Monday, May 5, 2008

Americans ‘stole my life from me’

Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent

* Last Updated: May 04. 2008 8:45PM UAE / May 4. 2008 4:45PM GMT

DAMASCUS // Amer Samara’ae hates Americans. Not some Americans, not American soldiers, not American mercenaries, not the US president. He hates all Americans, something he learned to do during a year inside their Iraq prisons.

“I was innocent and they took me and they stole my life from me,” he said. “I’m not a religious extremist; I never was. I hate them because they took everything. Do they think you’re just going to forget?”

The Iraqi, who is 36, was not caught up in any of the headline-grabbing torture scandals and did not fall under the sway of radical Islamists. His story of life inside the US internment camps is more mundane: sitting in his Damascus flat, where he now lives as a refugee, he speaks of humiliation, of casual inhumanity.

“I was arrested in Baghdad while visiting a friend and then I was taken into the system,” he said. “They didn’t have any charges against me and one day in an interrogation they decided that I was giving weapons to the insurgents. I don’t think they knew what they were doing.

“I was made to stand around naked sometimes, I was handcuffed and I had to walk to the toilet chained to a heavy tyre. That was normal.”

Waiting for one interrogation session to start, Mr Samara’ae said he was made to kneel on a hard floor in front of the US flag for two hours.

“The Americans are making enemies for themselves,” he said. “In my case, I was made to kneel in front of an American flag, with my hands tied behind my back. Now whenever I think of America, whenever I see that flag, I’m angry. I hate all Americans, and I hate their flag, I hate it.”

Before the war, Mr Samara’ae, a Sunni from the city of Samarra, worked as an officer in Saddam Hussein’s feared security services, then took job as a maintenance man with the Red Cross. After the US invasion he set up a small firm with a contract to maintain Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital. The business became successful until he was arrested and it collapsed.

According to Mr Samara’ae, “most” of his fellow prisoners in Camp Bucca, a sprawling US prison camp in southern Iraq, hated their captors, feelings he insisted were not about religion or being recruited by al Qa’eda.

“They would put moderate prisoners in with extremists and that was stupid, but most of the prisoners have done nothing and that’s what makes them hate the Americans. If you are innocent and in prison, you hate the man who has trapped you.”

In 2005, Mr Samara’ae took part in an attempted prison break, building an escape tunnel from his compound. Working at night for three weeks, he and fellow detainees used an improvised spade to dig a 17-metre-long tunnel in the soft sand. The bid for freedom failed when the roof caved in.

“Everyone in that prison wanted to get out,” he recalled. “If you’re innocent you have no faith that justice would be done in there, so you try to escape.”

Then, one day at the end of 2005, he was suddenly released. “You don’t hear anything about it; you’re basically just told you can go. No reasons are given, there are no apologies. I wanted someone to say sorry and to admit they’d made a mistake with me. There was nothing.

“When I was arrested I had US$2,000 (Dh7,300) in my pocket, and my car outside. I got nothing back when they released me. I’d lost my business, I’d lost everything. Now I’m a refugee.”

A senior international official with access to the US prison system in Iraq said there had been improvements since the darkest days of the Abu Ghraib scandal. But he questioned whether vocational training and moderate preaching would have any real effect on the prisoners’ views.

“People in prison will do anything to get out of their compound, they’ll do anything just to break the monotony which is probably why they go to these sermons,” he said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the press.

“I suppose preaching moderate Islam in the camps won’t do any harm. It might make a difference, somehow, but there’s no proof it’ll change much, it’s difficult to say, it’s a difficult thing to measure.

“The camps really did use to be recruiting camps for al Qa’eda. I think the Americans are improving their screening and their in-processing, I think they’ve learnt a little bit since the start of the war.”

The notion that the US-run prisons are improving was supported by Sheikh Harmid Rashid al Boalwan, a member of the Anbar Salvation Council and head of the provincial committee to free Iraqi prisoners. However, he said the key problem was that thousands of innocent people were still being held without charge or evidence.

“It’s not as bad as it was at the beginning of the war and now we can at least talk to the Americans,” he said. “There are signs that they understand this is a real problem but it has not been solved. The number of people being held in prison is still the main issue.

“If you are putting innocent men in the same prison as extremists and criminals you are going to make more problems.”

Sheikh Boalwan also said released prisoners were still coming out of detention angry and discontent.

“We’ve got to solve this matter,” he said. “We do have a system of giving a list of names to the Americans so that people will not just disappear and never get released. We hope this will improve things.”

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