Iraqi journalist in Fallujah tells of his time in U.S. detention
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – An Iraqi journalist who stayed in Fallujah to report on the battle for his hometown says he and hundreds of other civilians who eventually turned themselves in to escape the violence suffered tough, sometimes humiliating, treatment from American and Iraqi guards.
Abdul-Qader Saadi said he was subjected to multiple searches and interrogations; went unfed the first two days; was blindfolded and handcuffed; and had to sleep for days in a wooden cage buffeted by cold winds at a desert detention camp.
Saadi, who has reported part-time for The Associated Press since early in the year, also complained of having to strip naked for a medical examination by doctors he didn’t know, a humiliating experience for an Arab.
“This was really painful,” he said Tuesday, several days after his release on Sunday.
Saadi said he was held 10 days as U.S. interrogators tried to sort out civilians and insurgents who were detained as troops moved across Fallujah.
U.S. officials confirmed to AP that Saadi was among those screened. They said 1,450 people had been detained, with more than 400 released after it was determined they weren’t combatants.
Before the assault, the U.S. military had warned civilians to leave Fallujah, and most did. Saadi sent his family to Baghdad three or four days before the offensive began, but although the AP told him he should feel free to join them, he decided to stay.
He said civilians who remained were shocked at the speed of the American advance through the city. He fled his home when his street became a battlefield and took refuge in another neighborhood. Then, the owner of that house and two relatives were struck down in the street, victims of the chaos of battle that made sudden death an ever-present danger.
Saadi, who also reports for the Arab-language satellite television station Al-Arabiya, phoned daily updates to AP’s office in Baghdad, although with Fallujah’s electricity out, the battery on his phone drained and the calls got fewer and shorter.
Five days into the battle, Saadi decided to accept a call broadcast by the Iraqi National Guard for civilians to turn themselves in at one of the city’s mosques with promises to be taken to safety. He had doubts, but with two tanks surrounding the house where he had taken shelter, he felt he had little choice.
People trickled warily from houses as fighting between U.S. troops and insurgents continued around them. Speaking haltingly through tears, Saadi said he saw a few people, including a woman and child, killed by bullets as they walked toward the mosque.
At the mosque, he was searched and his Thuraya satellite phone was confiscated.
He and others were taken to a railway station north of Fallujah. Women and children were separated from men, who were kept together in a room so dirty it felt like “an animal barn.”
Eventually, about 400 men were crowded into the room. Lines formed for the single toilet. The detainees were given water but no food during their two days at the station, Saadi said.
One night, as the men were sleeping on the bare cement floor, Iraqi National Guardsmen entered, kicking some, he said. They were accompanied by a man whose face mask covered all but his eyes. The informant pointed out some men, who were dragged away, Saadi said.
Saadi said he repeatedly told Iraqi and U.S. soldiers he was a journalist. After a brief interrogation at the station, his press card and $100 were taken away, he said. He and others were blindfolded and their hands bound with plastic cuffs before they were shoved onto trucks without being told where they were being taken.
After a drive of about two hours, the detainees were dragged out into a chill wind at a camp where barbed wire surrounded wooden cages. Saadi said he and 19 others were herded into one cage. Each got a thin sponge mattress, but every three had to share a thin, olive-colored sheet.
“It was too cold. We couldn’t sleep,” Saadi said. “We slept in the morning instead,” when the sun came out.
The men were fed three meals of U.S. military rations every day and were taken to the toilet three times a day. Once, Saadi said, he was denied one of his meals and ordered to pick up the trash as punishment for laughing. Others who relieved themselves inside the wooden cage were locked up in a tiny, windowless room, he said.
But Saadi’s most humiliating time came when he was led into a room full of doctors, translators and soldiers and asked to disrobe for a medical examination. “I was really ashamed and psychologically shaken,” he said.
Freedom came Sunday when Saadi and about 150 others were driven to Saqlawiyah, west of Fallujah, and let go. Every man was given $20, about a tenth of the monthly pay for a police officer or teacher.
Saadi then made a seven-hour journey – on foot, by boat and in a variety of cars – to get to his family in Baghdad.
His sister brought out chocolates to celebrate his return.
“This is not the time to be happy,” he told her. “I saw dead people. Destruction was everywhere.”