Anwar Abdul Razak said both his ears were cut off. Saad Abdul Wahab said his jailers placed electrodes on his navel to administer shocks. Nabil Abdul Ali said his shoulders were dislocated and an electric wire was wrapped around his genitals and attached to a hand-cranked machine. Zuhair Kubba said he was hung upside down and beaten with an iron rod.
Former prisoners of ousted president Saddam Hussein's government are everywhere in Basra, standing on street corners waiting for water, rummaging through papers in the headquarters of the once feared secret police, sitting quietly at home on a hot afternoon. These are the tortures they describe, and more: a prisoner forced to sit on a heated metal stove, electric shocks applied to genitals, a small blade used to slash a prisoner's back. Even doctors became torturers; they cut off army deserters' ears. Servants of the system fell victim to it, too: police officers and prison guards arrested, tortured, then sent back to work.
In more than two dozen interviews since the British military entered Basra April 6 and Hussein's Baath Party government collapsed in Baghdad three days later, former prisoners recounted in minute detail stories of torture in the city's prisons. In most cases, there are no documents to verify their accounts, only the scars on their bodies and the corroboration of relatives and neighbors. The accumulation of their experiences, however, provides insight into how the Baghdad government kept control here in the capital of Iraq's Shiite-inhabited south, where periodic rebellions against Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party have broken out and been suppressed.
A major challenge to Hussein's rule arose here during the 1980-88 war with neighboring Iran. Iranian-sponsored subversion had helped set off the war, raising fears that Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority would break away from Baghdad's secular rule. Militant fellow Shiites had just taken power in Iran's 1979 revolution and seemed intent on spreading their revolt into the Arab world.
Then in 1991, after the Persian Gulf War, an open Shiite rebellion briefly shoved aside Hussein's central government, until the Shiite rebels were put down with overwhelming force and Baghdad's security forces set out to suppress any further dissent.
Many missing men sought by family members were arrested after 1991. In 1994, a flood of army desertions across the country caused Hussein to issue a decree ordering deserters' ears cut off, and that order appears to have been carried out with particular ferocity here. In 1999, another uprising swept Basra and the cities of the south after Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf, was gunned down with his two sons in an assassination blamed on government operatives.
The interviews suggest that torture became widespread as the uprisings were contained and that the abuse often continued until a confession was extracted and a sentence imposed. Many prisoners and former Baath Party officials said such torture was encouraged by system of financial incentives. The goal, said numerous prisoners, was to extract a confession that the prisoner opposed Hussein and the Baath Party.
Torture was considered so routine that many former prisoners shrugged at first when asked about it. "Of course, they tortured me. Beating people here is something regular," said Maithem Naji.
Naji said he was arrested and jailed for 42 days because he spoke with U.N. representatives who came by his house in the Basra suburb of Abu Khasib for a few minutes in 1998. After he got out, he joined the Baath Party because it was the only way to get a job. He ended up as a guard at a party headquarters.
In almost every case, the allegations of torture were part of a broader story of arrests, disappearances, executions and destroyed homes affecting the Shiite families of Basra. Some of those arrested acknowledged that they had taken active part in fighting against the Iraqi government. Others said they were rounded up because they were Shiite or because a family member was under suspicion.
"It's a prison in Iraq," said Arif Othman, an army deserter who said he fought in the 1991 uprising, then escaped to Iran, while his father and brother were arrested. He returned to Iraq in 1998 after believing there was a general amnesty, and was arrested and tortured. "It happens to all people."
His Hands Still Tremble
Nabil Abdul Ali was one of them. He is 30 years old now and his hands shake.
After the 1999 uprising, Baath Party officials and secret police came to his home to arrest his brother Aziz, a student they accused of participating in the uprising. Two days later, they came back for Abdul Ali's father, Abdul Karim. A week or so after that, a bulldozer arrived and destroyed their home, which still lies in ruins in Abu Khasib.
The rest of the family -- 11 people in all -- fled north to an uncle's house in Karbala. The security forces caught up with them there. All 11 were arrested, including his mother and two sisters, his two brothers' wives and two young children, ages 6 months and 1 year.
For 10 days, Abdul Ali said, they stayed at the security department in Karbala. "I was tortured the worst," Abdul Ali said. "Look at how I am trembling."
Then they were transferred to police security headquarters in Basra, where they stayed for another 35 days, "and there was the same torture all over again." Abdul Ali said he was targeted because he was closest in age to his brother Aziz. He said the torture usually happened overnight: two hours of it, then an hour off, then another two hours.
Sometimes, Abdul Ali recalled, he had his hands tied behind his back, and then he was hung in such a way as to dislocate his shoulders. Sometimes, they used electricity on him. On his penis and under his nails. Ali demonstrated how it worked, making at hand-crank motion as he explained that the wire to the electricity machine was wrapped around his genitals.
