Baghdad, Iraq – Taleb al-Maleji sits on the carpet and concentrates on smoking a cigarette and not biting himself.
The sleeves of his checkered shirt end just above his thin wrists – shiny black and purple in spots where the skin has repeatedly been bitten off and healed over. The scars are not from the year he spent in Abu Ghraib prison but from compulsively biting his wrists and fingers when he thinks about it.
“When I remember it now, I just want to set myself on fire,” says Maleji, one of a group of men stripped, bound and placed in a human pyramid in a photo that became a symbol of post-war US human rights abuses.
“I want to forget but I can’t … I think of it when I sleep, when I’m awake, when I’m at work – the same scenes keep playing inside my head.”
In 2003, Maleji was a labourer having trouble with his marriage. Like many before Iraq descended into civil war, his was in a “mixed” marriage – he was Shia while his wife was Sunni.
We were totally naked and they were beating us with sticks on our genitals.
When he left Baghdad to ask a Sunni uncle in Ramadi to talk to his wife, he was arrested by US forces along with a group of neighbourhood men; hooded, bound and placed in the back of a military Humvee.
Over the next year and four months, Maleji would be charged with no crime, imprisoned with thieves and murderers and finally released with no charges laid against him.
“In the beginning they put us in camps and then they moved us to sectors [in Abu Ghraib],” he says.
At Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, they were blindfolded but he says he could hear the voice of a woman the prisoners called “Linda” – an Arabized version of the guard named Lynndie.
In April 2004, photos showing abuse of prisoners at the prison emerged. The images showed US personnel intimidating and threatening prisoners with dogs, with Iraqis hooded, naked, and forced into strange formations. Allegations in later lawsuits filed by Iraqis also alleged physical and sexual abuse, electric shocks, and the conducting of mock executions.
Maleji stumbles in shame when asked what happened to him there.
“I was one of those Linda forced to be naked,” he finally says. “There were sniffer dogs and sound bombs. They would take off our clothes and splash cold water in the cells in winter on our blankets and clothes so we couldn’t sleep or sit.”
After he was released, one of the other former inmates showed him a newspaper photo with the pyramid they were forced into participate in and a smiling Lynndie England, one of the US military police imprisoned for the absuses.
“It’s hard for me to say this,” he exclaims, biting his lip as he describes another incident. “We were totally naked and they were beating us with sticks on our genitals.”
No justice for all
Eleven soldiers of a military police battalion were eventually charged with assault and dereliction of duty. Army Specialist England was sentenced to three years in prison. Her then-fiance Charles Granger, also in many of the photos, received 10.
Several dozen former inmates settled out of court with a US military contractor accused of being involved in the abuse. A US district court in June ruled it had no jurisdiction to hear a lawsuit by former Abu Ghraib inmates against another US military contractor, since the abuses were committed outside the United States.
Maleji was one of those who simply faded away, returning to Sadr City after he was released, too sick to work.
He returned a broken man, to a broken family. His wife left him and their four young children after he was imprisoned, leaving Maleji’s elderly mother to care for them.
“I didn’t recognize my father when he came back. He was different – he was so weak,” says Hawra’a, his eldest daughter, now 17.
|Former Abu Ghraib prisoner Taleb al-Maleji tells his story
Hawra’a and his eldest son Karrar dropped out of school when he was jailed.
“I could see that my grandmother was getting old so I started cleaning and washing the younger children’s clothes, just like my mom and grandma used to do,” says Hawra’a.
“I swear I was going crazy – there wasn’t enough time to go to school or take exams.”
When her teachers asked to see her parents or offered to tutor her at home to improve her grades she would make up excuses. “I can’t tell them my mother left, I would say ‘she’s sick’ and then they would say ‘what about your dad?'”
It became easier to stay at home. For the past few years, she has stayed in the house, cleaning and waiting for her younger brother and sister to come home and tell her about their day. She says she would have loved to have finished school and go on to college, but feels like her life is over.
“I don’t go out or visit friends because my friends talk about studying and then what can I say to them?” she says.
Maleji’s youngest daughter, Ethar, 14, says she dreams of being an artist and travelling the world. Pretty in a pink headscarf and black cloak, she sits at a plastic table in front of a poster of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, in their makeshift house and draws cartoon characters with pencil crayons.
More than anything, she wants a normal home.
“I want to be happy like other families who have fun,” she says peevishly. “We even spend feast days at home.”
They all agree the father they knew came back a changed man.
“He wakes up anxious and screaming,” says Ethar, speaking about her father as if he weren’t there. “He wants quiet, he doesn’t want anybody to talk. Its not like in the past when he was laughing and talking – now he keeps thinking quietly and doing that stuff with his hands.”
No government assistance
The Iraqi government says it has no programmes to assist former prisoners such as Maleji, but its human rights ministry is registering people in the event Iraq is ever compensated for abuses by the US military and its contractors. Asked if he has seen a doctor to help him stop biting himself, he retrieves tubes of skin cream from a dermatologist.
|Inside Story Americas – Abu Ghraib: A justice denied
In the old days before so many Iraqi families fell apart, neighbours took care of each other – not so now. The family’s home is at the construction site of a doctor building her house. Maleji struggles to pay her $250 a month in rent.
The two rooms of unfinished brick are covered with giant posters of Imam Hussein surrounded by children. Mattresses are stacked under the concrete steps to try to keep them dry when the unfinished roof lets in the rain.
His family is used to not having much. Although he is able to work in construction only a few hours a day when he can find work, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Maleji to ask anyone for help.
His mother, in her 70s, has tattoos on her wrists in the shape of bracelets. “We couldn’t afford gold when I was married,” she says.
Maleji bends down and kisses her on the head. Then he sits down and quietly lights another cigarette.