Iraq – Jailhouse Blues

untitled-1-796772.jpgWe crossed the border in search of cheaper accommodation. We never realised it would be free. The first in three parts of this compelling first-hand account of life in an Iraqi Prison.

The bus to the border town of Silopi took about an hour, maybe more; the most intriguing thing about the journey was the queue of oil tankers waiting to get in to Iraq. Thousands upon thousands of them parked in a long line that stretched for many miles along the road. Next to them were little tent communities of people sitting round camp fires or relaxing in hammocks suspended between the axles of their vehicles. This was one of the most incredible things that I have ever seen and we kept on wondering how long those men spent waiting to get to the front of the line. Later I was to meet a truck driver who had spent time in this line and assured me that it did not take that long at all.

It was dusk by the time we had arrived so we quickly set about looking for somewhere to stay. Even the filthiest place was not as cheap as we were used to paying so we asked a friendly taxi driver where we could find adequately priced lodgings. Zakho, he said pointing in the direction of the mountain. Zakho is the equivalent border town on the Iraqi side of the border. After a bit of negotiation he offered to take us there for a reasonable price and so off we went. After all, it was only a few miles away, how dangerous could it be?

Before crossing the border we decided to leave our bags on the Turkish side to avoid looking too much like tourists in a country that routinely beheads outsiders. As we were only intending to stay for a few days, we weren’t going to need much in the way of luggage anyway so we befriended someone at the bus station who took our bags for us.

It was nearly midnight by the time we had cleared Turkish customs and got to passport control. We were both nervous and excited as everyone we had met had assured us that Kurdistan would be safe. On the Iraqi side of the border we were taken to the passport office where we sat under the inquisitive gaze of a handful of truckers and soldiers who were watching images of the war that was happening less than 100 miles away on the TV. Once we had received our entry permits we were briefly searched and then taken to a security building where we were searched properly.

Foolishly I had forgotten about a small lump of hash that I had hidden in my wallet along with a number of Rizlas, but the people searching us didn’t seem at all concerned. They just made a small joke to themselves and then carefully returned both items to their hiding places and gave them back to me. We were then interviewed, first together and then individually by someone who had studied English literature at Baghdad University and yearned to go to Cambridge and Stratford-upon-Avon. I was sorry to disappoint by telling him that I had visited neither. He was a very friendly man and spent a great deal of time telling us where was and wasn’t safe and how hospitable the people of Kurdistan were going to be to us. It wasn’t all friendly banter though. They did have real concerns about us and our intentions in Iraq. We were both travelling under brand new passports issued less than two months before in Turkey which understandably raised alarm bells in their heads, so we showed them our old passports.

Once they’d had a chance to thoroughly examine all of my old visas they began taking a particular interest in me. Many of the foreign fighters in Iraq came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Russia which was unfortunate for me as I had stamps from all of those countries in my old passport. What had I been doing there and who had I met? Was I perhaps a spy? Or a journalist? Or just a Mujahid on a mission from god?

Despite their questions I was very happy there with them and even complimented them on doing such a thorough job in keeping this part of Iraq free from fighting. After a number of hours we were told that the interview process was over and that we were free to go, but it being so late we should stay with them in the security building where we would be safe. I thought this a very kind gesture when they showed us to a room with a TV and some sofas where we were to spend the night. On the way we bumped into a British Iraqi family who were returning to the UK, who also told us of the hospitality of the people of the region, and how our safety was almost guaranteed. They even recommended us a few places to visit. We were both so excited to be in Iraq and after weeks of worrying in Turkey we felt sure that we had made the right decision in coming. We spent the night watching American movies on cable and even smoked a few sneaky joints out of the window.

The following morning, as we sat in an office drinking tea and eating bread we were told that we would be driven the 50 miles to the next town of Dohuk, where they would make sure that we got into a legitimate taxi. So we said goodbye to our interviewer, who by now we had become quite friendly with, and although the evil bastard knew exactly what was in store for us, he made us promise to call in on him on the way back in a few days.

We were driven the half hour journey to Dohuk by a former member of Saddam’s national guard accompanied by a very large man with an AK who we presumed was for our protection, but later came to realise was for other people’s protection from us!

