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A Disturbing Night in Iraq: Witnessing the Abuse of 'Insurgent' Prisoners
Note: This report is 3 months old, but is re-published for its' first hand account of US treatment of Iraqi detainees. ~Chip :)
This story was written in the early days of September, 2008; about the night that I encountered questionable treatment of Iraqi prisoners, while flying in a U.S. Army CH-47 helicopter from Fallujah, to Balad, Iraq.
I have delayed publishing it, but more revelations today about the authorized torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq by Bush Administration officials caused us to make the decision to release this.
The LA Times and other media groups today published articles about a bipartisan Senate report linking decisions made by the former Defense secretary with the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.
This report released Thursday, concludes that the decisions of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, were a "direct cause" of widespread detainee abuses. The report says other Bush administration officials were to blame for creating a legal and moral climate that contributed to inhumane treatment.
The following is my first-hand account of what I experienced one harrowing night in Iraq.
FLASHBACK... September 9th, 2008:
If a dog were to be subjected to the type of treatment Iraqi prisoners receive at the hands of some U.S. contractors, the people responsible would be arrested. I was witness to this on a very personal level and ultimately, forced to erase the video footage from my television camera.
I didn't feel like I was watching the actions of Americans, instead I thought of groups like the former KGB in the Soviet Union who were known torturers and sadistic government agents free of things like laws and court inquiries.
The fact that I had to erase the video footage in my opinion, amounts simply to a purging of evidence.
Exactly where the lines of humanity and decency are drawn in this country, appear to be largely unknown.
Here in Iraq, millions of dollars are doled out to our former enemies, and lessons learned from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal appear to be a thing of the past- that is if they were ever learned in the first place.
Terror Flight Out of Fallujah
I boarded an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter three nights ago from the Marine Corp's Camp Fallujah, for a flight back to my home base, the Balad Air Station, a place under the control of the U.S. Air Force and still largely staffed by Army soldiers and a handful of Marines and sailors.
What I saw upon boarding that helicopter was shocking; I did not expect to see a row of prisoners in what looked like white night gowns, bound with a flat rope to the side of the aircraft.
The night was hot; the type of heat that demands a plentiful amount of water to sustain any level of comfort. Each man was hooded with a neon type of light attached to the hood and hanging from his head. They were cuffed with their arms behind their backs, and were made to sit cross legged. The aircraft had two pilots, two side door gunners and a rear gunner. Also aboard the CH-47 were several Army soldiers and two contractors in military style clothing.
The prisoners drew the anger of these contractors repeatedly, continually, and most of the time it was difficult to tell what raised their tempers. The prisoners were sitting on the floor in a row on the right side of the aircraft while the rest of us sat in the jump seats on the left side.
What I witnessed is not something I will soon forget. Most of the men were made to sit in the row, but two men at the rear of the helicopter were forced to squash together in a clearly demeaning fashion, with one sitting immediately in front of the other.
The CH-47 is a non-pressurized aircraft and the heat inside this military transport helicopter was tremendous. There is no possibility that the men huddled together were not considerably cramped, overheated and in pain, scared of the contractors, and it was very clear that they were all without any degree of comfort.
The prisoners in the row were forced to point their faces toward the floor and each time one tried to straighten his neck, it was almost immediately jerked downward by the two contractors, one of which was a male and one female.
If the men tried to straighten their legs they were put back into place by the contractors boots for the first part of the flight, and by the hands of the contractors during what seemed to be the second half of the flight. I assumed that they became increasingly aware of my presence on the helicopter and I suspect this may have kept their behavior greatly in check.
I was shocked that I had been manifested aboard this Army bird and in the end I think it was purely a matter of fate.
The prisoners cried and moaned and the sounds emerging from beneath their hooded faces rose above the shrill of the turbines. The air crew smiled and conversed and drank water to ensure their own comfort; none was given to the prisoners. Two of these hooded men drew the wrath of the contractors more than the others, and at one point a soldier sitting near me called a contractor over because a prisoner seated almost directly across from me appeared to go limp.
A contractor jerked him back into place and then yanked his head down. I could not tell for much of this if they were only grabbing the men by their hoods, I thought some were having their hair pulled to put them into place. They were screamed at frequently which is the only way to communicate with a person in this type of environment, but it was always accompanied by a harsh jerk of the head. I sincerely doubt that these contractors were Arabic speakers.
Perhaps the 'rules' do not preclude this type of behavior, I am not an expert at this, but the experience was revolting and I hated hearing the men's moans and at times, screams. They sounded like cries for help that were not unheeded, but met with anger and a violent jerk of the head.
Ramifications of this type of behavior
Perhaps these prisoners were insurgents who had set up IED's, killed American people, or innocent civilians. They might have been people who were simply fingered by other Iraqis' for a reward; I do not know. But I do know that this type of treatment is not something anyone would soon, or ever forget.
