Currently living here in exile, the man Uday Hussein dubbed ‘The Hassler Journalist’ will not remain tight-lipped about the brutality of his imprisonment in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
WHEN SixDegrees met Hussein al-Maadidi and his translator Ahmed Essouli at a pub in the Helsinki Central Railway Station, what had started off as a calm, sunny day in Helsinki swiftly turned into a dark and cramped prison cell in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, as Hussein explained his first-hand encounter with the torture and madness that prevailed inside the prison walls.
Working on behalf of several news organisations when the Iraq War began in 2003, al-Maadidi was apprehended eight months after the US-led invasion while on a routine news gathering mission for NBC News. He received a 200-year sentence without trial and spent the following 361 days imprisoned in Abu Ghraib and other detention camps in Iraq. After being released unexpectedly, Hussein continued with his critical coverage of the occupation and was forced to flee the country in 2007. This year he published the book 361 Päivää Helvetissä (361 Days in Hell), a vivid description of the horrors he faced during his year in imprisonment.
Born in Haditha City, the site of 2005’s ‘Massacre of Haditha’ al-Maadidi lives with his wife and two sons here in Finland. Neither of his offspring have seen the country their father was born in.
What do you think of life in Finland compared to living in Iraq?
You have to ask me: what are the things I do not like about Finland… because I love everything in Finland! Finnish people are very simple. They are a bit shy, but their shyness is a beauty as well. When the Finnish people learned the truth, they reacted. Without Finland I would never have been able to publish my book, considering that Finland is classified as the number one country in terms of freedom of speech in the world and Iraq is ranked 150. I will say that I’m really lucky to be here in Finland. I can also say that Finland is like my home country, it is for me a home like Iraq and Finnish people help me get rid of bad memories; memories of suffering… but when I think that I am really far away from Iraq, I think that my life has no sense and I’m nothing. Iraq for me is like oxygen. If love for Iraq dies in me, for like three minutes, I would be dead. The only thing that makes me cry is Iraq, and it’s worth crying over.
Why are you a writer?
Writing allows me to do things that I would not be able to do with my hands. I cannot change the world with a sword but I can change the world with a pen.
When did you first decide to become a journalist?
I never thought about becoming a journalist, but I was born with the talent of writing. Since I was ten years old my father called me ‘The Journalist’. When I wrote school essays in Arabic, all the teachers gave me zero because they did not believe it was me who wrote them. But even though I liked journalism so much, I actually first went to study Arabic philology and then switched to journalism just by a piece of luck, really just by luck. This is why I sometimes think that it was not my personal choice to study journalism but the will of God to put me into this profession. That is why I also think that I was incarcerated into prison by the will of God, because God wanted me to see and witness the atrocities that took place in the prison. To tell the world what happened there.
I understand you first started working for a newspaper called Babel, which was run by Saddam Hussein’s oldest son, Uday, at the time?
I was studying in the Faculty of Journalism, and had not yet graduated when the Chief Editor, Uday, chose me to work for the newspaper. Uday used to call me the journalist who hassles, ‘The Hassler Journalist’.
What sort of an editor was he, was there a lot of suppression?
We had freedom to write about almost anything, but there were red lines. We were not allowed to criticise Saddam Hussein or criticise the religion. We were free to write about politics and criticise the government, because Uday opposed it.
What were you working on when the Iraq War began?
I was a war correspondent for Iraqi television and for Al Shabab TV even though I was not qualified to work as a broadcaster, as I was a writer. But I had other qualifications that allowed me to work for television and after the occupation I worked for many networks such as Al Jazeera, NBC News, Associated Press, Al Arabiya and LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Company). I was like a small news office that delivered news to many television networks. They used me because I was from the Western part of Iraq, which was a very hot part of Iraq as the insurgents were there. The Western part was very dangerous for journalists and every journalist was afraid to go there.
While working for so many news organisations you probably came in contact with many Iraqis, what did they think about the occupation?
There was a gap in the point of view of Iraqis. There was a gap between the Iraqis who lived in the South and the Iraqis who lived in the North. I’m not talking about the Kurdistan area in Northern Iraq, I’m talking about the Kirkuk, Saladin and Mosul regions. The so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’ is also located in Northern Iraq and the resistance was very hard against the occupants there. I did not travel much to the South of Iraq to investigate because it is mainly a Shia Muslim area and I’m from the Western part of Iraq. There were two points of view in Iraq. In the South they blessed the occupation and in the Northern and Western parts of Iraq they wanted changes but they did not bless the occupation. The Iraqi streets were divided over the occupation and still remain so.
What happened on the day you were apprehended?
I was working for NBC News that day, gathering some material for them and filming some protests on the streets. After that I went to the Al Iraqiya television headquarters, which was a local television station at that time. They lured me there because I had become well-known in Iraq, as I did a lot of stories about the insurgents and the resistance against the Americans. The director of the Al Iraqiya TV invited me to visit her at the headquarters, which was in the Green Zone. I went there and the American soldiers captured me.
So they captured you simply because of your negative coverage of the occupation?
What happened to you after that?
I saw many things I never expected to witness. They treated me like an animal. In fact, they treated me like I was nothing, because even animals have some dignity. What they did to me and what I witnessed made me hate myself and that I was even born. What they did to others was even worse than what they did to me, and they did those things in front of me because they were fighting me psychologically, they wanted me to see those things.
Who are they? The Americans?
