"We've given up hope," said 20 year
old Mohammed Al Katib, a Palestinian student imprisoned in the Umm Qasr prison
camp in southern Iraq. "We don't think we'll ever get out of here."
On January 3, 2004, I traveled with Rev. Jerry Zawada, OFM, and several of
our Iraqi friends to Umm Qasr, located on the Iraq-Kuwait border. There, in
a remote and desolate area where US Coalition authorities have constructed a
network of tent prisons, we visited four Palestinian students who've been held
for many months by US coalition authorities. In the "Bucca Camp,"
(named after a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center) prisoners and
guards alike battle against monotony, anxiety, and isolation. The prisoners
we met listed one more emotional pitfall: despair.
We left Baghdad just after sunrise that Saturday morning and drove six hours
to Basra, without stopping, hoping that we might reach Umm Qasr before visiting
hours ended. At the outskirts of the prison, a US soldier whose badge read MP
(Military Police) politely told us that we were too late. Visiting hours lasted
from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., Thursday - Saturday. The next opportunity to visit
would be five days later. Reluctant to leave, we asked if an exception could
be made, explaining that we'd come a long way on a difficult stretch of road
and that some of us would leave Iraq within the next several days.
The MP, a young dental hygienist from Tennessee, agreed to contact Major Garrity,
a woman whom our Christian Peacemaker Team friends in Baghdad assured us would
do her best to help. She initially said, "No way, today we already processed
a batch of 500 new prisoners." After some further conversation, she hesitated
and then said, "Hang on. Maybe we can do something." I think she knew
how beleaguered the young men we hoped to see were feeling and wanted to give
them some small measure of hope. An hour later, jostling on the benches of an
army jeep, we were transported over bumpy desert terrain to the prison visitor's
tent at Compound 11, Tampa 11, where Officer Lou, formerly a Miami police officer,
had delivered four men in their early twenties, each of them former students
Prison authorities refer to the young men as "TCNs," Third Country
Nationals. Four of them were arrested in their dorm rooms on April
10, the day after US Marines arrived in Baghdad. When they asked the
Marines what crime they had committed, they were told they were guilty of
being Palestinians. The students presume that the Marines wanted to occupy
their building because it was one of the tallest in the area and offered a
good view. A fifth youngster, Ameer Abbas, a Palestinian who has Iraqi
citizenship, was on his way home from his university on June 23, 2003, when
a shootout erupted at the local mosque. Clutching his textbooks, he ran in
the opposite direction. US soldiers spotted him running and arrested him.
His brother, a dentist in Baghdad, has tried repeatedly to secure his
release. Dr. Amer Abbas accompanied us to the prison, hoping for a second
visit with his brother.
Two other students who were arrested at the same time as Jayyab, Mohammed,
Basel, and Ahmed were released in June of 2003, perhaps because they spoke
English and were better able to plead their case. Since then, they have
tirelessly explored every possible means of helping their companions who
remain in prison. Upon hearing that a handful of westerners with Christian
Peacemaker Team and Voices in the Wilderness might be able to help, they
contacted our small delegation as soon as we arrived in Amman, in late
December of 2003. We promised to do our best. In Baghdad,
Christian Peacemaker Team members scoured their list of 6,000 prisoners and
found the Capture Tag numbers for two of the prisoners. Available details
for all five prisoners filled only one sheet of paper.
Guards assured us that prisoners in the Bucca Compound are better off than
those who are held in Baghdad prisons. "We give them clothes, they each
a blanket, and we feed them," said a guard. "We try to do everything
for them." I think the guards feel genuine compassion, but there's little
they can do to help these young men. Certainly no one can do anything about
the fact that the students have already lost two years of studies because of
Officers in the Bucca camp have recommended release for these prisoners, but
the only people with authority to issue releases are the Baghdad based
members of the "Sec-Det," the Security Detainees Review Board. A prisoner's
best hope for release rests on their paperwork arriving at the desk of the
Sec-Det group as part of a "boarding" process. As our hour long visit
a close, we promised the five students that we would try our best to bring
attention to their cases by contacting elected representatives in the US,
foreign embassies, and the International Commission of the Red Cross.
"Can you think of anything else we can do?" I asked, as we bade the
youngsters farewell. "Please," Jayyad Ehmedat said firmly, "there
here. Help us all."
Please contact Voices in the Wilderness
or visit www.vitw.org for more information
about ways to assist Jayyab Ehmedat, Mohammed Al-Katib, Basel Ali, Ahmed Badran
and Ameer Abbas. For more information about the Campaign to Assure Justice for
Iraqi Detainees, please visit www.cpt.org
Kathy Kelly is a co-coordinator of the Voices in the Wilderness campaign.
She can be reached at email@example.com