When we arrived in Dohuk we were driven straight to the police station where we were separated, strip searched, checked for a foreskin and then had all of our belongings confiscated. We were kept separated and locked up for a number of hours before we were eventually reunited and taken to a large holding cell where we were locked in with about twelve other people. In hindsight it was a luxurious cell, this being due to the police station having once been a hotel, but at the time we thought it was awful. There was loads of space to walk around and one wall was all windows that afforded us amazing views of the mountains and the surrounding countryside that we would never get to visit. We could piss in the corner of the room and squeegee it out under the door to the outside. There was a bucket of water that we could drink from and even blankets.

The people that we were sharing the cell with were very friendly. They didn’t speak English but we managed to communicate just fine with them. They were mostly Iraqi, both Kurds and Arabs, but there were also a few Syrians there. From what we could work out, they, like us, were being held without charge and none of them had been there more than a couple of weeks although a few of them had been quite badly tortured and showed us their injuries and scars. Another one of them was on hunger strike. They were very kind to us and even saw us as a source of amusement as we were such a novelty. To us, however, they were a source of tragedy as their stories all seemed so terrible. Most of them had families at home who had no idea what had happened to them. They had all essentially been kidnapped by the authorities.

They had run out of cigarettes long before we arrived, and so when I brought out my packet I was pounced upon and a few short yet highly satisfying minutes later we were without again. Instead of tobacco they had been smoking tea, which was in abundance in large sacks at the far end of the room rolled up with the pages from books on human rights thousands of which were stacked up next to the tea. The irony was lost on all but me and Zim. Despite being held under lock and key, we were still in quite high spirits. We were having a crazy and, thus far, harmless adventure and we were still under the (misguided) impression that we were to be released the next day and were simply being held while we were being processed, something that was quite understandable in a time of war.

We spent much of that night laughing around with these guys. After dinner, which was surprisingly good, a few of them began playing chess with used cigarette butts while others went to the other side of the room to have an after dinner smoke. I declined to join them as tea is not my smoke of choice, neither is glossy paper. I retired to my blanket and tried, in vain, to fall asleep, something I finally managed a number of hours later.

The following day was spent pacing in a figure of eight around the two pillars in the room. I was not alone in this pursuit, but I was the only one that had opted for the figure of eight route. After a few hours I had grown very bored of this cell and was beginning to wonder what was going on with our cases, at which point I saw through the glass door that there was a man holding both mine and Zim’s bags. This did concern me a little as they had gone in to Turkey to get them which seemed like a huge amount of effort just for us. Thankfully I didn’t have too long to wonder the whys and what ifs because someone came to the cell to get me. I was taken out and led to the left, which worried me even more as I had been told by my cell mates the night before that the left side was where you were taken to be tortured. The right side was apparently the side you were taken to be released. To my great relief I wasn’t taken to be tortured, but simply to have my mug shot taken.

Shortly after this we were taken to the right side, the “release” side, given our bags and told that we were going to be set free that afternoon. We were both very excited about the prospect of being free, at last, to travel to all of the places that everyone had been telling us such good things about, the sun was shining and we were in Iraq with a great story to tell people when we got home; it was going to be a good day after all. Then we were handcuffed and locked in a small metal box on the back of a pickup.

All that we could work out from the soldiers and the three other Iraqis that were in the truck with us was that we were being driven to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. This was not exactly what I’d had in mind when they said we would be set free, but none the less we tried to make the most of the journey by talking to the other prisoners in the truck and taking it in turns to sneak a peek out of the matchbox sized window near the roof which gave us an idea of the landscape that we were driving through, lush green Mesopotamian fields that were some of the first farms in the world. My greatest concern at the time was the driver who insisted on racing all the way there at break-neck speed overtaking anything and everything that got in his way with us being thrown around our tin box every time he misjudged the oncoming traffic. I did not relish the idea of being in a high speed collision whilst handcuffed and padlocked in a cage.

We arrived in Erbil flustered but unscathed where we found ourselves in yet another police station, but this one had a large wall around it and many more soldiers milling around, some of whom escorted us through the building and in to a small office surrounded by a well-tended lawn and some trees. Inside, our handcuffs were removed and we were given cigarette each and allowed to watch TV while two men sat behind a desk and spoke in soft whispers. After some time the nicer of the two men, the one who had given us the cigarettes, asked us what we were doing in Iraq. We explained ourselves while the other man eyed us both intently with a scowl on his face. Suddenly the angry looking one said something to us in Arabic. The nice man repeated his colleague’s question in English.

