The man with the hood from Abu Ghraib speaks out


Lars Akerhaug interviews Haj Ali-al-qaysi

Haj Ali-al-Qaysi, the cloaked prisoner at Abu Ghraib

"They made me stand on a box with a robe on my head and arms straight out in the air. They told me they would give me electric shocks. I did not believe them. Then they took two wires and stuck them into my body. I felt like my eyeballs were falling out. Then I fell to the ground."

This is the story of Haj Ali al-Qaysi, the person whose photo was seen all over the world with a black robe as the pictures from Abu Ghraib were revealed. Before his troubles began with the Americans, Ali worked as a mukhtar, that is, a village chief, in his village in the Abu Ghraib district. He used to lecture in mosques; harvest dates and run a parking lot next to the local mosque.

Today, Haj Ali is far from a frightening figure. He is a warm looking man, and it is hard to imagine how he could be treated so badly or sent to such a destiny as the hellish torture of Abu Ghraib.

"My first problem with the Americans," says Ali, "arose when I took some empty land and converted it into a playground for the youngsters." Ali says that the Americans began bringing rubble from the airport area here, containing among other things human body parts and pornographic magazines. One of the local doctors began reporting lots of injuries of poor local inhabitants from searching through the rubbish for valuables.

"Before," Ali jokes, "I thought that American democracy would be a big playground. But instead they turned it into a rubbish pile to store chemicals, human body parts and porn."

As the person responsible for his village he tried to complain about this problem to the municipality. "This," says Ali "was when the harassment began." On Oct. 30 [2003] at 11 a.m., soldiers took him from the street where he was working and put him in a Hummer [large all-terrain vehicle]. From there he was transported to al-Amariyye, a former military base for the Iraqi Army now converted to an American detention center. There he met with a Captain Phillips, who said, "I don`t know which agency has asked for your arrest, but you`ll be held here."

At that time many family members who had heard of his arrest came to ask for his freedom. Captain Phillips then asked if Haj Ali believed that the people outside would attack. "I don`t know," answered Ali.

He stayed there for two days, until the morning of the third day of his detention, when he was transported with a bag over his head to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. "Of course, at that time, I did not know where I was," Haj Ali says. "Before entering the prison I was inspected in a very humiliating procedure."

The procedure Haj Ali tells about lasted maybe an hour or and hour and a half. The Americans took fingerprints; eye scans and tissue samples, before transporting him to an investigation room. "These rooms are actually lavatories," says Ali, "flooded with sewage. Two interrogators and a translator sat away from me, away from the sewage." Ali was forced to sit on the bottom of this shit hole.

The first question he was asked was: "Are you Sunni or Shia?" Ali was taken aback.

"It was the first time I had ever heard this question" he says, explaining that before in Iraq even in the personal status laws for marriage you are not asked which school of religion you belong to.

Secondly, he was accused of attacking occupation forces. To explain why this was impossible, Haj Ali points to his fingers and shows a defect rendering him incapable of handling a gun. "I told them that I was not able to participate, and that they get the phone number for the doctor who did the surgical operation."

"Also they asked if I knew Osama Bin Laden," Haj Ali continues. "I answered that I knew him from TV." They continued to ask such questions, also about Saddam Hussein. "I felt like they were searching for something to charge me for. Then they said I was an anti-Semite, to which I replied that I believe that the Semites are one of the fathers of humanity. …‘You know what I mean,´ replied one of the interrogators."

After this Haj Ali was told that his capturers knew he was an influential person, that he was a mukhtar in his village. He was asked, "Why don`t you co-operate with us, we might even give you an operation for your hand." The interrogator continued: "We are the greatest people of the world, we have occupied you and you should surrender and co-operate."

It became clear later that the U.S. forces captured Haj Ali and many others who shared his fate not to "stop the insurgency," but rather to obtain intelligence and recruit loyal people among important persons in local villages and tribal societies. However, Haj Ali did not comply and replied, "If you define yourself as occupiers, then resisting the occupation force is preserved in Islamic as well as international law."

