Wednesday, June 02, 2004
A glimpse at history: I'm currently reading the late, great Michael Kelly's "Martyrs' Day," an account of the first Gulf War. The book is very different in style and substance from Rick Atkinson's "In the Company of Soldiers" (which is also an excellent book), but more of a traditional historical account of Gulf War II. Kelly's work is more like a travelogue, with sparing accounts of the greater movement of men and more focus on the people and scenes he encounters as he attempts to report on the war as an unembedded journalist.
As the media obsesses about Abu Ghraib and the humiliations (not torture) that were perpetrated by a handful of unsupervised soldiers, the following account of Kuwaiti doctor in Kelly's book jumped out at me. If there was ever any doubt that Saddam Hussein's regime was one of unadulterated evil, this should put it to rest.
The men who had dealt most directly and most often with the horror -- the emergency-room doctors and morgue-keepers and ambulance drivers -- had tried to make sense out of it by quantifying and classifying its various permutations.
At Mubarak Hospital, the fourth-largest in the city, Dr. Abdullah Behbehani, a small man with that perpetually harried air that you often see in doctors, sat with his hands neatly folded at his desk. He had occupied his mind -- perhaps saved his mind -- by charting the plague of murder and torture and rape in the same methodical way he would plot a plague of cholera or influenza. He spoke in a small, dry voice.
"All told, we saw approximately four hundred executions at this hospital, and from the beginning I kept careful track of the trends of atrocities. In the beginning, in August, they didn't practice any atrocities against the civilians. They were just interested in invading the country and destroying the army and annexing Kuwait....
"However, it was clear from the beginning that they were very quick to kill. I give you an example. On August 3, the day after the invasion, the Iraqis came here to supervise the evacuation of Iraqi soldiers wounded in the first day of the invasion. We had taken in some of them and treated them, the same as we would a Kuwaiti. As the evacuation was going on, my anesthesiologist, a Kuwaiti lady doctor, was standing next tom e and she said, 'God curse the devil,' which is a well-known saying in our culture. An Iraqi officer heard her say this and he said, 'You mean the devil with the beard?' -- which was of course a reference to our emir. And she said, 'No I mean you Iraqis, because we were sitting here in peace and you invaded us.' So the officer immediately called over some army men and he told them to hold her and said, 'I will execute you on the spot.' He pulled out his pistol and pointed it at her.
"I had to beg him to spare her. I said, 'Look, we were invaded just now. We were Kuwaitis when we went to sleep last night and now we are Iraqis. You must give us some time to accept this.' After my begging, he said he would forgive her and let her live.
"This was the way it was always. You could not say anything, even a word, of rejection. The only punishment the Iraqis know is to kill. No trials. No prison terms. Just kill.
"When we, the civilians, started to resist and show that we did not like being annexed, the first thing we did was demonstrate peacefully -- women, young men, and children. We would raise the Kuwaiti flag and pictures of the emir in demonstrations; we did this to show the Iraqis we did not accept annexation and we wanted our government back and we wanted them out. They immediately opened fire on the demonstrators. I personally had to amputate the leg of a 35-year-old Kuwaiti female because of her bullet wounds. I saw young children killed. The Iraqi soldiers did not try to end the demonstration peacefully or anything like that. They just immediately opened fire against the demonstrators, many of whom were women. This was one week after the invasion.
"The atrocities began soon after that, in reaction to the Kuwaiti people refusing to go along with annexation. They did this by refusing to go to work, refusing to open their shops, refusing to change their IDs, refusing to do anything except sit in their houses. Soon we began expressing our opinions on walls. Either by putting flags on them or by writing signs of rejection and refusal and signs saying that we wanted our government back. The Iraqis started shooting anyone they saw participating in this. They would shot them immediately, on the spot. No trial. My sister witnessed two children shot dead in this fashion.