Do you speak Arabic? To which we answered no. I think you understand Arabic very well said the angry man in slightly accented English. As I sat there nervously smoking my cigarette while someone who had never met me decided my fate I could feel his eyes boring into me as if he was trying to read my thoughts. As I returned the stare I became acutely aware that this man was utterly convinced that we were lying to him and had come to Iraq with the sole purpose of joining the jihad. Although this scared me I took refuge in the fact that it was not he who held my passport in his hand.

For the last few hours I had been wondering why they had even let us into the country at all. Surely it would have been in everyone’s best interests for them to have denied us entry. Isn’t that why countries have borders in the first place – to keep unsavoury people out? Not in this case though, they had not only let us in, but they had driven us further into the country. As if Iraq didn’t have enough problems of its own without importing more criminals. Had we known what was about to happen to us we would never have gone near the border, but such is the beauty of hindsight. As I sat mulling this over the nicer man wrote something in his ledger, locked our passports in the drawer in his desk and motioned the guard to take us away. I had no idea what was going on but I began to entertain the thought that perhaps the nice man was not so nice after all.

We were taken back into the main building and into a small office, where a moustached man in traditional Kurdish dress slept on a camp bed behind a desk as a TV played silently next to us. As I looked around the small cramped room I began to wonder exactly what they were going to do with us.

There were four of us in the room waiting to be processed by this man, who did not look at all happy to have been woken from his nap. I was third in the line behind two of the Iraqis that we had shared the trip from Dohuk with. The first person in the line, a nice guy about 22 years old, who had had his hands bound so tight in the truck that they were now blue, was searched again and had his name logged in the book. All of his belongings apart from the money in his pockets were taken from him then he was shown to a small metal door in the corner of the room. One of the guards banged on the door and a few seconds later I heard the sound of a bolt being pulled back. The door opened and behind it stood a huge brute of a man with a big moustache wearing a blue boiler suit. He grabbed the young guy, pulled him through the door and punched him hard in the face before dragging him off. At this point the gravity of the situation hit me hard. This was not just some crazy travelling adventure anymore, this was serious and this was happening to me.

Zim did you see that? I said. He hadn’t, as his back had been turned while frantically trying to write his name on his bag, but he saw what happened to the next guy. I had to give the guard my name twice as he had no idea how to spell Christopher and then it was my turn to go through the metal door. I turned to look at Zim and forced a smile. I didn’t know it at the time but this would the last time we were to see each other for two weeks.

I stepped through the door and braced for impact but mercifully I was only punched in the back and not the face. I was standing in a small courtyard about ten metres by ten metres that had some doors leading off it. It was open to the sky but there was a wire fence acting as a ceiling that had an assortment of clothes hanging from it. There was a tap in the middle around which a few weeds were poking out through the concrete floor. The whole place was a dull shade of grey. I was pushed towards one of the doors and instructed to take of my shoes and socks. The door was a large metal thing with two large bolts, each with an equally large padlock and there was a smaller, little door like a letterbox at eye level for keeping an eye on the inmates. I kicked my shoes into a pile of what must have been at least a hundred shoes of odd sorts, and as he drew back the bolts and opened the door it suddenly dawned on me that Zim and I would not be put in the same cell. I really did not want to be by myself and began wondering how I was going to deal with being alone in a room full of suspected terrorists. I didn’t have time to think about it though, as the door had opened and I was being pushed through, and before I knew it, I could hear the sound of the bolts being slid across behind me.

The first thing to cross my mind was that there were far too many people in the room. In retrospect this was the mother of all understatements, I felt like I was in an Amnesty International brochure. All of my worst fears in one and yet for some strange reason I was too shocked to be scared just yet. Forty nine pairs of eyes turned to look at me from what I would have considered a single cell. I stood there frozen with my back against the door, barely even enough room for me to stand; and glanced around. In that brief moment everyone in the room looked like a terrorist, long beards and angry eyes, exactly the people that I was trying to avoid, and now here I was locked up in a very small space with loads of them. Surely the fact that they were in jail meant that they were all hardened criminals and were willing to chop heads for the cause or even just for fun?

“Salaam”… I mumbled in a weak gesture of peace.
“Sit down, sit down”, a voice came from somewhere near my right knee. There was some shuffling and a small space appeared, just about large enough for me to squat in. “Where are you from?” The inevitable question. I winced as I answered them knowing that British citizens have few friends in Iraq, but also silently grateful that there weren’t any British soldiers in this part of the country.

