Imprisoned in the past

Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison is scheduled to reopen, in part as a museum

Adnan R. Khan

Imprisoned in the past

From the front door of his house, Mahmood Salim can easily take in Abu Ghraib prison in its entirety. Down a small hill and across a barren and dusty field, the massive 280-acre complex stretches north and east like an imposing fortress, its two dozen guard towers rising up at regular intervals. For the 49-year-old taxi driver, proximity to a place so thoroughly associated with horror is a constant reminder of what Iraq has suffered. “The war doesn’t mean anything to me,” Salim says. “People go to war. They always have and they always will. But Abu Ghraib . . . that place is evil.”

In its current decrepit state, Iraq’s most notorious prison exudes malevolence. Its five-metre-high perimeter walls are covered with the scabs of its dark history: collapsed scaffolding, dangling, hair-like clumps of razor wire, tattered camouflage netting that once provided shade for the U.S. sentries who guarded it from attacks. Since the prison closed in September 2006—more than two years after the notorious scandal involving American troops torturing Iraqi prisoners came to light—little has been done to protect it from the effects of central Iraq’s harsh desert climate. But remnants of the U.S. presence at Abu Ghraib—which was already a place of horror during Saddam Hussein’s regime—lie scattered around the perimeter wall: decayed sandbags and blast walls that now only provide cover to the odd dirt devil whipped up by the arid desert wind.

They may be among the last vestiges to remind visitors that American soldiers were once here. On Sept. 3, the Iraqi government announced that Abu Ghraib will be reopened sometime in early 2009, in part as a prison—“This is a prison,” Salim says, “it will always be a prison—what else can you do with it?”—and in part as a museum. But while that museum will document the atrocities Abu Ghraib has witnessed, they will be Saddam’s atrocities: no mention is planned of the U.S. time at the prison, including the torture scandal. It is news that startles Salim. “They should show it,” he says, before going back into his house, quietly closing the metal gate behind him.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke, it was a devastating blow to the legitimacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What had begun on March 20, 2003, as a staggering demonstration of American military might, one that prompted President George W. Bush to declare victory that May 1, gradually eroded to the grim reality of a drawn-out and costly guerrilla war. For critics, the Abu Ghraib scandal, which surfaced almost exactly one year after the invasion, proved a rallying point: here was the shocking evidence they were looking for of American arrogance and contempt. Should anyone be surprised that American troops were acting illegally, they argued, given that Iraq was an illegal war?

In the months that followed, Abu Ghraib gradually dropped out of the limelight amid time-consuming investigations and legal proceedings, not nearly as attention-grabbing as waterboarding or human pyramids of naked and frightened prisoners. At the same time, the conflict in Iraq was escalating. The first hints of a sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims had surfaced and the world’s media decided it had more pressing concerns than military tribunals and fact-finding missions. Abu Ghraib became yesterday’s news.

People in Salim’s neighbourhood seem to want to keep it that way. In this ramshackle collection of houses, each girded by its own perimeter wall, residents wave their hands in front of their faces as if to ward off unwanted memories that Abu Ghraib’s name conjures up, and slam their doors shut. George W. Bush wanted the prison to be torn down. In May 2004, at the apex of the torture scandal, he promised, with the approval of the Iraqi government, to “demolish Abu Ghraib prison, as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning.” But the Iraqi government did not approve. Officially, they say the prison is Iraqi property, and demolishing it would be a waste of valuable resources. Unofficially, perhaps there is a more humane motive: for Iraqis to heal, they will need to confront the demons that reside in places like Abu Ghraib prison, making the museum a logical place of remembrance. But why omit the American contribution, however brief, to that ignoble legacy?

According to Busho Ibrahim, Iraq’s deputy justice minister, what U.S. soldiers did was “nothing compared to what Saddam Hussein has done.” He is, of course, right: American abuses pale beside those of Saddam, as the museum will show—from the execution room where thousands were hanged to chains that were used to tie prisoners together. But some say that on another level, U.S. soldiers hurt Iraqis almost as deeply. “They humiliated Iraqis,” says one Iraqi military officer who agreed to take Maclean’s inside Abu Ghraib, albeit only to the former barracks where some of the U.S. guards charged with acts of violence were housed. “They made innocent men do things that would bring shame to their entire family.” And they took pictures of it. The officer, who asked that his name not be used, thinks the Iraqi government’s decision to keep the issue of American transgressions out of the museum—the sexual abuses and the pictures that brought them to light—is culturally motivated. To display them in a museum would be another blow to the already battered Iraqi sense of honour, he says.

“But I have something else I want to show you,” adds the officer, cryptically. With the oppressive afternoon sun edging closer to the western horizon, he orders his men to load into their Humvees, and leads the convoy down a narrow dirt track to the prison walls.

Abu Ghraib is less imposing from this vantage point. Close up, the scarred walls and ramshackle fortifications reveal how precariously this once colossal symbol of might clings to life. The convoy speeds along the southern perimeter wall, flanked on the right by the main highway—IED alley, as it was called in its glory days when it bristled with improvised explosive devices. Turning left, the Humvees drive through the prison’s main gate. During the U.S. occupation, it was guarded by tanks and Bradley armoured vehicles; today, only a few sleepy Iraqi soldiers man it, waving through the convoy as if it has disturbed what was otherwise a routine day of smoking and lounging.

Inside, the prison grounds are deserted, and as dilapidated as the outer perimeter wall. The convoy edges around another fortified compound. “Inside there was where the American soldiers stayed,” says the Iraqi officer. “There was also a command centre in there, and Camp Vigilant.” That command centre was the 320th Tactical Operations Center (TOC), where members of the 320th Military Police Battalion, a reservist unit disgraced during the scandal, had its offices. Next to that were the barracks, beyond which was Camp Vigilant, where high security detainees were held.

The officer tells his driver to stop at a break on the west side of the perimeter wall. Stepping over a coil of razor wire, he walks into the compound, dominated by what look like two large warehouses. A lizard maniacally scrambles up one of the coils, trying to stay out of the officer’s path, then jumps to the ground and scurries under dust-coated desert scrub. The officer points to the bigger building on the right, indicating that this was the barracks, and disappears inside.

It is a scene of total devastation. The cavernous barrack, large enough to accommodate three 747 airliners, has been completely gutted by fire. Concrete pillars rise up like blackened monuments; charred bedsprings and bunk-bed frames litter the floor. Some remnants of the U.S. presence remain: partially melted plastic military-issue meal packs and the odd singed American cigarette box, indicating that the fire wasn’t all-consuming. It seems to have been controlled, possibly deliberate.

But who set the fire? According to the Iraqi officers and his men, it was American troops themselves, before they turned the prison over to Iraqi authorities. Why? “Who knows?” the officer says. “Who knows how these people think?” But then he offers a possible explanation: “When I heard our government was not going to put any of the American atrocities in the museum, I thought maybe they’re trying to erase that memory. I think the U.S. is trying to do the same thing.”

As George W. Bush’s term in office comes to a close, part of the legacy he leaves behind—torture, rendition, Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib—will likely haunt discussion of his presidency for years to come. Many Iraqis will likely be haunted as well—by memories of what went on behind Abu Ghraib’s imposing walls. Renovations and a museum may not be enough to cleanse Abu Ghraib of its demons.