Huda Alazawi was one of the few women held in solitary in the notorious Iraqi prison. Following her release, she talks for the first time to Luke Harding about her ordeal
It began with a phone call. In November last year 39-year-old Huda Alazawi, a wealthy Baghdad businesswoman, received a demand from an Iraqi informant. He was working for the Americans in Adhamiya, a Sunni district of Baghdad well known for its hostility towards the US occupation. His demand was simple: Madame Huda, as her friends and family know her, had to give him $10,000. If she failed to pay up, he would write a report claiming that she and her family were working for the Iraqi resistance. He would pass it to the US military and they would arrest her.
“It was clearly blackmail,” Alazawi says, speaking in the Baghdad office of her trading company. “We knew that if we gave in, there would be other demands.” The informant was as good as his word. In November 2003, he wrote a report that prompted US soldiers to interrogate Alazawi’s brother, Ali, and her older sister, Nahla, now 45. Wearing a balaclava, he also led several raids with US soldiers on the families’ antique-filled Baghdad properties.
On December 23, the Americans arrested another of Alazawi’s brothers, Ayad, 44. It was at this point that she decided to confront the Americans directly. She marched into the US base in Adhamiya, one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. “A US captain told me to come back with my two other brothers. He said we could talk after that.” On Christmas Eve she returned with her brothers, Ali and Mu’taz. “I waited for four hours. An American captain finally interrogated me. After 10 minutes he announced that I was under arrest.” Like thousands of other Iraqis detained by the Americans since last year’s invasion, Alazawi was about to experience the reality of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”.
“They handcuffed me and blindfolded me and put a piece of white cloth over my eyes. They bundled me into a Humvee and took me to a place inside the palace. I was dumped in a room with a single wooden chair. It was extremely cold. After five hours they brought my sister in. I couldn’t see anything but I could recognise her from her crying.”
Alazawi says that US guards left her sitting on the chair overnight, and that the next day they took her to a room known by detainees as “the torturing place”. “The US officer told us: ‘If you don’t confess we will torture you. So you have to confess.’ My hands were handcuffed. They took off my boots and stood me in the mud with my face against the wall. I could hear women and men shouting and weeping. I recognised one of the cries as my brother Mu’taz. I wanted to see what was going on so I tried to move the cloth from my eyes. When I did, I fainted.”
Like most Iraqi women, Alazawi is reluctant to talk about what she saw but says that her brother Mu’taz was brutally sexually assaulted. Then it was her turn to be interrogated. “The informant and an American officer were both in the room. The informant started talking. He said, ‘You are the lady who funds your brothers to attack the Americans.’ I speak some English so I replied: ‘He is a liar.’ The American officer then hit me on both cheeks. I fell to the ground.
Alazawi says that American guards then made her stand with her face against the wall for 12 hours, from noon until midnight. Afterwards they returned her to her cell. “The cell had no ceiling. It was raining. At midnight they threw something at my sister’s feet. It was my brother Ayad. He was bleeding from his legs, knees and forehead. I told my sister: ‘Find out if he’s still breathing.’ She said: ‘No. Nothing.’ I started crying. The next day they took away his body.”
The US military later issued a death certificate, seen by the Guardian, citing the cause of death as “cardiac arrest of unknown etiology”. The American doctor who signed the certificate did not print his name, and his signature is illegible. The body was returned to the family four months later, on April 3, after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke. The family took photographs of the body, also seen by the Guardian, which revealed extensive bruising to the chest and arms, and a severe head wound above the left eye.
After Ayad’s body had been taken away, Alazawi says that she and 18 other Iraqi detainees were put in a minibus inside the military compound. “The Americans told us: ‘Nobody is going to sleep tonight.’ They played scary music continuously with loud voices. As soon as someone fell asleep they started beating on the door. It was Christmas. They kept us there for three days. Many of the US soldiers were drunk.”
Finally, after a US guard broke her shoulder as she left the lavatory, Alazawi and her surviving siblings were transferred – first to a police academy in Baghdad’s interior ministry and then, on January 4 2004, to Abu Ghraib prison.
Alazawi, who has a 20-year-old daughter, Farah, and a four-year-old granddaughter, Safat, spent the next 156 days in solitary confinement. Along with five other Iraqi women, she was held in Abu Ghraib’s infamous “hard site” – the prison block inside the compound where photographs of American guards sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners had been taken two months previously. The women were kept in the upstairs cellblock; male detainees regarded as “difficult” were held downstairs. The vast majority of inmates lived in a series of open tents surrounded by razor wire and US guard posts.
In her first weeks at Abu Ghraib, before the US military launched its internal investigation into prisoner abuse, torture was commonplace, she says. “The guards used wild dogs. I saw one of the guards allow his dog to bite a 14-year-old boy on the leg. The boy’s name was Adil. Other guards frequently beat the men. I could see the blood running from their noses. They would also take them for compulsory cold showers even though it was January and February. From the very beginning, it was mental and psychological war.”
