Guest blogger: Andrew Arnett
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewArnett
See Andrews’s site here
War Path/ Clip 1 from OrangeBeef Productions on Vimeo.
Barcelona- The War Diaries presents an exclusive look into Abu Ghraib prison just after it was abandoned by the Ba’ath Party but before it was taken over by the United States military. Abu Ghraib lies west of downtown Baghdad on the road to Falluja. I recall driving past the complex at the time on the way to the Jordanian border, shuddering to think of the misery that had taken place inside, unaware of the pain and humiliation that was about to overtake it.
With the Obama administration saber rattling loudly against the still standing Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria following what the White House says was a chemical weapons attack thereby crossing a long touted “red line” in the sand, a look back into the early travails in neighboring Iraq is not only of note but essential.
The following is a guest post by Andrew Arnett, musician, poet and videographer. Unbeknownst to each other, Andrew and I were in Baghdad at precisely the same moment, even arriving on the same day–though we wouldn’t meet until a year later in New York. At the time, Andrew was meeting his father Peter Arnett, Pulitzer prize winning reporter while I was on a personal mission to cover the wars that followed 9/11. This post includes video stills not seen until now. Andrew, take it away…
Entering the gates of Abu Ghraib with Peter Arnett and our fixer Yasser. ©2003 Andrew Arnett
Ten years ago, on April 29, 2003, I went to shoot video at Abu Ghraib prison. Saddam Hussein’s forces had only recently deserted the area, and American forces, having taken Baghdad barely three weeks prior, had not yet secured the premises. This left a window of opportunity to explore the prison grounds unhindered.
When I made this journey to Abu Ghraib, it was in the company of my father, Peter Arnett. We would spend the next month, with another two months on a second journey, traveling and documenting Iraq’s tumult. If left unexamined on specifics, the then expectation that the American-led reconstruction of Iraq would yield prosperity and even open democracy seemed not wholly unreasonable. The deposing of Saddam Hussein–who a good number of Americans were led to believe or simply assumed played some kind of role in 9/11–would help bolster the image of George W. Bush as a strong leader.
The feeling in Iraq at the time was one of optimism, albeit briefly. The United States was again the torch bearer of freedom, good had conquered evil, and Iraq, now unfettered by its draconian dictator, would flourish and achieve prosperity. The operative word was: reconstruction. This optimism would not last and by my next visit to Iraq, in the fall of 2003, it was already woefully tarnished.
Peter Arnett photographing at Abu Ghraib. ©2003 Andrew Arnett
Now, a decade on, Iraq appears a hopeless maelstrom of religious and ethnic violence undergirded by an economic struggle over the nation’s poorly managed energy wealth. Despite the captivating headlines streaming out of Egypt and Syria, Iraq has made it back into the news cycle, albeit at a lower profile with a comparative dearth of on the ground reporters there. Communities across the country sustained casualties last month equaling that of the worst months of the insurgency. Unsurprisingly, Abu Ghraib is once again at the nexus of the turmoil.
On July 21, a meticulously planned attack on the prison in which combined with a simultaneous attack on another prison in the city of Taji resulted in the flight of more than some five hundred prisoners (though precise figures are not known). Most disturbingly, Iraqi authorities—including several MPs—stated that many of the escapees were members of the regional al-Qaeda branch waiting on death row as well as transnational jihadis serving time there.
Al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch that now calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant after a merger with Syrian Salafi-jihadis earlier this year, boldly claimed responsibility for this sophisticated operation that once again put Abu Ghraib back in the headlines.
The atmosphere inside was foreboding. By June of that year, Abu Ghraib would be overtaken by United States military police, intelligence contractors and translators. ©2003 Andrew Arnett
The perilous reverberations of this incident reach well beyond Iraq’s borders. The mass escape prompted INTERPOL to issue a global security alert linked to al-Qaeda involvement in this and other prison breaks in Pakistan and Libya. Concomitantly, the State Department issued an alert allegedly based on an intercept of al-Qaeda communiqués indicating a near term specific threat by the Yemen-based al-Aqaeda in the Arabian Peninsula advising Americans traveling in the Middle East to avoid non-essential travel and to take extreme caution in the region .
By the time of my visit in 2003, Abu Ghraib had already garnered a reputation as one of the most dreaded locales on earth. Built in the 1960′s by Britons, the prison was used by Saddam as a deadly internment camp for common criminals and political dissidents who opposed the regime. Torture and execution were common practice. Up to seventy inmates a week were reportedly hanged.
The most chilling aspect I encountered was upon entering the gallows and seeing the hangman’s noose and trap door. Even more disturbing was to discover the rope still slick with moisture from recent use, evidence that executions continued until the regime’s ultimate collapse.
The hangman’s noose. ©2003 Andrew Arnett
Walking the halls of Abu Ghraib. ©2003 Andrew Arnett
The worst was to be found outside the prison walls. There I encountered Iraqi Red Crescent Society workers and local men were unearthing mass graves. Many were freshly buried, covered hastily by thin layers of rock. The stench of death and decay hung thick in the air. Crossing the highway to the Abu Ghraib cemetery, I found a pitiless plot littered with graves marked only by serial numbers. A scrum of nervous Iraqis were hovering about in hopes of gaining information on the fate of deceased relatives.
Digging up mass graves on the prison grounds. ©2003 Andrew Arnett
Little surprise then that, in 2004, shortly after its resurrection as a prison by the U.S., it would quickly regain infamy for torture and cruelty. After blockbuster news reports in The New Yorker and on 60 Minutes II showed images of humiliating detainee abuse, the United States definitively became a global pariah while losing any claim it may have had as an arbiter of human rights. America’s international reputation entered one of the bleakest periods of its recent history. Those already pre-disposed to anti-American sentiment could not have felt more perceptibly justified in their position.
If there was ever a place that was haunted, this would be it. Abu Ghraib which broadly represented such a deep societal trauma for Iraqis, was callously or obliviously rehabilitated by the Pentagon, causing it to quickly become a symbol of the occupation when photos of detainee abuse spread around the globe like wildfire. Though it may have merely been in the name of war time pragmatism in the need to house people captured on the battlefield or haplessly at checkpoints, the Bush administration worked to preserve the site of some of the darkest atrocities committed by the Ba’ath Party in Iraq . Abu Ghraib isn’t going anywhere and is being run at present by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Like a chapter torn from Stephen King’s “The Shining”, those who rule Abu Ghraib invariably succumb to possession by some malevolent spirit. There would be talk in the media that Abu Ghraib either would be or should be closed or demolished. That never happened. Abu Ghraib is as problematic as ever.
At Abu Ghraib Cemetery,painfully searching for lost relatives.
©2003 Andrew Arnett
Despite the chaos that surrounded us, my father and I remained hopeful about the future of Iraq. With a small group of like-minded journalists and businessmen, we set out to establish a multi-media company in Baghdad. It would be the first of its kind, after the countries long and sordid history in the shadow of an oppressive dictatorship. We even made arrangements to secure our corporate headquarters in a hulking, seven story modernist edifice overlooking the Tigris in downtown Baghdad, . But this, as with many other expectations in Iraq, never had the chance to materialize.
The film from these journeys, including the haunting and exclusive views inside Abu Ghraib, will be part of a documentary entitled WARPATH: The Truth About My Family. Look for the film in 2014.