According to Their Families, Everyone Is Innocent

Confusion around prisoners’ release

In the first week of January, L. Paul Bremer announced the release of 506 “low level” Iraqi detainees as a “gesture of reconciliation” on condition that they sign a piece of paper renouncing violence and mustered a “guarantor” from their local community. It reminded me a little of Saddam’s sudden generous amnesties. One hundred were to be released from Abu Ghraib (Iraq’s most notorious prison, renamed the Baghdad Correctional Facility) so the day after the announcement, hundreds of relatives gathered hoping their brothers, husbands, and fathers, would be among the lucky ones.

The stories these relatives told this sunny midafternoon, after waiting all day without news, were always the same.

Nathem Rafa Abbad said his brother Hamid has been detained for four months after being arrested at a roadblock in Ramadi following an explosion. He has seen him only once. “The last time we went to see him on the 22nd, we asked for another date for a visit, but they said we didn’t need one because they would be releasing them soon.”

A man wearing a handsome gray wool winter dishdash, cloak, and a headdress pushed through the crowd gathered around my notebook and told me his brother had been arrested eight months before. “They said he was Fedayeen, but he was just Republican Guard.”

A young man in purple mirror sunglasses, who said he was a lawyer, appeared. “None of those inside have human rights.” His brother had been arrested three months before; he had been unable to see him. “They said it is prohibited because he’s got the 6-digit number—a security detainee.”

Many of the relatives carried worn, over-folded pieces of paper, forms given out by various bits of the coalition apparatus. An old man in a red-and-white-checked headdress, showed me a scrap of paper, 2 inches square, on which was hand-written in English, by some soldier or other, his brother’s name and 6-digit number. “I have been 20 times to this prison,” he told me, fingering this talisman of his brother’s status—of his existence, even. “They give us a date to visit, then it is canceled.”

Another man held a red-printed card headed “Capture Form.” His brother had been arrested in Tikrit during the summer. He was arrested with a brother and his son, who had since been released. The capture form was from the prison at Um Qasr in the south. He could visit his brother there, but since he was moved to Abu Ghraib two months ago, nothing.

Raditha Yahir was looking for her husband, who had been arrested Aug. 27 and taken to Um Qasr, then to Abu Ghraib. She went to visit, and they told her he had been sent back to Um Qasr. She went to Um Qasr, a day’s journey, and they told her he was in Abu Ghraib. She had a complicated story about her husband lending a neighbor his car, a base getting bombed, the car being identified, her husband being arrested, the car being taken—

Who knows? According to their families, everyone is innocent—wrong place, wrong time, wrongly informed upon.

The waiting mass mingled with TV crews and cars parked along the verges of the highway that runs past the long walls of the prison. One man sold warm Pepsi from crates. Sgt. Reyes, a military policeman, went among the crowd, pushing them back from the traffic with the long barrel of his rifle. He was a mean bastard with a tombstone face. Once, when I had come to Abu Ghraib to talk to waiting families, he told me: “No press. This is my fucking property. Get out. You can’t talk to anyone without permission.” His business was harassing people. “Move the goddamned fucking car! Move it! Move!” And if people were slow or recalcitrant, he pointed his rifle at them and waved it aggressively. That day, amid the milling, he confiscated several press cameras for no reason at all.

At about 3:30, finally, two Army trucks came out of the prison with men in the back who waved arms and crutches at the crowd. But the trucks sped off down the highway, and the posses of relatives sped off after them, creating a massive line of cars honking, screeching tires, dust. It was a miracle Sgt. Reyes didn’t shoot someone in his consternation. The trucks drove a half-mile down the highway and then disgorged their load by the side of the road. Later, the Coalition Provisional Authority said these men, of which there were only about 80 rather than the promised 100, were not, after all, part of Bremer’s semi-amnesty but only a routine release.