They came early to the abandoned Office of Public Safety today, an imposing high-rise in the Mazlaq neighborhood that was Basra's most notorious political prison. Some came looking for clues to the fate of the missing. Others came looking for revenge.
Wamid Kadem arrived early, he said, because he wanted information on his torturer. Hani Sukany said he came to look for two cousins, even though he already knew they were dead. A 31-year-old man in black -- he would not give his name -- pedaled up on his rusted blue bicycle, saying he was looking for any documents that might shed light on the brother he had not seen in 11 years.
The day after Baath Party leaders fled Basra in the face of a British armored advance, many Basra residents pursued their looting frenzy and many others turned to nurse the wounds suffered by fighters and civilians alike in relentless U.S. and British artillery barrages and airstrikes. But scores of others swarmed into the high-rise once synonymous with fear, looking for records or photographs of missing loved ones. And amid the rubble of overturned filing cabinets and upended desks, they found some. One man brandished a photo of a relative who appeared bloody and lifeless, proof, he said, that the man had been tortured after he disappeared into the compound.
The cells were in the back of the building, small, airless enclosures made of cement, with metal bars and doors painted bright red. Some were completely enclosed. A few had small slots at the top that might let in a sliver of light. One cell had a small window that had been sealed with brick, making the enclosure completely dark and airless when the door was closed.
The cells were on the perimeter of a U-shaped courtyard. In the center stood what appeared to be a large open holding pen, a cage also in red.
The prison stands a few blocks from the main police headquarters, which is now occupied by British troops of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment. A small crowd also gathered at the gates of the police compound, imploring British soldiers to help them search the prison and various other sites believed to still hold prisoners. Most spoke no English, but they held up their hands to simulate their wrists bound together and pointed in the direction of buildings they wanted to search.
"They say there are prisoners locked up," Capt. Mike Taylor said. "There are a lot of buildings around here, and we're already getting intelligence from the locals saying there are prisoners locked up in the basements, political prisoners."
The search for answers about the missing was one small part -- although perhaps the most poignant -- of the sweeping mosaic of what many Basra residents saw as their day of liberation from three decades of Baath Party rule.
For some, it was a day to hand flowers to British soldiers stationed in armored vehicles at a traffic circle or to gawk at British troops patrolling the city on foot beside their armored vehicles. For others, it was a day to vent rage at icons of the former authority. The state oil company was looted and set afire, and a bank was set ablaze, too.
For many, it was simply a day to continue the looting that began Sunday, expanding the target list to the museum, the Central Bank, Basra University administrative offices, military compounds -- even the Sheraton Hotel, where the beds and mattresses were loaded onto donkey carts, the Steinway grand piano was dragged through the street and a man with a red-and-white kaffiyeh headdress threw chair cushions to the crowd from upper-floor windows.
But the day came with a heavy price. Hospitals were filled with civilians -- many of them women and children -- who said they were injured by British artillery shells or U.S. bombardment of the city during a siege that lasted more than two weeks.
A 5-year-old girl named Iman Hassan lay in the public hospital with two mangled legs. Her father, Faqir, said their house was bombed, killing his wife and three other children, aged 6, 7 and 9.
In the same hospital, Saad Mansur, 26, lay on his stomach, his exposed back horrifically burned and his legs lacerated, as his mother, clad in black, waved a hand fan over him. An Iraqi tank stood next to their house, said his mother, and Mansur was standing in the doorway when a warplane dropped a bomb that destroyed it and, at the same time, damaged their home and killed two people in addition to wounding Saad.
Doctors described scores of similar casualties from the near-nightly shelling and air attacks on Baath Party and Saddam's Fedayeen militia positions. Many were still in the hospital today with amputated limbs or lacerations from shrapnel.
"More than 500 at least, children and old men," said Jasim Maliky, an assistant doctor at the hospital. "I don't speak about soldiers. This is a civilian hospital." Asked about the dead, he said, "Dead, more than 200, as my own eyes saw."
"It's a disaster," said another doctor, who did not want to give his name.
Beyond the hospital gates, doctors and staff members gathered to watch looters raid a police station beneath a portrait of a smiling President Saddam Hussein wearing a beret. "Every government building," said one man with a sigh. "They don't know anything. They think it belongs to Saddam."
But north of the hospital, in Mazlaq, the crowds that gathered at the Office of Public Safety came to find answers. They were not stripping away the pipes and molding, but sifting carefully through documents scattered on the floor. They found photographs that appeared to be of prisoners. They found ledger books and logs.
The man in black with the bicycle was searching for any information he could find on his brother, Ahmed Abdel Hussein Fadil, who he said was born in 1963 and disappeared into this building in 1992. His mother had come here looking for him when the Baath Party was still in charge two years ago. But, the brother recalled, she was told, "Do not come again, and you must lose all hope he is alive."
"The political police can take anyone without any reason," the brother said. "They just took him. We don't know why."
He spoke as he steadied a large burlap sack on the back of his bicycle. The sack was filled with documents, all from 1992, the year his brother was taken. He would study them all later, he said, looking for clues.
Wamid Kadem knew the office well; he had been imprisoned there three times -- in 1991 for a year, in 1994 for a few months and in 2000 when he was handed a 20-year sentence, accused of being a follower of a Shiite Muslim political group based in neighboring Iran. His sentence was commuted just a few months ago, when Hussein threw open prison gates in a bid for public support before the U.S. and British invasion.
Kadem showed a reporter the marks from the torture he said he suffered inside the facility. The burn mark on his back, he said, came from a blazing hot piece of metal. Other burns came from electric shocks, he said, and his nose was broken. He came today, he said, to find photographs they took of him during the torture sessions and to find any information he could on the man who ran the facility, whom he knew as Mahdi.
The building was partially damaged from bombardment by U.S. and British forces occupying southern Iraq, and victims and their family members were picking through the rubble. Asked how he felt now, Kadem showed a wide smile and pulled his yellow T-shirt all the way up to his chin several times, alternating between laughter and speechlessness.
"I don't know what to do," he said, laughing. "Cry, or take off my shirt!"
Sukany came to look for information on two cousins who disappeared in 1999 because, he believes, they were associated with a leading Shiite cleric. He found a document with one cousin's name. It was something like a charge sheet, outlining the case against the man. "I want to show these papers to his family," Sukany said. "We want to know who wrote this."
Of his cousin, he said, "Of course, he is dead."