On Quiet Baghdad Lane, Saddam Made a Family's Home a Torture Chamber

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  1. Lefty Wilbury

    Lefty Wilbury Active Member

    Nov 4, 2003
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    On Quiet Baghdad Lane, Saddam Made a Family's Home a Torture Chamber

    By Lee Keath Associated Press Writer
    Published: Feb 21, 2004

    BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Dhia al-Hariri returned to Iraq after decades in exile to reclaim his father's beloved home, only to find Saddam Hussein's regime had turned it into a house of horrors.

    What was once the backyard is now a dark maze of iron-doored cells. One bedroom has a hook in the ceiling from which interrogators hung prisoners, breaking their arms and giving them electric shocks.

    "This was my grandmother's bedroom," al-Hariri, 54, said Saturday, standing in a room barren except for the remains of iron bars embedded in the floor where lines of prisoners were chained.

    For years, neighbors on the street of walled homes heard screams at night from the house down the lane and saw handcuffed men being led in and out.

    Saddam's security agents seized the house in 1980, after al-Hariri's family fled the country, and for the next 23 years, it was used as a secret interrogation center for political prisoners.

    After Saddam's fall in April prisons were opened, and former inmates flooded in to revisit the scene of their ordeals. Mass graves have been uncovered, and families have begun the task of tracking down loved ones among the hundreds of thousands who disappeared.

    Al-Hariri's house illustrates how the regime's brutality was literally right next door - and how it remains woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. One officer who worked in the al-Hariri house still lives on the street.

    "No one can touch him. We don't dare," said Ali Zeini, a neighbor.

    The house was the realization of a dream for al-Hariri's father, Kadhem. He built it in 1968, a one-floor modernist home in a neighborhood of doctors in Baghdad's upper-class Mansour district.

    "He brought in architects to do it American-style, because that's what he liked," Dhia said.

    "This was all wood paneling on the walls here. Oak. See those windows? All oak frames," he said, walking through what was once the sitting room. "There were chandeliers in every room."

    One of the first to be tortured in the house was al-Hariri's younger brother, Safa, just yards from his old bedroom. He was executed in 1982.

    Dhia al-Hariri, visiting from his home in Leeds, England, was 18 when the family moved into the house. He lived there until he went abroad for studies six years later.

    The outside facade looks much the same, but the interior has been transformed. Windows are bricked over. Cinderblock walls seal the passageways and cut rooms in half.

    It is this other house that Qays Abu Muhammed, a former prisoner, remembered.

    "This is where they did the interrogations," he said, standing in the bedroom next to the grandmother's.

    Abu Muhammed said he was hung by his arms from the ceiling hook, then pulled down until his shoulders dislocated. Electrodes then were put on his earlobes.

    The next room down, a tiny space by the stairs up to the roof, was where they held women, he said.

    One day, the interrogators brought in another prisoner, a man in his 60s. They threw alcohol on him and set him ablaze.

    In the grandmother's room, Abu Muhammed was handcuffed, crouching, to the iron bar on the floor, with the burned man chained next to him.

    "Over the next few days they would take him away and bring him back. Then one day, he didn't return," he said.

    Abu Muhammed, 39, was arrested in 1984 and held at the house for a month, accused of belonging to a Shiite Muslim opposition group, the Dawa Party. He estimated that several hundred prisoners - Shiites, communists and other activists - passed through the house just during the time he was there.

    "Who knows how many were here over the years? Maybe a third died in torture. A third were taken out and executed, and a third got out alive," al-Hariri said.

    Saddam's government frequently took over houses abandoned by exiles, handing them out to high-ranking loyalists or using them for offices. Houses like al-Hariri's gave security agents a discreet location to carry out interrogations and force confessions. Some, like Abu Muhammed, were then sentenced to jail terms - or execution.

    "We would always hear screaming," said the neighbor, Zeini. "It became very ordinary for us. What could we do?"

    Al-Hariri moved to the back of his house, which used to be an open yard. Now, it's walled off into five cells. With a bang, al-Hariri jammed aside the bolt on an iron door and swung it open. This cell was the bedroom of two more of his brothers, twins.

    "They had pictures of every football star in the world taped on their walls," he said.

    Now, the bare concrete walls are carved with graffiti from those held there: names, dates - as far back as December 1980 and as recent as 2002 - hashmarks counting the days, prayers, a crude drawing of a girl.

    "Call these numbers: Fayez and Heifaa," pleads one scrawl to anyone who gets out, with phone numbers beside them.

    On another cell's wall is the drawing of a heart with wings and a palm tree with birds flying above it.

    Al-Hariri, who had 10 relatives killed by Saddam's regime, has hired lawyers to start the long process of reclaiming the house. In the meantime, a cousin stays there to keep away looters.

    But al-Hariri said he will never live there again.

    "I want a home in Baghdad, but this house is too difficult. I need something where I won't see it everyday," he said. "In this house, I can hear my father's voice, my uncles' and cousins' voices.

    "A lot of blood has been spilled in this house."

    On the way out, he motioned to the front yard with one more memory.

    "Here we planted azaleas," he said.

    Now, it's covered with concrete.

    "They put that there. God only knows what's buried underneath."

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