I believe in the Golden Rule like many people who have faith in a higher power, and there is not the shadow of a doubt in my mind that these men were being subjected to a treatment that would only build and breed resentment toward our presence in Iraq. We seem to have a very poor track record of gaining convictions and lengthy sentences on the people we are fighting, and I hate to think of the hatred they must feel toward our forces, the majority of which are good and decent people. They in all likelihood, do not distinguish between contractor and soldier and Marine.
What will they do when they are some day free again, if indeed they are?
Will this treatment lead to more IED's, suicide vests and sniper bullets? I don't see how it won't.
Playing by the rules of war
In order to embed with the U.S. military, reporters and their respective news organizations have to agree to a number of rules, most of which seem reasonable. According to the NEWS MEDIA GROUND RULES (IAW Change 3, DoD Directive 5122.5) - "No photographes or other visual media showing detainee's or prisoners' recognizable face, nametag or other feature or item" (are allowed)
I reasoned from this that prisoners who were not identifiable, which was clearly the case aboard this aircraft, were OK to photograph, so I did. That is my job as a news photojournalist trying to tell the story of what is going on in this war. All reports I have filed prior to this, have told a story that reveals success in a war effort that frankly, I did not expect to see. I have seen Army Airborne soldiers and Marines treat Iraqi people with respect and decency, but that all came to a screeching halt when I boarded that aircraft loaded with bound and hooded Iraqi detainees, living at that hands of mercenaries.
As I recorded video of the prisoners, I was careful not to show a number tag that was hanging from the head of each prisoner. The numbers were mostly blocked by the colored light which I learned later, was used to determine the place they would be unloaded. All told, these prisoners were taken off the aircraft at the Baghdad International Airport, a smaller base in Baghdad with Russian helicopters on the flight deck, (I assumed this was an Iraqi Army base) and Balad, my destination.
I stepped off of the helicopter after the prisoners had been hoisted to their feet and loaded into a white van. I was taken by the arm by an Army sergeant and he did not want to answer my questions about what unit he was attached to. He answered, "We'll go over that when we get inside."
I knew at that point that something was clearly up and I was taken to a white SUV and placed in the left rear seat. Three soldiers occupied the remaining seats. I didn't say a word and neither did they. I was driven to an area that I was unfamiliar with at Balad and we waited in silence for approximately fifteen minutes.
Honest Reporter Falsely Accused
The silence was broken when an Army Lieutenant Colonel who appeared far too young for that elevated field grade rank, opened my door and said, "I understand you recorded video of the prisoners aboard that aircraft."
"Yeah that's right", I answered.
"And I watched those prisoners being abused for the entire flight, what do you have to say about that?"
This officer then proceeded to accuse me of having boarded the wrong aircraft intentionally, which was a preposterous claim. I could not believe the accusation, and for the first couple of minutes this false charge continued.
I explained the embed rule listed in the above paragraph, and told him that I had every right to record the images because they were not recognizable. He told me that the mission I had just flown on was classified and he told me I would have to erase the video footage.
I asked, "Is that to prevent people stateside from seeing the prisoner abuse?"
He replied by saying, "no prisoners were abused aboard that aircraft." Of course he had not been aboard the CH-47 and therefore spoke with zero credibility or real knowledge as to the facts of the last hour. He was wrong.
He told me then that I should stop being hostile and I told him that was easy for him to say when I was the one falsely accused of intentionally boarding the wrong helicopter back at Fallujah.
Anyone who has spent time here knows that nobody intentionally boards the wrong aircraft.
While it is not necessarily reflected in the behavior of mercenary contractors, there generally are many checks and balances in military aviation. Crews don't let strangers just climb aboard at will at a Marine Corps Air facility like Camp Fallujah and there are head counts and manifests to insure that you are in the right place.
In the end I am surprised that I feel little ill will toward the contractors; in fact I believe they were operating according to standard procedure.
The problem lies more with a U.S. government that maintains these civilian militants who are not bound to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The government is quick to charge and court martial our service members but the 100k a year contractors are exempt from the rules, which leads back to the KGB analogy. I believe again, that this flight happened for a reason and I suspect this story is that reason. People in the U.S., primarily our Congress and Senate, need to reign this mercenary problem in and if they are going to continue to operate here and in other locations, they need to be held accountable.
Rules established to govern the behavior of reporters need to be adhered to and not change for the sake of convenience and public image. The Lt. Col. told me that the reason they did not want the images to go out was because of the fallout from the Abu Ghraib prison debacle, but whose fault is that? The victim in this case is the recorded image of truth on my videotape and yet I suspect that my description published here goes far and beyond those darkly illuminated frames of the men. The sounds of those prisoners were enough to make any person's skin crawl and I suspect I won't be forgetting them for a long time.
Related Article: LA Times Rumsfeld blamed in detainee abuse scandals.
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor.
Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 in Afghanistan with Oregon troops. Tim recently returned from Iraq where he covered the war there while embedded with an Oregon Guard aviation unit. Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website, affiliated with Google News and several other major search engines and news aggregators.
You can send Tim an email at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org