Michael Totten

The Dungeon of Fallujah

“This is not Norway here, and it is not Denmark.” — Lebanese Forces militia leader Bashir Gemayel.
FALLUJAH — Next to the Joint Communications Center in downtown Fallujah is a squalid and war-shattered warehouse for human beings. Most detainees are common criminals. Others are captured insurgents — terrorists, car-bombers, IED makers, and throat-slashers. A few are even innocent family members of Al Qaeda leaders at large. The Iraqi Police call it a jail, but it’s nothing like a jail you’ve ever seen, at least not in any civilized country. It was built to house 120 prisoners. Recently it held 900.
“Have you seen that place yet?” one Marine said. “It is absolutely disgraceful.”
“The smell,” said another and nearly gagged on remembering. “God, you will never forget it.”
I hadn’t seen or smelled it yet, but I was about to.
“Come on,” American Marine Sergeant Dehaan said to me. “Let’s go take a look.”
I picked up my notebook and camera.
“Leave the camera,” he said. “The Iraqis won’t let you take pictures.”
“Don’t you have any say in it?” I said. This was the first and only time during my trip to Fallujah that somebody told me not to take pictures.
“Nope,” he said. “The jail is completely run by Iraqis. They’ll freak out if you show up with that camera. If it were up to me, yeah, you could take ’em. But it’s not.”
If the Marines wouldn’t mind if I took pictures, I think it’s safe to say the No Photograph policy is not a security measure. The Iraqis, it seems, don’t want you to see what I saw.
Sergeant Dehaan and I were joined by Rich Crawford, a civilian Law Enforcement Professional who works with the Marines and helps them train the Iraqi Police.
“It’s bad in there,” he said as we walked toward the jail. “But I’ve seen worse.”
“Where have you seen worse?” I said. He looked like someone who had been around. The hard lines in his face looked as though they were carved by sobering experience as much as by time.
“In Latin America,” he said. “In Colombia. I was a DEA agent there. The jail here is bad, and it might be the worst you’ll ever see. But you need to know it isn’t the worst in the world.”
“Actually,” I said. “This will be the first time I’ve ever been inside a functioning jail.”
Sergeant Dehaan rapped on the gate. An Iraqi Police officer grinned when he saw us and let us in.
“I brought you something,” Sergeant Dehaan said and handed him boxes of instant oatmeal and toothpaste.
“Is this food?” the Iraqi said as he squinted at a box of oatmeal. It was a Quaker Oats Variety Pack. Iraqi stores do not sell oatmeal.
“Yeah, you mix it with water,” Sergeant Dehaan said.
“It’s good,” I said.
The officer did not understand, so Sergeant Dehaan pantomimed pouring boiling water into a cup and stirring the oatmeal with a spoon. I don’t think the message got across, but one of the Iraqi Police officers at the jail probably figured it out eventually.
“And this?” the Iraqi said as he held up the toothpaste. He made a brushing motion across his teeth with his finger.
“Yep,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “It’s toothpaste.”
Our Iraqi host grinned again, put his hand on his heart, and bowed slightly. He then led us into the back toward the prisoners.
“This guy is great,” Sergeant Dehaan said, referring to the Iraqi officer. “He has two wives and six daughters. Al Qaeda murdered four of his brothers.”
I didn’t know what to say. For years in Fallujah, every day was September 11.
“Can you believe this building is only three years old?” Sergeant Dehaan said to me.
What?” I said.
No, I didn’t believe it. The building looked at least sixty years old, and it looked as though no maintenance work had ever been done. Floor tiles were broken, the foundation was cracked, the stairs were uneven, and the walls were utterly filthy as though they hadn’t been painted once since I’ve been alive.
“A really bad contractor built it,” he said. “It was during the war.”
“I guess it’s been hit a lot, too,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “This place was hit constantly by insurgents.”
