Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Torture is like anything. You get used to it.

Excerpts from On the Road to Kandahar by Jason Burke published in The Observer,
I spent many months in Iraq after the war. Oddly, I was always more optimistic about the country's future when I was there than in London. Western news bulletins were dominated by those making the most noise or mess, and the voices of the majority in Iraq, who wanted only to eat and sleep in peace with their families, were barely heard. This was true on a global scale too. In Iraq, the violence was aimed at dividing communities. Spectacular acts of international terrorism aimed to do the same. To an extent, sadly, they have succeeded. In the short term at least, brutality can work. But the dogmatic, the fanatic and the violent are still a long way from outright victory. And that we owe to the good sense and humanity of all those caught in the middle - whether on an Israeli bus, a London tube train, in Baghdad or, indeed, in Kandahar.

And an interview,
Mohammed Kassm was a former Iraqi Mukhabarat intelligence-service torturer captured by the Kurds two years earlier. He was 39, 6ft 4in and 230lbs, with small eyes, pudgy cheeks and grey-flecked hair and was wearing a faded, red sports shirt, tracksuit trousers and broken plastic sandals. His hands, I noticed when he was brought out of the cells and sat down in an empty office in the security services headquarters, were very large.

Kassm had joined the Baath party at the age of 15 in the year that Saddam seized power. By the time he was 16, he was working for the Mukhabarat main office in Baghdad. At 20, he was a full-time interrogator. 'At first, it was difficult for me and then it became more easy. Torture is like anything. You get used to it.'

Kassm, sitting in an upstairs room in the security-service offices, gave no indication that he felt any shame.

'How did you torture people?' I asked him. He chuckled and sat back with his fingers crossed over his belly.

'There are multiple ways. We hoist them over a bar with their arms behind them. We use hot things like an iron on their skin. We use an electric cable - here, here and here,' he said and indicated ears, tongue and groin.

'How about fingernails?' I said, thinking of a waiter who had served me a day or so earlier whose fingers ended in smooth nubs of skin.

Kassm looked insulted. 'That's an old technique. We don't do that any more. Though we did occasionally cut off toes or fingers.'

Did you interrogate children?' I asked 'Sometimes,' he shrugged. 'We tortured everyone, men, women and children.'

'Who was the youngest?'

'Newborn babies, I suppose.'

'You tortured newborn babies?'

'Well, not exactly, but sometimes we brought in newborns and threatened to starve them to death to get their parents to talk. We might starve them a bit for effect but we wouldn't kill the child. That was a pretty effective technique, actually.'

'And the older kids?'

'We would hit five- or six-year-olds with a cable.'

'What about rape?'

'My team did not do that but we had a specially designated rape unit.'

'You have a wife?'

'I have been married twice and I have seven children.'

'And you went home to your wife and kids after a day of torturing people?'

'You are a journalist, I am an interrogator. I got paid, got overtime, bonuses, holidays. It was a job.' Then he added, as if aware of the inadequacy of what he was saying: 'I was following orders. Saddam is responsible. Saddam made us into killers. Was there any German soldier who could reject Hitler's orders?'

'Would you fight for Saddam if you were free now?

'The men of the Mukhabarat are frightened now,' he said. 'They have blood on their hands. They have to stick with Saddam or they will be killed by the population that hate them.'

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