Alazawi is reticent about the question of sexual abuse of Iraqi women but says that neither she nor any of the other women in Abu Ghraib at the time were sexually assaulted by US guards. In his subsequent report into the scandal, however, Major General Antonio Taquba found that at least one US military policemen had raped a female inmate inside Abu Ghraib; a letter smuggled out of the prison by a woman known only as “Noor”, containing allegations of rape, was found to be entirely accurate. Other witnesses interviewed by the Guardian have said that US guards “repeatedly” raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was held in the block last year. They also said that guards made several of the women inmates parade naked in front of male prisoners.
Alazawi says that she was held in a two-metre-square cell, initially with no bed and a bucket for a toilet. For the first three weeks she was entirely “mute” after being told that talking was forbidden. The US guards gave her only one book, a Koran. She managed to steal a pen, and recorded incidents of abuse, with dates, in its margins. During her first few months in custody, the US soldiers were brutal, petty and tyrannous, she says.
“Because I could speak a bit of English I was given the job of emptying the rubbish. There was never enough food and one day I came across an old woman who had collapsed from hunger. The Americans were always eating lots of hot food. I found some in a packet in a bin and gave it to her. They caught me and threw me in a one-metre-square punishment cell. They then poured cold water on me for four hours.” She wrote the date down in her Koran: February 24 2004.
For the first four months, apart from frequent interrogations, she was not allowed out of the block. Alazawi says she was repeatedly asked whether she was in the Resistance and whether she had fired rockets at US soldiers (she is 5ft 3in tall). “It became a running joke. The other women began to nickname me the Queen of the RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]. The American interrogators were entirely ignorant and knew nothing about Iraqi people. The vast majority of people there were innocent.”
After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April, Alazawi was allowed to exercise in the scrubby yard outside for 10 minutes a day. She got a bed. She was also assigned a new female guard, “Mrs Palmer”, who helped the women with their English and in turn tried to learn Arabic. In May, Major General Geoffrey Miller, assigned to Abu Ghraib by Washington in the aftermath of the torture scandal, escorted a large group of journalists around the prison for the first time. The previous night, Alazawi says, US guards evacuated all the juveniles and male detainees from her cellblock, leaving only her and a handful of other women upstairs.
“Mrs Palmer told us that during the inspection we had to lie quietly on our beds. She said that if we behaved we would be allowed to spend more time out of our cells in the sun. The following day General Miller turned up with a huge number of journalists. I heard him telling them that some of the people kept in here were murderers. I shouted out: ‘We are not the killers. You are the killers. This is our country. You have invaded it.’ After that they didn’t let me out of my cell for an entire month. A US officer came to me and said: ‘Because of you we have all been punished’.”
Alazawi says she was unimpressed by Miller. “It was obvious he liked having his photo taken,” she says. Over the next few weeks, the US military began releasing hundreds of Abu Ghraib detainees as part of a damage limitation exercise. Alazawi and her sister were moved from their cells to a tent. Three generals also came to interview her and asked her to describe what had happened to Ayad, her brother. They did not, however, offer an apology. The other women were gradually released, including her sister. Finally, on July 19, a helicopter took Alazawi to Al Taji, a military base just north of Baghdad.
“After eight months in prison they suddenly treated me like a queen. It was weird,” she says. “They offered me some Pepsi. I could take a shower. There was air conditioning. There were four female soldiers to look after me. The doctor came to see me four times in 24 hours. They made me sign a piece of paper promising not to leave the country. And then I was free.”
A US military spokesman said that Alazawi was known to him, but disputed her claim to have been held in solitary for 157 days:”She and her sister, which [sic] were the last two females we detained at Abu Ghraib, were separated from the male detainees in keeping with the cultural sensitivities.” He added, “The fact that abuses occurred isn’t really news any more. We know they did and those who are accused are being prosecuted for it.”
Now Alazawi is trying to piece her life back together. She is back at work in Baghdad, where she runs businesses importing foreign cars and electrical goods, surrounded by respectful staff who bring endless cups of sweet Iraqi coffee. Business appears to be flourishing. Friends of the family in Arab dish-dash – many of whom come from Iraq’s Sunni elite – drop in and exchange gossip on her white leather sofas. But after her release, her millionaire husband announced that he was divorcing her.
“For a woman in an eastern society to spend months in US custody is very difficult,” she says. Several of the other former women detainees in Abu Ghraib are believed to have disappeared; others have husbands who have also disowned them. Alazawi’s surviving brothers, Ali – prisoner number 156215 – and Mu’taz – 156216 – are still inside Abu Ghraib. The US military continues to detain them and 2,400 other prisoners without charge or legal access, in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Alazawi says that she has hired lawyers to pursue the Iraqi informant who she blames for her brother’s death.
All the other women detainees, meanwhile, have refused to talk about their ordeal; she is the first to give testimony. As Iraq lurches from disaster to disaster, from kidnapping to suicide bombing, from insurgency towards civil war, from death to death, what does she think of the Americans now? “I hate them,” she says.