His interrogators continued to ask if he would cooperate, and continued to threaten to send him to a place where "dogs cannot live, or to Guantanamo." After this first questioning Haj Ali was put in a lorry. Bags were distributed to the prisoners to put over their heads. One of the soldiers asked out loud, "Do you all have bags to put on your heads?" One of the prisoners, a blind man, replied that he did not. This person had also been accused of attacking occupation forces. Then they were pulled down and transported to a place in the prison called "Fiji." These places were tents, every five tents surrounded by barbed wire and then again by a 15 meter high wall. "Those who were here" says Ali, "were the ones the Americans called a "big fish."

Haj Ali continues to tell about the living conditions. "Every tent has 40 people inside, there is no space, and if you want to sleep you have to sleep on your side. In all five tents about 200 persons lived." [the original said 300, but 5 times 40 is 200…—jc]

The prisoners made use of portable toilets, which meant that they had to stand in line for two or three hours; the bathroom would fill up with grease and excrement before your turn. Other sanitary facilities barely existed; in every tent the prisoners shared 20 liters of water for all their needs. To drink water they had to use bottles taken from the garbage.

"The food was also of very bad quality" says Haj Ali. "We did not have regular meals, and they enforced collective punishment for individual breaks of discipline. For instance if one spoke with a prisoner from another camp they would deprive one whole camp of one meal or force them to stand for a long time in the sun.

"At this time" tells Ali, "one of the strange things that happened was with a Sadrist youngster, and his name was Sheikh Jaber-al-Qadi. As all the others in the camp came from Sunni cities like Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul, he felt isolated. To help mend this we asked him to be our prayer leader, and to call for prayer." Ali says that when this happened, the Americans grabbed him, asking, "Why do you pray with the Sunnis?" and beat him up.

In this period Haj Ali also met with many groups from different prisons, for instance the Mosul or Baghdad Airport Prisons. He started to listen to stories of torture and see torture marks; he even heard stories about injecting people with hallucinatory medications to make them see frightening things like scorpions or nightmarish images. It was during this period that Haj Ali got the idea of forming an association to represent these prisoners.

After a while Haj Ali was interrogated again, and again threatened with being sent to Guantánamo or similar places. According to Haj Ali "a female soldier was present, showing parts of her body during interrogation." During Ramadan a new form of stress had to be endured by the prisoners. For Muslims the month of Ramadan means that you cannot eat between the sunrise and sunset. During this period, the second meal was brought to them just after the morning prayer, which meant that the prisoners had to watch it while waiting until 11 p.m. "They intended to break our stamina," is how Haj Ali explains these procedures, saying that "six electricity generators worked day and night, with a lot of noise. Each generator was connected to only three lamps, which means that they gave out almost no light, only noise. Of course, in the tents there was no electricity".

Then one day his number, 11716, was called, his hands and legs were cuffed and his head covered with a bag, and then he was put in a Hummer. "When the sack on my head was removed, I saw a long corridor, heard a lot of people screaming from torture. They told me to take off my clothes, my gallabiyye (traditional Muslim men`s wear), then my undershirt and finally my underwear." When he refused this, five of the soldiers took hold of him and forcefully stripped him. After this he had to walk for ten meters, before a staircase.

"They wanted me to climb the staircase, but my feet were weak and I could not raise my legs. I fell and they started beating me. I then crawled up the stairs. This took me one hour." After this Haj Ali was put against a wall and his hands tied to a doorframe in upright position. "Of course, again they beat me, poured urine and dirty water on me, wrote on me, pulled an empty gun at me, used a loud speaker to swear in my ear and clicked the hand cuffs in my ear. I stayed like this until the call for morning prayer."

