Today, recognizing the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, is a day to share a story I was able to document in Syria this past month. It is a difficult story, one many Americans would like to deny, and unable to do that, many will simply chose to turn their backs. There is ample opportunity for this. One could point at the outgoing administration, brand them as criminals, say their actions are a thing of the past, and leave it at that. Others could point to the new administration only weeks away, thinking our problems are solved, that change is on the way. But this also would be a mistake. Our complicity in these matters runs deeper then these simplistic deflections of responsibility. If we are to address the fundamental, systemic issues facing our nation and the world, reflection followed by action is necessary. As you read the story of Aswad and his family, recognize his story is one of thousands and his perception of America as purveyors of terrorism is based solely on his personal experience.
Aswad was fast asleep in the early morning hours of November 6th, 2003 when a commotion in the house woke him up. He looked up to see a room full of American soldiers pointing automatic weapons at his head.
He had arrived in the village of Al-Yarmouk on the outskirts of Mosul just the evening before, breaking the Ramadan fast with his friends and going to bed early. He had been following the same routine since early 2000, every couple of months purchasing about $300 worth of galibayas and other articles of clothing to sell on the streets of Mosul. This was to supplement his meager income as a farmer. Farming was backbreaking work and at 48 years old, he was hoping to find another way to support his wife and 9 children.
Now, people were shouting at him in a language he didn’t understand, binding his hands behind his back and blindfolding his eyes. Someone speaking Arabic asked him his name, and demanded, “From where?” He told them he was from Syria. They emptied his pockets, taking his passport and $400 in cash. Then they dragged him to his feet and took him out into the night. He knew that at least two of his friends were taken with him; he could feel one in front and one behind him as they were dragged across the courtyard.
The prisoners were taken by helicopter to an unknown destination and isolated. When he arrived he was placed between an idling steamroller and a barrier. As the ground shook from the heavy equipment he was certain he was going to die. He was told he would never see his family again. He recalls, “I thought they were just going to make me a part of the road.” At times over the next 8 days, Aswad thought that would have been a preferable outcome. His clothes were taken and he was forced to stand naked, except for the blindfold covering his eyes. His arms were shackled behind his back and legs shackled at the ankles. He was beaten with a club. He was hit so hard across the abdomen that he fell unconscious 3 times. Each time he was doused with freezing water until he regained consciousness, he was stood up, and beaten again. They shackled his wrists in front of him and made him hold two heavy cartons. Each time he dropped a carton, the beatings resumed. He was not permitted to sleep. Aswad recalled the only warmth he felt was the hot blood flowing from his forehead and broken nose down over his face and chest.
Near the end of his beatings he was confronted by a man dressed in civilian clothes who claimed to be Egyptian officer, but Aswad is certain he was not who he pretended to be. His Arabic accent was not Egyptian, nor was he American. Aswad thinks he may have been an Israeli, but he is not certain. He was questioned at length about attacks on Americans, each time he denied any knowledge about the attacks. Prior to his arrest he had been sleeping. He didn’t hear any shooting. No weapons were kept in his friend’s house. After each denial he was tasered. His body had been so severely battered by the beatings he endured that he didn’t feel the pain as he fell to the floor.
Throughout his ordeal, Aswad thought about death and hoped it would come quickly. He recognized his captors were merciless. When he asked for water, his tormentors poured it over his head while they laughed. At one point, he felt two naked bodies pressed up against him. His captors shouted at him, but he didn’t understand their taunts as they were shouting in English. He tells me that he was blindfolded and couldn’t see anything. Looking away, embarrassed and ashamed, Aswad repeats this to me four times.
On the eighth day of his detention, Aswad was transferred to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Once the site of some of Saddam’s most heinous interrogations, it was now run by the Americans and they followed suit with their own brand of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses of detainees. It was November 14th, 2003, months before any hint of wrongdoing would seep from under the cages of Abu Ghraib. Aswad arrived at the prison disfigured from his beatings. Doctors examined him, asking him where he felt pain, but never questioning what had happened to him. As he was recuperating from his beatings he was a witness to some of the abuses that would later be reported by mainstream news media in the United States. In the hallway outside his cell he saw a naked prisoner terrorized by an attack dog. He witnessed the “naked pyramid” later to become an infamous photograph with American guards gloating in the background. And he witnessed 4 soldiers strip an Iraqi woman in the cellblock, but he turned his back to her because he felt ashamed for her. Eventually, the commotion died down. He does not know what became of her.