded, burning him. Everyone in the cell was whispering arharbi, terrorist, so, along with the threats from the guards, I just assumed that they were right. But the precision of his burns suggested something much more sinister. It looked like he’d had his face held down on a hot plate and his hands forced in to a chip fryer, maybe as a means of extracting information from him or just as a punishment. Whatever had happened there is no doubt that his injuries were no accident.
We exchanged a long look, him probably as curious about me as I was of him, and I offered him a stale piece of bread from a little stash that I had hidden away. His eyes betrayed a broken man. I saw a lot of very scared people in Iraq but none more so than him. He was only with us for about ten hours after which he was taken away to face whatever awful fate awaited him.
On Monday 11th April 2005 I felt like I had entered the eighteenth layer of hell. The pain in my un-stretched joints, the constant itching and scratching and the intense lack of sleep were all making me a little delirious. I had given up wearing my glasses a few days previously as I slowly retreated into myself and I had been having these fitted dreams where I would be at home only to wake up back in the same cell. I had only been in Iraq for 19 days, in this cell for 17 of them, but it felt like half a lifetime. With the lights always on and no window it was only the prayer routine that gave me any real sense of the passing of time. So this morning the situation got the better of me and for the first time since my arrest I broke down and cried. I hid my head under my t-shirt and sobbed uncontrollably. I felt so foolish and helpless. The Red Cross was never coming back and the embassy had done nothing despite knowing for nearly two weeks. There was a strong possibility that I would remain in this hellhole for months if not longer. I remained under the t-shirt until lunch after which I was summoned to the office.
Inside I saw that Zim was also there. Neither of us were having a good day and we barely said more than a few words to each other. It turned out that the policemen simply wanted to know our full names which really pissed me off. You have our fucking passports you cunt. I muttered as I methodically spelt out my name on the page in front of me. Nearly three weeks and they didn’t even know our names, this was doing nothing to make me feel any better. The spark of hope had been snuffed out.
A few tedious hours later we were both yanked out again and found ourselves in the same office. Go get your stuff. These four beautiful words were enough for me to crack a smile and I ran back to the cell. No matter where they were sending me it would get me out of here. Salaam Aleikum, I’m leaving. I hastily grabbed my stuff and started to say goodbye. Suddenly there were so many people to speak to that for the first time I found myself wanting to have just a little more time in there. I did my best to say goodbye to my closest friends and Naif and Ma Talat. Then the door was bolted with me on the other side and that was the last I ever saw of them.
A few minutes later Zim found me searching through the mountain of sodden, odd shoes for a pair that might fit me. He was carrying my shoes.
“I hid them after our first day so that they wouldn’t get stolen”, he said.
We were walked, without an armed escort for the first time, through the police station, on to the second floor and into a huge office. Behind the desk, which seemed miles away, flanked on either side by the Iraqi and Kurdish flags, was an important looking man with a big moustache. I looked around the room and sitting on a sofa on the opposite side of the room was a young looking man sitting next to a similarly aged woman. They were both in combat uniforms and sitting proudly on each of their shoulders were thirteen red bars and fifty white stars. It pains me to say it but…God bless America.
I knew then that we had been rescued but I was still acutely aware that we might not be free. A man from the CIA in plain clothes, called Ed, let us know that we were free and in his custody but he kept emphasising that we were free to go if we wished. We told him that we would stay with him. While the Americans and the Kurds got to work signing papers, the guards left to retrieve our baggage leaving me and Zim to catch up for a few minutes. We were both understandably in high spirits. Our nightmare had just turned in to an incredible adventure. This morning I had despaired and now I was about to go on a jolly with the army in the middle of a war zone.
Our bags were returned to us along with my axe that I had been using for camping in turkey. I was incredibly surprised they hadn’t confiscated it and we all had a bit of a chuckle as they handed it back to me.
And so we got up to leave. Thanking the governor of the prison and apologising to him left a bitter taste in my mouth but it was worth it to walk out of the door. As we had been brought in the back entrance we had never seen the front and were quite surprised to see the levels of security for the building. We couldn’t decide if it was to stop people getting in or to stop us getting out. In the car park we were taken to an armoured Chevy Suburban and issued bullet proof vests and helmets and I struggled to clamber into the car with the extra kilos of steel I was now wearing. The driver was a stereotypical uniformed soldier from Texas with his weapon resting in the foot well for easy access.
A few words on the walkie-talkie later and we were in a street filled with traffic and people. Ed was in the front assessing the potential threat of nearly every vehicle or person that we passed and passing that information to the other car. It was strange to see them working and seeing everything as a threat, planning escape routes and evasion tactics. Even something as mundane as driving through the city was a military operation. Zim and I took the opportunity to have a look at the city that we had spent so long in. The windows were tinted and two inches thick so it was hard to see clearly but it was all we were going to get so we made the most of it.
Author – Chris Afir.
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