Come morning prayer, a person came and removed the head cover. He talked to Haj Ali with an Arab Lebanese accent and asked, "Do you know me? I am well known; I interrogated people in Gaza, the West Bank and in South Lebanon. I have a good reputation: Either I extract what I want or I finish him." His handcuffs were removed from one of his hands and he was hung in the position of a cross on the door of the cell. "I am putting you in the position of the cross," said the interrogator. Now Haj Ali endured more continuous beating, as well as dirty water. He was jabbed with a gun in sensitive areas.

Also another person came and removed his head cover. "I could recognize his Arab accent as that of a maghrebi Jew (Sephardic), and that is why we say we are victims of American-Zionist occupation.

His situation continued like this for three days, changing positions, making him stand on his toes, being told that "his hand would rot."

"What I later understood" says Haj Ali, "was that what I was going through was part of an operation called …‘Iron Horse,´ aimed at collecting influential people, tribal leaders etc. to work for the occupation." In the third morning he again met with a foreigner, and again he was offered release from prison to conduct operations. "I answered that I have nothing to say," says Haj Ali. "During the whole period I heard screams, female screams, children´s screams, and whoever would pass me in the hallway would smack me". After the midday prayer, they handcuffed him with the plastic strips, took him to a cell and handcuffed him to the bar, made him lay on his back and brought a large speaker.

Then they put on the song "By the Rivers of Babylon" over and over again, very loudly. "Of course" says Haj Ali, "at that time he wished that they would put the head-cover back on." Then after some time the interrogator came to remove the speaker, but Haj Ali could not hear anything. "I still heard the song even if they turned the music off." Even if he was splashed with water on his head, "I could not hear a word of what the interrogator said."

Then they made him stand up and extend his arm from the cell barriers and they handcuffed him in that position. "This was the fifth day without food", tells Ali. So, after a while the interrogator came back and told him that they made a "reception party." "Later", tells Haj Ali, "I learned that this is something everyone is forced to go through."

I was put into cell no. 49, "They took a picture of me before they took away the bag-sack and then they took another picture. When I looked into the other cells opposed to me, I recognized one of them as an Imam. All of them were without any clothes."

"Don`t worry" they said. "We have been like this for three months." Haj Ali tried to use some food wrappings as a loincloth, but the Americans did not let him do this.

"Every one of us was given a nickname by the Americans," says Haj Ali. "One of them was "Big Chicken," another "Dracula," there was "Wolf Man," "Joker," "Gilligan." Myself, they called me "Colin Powell". Next day, one of the personnel later tried for torturing prisoners, Specialist Charles Graner, who was indicted from the Abu Ghraib scandal, came. Haj Ali had a bandage on his hand to cover a wound, the blood had coagulated. Graner took the bandage and tore it off his flesh so that it came off in one piece. Haj Ali fell down unconscious.

"Next day" continues Ali, "I asked one of the female soldiers for a pain killer. She told me to put my hand out from under the door. I thought she wanted to see the hand, but she stepped on it, and told him "this is the American pain-killer." After 15 days he was given a blanket. "I tried to use it to cover myself, and my friends were happy for me." In this compound, called "the quarry," Haj Ali says that he could hear screams. "When they wanted to send food for the female prisoners," Haj Ali goes on, "they sent naked men, to give the food to the women."

The female prisoners were hostages for brothers or fathers or sons. "We could hear their screams and do nothing but shout Allahu Akbar (God is great)". After 15 days interrogations were speeded up, as the Americans wanted to send them back and replace them with new people, rotating between the quarries and the tents outside. One of his friends asked one of the female soldiers "Why do you humiliate us?" She answered, "these were the orders, to humiliate prisoners in this situation."

After a while they took him to the interrogation room, he found ten people inside, some in military and some in civilian phones. They had telephones with cameras. "At that time I did not think this was possible, and thought they used the phones for recording sound or something," says Ali. In this room the incident took place that later was screened around the world as an example of the torture practiced by the U.S. regime.

"They made me stand on a box with a robe on my head and arms straight out in the air. They told me they would give me electric shocks. I did not believe them. Then they took two wires and stuck them into my body. I felt like my eyeballs were falling out. Then I fell to the ground."