Before I could even stop and think what had happened to me I was summoned to meet the boss. It took me a minute or two to negotiate the five metres to the other end of the room, carefully stepping over the sprawling mass of people that lay in my way. Despite the intense lack of space and the boss and his sidekick being the two fattest people in the room, they were sitting in relative comfort and there was easily enough space for me to sit down next to them. For a moment I sat there in silence, their stares fixed upon me and I began to contemplate my fate. The very fact that there was a boss at all scared me as it played to one of the many stereotypes that I had about life in prison. Fortunately my first impressions were wrong and he extended his fat sweaty hand and introduced himself.

“You are English? Welcome to my room, my name is Naif. You know like the English word knife”. With which he slowly drew his finger across his throat. “Ha ha, do not worry I am joking”. I tried to crack a smile but forgive me if I didn’t think it was the funniest of gags

“I like English. What is your name?” And with that we were friends. There was, of course, an ulterior motive for his ‘charming’ manner; he wanted someone to help him improve his English.

He called over an older Egyptian man called Ahmed, one of many, so we called him “Caca Mouserie” (Egyptian Uncle). Caca Mouserie was one of the nicest people that I was to meet in prison. He had travelled the world as a ship’s engineer, had lived for many years in Greece and Spain and spoke almost fluent English. Being able to speak to someone who could actually understand me made such a difference and he really helped me get through the first few hours. I was still visibly shaking and there was a tremble to my voice so he got out a small chess set carved from pieces of candle and we began to play to take my mind off things but somehow it made things worse as if I was putting off the inevitable. I have never tried so hard to lose a game of chess in my life, so after a few short minutes he carefully packed the game away and introduced me to some of the people that we were lying on.

“This is Karzan, he is the Kurdish taekwondo champion but he has been in here for the last seven months”. Karzan was missing all of the toes on one foot and delighted in telling me that he had killed five people. He then proceeded to point people out and give me each person’s body count, simulating the method in which each victim was dispatched in gruesome detail. Of course he hadn’t killed anyone, neither had anyone else, but I was in such a state of shock that if he had told me Saddam was in the adjacent cell I would have probably believed him. My feet were resting on this young boy, about nineteen, called Ahmed Ali from Jordan. He had been fighting in Mosul when he was caught and proudly showed me the burn on his shoulder from a rocket launcher. Looking at him I found it hard to believe that he had been fighting but boys will be boys and had I been in his position I would have probably been the same.

I suppose that I should have been scared, which of course I was, I was petrified, but everything was just washing over me. I was still under the impression that there had been a terrible mistake and I would wake up any minute safe and sound back in Turkey. All I could think of for ages was that today is my ex girlfriend’s birthday. For the last few days I had been looking forward to e-mailing her as her birthday is the only real time that I feel welcome to communicate with her. Now as the reality of the situation dawned on me I came to realise that I wouldn’t be able to wish her a happy birthday after all. Not only that, it might be some time before I ever would.

After a few hours the door was opened and food was handed out. This cut down on space even more as we all crouched with our knees under our chins and tucked in to the food which was a chicken drumstick and bread which we ate with our hands as there was only about ten plastic spoons to go around. There were four two-litre plastic coke bottles of water that we were allowed do drink from but we had to be sparing as that is not very much between fifty people. Everything was shared by two in the cell and eating was no exception. Luckily for me on that first night I shared with Naif, who obviously normally ate alone, which meant that I was well fed as he could pretty much eat as much as he liked.

Shortly after we had finished our food we were allowed out to the toilet in small groups. Prisoners assigned to the task would walk up and down shouting
De de hasara de, yalla de yalla de yalla yalla yalla, which loosely translates as Hurry the fuck up. Toilet breaks were always very rushed; we were given about ten seconds after which someone would give the door a sharp kick sending it crashing in to our heads so it was important to get the job done quickly as it would be another six or seven hours until we would be allowed out for another few precious seconds of toilet time. For some people this was a serious problem. Caca Mouserie, for example had diabetes and a bladder infection, neither of which benefited from this kind of treatment.

