Saturday, July 24, 2004

Iraq's Tortured Children - BBC, 2002

Saturday, 22 June, 2002, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Iraq's tortured children

By John Sweeney
BBC correspondent in Iraq


The star witness against the government of Iraq hobbled into the room, her legs braced with clumsy metal callipers. "Anna" had been tortured two years ago. She is now four years old.

Her father, Ali, is a thick-set Iraqi who used to work for Saddam's psychopathic son, Uday. Some time after the bungled assassination of Uday, Ali fell under suspicion.

He fled north, to the Kurdish safe haven policed by Western fighter planes, but leaving his wife and daughter behind in Baghdad.

So the secret police came for his wife. Where is he? They tortured her. And when she didn't break, they tortured his daughter.

"When did you last see your father? Has he phoned? Has he been in contact?" They half-crushed the toddler's feet.

Now, she doesn't walk, she hobbles, and Ali fears that Saddam's men have crippled his daughter for life. So Ali talked to us.

I have been to Baghdad a number of times. Being in Iraq is like creeping around inside someone else's migraine. The fear is so omnipresent you could almost eat it. No one talks.

So listening to Ali speak freely was a revelation. He is not exactly a contender to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

He has the heft of an enforcer. He told me that he had tortured for the regime. But I don't think he was lying to us.

'Faked funerals'

Ali talked about the paranoid frenzy that rules Baghdad - the tortures, the killings, the corruption, the crazy gangster violence of Saddam and his two sons.

And the faking of the mass baby funerals.

You may have seen them on TV. Small white coffins parading through the streets of Baghdad on the roofs of taxis, an angry crowd of mourners, condemning Western sanctions for killing the children of Iraq.

They used to collect children's bodies and put them in freezers for two, three or even six or seven months

Usefully, the ages of the dead babies - "three days old", "four days old" - are written in English on the coffins. I wonder who did that.

Ali gave us the inside track on the racket. There aren't enough dead babies around. So the regime stores them for a mass funeral.

He said that he was friends with a taxi driver - he gave his name - whose son had a position in the regime.

Ali continued, he told me that he had to go to Najaf - a town 160km (100 miles) from Baghdad - in order to bring children's bodies from various freezers there, and that the smell was unbearable.

They used to collect children's bodies and put them in freezers for two, three or even six or seven months - God knows - until the smell got unbearable.

Then, they arrange the mass funerals. The logic being, the more dead babies, the better for Saddam. That way, he can weaken public support in the West for sanctions.

That means that parents who have lost a baby can't bury it until the regime says so.

So how could it be that people would put up with this sickening exploitation of grief?

A murder story

Ali told another story. He had seen Uday kill with his own eyes. This was some years ago, before the assassination attempt left Saddam's oldest son half-paralysed and impotent.

Uday's lust is famous in Baghdad. He wanted a woman who played tennis at Baghdad's Sports Club and he and Ali went round to the club.

As Uday was turning into the car park, a tennis ball came over the fence and bounced against the car of the woman he desired.

The tennis player came into the car park to retrieve the ball, apologised to the woman. Maybe there was a bit of flirting - that does happen at tennis courts, even in England.

From his car Uday watched the two of them. Enraged, he took out a wooden cosh and beat the tennis player's brains out.

And then - get this - a few days later, the dead man's relatives apologised to Uday for the distress their son had caused him.

Incredible? I don't think so.

In northern Iraq - the only part of the country where people can speak freely - we met six other witnesses who had direct experience of child torture, including another of Saddam's enforcers - now in a Kurdish prison - who told us that an interrogator could do anything:

"We could make a kebab out of the child if we wanted to." And then he chuckled.

In that environment, with that background noise of fear, it is not impossible to imagine that the government of Iraq could have conned the world, inventing numbers of dead babies that the gullible - and that includes the United Nations - accept as reliable.

While we were in the north of Iraq, the chairman of the Great Britain Iraq Society, Labour MP George Galloway, was in Baghdad.

He popped up on Iraqi TV and bared his soul. "When I hear the word Iraq," he said, "I hear someone calling my name."

I don't. When I hear the word Iraq, I hear a tortured child, screaming.

Iraq's Tortured Children