During this torture he bit his tongue. The doctor came and with his shoe pushed Haj Ali´s head cover away and put water on it. "He saw no cut on the tongue" says Haj Ali, "so he told them to continue." "Usually," says Ali, "the doctors were part of the torture process. They would say if prisoners faked or exaggerated pains, telling the interrogators to go ahead."

Three times they took him to this room and administered electric shocks on him five times. They tied his hands and head to a tube in the ceiling and stuffed some dry bread in his mouth. They took some photographs of him, and then continued with more interrogation. During the questioning they would ask him, "What would you think of more torture?" Haj Ali would answer that "the more you torture us, the greater that God will reward us."

Haj Ali was not the only one mistreated in this way. "I saw the imam of the largest mosque in Fallujah. He is 75 years old. It was not enough for them to drag him naked through the prison, they also had to put women´s underwear on him," says Ali.

"One of the prisoners was ordered to pee with a sack on his head," says Haj Ali. "When his sack was removed, he saw his father, and they took pictures of this.

"With the Imam of another mosque" says Haj Ali, "one of the female soldiers took off her clothes in front of him and asked him to have sex with her. He refused, of course, and because of this the female soldier would put on an artificial penis to rape the guy."

Haj Ali says that these prison camps are in fact training camps for the Resistance. "Ninety percent of those arrested were usually innocent, but once they get out they are fully ready to start armed resistance against the occupiers. Anyone being treated like this or who sees his brother or sister being treated like this would be ready." Here Haj Ali also stresses the importance of understanding what impact the arrest and ill treatment of women has on Arab societies.

After 49 days in the quarry, he overheard from his interrogators that he was arrested by error and would be sent back to the tent. So the next day one of the soldiers fetched him and put him back to the tent camp. "You`re born again," he said. After going to the tents and being welcomed back, Haj Ali says that he "spent two days looking at the sky, trying to make peace with light again, after coming out of the very dark cells."

"During my time in the cells I lost 84 pounds," says Haj Ali. "I can know this because when we entered they put a wristband on me with my weight on it." After this his belongings were returned to him, and he was put in a lorry with a head-sack, but now without handcuffs. Then he was pushed out of the lorry. "When I removed the bag from my head I could see I was out on the highway. This is how I knew I was released."

Thus ends Haj Ali`s story at Abu Ghraib. After he got out and the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed, the UN trained him regarding human rights. He wanted to use his experience to found an association, and went to the Iraqi government to get help, but was told that "there is no such thing as mistreatment in prison."

So they created a foundation conference, with support from many people and figures, and declared the Association of the Victims of U.S. Prisons of Occupation. The objectives are to distribute info about torture and what is going on in these prisons, help out those who are released, and contact the families of the prisoners.

The association is not only focusing on the Americans. "Many of the different prisons are run by private companies, by mercenaries," says Haj Ali. "There are people from all over the world. It is not only the Americans who are guilty.

"All that is going on in Iraq is a very natural reaction to all these violations," says Haj Ali. "The so-called violence is a very natural response," he continues. "In the era of Saddam, there were 13 prisons. Now there are 36 run by the government and 200 by the government militias. The Iraqi prisons are worse, we have seen documented cases of fingernail cutting and hand drilling, all with the acceptance of the U.S. government."

Haj Ali exclaims that "what is being committed in Iraq is a crime also against the European and American people, and they lose face. The torture is going on from all nationalities. I don`t blame anyone who grabs a foreigner or kidnaps him," Haj Ali says. "This is a reaction to what they suffered."

His association is now working on physical and psychological rehabilitation. This is not the end of Haj Ali`s story. He will come to Italy 1-2nd of October to tell it to the European Peace and Anti-war movement. And he will continue to speak about U.S. torture and prison abuses to all those in the world who can listen.

Interview by Lars Akerhaug. Thanks also to Dr. Hisham Bustani for making this interview possible.