Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

House Arrest Saddam-Style

Iraqis are discovering that their neighbours' ordinary homes had been converted to Ba'athist torture centres.
By Sahib el-Hakim

It looks like any other house in Baghdad's Daoudi district, a middle-class area where all the houses have gardens. But the front door has been closed with a steel panel on the inside and cannot be opened. All the side windows have been bricked up.


Inside the house, most of the rooms have been converted into cells and lined with padded sound-proofing material.


A neighbour, Yousif Zaini, told the Organisation of Human Rights in Iraq that the house was taken over in the early 1980s by Saddam Hussein's security forces after its owner, a Kurdish Shia known as Abu Shwan, was deported to Iran and his son, Safa'a Kadhum el-Hariri, was executed.


"We could not sit in our garden because of the screams of the prisoners. We knew they were being tortured," said Zaini. "The road in front of the house was often closed to normal traffic at night and prisoners would be led out and driven away, never to return. We presumed they were being taken away for execution. But what could we do?"


Saddam Hussein turned Iraq into a large prison. With his overthrow, investigators are discovering that his regime not only held political prisoners in well-known jails like Abu Ghraib and Radwaniya, but also in private homes side-by-side with ordinary families like Zaini's.


The only light in the cells in Abu Shwan's house comes from tiny ventilation grills close to the ceiling. Each cell has a filthy, open toilet in it. Even today, the smell is overpowering. Prisoners once held here say they never left the cells: food was passed through a grill in the door. One of the cells was known as "the compressor": prisoners who refused to "confess" were crammed into this room like sardines, packed so tightly that the door could barely be closed behind them.


Documents discovered in the house after its guards fled as US forces approached Baghdad give an insight into the "crimes" for which Iraqis were held here. In Saddam's Iraq, listening to Iran radio merited imprisonment and perhaps death. When Baghdad was liberated by US forces, Abu Shwan's house was empty and abandoned. No-one knows what became of its most recent inmates. But it is presumed that they, like thousands of other political prisoners, were executed in the run-up to the war to remove Saddam from power.


"Please God, take me out of this place!" says writing on the wall of one of the cells. Another says simply, "Help us to get away!" In one cell, the filth that covers every inch of the floor is mixed with family photographs and women's shoes and underwear, making clear that not only men were confined at Abu Shwab's.


After Saddam's regime collapsed, and its main architects vanished, the present owners of the house began restoring it to its original state. But the head of the family sent a message from London, where he now lives, requesting that the rest of the house remain as it is - "a historical document" to 35 years of cruelty that will only be truly over when Saddam Hussein has been arrested and convicted of war crimes and is himself behind bars.


Sahib el-Hakim is a human rights activist and head of the London-based Organisation of Human Rights Organisation in Iraq.


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