And sometimes, they threatened to abuse his family's women in front of him. "They used to tell me I'm going to get your sister and your mother right now and take off their clothes in front of you," he said.
They asked him about his brother and whether he had participated in the 1999 uprising. "I used to give them information to stop the torture," he said, "to make up stuff, anything to stop this." He said he hoped the information had not been used as a reason to execute his brother. "They need a confession from the person himself. They know that because of all this torture, people will lie," he said.
Eventually, the family was taken to a prison in Basra known as the Jail for Adult Re-Education because it used to house a school for adult education. There were many other entire families there, Abdul Ali said, and there they were reunited with his father, Abdul Karim.
He had been with Aziz. He told them he had been tortured himself and had seen Aziz tortured in front of him. He told them that he had been forced to lie about Aziz, to give false evidence against him. "My father used to accuse himself and shame himself because he talked about his son," Abdul Ali recalled.
They were reunited for a month and a half before his father got sick. He was taken to the hospital and he died the next day, Abdul Ali said.
On Oct. 14, 1999, the rest of the family was released as part of a general pardon issued by Hussein. Before they left, each one had to put a fingerprint on a document swearing never to act against the Baath Party or the government and never to tell what had happened to them in prison. The punishment for disobeying would be execution.
Until this week, they never knew what had happened to Aziz. On Monday, Abdul Ali went to the Jumhuriyah Mosque in Basra on a tip from others searching for missing relatives. It was about 1 p.m. He found a handwritten list with 147 names on it. Number 20 was Aziz's.
The document was a "list of the names of the accused who admitted to participating in the situation of March 18, 1999." It said that "sentence has been pronounced in the name of the people on the criminals by our headquarters."
To the men at the mosque, that was proof of their execution. "When I saw my brother's name," Abdul Ali said, "I passed out."
'Of Course I Would Confess'
At the secret police prison known as the White Lion in Basra, hundreds of men thronged the ransacked building 10 days after the jailers fled and the doors were thrown open. Some pored through papers scattered on the floor, looking for their own files or those of their long-missing relatives. Others were there because of the rumors of secret underground cells where their fathers or brothers or uncles might still be hidden, even though every day for the last five days the British soldiers had dug there and come up with nothing.
It was there that the list was found with the 147 names on it, the list with Abdul Ali's brother.
Saad Abdul Wahab was at the White Lion, searching for three brothers missing since 1991, when a government tank came to their mud house in Abu Khasib, destroyed it and left with the three young men. He is also missing six cousins.
Abdul Wahab knows well the prison he came to search. Three times since 1991, he, too, was a prisoner there. The first time, in 1991, Abdul Wahab was arrested and released quickly. "I was too small," he said, "I couldn't take the torture." In 1998, he was taken in for questioning again, and again in 1999.
He said he was blindfolded, tortured with electricity placed on his navel and hit with a stick. He pulled up his shirt to show scars on his stomach; his kidneys no longer work properly, he said.
His questioners wanted to know names of those who had participated in the 1991 uprising, he said, and more about his brothers Hassan, Shaker and Mohamed. "Of course I would confess, so they would stop hitting me," Abdul Wahab said. "I told them, 'Just give me a white paper and I'll sign on it. I'll write whatever you want.' "
Anwar Abdul Qadir was there, too, looking. He has been missing his brother since 1991 as well, when the 17-year-old was taken from their home at 4 a.m. His uncle is also missing, and his cousin was executed in 1996. Altogether, he has six relatives who were arrested and whose whereabouts are unknown.
"I'm very lucky they just took five or six relatives," he said, nodding in the direction of Abdul Wahab. "Some people had five or six brothers taken."
Outlines Where Ears Should Be
Nazar Abdul Razak had half his right ear cut off -- thanks to a bribe. Otherwise, he would have lost it all. His cousin Anwar Abdul Razak had both ears taken.
Both men had been caught absent without leave from their military units in 1994, at the time Hussein declared a new punishment for deserters. Anwar was picked up at his home on May 17, 1994, and taken directly to Basra's Al Tahrir Hospital.
The doctor who performed the operation on Anwar seemed distraught. "He was apologizing while he was doing it, he was saying they forced him to do it," Anwar recalled.
On the cutting table, he was given only a mild anesthetic and soon passed out from the pain. Later, before he left the hospital, burning hot metal was applied to his forehead, leaving a black line, like a brand, still visible today. Then he was taken to a police prison in Basra, where he said he received no treatment for his mutilated ears.
When he was released, his fiancee refused to go through with their marriage. Today, he says, he has trouble hearing. On his head, where ears should be, there are only raised, scarred outlines.
"At that time it was obligatory in all the hospitals," said Jinan Sabagh, chief of surgery at Basra Teaching Hospital. "There wasn't any other choice."