A handful of Iraqi Police emerged into the hallway and greeted Sergeant Dehaan with hugs and kisses on his cheeks. They shook my hand and said welcome. One offered a cigarette. Iraqis are always offering cigarettes. It was strange to think that these people ran such a terrible jail. Did they ever offer cigarettes to prisoners?
Frankly, I doubt it, although I did not think to ask at the time.
Sergeant Dehaan led me and Rich Crawford to Major Ibrahim’s office. The major is the warden, so to speak, and has worked as an Iraqi Police officer in cities all over Iraq. We sat in plush chairs set up in a semi-circle in front of his desk. A young boy brought us hot glasses of sweet tea.
“How many prisoners are here right now?” I said.
“320,” Major Ibrahim said.
So the jail is “only” at triple capacity now.
“It’s a jail,” Rich Crawford said. “Not a prison. None of them have been tried yet. Later they’ll move to a prison if they’re found guilty.”
“I can fill you in on all this stuff,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “These two have business to discuss. Come on, I’ll show you the cells.”
We left the major’s office and Sergeant Dehaan rapped on the door of another office. A prison guard emerged with a key ring in hand and led us through a secure door and into the hallway that took us to the prisoners. I didn’t feel like we were in a jail. The doors to the cells looked like doors leading to offices or sleeping quarters. There were no bars. I could not see the prisoners from the hallway.
The guard opened the first door and walked right in. He didn’t even slow down. I gingerly stepped inside and found myself surrounded by children. They lounged on the floor. Some stood up when they saw us.
What the hell?
“This is the room for minors,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “They’re treated better.”
They are? The cell was the size of my living room. Two dozen children lived in this place. They slept on the floor on blankets and had no personal space whatsoever. The kids were grubby, but they didn’t appear beaten down or even in bad spirits necessarily.
“Some of them are related to wanted men,” he said.
“Is that the only reason they’re here?” I said. “What are they, hostages?” This would be a real scandal if Americans were running the jail.
Sergeant Dehaan ignored my question, but he seemed to sympathize with what I was getting at.
“You see this kid here in the Adidas shirt?” he said.
The kid stood in front of us, smiled, and admired Sergeant Dehaan’s rifle. He did not have the look of a hostage about him, but he was in jail even though he hadn’t comitted a crime.
“He’s the little brother of a high-up Al Qaeda guy,” he said. “The other day he was being kicked around in the yard by some of the others kids who hate him because of his brother. But he hasn’t done anything wrong. We saw what was happening and put a stop to it. We took him aside and gave him some cake to make him feel better.”
Another cell lay beyond a door at the back of the kid’s room. The guard turned the key and opened it. He and Sergeant Dehaan entered first. I followed and braced myself for what I might see.
“Holy shit,” I said when I stepped through the door. This was not at all what I expected.
150 men were smashed together in a single windowless room the size of my house.
“This is the biggest cell,” Sergeant Dehaan said.
No kidding.
There was no furniture. Most men sat on blankets and carpets. A few near the door cautiously stood up to greet us, but they did not shake our hands. They seemed slightly wary, and had a weird look of innocence on their faces, almost like the kids in the previous room who really were mostly innocent.
Sergeant Dehaan and I must have been genuine novelties. The Iraqi prisoners weren’t used to seeing foreigners. That much was obvious. The men looked at us like we were a curious yet benign alien species. I didn’t feel threatened, but I was shocked to find myself standing there with nothing in between me and such a huge number of prisoners. I expected small cells with bars on the doors. I expected that no one could touch me no matter how hard they tried if I stayed clear of the bars. But any one of them could have reached out and touched me at any time. We were surrounded and vastly outnumbered.
The heat in the room was suffocating. It was winter outside, and very cold at night. But it was easily 85 degrees Fahrenheit in that room. The warmth came from everyone’s ambient body heat. Amazingly, the “cell” didn’t smell bad even though I was told that it did.
It must be awful in August, though. The building was made of concrete, which made it a heat trap.