While I was washing my hands I was called over to talk with the guard who was supervising us. I was a little nervous but I was to become very accustomed to being the object of attention. It turned out that he was the least psychotic guard in the whole prison and quite a nice guy as well. His name was Ahmed and even thought the real motive for him calling me over was to practice his English he gave me a cigarette and assured me that there had been some sort of mistake and that I obviously wasn’t a terrorist and he was quite sure that I would be released the following morning.

“Do not worry you will not stay here long. You are only here because you arrived after the director had gone home and no one can be released without his approval”. He said “I am sure that you will be out of here in the morning”.
He even went to another cell, where they were still eating and got me another chicken drumstick and a piece of bread. I felt quite bad as I was feeling so scared that I didn’t really have an appetite and I knew that there were those in my cell, who were watching me that would have loved to be eating it and were also more deserving of it. I sat there eating with him hoping that they wouldn’t resent me too much for the preferential treatment I was getting.

All too quickly it was time to lock the door again and so I reluctantly went back in. As soon as the door was locked behind us people started doing “namaz”. As our days were filled with nothing, prayer seemed to provide a real focus. There were people in the cell that certainly weren’t as religious on the outside and yet inside they were as pious as could be. The only two books that we were allowed were both Korans and they were treated with the utmost respect. So much so in fact that I, as a non believer, wasn’t even allowed to touch either of them, even if that meant waking someone else up to pass it along the cell.

As we felt the night draw in (it was hard to tell as there were no windows in the cell), we arranged ourselves for bed. Naif and his three friends, Mohammed Fil, Cac Najat and Karzan, all had enough space to lie down comfortably. They took up about four metres squared between them, leaving fourteen square metres for the remaining forty six of us, which works out as almost exactly one square foot of space each. We were all in pairs and took it in turns to lean against the wall and half lie down. We slept in three hour shifts. I say slept but being nearly six foot I am taller then the average Iraqi and so had even less space to play with. The space was the worst thing to deal with but there were other factors too such as the harsh white light coming from the fluorescent tubes on the ceiling that were on twenty four hours a day which took some getting used to. Then there was the heat. Fifty men in one very small cell with no windows, you can imagine that it got pretty hot. Thankfully it was only spring; and of course the smell.

For my first few nights I was paired up with this kind but very annoying man called Kawa, who slept against the door. This was kind of a mixed blessing as the strip under the door was our only supply of fresh air, so I was relatively cool, but everyone else in the room became very concerned that I might block it up so I was constantly being told off in either Arabic of Kurdish, neither of which I could understand. I hardly even closed my eyes that night and after three hours Kawa and I changed places, but three hours after that he refused to change back so I spent the night sitting up trying to get whatever sleep I could until dawn when I had to get up to make room for prayer.
Morning namaz started before sunrise which was most inconvenient as this was the only time that I would ever really be asleep. We would all have to stand up with our backs pressed against the wall to make room as the faithful, which was everyone apart from me and two others, took turns to pray. Islamic prayer takes very little time, but as it had to be done in shifts it would be at least half an hour until everyone was finished and I could return to my space on the floor. This was something that I had to endure five times every day, but the other four times were almost enjoyable as it gave me the opportunity to stand up and stretch out my legs. Standing at any other time was forbidden.

Shortly after Morning Prayer we were allowed out to the toilet. The temperature out of the cells in the morning was freezing and as we had no blankets it took a while to warm back up enough to feel comfortable by which time they would come to give us our first meal of the day. Breakfast generally consisted of bread and curdled milk, occasionally we would get boiled eggs instead, or a watery tahini-like substance called Rashi. Lunch was always rice, bread and baked beans or a watery vegetable stew. Dinner was often the same but sometimes with meat. The food was ok; it tasted good and never made me sick but as with everything in this cell it was shared between two. The portions were pretty meagre to begin with so we never ended up with much food at all.

The unwritten rule was that you would keep half of your bread to snack on later, but as this was forbidden it had to be hidden under people, the result being that later in the day we would end up snacking on stale pieces of bread that tasted of cigarette ash and sweat. As for water, we had four big soft-drink bottles that we could fill up from the tap when we went to the toilet, so water was available but in short supply and therefore had to be rationed. The biggest problem while eating was space. If you imagine that under normal circumstances we each had about one square foot of space. This is just about manageable when you are just sitting or sleeping and can lean on someone else, but not when you are eating. We would all have to squat facing each other, our heads almost touching with the plate in between us taking it in turns to use the spoons that were in very short supply.

To be Continued…

The Author.

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