My 12 Days in Detention

On Jan. 27 this year, at 6 a.m. exactly, my brother and I were awakened by pounding on his front door. When my brother opened it, we saw that Iraqi army forces had surrounded the area and were conducting a mass sweep of the neighborhood for wanted individuals.

I gave one of the soldiers my ID, which he took to an officer in a neighbor's house. "Who is Jasim Mohammed Khalaf?" the officer shouted.

"Me," I replied.

"Where do you live?"

"In al-Nida neighborhood."

"Why are you here in al-Askari neighborhood?"

I told him that I had sent my wife to celebrate Eid (an Islamic holiday) with her parents in the southern city of Hilla and that my brother had insisted that we spend the holiday at his house in al-Askeri in Hawija.

The officer continued quizzing me.

"What do you do?"

"I am a reporter for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

I showed him my IWPR badge. He studied it for a while and then asked if I was ready to come along with them for questioning. When I asked why, he told me that my name was on a wanted list. I couldn't believe it, so I asked again. He confirmed, and asked me to get dressed.

The soldiers took me in a pickup truck to some U.S. military Humvees, which were parked 300 meters away. They tied my hands behind my back with plastic wire and asked an Iraqi National Guard member to watch me until they finished raiding the neighborhood.

The weather was cold with a light rainfall. The Iraqi troops brought another man and seated him next to me. Hours went by before they took us to the American base, three kilometres outside of Hawija, where we were formally handed over to U.S. troops.

The American forces put bags made of hemp over our heads and pulled and pushed us as we walked. We were told that speaking was forbidden. For two hours we were left sitting silent in the dark, not knowing what would happen next. When a guard finally came, we were physically and psychologically exhausted. The guard pulled our arms and snapped iron handcuffs on our wrists. We were handcuffed even when we went to the toilet.

After they took the bag off my head, I had a look around. The room I was in measured about four by two meters and had wooden walls and ceilings. There were two other prisoners with me. A tall soldier with dark skin and Arab features approached us with an American soldier. The American asked questions, and his colleague translated. He asked whether we had any diseases or allergies to drugs. Later, they handed us bags and small boxes with food, made in the U.S. and labeled halal. But we could hardly open them because of the shackles.

They then called me in for an interrogation. The American officer welcomed me and asked me to answer frankly and clearly so that I could be released as soon as possible. I told him that was what I had hoped, and that I was ready to answer any question. He wrote down information about me and my family and relatives in addition to names of some IWPR staff to double-check if I was telling the truth.

After two hours of questioning, he promised me to do his utmost to correct the mistake of my arrest if they deemed it an error. This comforted me somewhat, as I noticed the officer sympathized with me a bit. But I lost this optimism as two days passed and nothing changed. Early in the morning of Jan. 29, an aggressive guard kicked the door to our cell and shouted, "Get up!" He threw a breakfast meal at us and ordered us to clean up everything in a big plastic bag.

Another guard entered, carrying a bunch of bags. We realized they were going to move us to another place, to Kirkuk or perhaps another location. We had to put the bags over our heads again and were taken out. We marched in line with a soldier in front and behind us. We walked for a while without knowing where we were going, while the guards laughed and pushed us as we scrambled through the mud.

Finally, they took us back to the room. It appeared that we would be kept there for a while, so I told one of the guards I wanted to talk to the officer again, and that it was urgent. In the afternoon, they took me to meet him, but he was not the one who had questioned me before.

"What do you want?" he asked me.

I repeated the same story I had told before: that I was a reporter for an international nongovernmental organization, and that my arrest was a mistake. He called Iraqi Crisis Report editor Tiare Rath, who confirmed that I was one of their reporters.

I felt much better. But still Abu Ghraib hung over me because my full name was on a wanted list. I went back to my bed praying for God's mighty help to release me and all innocent prisoners.

The next morning, they told us to put the bags over our heads again. In a windowless truck, they took us to a military airfield from where, a few hours later, they flew us to Kirkuk. Upon arrival, they took us to a narrow hall for some medical tests. After that we had to put on an orange prison uniform. They took photos of us.Then we were separated. I was confined in a solitary cell no bigger than two by one meters. And so were the others.

My cell had a light bulb but no natural light. It contained an iron bed with a mattress, two blankets, a copy of the Holy Quran and a prayer mat. I was confined in this solitary cell for four days. I suffered an enormous amount of stress due to the humiliation and isolation: We weren't allowed to talk with the other detainees, even when we went to the toilet. That was the only time we were allowed to leave our cells.

The place was inhospitable, and the silence drove us mad. The Americans always yelled at us and called us names. Their threats included taking our blankets or forbidding us from using the toilets. For example, one of the guards was very tough with all of the detainees: He did not allow us to speak and forced us to face the wall. We had to shower in groups, and the hot water ran out quickly. The water turned ice cold.

On the first day of my arrival in Kirkuk, they interrogated me for two hours. The American investigator was calm, but the translator was very rude, as if I had killed his entire family. Most of the questions were about my job and relationships. The investigator told me that as a journalist I should play a role in finding out information about militant groups. I told him that intelligence activities are not my duty.

On Feb. 2, about 20 of us were taken out of solitary confinement and transferred into a large cell, where we were kept for five days. This was a huge relief -- after almost a week of silence we were finally allowed to talk again and did not have to wear handcuffs. The moment I was allowed to speak, I wanted to cry and shout because it had been forbidden, and I wanted to break the silence that was imposed on me. The detaniees all introduced one another, and then detailed how and why we were arrested. We then discussed family affairs.

A guard, who was very nice and tried to cheer us up throughout our detention, came at 3 p.m. on Feb. 6. We had all been assigned codes, and he read out loud the numbers of those detainees who were allowed to collect their things and prepare themselves to be handed over. To whom, we did not know. I ended up with the group of men who were arrested with me in Hawija. We were glad to leave the Kirkuk detention center, but at the same time we were afraid of being sent to Abu Ghraib.

We handed over our prisoner uniforms and went to a narrow hall. An hour later, they brought us back our clothes. At 7 p.m., we were taken to Kirkuk airport and from there flown back to the U.S. military base in Hawija.

Later that night, the American captain in Hawija warmly greeted me and apologized for the mistake they had made. My arrest had been a simple identity mixup. The captain asked how they could compensate me. I told him the best reward would be that this would never happen again. He promised that it would not and made a note in my file that I am not the man on the wanted list.

We went to bed and hoped the sun would rise earlier on this day. At 4 a.m., a guard woke us. He was very nice and allowed us to talk. We were released at 10:30 a.m.

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