“There’s no air-conditioning in this building during the summer,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “And there’s nowhere for the prisoners to take a shower.”
The place probably smells like an animal cage during the hot months of the year.
Sergeant Dehaan gestured toward a small room off to the side.
I stepped through the doorway and found a single Arabic-style toilet — basically a hole in the floor. It was, of course, filthy. The room smelled of strong sour urine. There was no wall or curtain for privacy. Dirty cooking pans and dinner plates were stacked in the toilet itself.
“There are six cells total,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “The others are all a lot smaller.”
“They once crammed 900 people into this place?” I said.
“They did,” he said. “And it was standing room only. There was no room for them to sit down. They had to sleep standing up.”
Every single person in that “cell” was a man. Was one of the six cells for women?
“They don’t arrest women,” said Sergeant Dehaan. “Ever. That just is not done in this country.”
That seemed right to me. Women are treated badly overall in Iraq. Their social roles are strictly proscribed. There are so many things they aren’t allowed to do in this culture. Crime is one of them.
Iraqi Arab culture is slowly reverting back to itself now that the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein has been replaced. His government arrested women every day. They were often raped and viciously tortured by his mukhabarat agents.
I didn’t feel nervous, exactly, standing there with all those suspected Iraqi criminals around me. Sergeant Dehaan and the Iraqi guard seemed pretty comfortable. I wondered, though, if I should be. I didn’t exactly feel at ease, either.
“Are there any insurgents in here?” I said.
“No,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “They’re kept in their own cell. They are way too dangerous to be left in here with these guys.”
I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to ask this, but there was no helping it: “Can I see them?” I said.
“Sure,” he said.
Before we went to see the insurgents, several more Iraqi Police officers joined us with weapons. The guard with the key unlocked the door. The Iraqis went in first and yelled at the prisoners. I gingerly followed and found myself in a smaller and equally crowded room jammed wall-to-wall with suspected terrorists of Al Qaeda. Nothing stood between me and them except the Iraqi cops and their guns.
“Salam Aleikum,” Sergeant Dehaan said to the prisoners as he stepped inside. Peace be upon you.
I refused to say that to them. Politeness has its limits.
It was darker in there. The men hadn’t shaved. They sat on the floor and squinted up at the police holding weapons. And they squinted at me. Unlike the suspected criminals in the previous room, none smiled or greeted us in any way. They did not seem curious. They looked at us as if we were bugs.
“They’re extremely violent,” Sergeant Dehaan said as though they weren’t sitting right there in front of us. He patted his rifle. “They’re treated the same as everyone else, but they have to be segregated.”
My skin tingled and I felt flashes of heat. These men would kill me if I met them anywhere else.
Not all Middle Eastern terrorists are alike. I have been inside Hezbollah’s headquarters south of Beirut. I brushed shoulders with Hamas leaders in the Palestinian parliament, although I was there to interview other people. Never once did I worry that the Lebanese or Palestinian terrorists would actually harm me. Al Qaeda is different. These guys are like Arabic Hannibal Lectors.
“Is it safe to be in here?” I said.
“Well,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “There’s five cops. And me.”
Last summer in Ramadi I met a handful of detainees who were suspected of being Al Qaeda. They looked like doofuses who couldn’t get a date or a job.
Most of the men in this room looked like they were perfectly willing to murder us all with their hands. I could see it in their eyes, in the sinister way some of them squinted at me, in the tightness of their jaw muscles. I wished I had a gun of my own.
Should we have even been standing there in the first place? More than 50 potential killers all but surrounded us. They sat on the floor, but some of them were less than three feet away.
“The nastiest ones are the little guys,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “The little rat-looking bastards. They’re the ones who have done the worst things to people.”
I’ve seen how cruel Iraqi kids can be when they fight over candy the Marines hand out to them. The little rat-looking insurgents most likely were mercilessly picked on as children. When they joined Al Qaeda their bottomless hatred was unleashed against Iraqis even more than it was unleashed on the Americans.
