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Violence Rages on Well After the Conflict Is Over -- How War-Time Torture Can Turn into a Life of Domestic Violence

Revealing the unseen consequences of conflict from Ann Jones' new book.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Ann Jones' War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War (Metropolitan Books, 2010) :

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 2008, as BBC TV presenters wearing crisp red paper poppy boutonnieres interview the last survivors of the Great War in Flanders fields, I sit in a sleazy hotel room off Hamra Street in Beirut, going over my notes of the day's interviews with refugees from the war in Iraq. After weeks of talking to refugees in Amman and Damascus, I met today in Beirut for the first time an Iraqi who actually was liberated by the American invasion of his country. His name is Ahmad.

As a young man, Ahmad worked as a mechanic in Baghdad and somehow managed to avoid being conscripted to serve in Saddam Hussein's war against Iran. By 1986, when he was twenty- six, the war had turned in Iran's favor. The Ayatollah Khomeini threatened to depose Saddam Hussein, and Saddam in turn cracked down on suspected enemies at home. He arrested Ahmad's sister and her husband, who were associated with a dissident party, and he arrested Ahmad as well. Charged as enemies of Saddam Hussein, Ahmad's sister and her husband were hanged, and Ahmad was sentenced to sixty years in prison.

Interrogators tortured him every day for two years, trying to elicit a confession worthy of his sentence. He had nothing to confess. Interrogators pulled out his toenails, burned and cut the skin from his lower legs, inserted a hose in his anus and pumped him full of water, administered electric shocks to parts of his body he cannot name, and beat his head and body with wooden clubs and steel batons. At last he told them to write down what ever they liked and he would sign it. After that false confession, his captors abandoned the most brutal "enhanced interrogation" techniques; they had what they wanted. But they continued to beat him routinely, less viciously and less often, for sixteen years. In 2003, two days after the American invasion, Ahmad and his fellow prisoners realized that the guards had abandoned the prison. They broke down the doors and set themselves free. Ahmad returned to his parents' home and found work again as a mechanic. Two months after his escape, he winked at a woman working in a cosmetics shop across the road. She smiled and seven days later they married. Her name is Azhar. They moved into a house they bought together. Then in July 2005, as Iraq descended into chaos, Ahmad was kidnapped by men from the Mahdi Army who demanded $150,000 ransom. He says, "I had been so happy -- loving life, laughing, spending money -- they must have thought I was rich." The kidnappers also held two children, and when no ransom was paid, they cut their throats before Ahmad's eyes. Azhar borrowed $10,000 from her parents to arrange Ahmad's release after fifteen days in captivity. Soon Ahmad received a letter warning him to leave his house or be killed. He and his wife sold everything, repaid her parents, and fled to Syria where Azhar soon gave birth to a son. For a year they lived what Ahmad calls "a simple life." In 2007, running out of money, Ahmad went to Lebanon.

He had been told that he might find highly paid work in Beirut, but he didn't. Penniless and lonely, in November 2007 he sent for his wife and son. The family registered with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and asked to be resettled in another country. Referred to the United States, they were interviewed by U.S. embassy officials. They wait for a decision in a windowless one-room apartment that reminds Ahmad of prison. Fear of being detained and deported by the authorities keeps him confined to that room. He suffers depression, anxiety, flashbacks. And he beats his wife as he was beaten. He was tortured. He tortures her. ("Domestic violence" is the euphemism we use to name torture that takes place in the home, but a comparison of standard techniques -- from stripping and sleep deprivation to beating, burning, bondage, asphyxiation, and sexual assault -- shows that torture by another name is still torture.) Slowly, with the help of psychotherapists at Restart, a UNHCR-funded program for survivors of torture, Ahmad is learning to stop abusing Azhar. "She is my life," he says. "I would die without her." (She says, "I choose to share this life of misery with him.") He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, and chronic back pain, the physical effects of his long imprisonment, and from the unrelenting depression of a man so poor he has only one set of clothes. The family of his youth is gone: three sisters in Sweden, one in Germany, one killed in the first American war, one executed, two brothers shot and killed during the second American war, one by an Iraqi militiaman in the street, the other by an American soldier in the living room. Ahmad fears for his child. Waiting for the American embassy to call, he says, "I need to know if my son has a future."

 
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