"The most serious atrocities began in the next phase, when the Kuwaiti resistance started trying to carry arms and kill Iraqis. The Iraqis responded with great force. The sent in a new governor, Ali Hassan Majid, and he brought in execution squads from Iraq. The execution squads were not regular soldiers and they were very brutal. They began executing young men on a systematic basis. We started to see a lot of men between the ages of seventeen and thirty-two brought in here, not as patients to care for, but as bodies to bury. They were brought in in groups of five to ten. This happened almost every day for two to three months; every day we would see another group of bodies. In the beginning, the executions were straightforward -- bullets in the head, bullets in the chest. At first they were killed in front of their houses. They would take the young man out of the house and blindfold him, and stand him up in front of the house and then shoot him in the head or the chest in front of his family. This method accomplished two things. One, it meant that they didn't have to deal with the body; they just left it for the family. Two, it contributed to an atmosphere of fear. These executions began in late August and lasted throughout September and October.
[The account from here on gets increasingly graphic. You may want to skip the rest of this post. Don't say you weren't warned.]
"In late September, there started something more severe. We started getting mutilated and tortured bodies. These were bodies that had not simply been shot, but had had their eyeballs taken out, their heads smashed, their bones broken. It was very painful for us as doctors to see this. We could not imagine how anyone who thinks of himself as a human being could do this to another human being. The injuries were very bad. You would see heads completely unvaulted, that is, with the top of the skull sawed off or cut off with an ax and no brain left in the skull pan. Or you would see multiple fractures, legs that had been broken four or five times. Or you would see severe burns on the face and body. Or fingernails that had been extracted.
"When the mutilations began, the Iraqis stopped bringing in the bodies of those killed. They started dumping them in the streets and then calling us and saying, 'There are bodies in such and such a street,' or 'near such and such a police station. Come get them.' And we would send out an ambulance and pick them up.
"We didn't know what these people had done to be killed in this manner. There were old people among those killed, at least 50 of them.
"Then, in November, worse atrocities began, involving women. We started getting numerous women brought in who had been raped and tortured. Rapes became very common after the first few months of the invasion. They would kidnap women, detain them, rape them, and then either kill them or let them go. I personally on call when three cases of rape came in. I treated all three women. One, I recall, was a young woman who had been raped by three soldiers. They came into her home and hit her husband and smashed his face and broke his ribs with their rifle butts. Then they assaulted her sexually. I was very careful in documenting this by direct examination of her. The awful thing was that she had her period at the time, so they took her from behind -- anally -- the bastards. The poor woman. What made it even worse was that when the soldiers first came in and attacked her husband, he actually was able at one point to get his hands on a gun and he was going to try to shoot the soldiers, but his wife and his mother told him it was not necessary and got him to give the gun back to the soldiers. You see, they thought the soldiers were just there to beat them and question them, but after the soldiers got the gun back, then they raped the wife.
"I knew one particular woman. The top of her head was gone and bullets were in her chest when they brought her in. She had been picked up and detained for a month and a half. I knew her well. I think she was involved in a lot of resistance activity, principally in sending messages to the government in exile. She was less than twenty-four years old. She was married and had two children. Her name was Asrar al-Kabany. We knew she had been kidnapped right in front of her door, when she was taking out the garbage. She was -- my God -- she was completely mutilated! They dumped her on the street and the ambulance brought her in here and I saw her --"
As he was talking, the doctor had lost, bit by bit, the voice of the scientific observer, and now he was suddenly overwhelmed. He put his face in his hands and wept, and it was a minute or two before he could recover himself sufficiently to speak. "There was no brain inside her skull. Why should you take the brain out, for God's sake? I am sorry. I get emotional whenever I speak of this." The tears streamed from his eyes, really heavy crying, although silent; the sobs shook his shoulders.
These things were done to Kuwaitis, but Saddam and his cronies did the same sorts of things to his own people. The world is much better off without Saddam and his ilk in charge of Iraq.