An Ex-prisoner’s Guide to Being Hopeful
Disclaimer: Some may find the content of this story to be distressing. It includes details relating to abuse, torture and many injustices faced by an innocent woman over forty years ago in Iraq. Reader discretion is advised.
A day that changed everything
17 July 1982. It’s late afternoon and I am on a mini-bus (or “Coaster” in Iraq-speak), heading home from college. The journey is a familiar one. We’re at the main checkpoint; a routine part of the trip. Some moments pass by at the checkpoint and people on the mini-bus begin to check their watches with unease. The lady in front of me turns to give me a quizzical look. This wait seemed to be taking longer than usual. I edge a bit forwards in my seat to glance outside – I can see a row of armed police officers, but today they seem to be in deep discussion with four men in regular clothing. Soon, the four men approach the mini-bus and ask everyone to hop off. We line up to get down, preparing our bags for what we know would be a search of our belongings. Sure enough, they begin a search.
My turn approaches and I zip open my handbag and hold it open for the officer to look through. He peers inside very quickly and grunts. “Wait behind,” he says before moving on to the next person. In the distance, I notice a masked man. One of the four men gestures towards me, and the masked man nods before disappearing.
My heart beats a bit faster as they signal the search complete and the bus driver motions everyone else to climb back in the mini-bus. I swallow and ask one of the officers why I’ve been asked to stay behind. It’s getting darker, and I think of my mother getting ready for dinnertime. ‘We would like to ask you a few questions. It will only take five minutes, we will get you home safe,’ one of the four men says. His tone is polite but I know something’s wrong. I swallow again, trying to think straight and make sense of the invading thoughts in my head. These men were not in uniform and that could mean only one thing. They belonged to the regime’s secret service, notorious for the many violations I had heard narrated to me in whispers.
I decide I am going to do everything in my power to avoid leaving with them. I tell them I can’t go. They ignore me, unfazed. I repeat that I can’t go, this time in a louder voice. ‘If you have questions to ask, I will give you my home address and you can see me there.’ I resist with excuse after excuse. They look at each other, clearly wondering how to deal with my unexpected resistance. I carry on: I say my mother and brother are at home expecting me soon. My voice gets louder and louder, despite their efforts to quieten me. I am hoping for a bystander to hear me and step in to help.
But their patience soon runs thin. Within moments, they drag me forcefully across the road and into a parked car. I try to release myself but their grip is tight. Inside the car, they blindfold and handcuff me. I feel the car start. The men were shouting at me, swearing and throwing angry threats in my direction. The abuse went on until the car stopped and they dragged me out again and into what I later came to know was a stolen house converted to an investigation centre.
My crime? I was displaying ‘suspicious behaviour’. I had been handing out food to families orphaned by the regime. I was not part of the regime’s compulsory ‘support groups’ either, the ones designed to support each other by spying on our peers at college.
The night feels so long. I am interrogated in a large, empty room. When the questions are over, they leave me to sleep in there saying I would face their chief interrogator in the morning. I am exhausted but of course, I cannot sleep. Throughout the night, I hear the sounds of women screaming. I later found out they were not women, but men being tortured in the courtyard, just outside the room I was kept in.
When the sun rises, a couple of the men from the previous night unlock the door and pull me up. I am taken to the Chief’s office. The Chief has an enormous frame. The palms of his hands are the largest I have ever seen. Palms that would later leave my ears ringing. As he barks questions at me about my friends at college, my family and my ‘crimes’, it becomes clear he knows every detail about my life. He calls me a liar with every word I utter and follows each of my responses with abusive language. He then orders his men to take me to the torture courtyard.
The day turned into three months. Three months of daily torture including: electric shocks, hanging off the ceiling on a rope, whipping with a rubber tube…. The others being interrogated with me faced the same treatment everyday. Our food was placed for us on the floor, on a piece of paper. We had no water, despite the scorching July heat. We could only use the toilets once every other day. When I think back to that dark time in the ‘Centre for Investigation’, it was the threats and the emotional abuse that wounded the most. One of the days, I was told I would face sentencing in court. There, some of us were sentenced to death, others received life sentences. A handful of others and I were handed a much shorter sentence. And that’s how I ended up in prison.