“We have to get out of here,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “The cops are getting nervous.”
He was right. They were. Their hands twitched. Their eyes darted rapidly around the room.
“Let’s go then,” I said. If the cops are nervous, I’m out of there.
We left and I shuddered. There would be no interview in that room.
“Human rights organizations would have a cow if they saw this place,” I said to Sergeant Dehaan. I felt little sympathy at the time. It was just an observation.
“Well, what should the Iraqis do?” Sergeant Dehaan said. “Let them go?”
“Of course not,” I said. “That would be idiotic. It’s just so….nasty in here. And people think Gitmo is bad.”
Sergeant Dehaan was comfortable with his mission in Iraq and the flaws of the Iraqi Police he was tasked with training and molding.
“I prefer these small and morally ambiguous wars to the big morally black-and-white wars,” he said to me later. “It would be nice if we had more support back home like we did during World War II. But look at how many people were killed in World War II. If a bunch of unpopular small wars prevent another popular big war, I’ll take ’em.”
The jail in Fallujah is the only functioning jail I have ever visited. I did, however, go inside one of Saddam Hussein’s former jails in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The famous “Red Building” in the city of Suleimaniya is a horror show. It’s a museum of sorts now, in the way Auschwitz is a museum. Perhaps monument or memorial are better descriptions.
Before it was liberated by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, resistance fighters and their family members were arrested, interrogated, and sadistically tortured inside its walls. A free-standing rape room with large windows was built just outside. Bloody women’s underwear was found on the floor after the Baath regime agents were ousted. Inside some of the cells are messages carved by children into the walls. “I was ten years old. But they changed my age to 18 for execution.” “Dear Mom and Dad. I am going to be executed by the Baath. I will not see you again.”
10,725 people were murdered in the Red Building alone by the previous government of Iraq. All died during torture. Formal execution actually took place in Abu Ghraib.
“I wrote about and photographed this hideous place”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001068.html on my first trip to the country, and “Martin Kunert”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Kunert left the following note in my comments section:
“Two years ago, I produced the documentary film Voices of Iraq, where we sent 150 DV cameras across Iraq and allowed Iraqis to film their own lives. The cameras got into the prison you visited and others. I viewed several hours of video and testimony detailing the horrors of Saddam’s torture. One woman recalled tearfully how her newborn baby was fed to dogs in front of her eyes. Another video shows floors stained with blood and fat that liquefied off torture victims and poured onto the tiles below them. What transpired in those chambers is beyond belief. It takes a strong stomach to go through the tours you’re experiencing.”
“An Iraqi interpreter I met in Baghdad who calls himself Hammer”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001502.html spent time in Abu Ghraib prison while Saddam was in charge.
“On the bus to the jail I didn’t have handcuffs,” he said. “I asked why. The guard said Look behind you. The first guy behind me got a 600 year sentence. The next guy got six hanging sentences. The third guy was sentenced to be thrown blindfolded out of a second story window. Twice. Another guy f*cked his mother and sisters three times. He was freed on Saddam’s birthday. Another guy had his hand cut off.”
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but he said he was swept up and imprisoned for no reason. It’s certainly possible. That’s the kind of country Iraq used to be.
“The guards who ran Abu Ghraib sold hallucinogenic drugs to prisoners for money,” he told me. “They forced me to take them. You need protection in there. You find someone and give him drugs and cigarettes. You pay off the guards to just punch you in the face or move you to a different cell instead of kill you. I was freed 26 days after I arrived, on Saddam’s birthday before I finished the three months. I can’t live with this nightmare anymore.”
He does not live with this nightmare anymore. Different nightmares now haunt decent and innocent people in his country.
It seems somehow inadequate, tone-deaf, and perhaps even wrong to say Fallujah’s disgraceful warehouse for humans is progress. But it is.

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