They were all Americans. Of course, there was the presence of the interpreters who were Arabs, but because the decision-making was in the hands of the Americans, they had all the power. The torture was not executed by one guard, it was systematic. It was not a single case that happened by accident. Guards and soldiers were given orders by highly ranked officers to execute the torture and sometimes the highly ranked officers did the torturing themselves.
Was it happening in all the detention centres or was it specifically done in Abu Ghraib?
The torture began on the first day I was captured in the Al Iraqiya headquarters. The American soldiers beat me harshly and they did it in front of all the other journalists there. They took me to an underground cellar of the Iraqi Parliament and continued beating me, and later they let some police dogs bite me. I was then transferred to the so-called ‘Ghost Prison’, and after that I came to the ‘Guantanamo of Iraq’, which was in the Al Sujud Palace. There, they raped women in front of my eyes. They took off my clothes and put me into a cage made for animals. They also strapped me into a lie detector machine and forced me to admit accusations that I had never done. And that was before they took me to Abu Ghraib. If I start talking about what happened in Abu Ghraib, the colour of your hair will probably turn grey, because it was very, very insane.
So, Abu Ghraib was the worst?
Yes, what I’ve seen in Abu Ghraib was the worst I saw during my year in detention. They took off my clothes, tied my legs and arms and urinated on my face. They told me if I want to drink water, I could drink their urine. They threw garbage and excrement at my body. But what happened to others was much worse. It affected me more than what they did to me. What would you feel like if you see a woman or a child raped in front of you? What would be your reaction? And you cannot do anything for them. You start to hate yourself, you start to hate life and you start to hate humanity. Because the human being who humiliates others like this does not deserve to be called human.
How did you manage to stay sane, to carry on?
And who told you that I’m not insane? Before the occupation my colleagues used to call me ‘The Insane’, because I was courageous, I was bold and I investigated and wrote about very difficult matters. But after the imprisonment I became insane, I am now insane. I tried suicide many times inside the prison but couldn’t do it because I did not have any tools to do it with. But at the end of the day I realised that suicide is a way of escaping this road. I had to stay alive and transmit this reality that I witnessed to the world. Those pictures that were leaked by the Americans to the world only represent five per cent of what happened in Abu Ghraib. If the walls of Abu Ghraib could talk, they would tell you more than me, but unfortunately walls cannot talk. What happened in Abu Ghraib is the worst that has happened in our epoch, our modern time.
Who were the other prisoners?
I asked a woman in her 70s, who was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, why are you here? I was very surprised to see an old woman in front of my cell. I understood that I was in prison because I was a journalist and during wartime anything can happen to journalists. Journalists could be imprisoned, be murdered, and in the beginning of the occupation 300 journalists were killed. But then you see a child who is six years old, seven years old, or ten years old, and a woman who is 70 years old. There were 68 women in the same cell department where I was. Sometimes when the Americans have a target they want to capture and they don’t find him, they take his wife, or his child, or his parents instead of him. They took family members and waited for him to surrender by using this technique. Even during wartime there must be some ethics, but in the war that took place in Iraq there were no ethics, no morality. When, for example, there was an attack against American soldiers or a bomb on the streets, they seized the whole area and even took the children who were on the streets. I mentioned in my book a child who had disappeared and his father came to me because he was from the Al-anbar area and he wanted me to help him through the media. The child was eight years old and after I was captured I found him in the Vigilant detention camp many months later. I was very surprised to find him there and gave him some clothes because he was pretty naked. He had been arrested while on his way to school because there had been a bomb explosion in the area where he lived and the Americans seized the whole area. It was very insane. I would never have believed these things if I didn’t see them.
Did the children escape torture?
They did not escape it, they were tortured as well. The children were also raped and girls were raped in front of their mothers. When a girl aged 11 is raped by four soldiers in front of her mother and after the rape she did not realise what had happened to her… [translator Essouli pauses to gather himself] and then she asks her mother, ‘Why are you crying, is my father dead or something?’
Do you know how many prisoners there were in Abu Ghraib?
When they transferred me to the Vigilant detention camp (in Abu Ghraib) my number was 153 000. That means that before me, there were 153,000 prisoners. I still remember something an MI (American Military Intelligence) investigator told me. He told me that, ‘We made this prison so that we can detain all Iraqis’. What he told me will remain in my head eternally. That is why nowadays every Iraqi family has at least one family member who was detained or murdered during the occupation. Take, for example, my family. I have four brothers and we were all detained but at different times. And my family is just one simple example.
Do you see light at the end of the tunnel now that the occupation forces have withdrawn?
The United States left Iraq, but only on paper. The number of staff at the US embassy in Iraq is 16,000 and they are the ones that govern Iraq nowadays. They left Iraq militarily, but they still govern it politically. But Iraq will be free one day, because it is deeply rooted in history and it is a very old civilisation. The United States was defeated in Iraq militarily and now there is a bad economical crisis in America, which is due to this adventure militarism in different parts of the world. Now they are paying the price.
Do you think you will ever return to Iraq?
I must return to Iraq, because I’m now like a fish out of water. Even though I love this country [Finland] and I respect this country, I am nothing without Iraq and my parents still live there.
Will the wounds ever heal?
My physical wounds could be healed but the psychological wounds will never heal. Our wounds are on a spiritual level. You can see that I now look like a healthy man, but inside me the wounds are very deep. Because whenever I remember what happened, I hate myself before I hate others.
Photo: Eva Blanco