Iraqi Justice

raExcerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience, (Larson Publications, 2016). More info at

mass grave

It’s amazing what you can learn about a country from a simple sign on an office door.

In the Medico-Legal Institute of Baghdad, or MLI, there’s a plaque that reads “Office of Mass Graves.”

Seemed gruesome to me at first, but I came to view it as a hopeful gesture, dedicating an office to the discovery of the victims of atrocities. It’s an acknowledgment that mass graves actually exist. You won’t find that kind of thing in Guatemala, where the existence of hidden burial sites filled with victims of the genocide has always been denied by the government (though forensic anthropologists, courageous souls, keep digging them up, chipping away at the official lie).

I talked earlier about the terrible psychological legacy of disappearances, the difficulty of grieving the loss of loved ones when there’s no body to confirm the death. The Office of Mass Graves can help end the uncertainty for Iraqi families, provide a sense of closure, however painful.

More than three hundred unmarked communal graves have been found so far. No doubt more will be discovered. Several hundred thousand people remain missing, victims of Saddam Hussein’s cruelty, the ten-year war with Iran, and the widespread violence that turned the country into a war zone after the US invasion in 2003.

As I write these words, the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS is sweeping through the west and north of the country, massacring people in every village and town it enters. ISIS may add to the tally of mass graves, but they certainly won’t be hidden. The group gets off on public displays of its brutality: videotaped beheadings, mass executions posted online. No porn allowed on YouTube, but live killings are okay, if you can live with an “Age Restricted” warning. Digital imagery used to instill terror, swear allegiance or star in our next video. They’ve given a new twist to social media, though in their case, antisocial media might be a better term. ISIS had three thousand “likes” on Facebook as of this morning. They also rely heavily on Twitter to get the good word out.


An Iraqi physician was telling me about her work at the MLI. She was in her mid-thirties, wore a black hijab around her head and neck, black pants and blue blouse, a blend of modern and traditional. She spoke in a gentle, lilting voice. A forensic doctor by training, she worked in the Department of Live Examinations. No mass graves in her daily routine. Nothing to do with death except for trying to prevent it. She asked me not to use her real name, so I’ll call her Amal. It means “hope”, and I can’t think of a better pseudonym for this lovely, determined young woman, who, in addition to her work at the MLI, also ran her own fertility clinic in the city.

Much of her time in the Department of Live Examinations was spent examining women who’d claimed they’d been tortured in prison to exact confessions for crimes they hadn’t committed. She also conducted virginity exams.

Virginity exams?

She explained, “We call them hymen exams. Men get very angry if their wives don’t bleed on the first night they have intercourse. They might send the woman home to her family, where she could be killed for the shame she has brought the family. Or the husband might hurt her or kill her himself. It’s quite dangerous for the woman. But men don’t understand that there are reasons why a woman might not bleed even though she’s a virgin. We can help determine that by our exams.”

Did the same expectation of virginity apply to men?

She just laughed and shook her head. Then she added, with a hint of a smile, that women do occasionally accuse their husbands of impotence. That’s grounds for divorce and a source of shame for the man. Still, no one’s going to kill an impotent man to restore a family’s honor.

I asked her to tell me about the torture exams. Amal said she wanted to share a personal story first. She sounded almost apologetic, as if not wanting to offend me, as she described the day American soldiers kicked down the door of her family’s home. They seemed enraged, broke windows, smashed plates and vases, overturned furniture as they stormed through the house. The family watched in terror as they stood against the wall of the living room. They were held at gunpoint, but no guns were needed, she said, because everyone was too terrified to move. They had no idea what the Americans were looking for, and it wasn’t clear whether the soldiers knew either.

“After about ten minutes, they grabbed my younger brother. He’s eighteen years old. They grabbed him very roughly and dragged him away. My mother was screaming, and the soldiers kept telling her to shut up. As soon as they left the house, my father fell down on the floor. He was weeping, and became very sick. With each day that went by he got sicker.”

The family searched everywhere, went to the police, asked their neighbors, but no one knew anything about the young man’s disappearance.

Four days later, he reappeared at the door.

“He was another person, changed completely,” she said. “He refused to talk about what happened in detention, but after the experience, he could no longer concentrate on his school work, he stopped attending classes, and withdrew from most activities. His fiancé, she moved with her family to America. Now that’s all he talks about, wanting to join her in America.”

“Wait,” I said, confused. “You’re saying he wants to move to America, after American soldiers took him away and abused him? I don’t get it.”

She smiled sadly. “He loves America,” she said. “He always has.”


Torture in Iraq

Associated Press

No question, American troops got out of hand, crossed lines they never should have. And we’ve all seen the photos of Abu Ghraib, young American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. But the real sadists, the guys who got turned on by the whole torture scene, they were Iraqis and foreign jihadis. They took the practice to a level that made Lynndie England look like a Girl Scout.[i]

Torture is pervasive in Iraq. It’s practiced by every militia, the police, prison guards, and the various security forces defending the fragile state. At the Medico Legal Institute, forensic doctors only examine prisoners held in official detention centers. Anyone kidnapped and tortured by a local militia or terrorist group isn’t going to end up at the MLI. More than likely, they’re going to end up dead, unless their family can come up with the ransom, assuming a ransom is even requested.

Prisoners are brought in to the MLI when they claim they’ve been tortured to force a confession of whatever crime they’ve been charged with. It’s a routine practice in Iraqi prisons, and the methods of abuse are limited only by the creativity of the torturer. Hanging by the wrists with the arms behind the back for hours or days, beatings with batons or cables, being forced to sit on a bottle, electric shocks to the genitals, sexual assault, and on and on. It happens a lot, and everyone knows it: lawyers, judges, the police, and most of all the victims and their families. Iraq is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, but then so are most of the 160 or so countries where torture is practiced.

I was in Iraq to co-lead a training for forensic physicians on interviewing torture survivors and documenting the impact of torture on the body and mind. My co-trainer was Rusudan Beriashvili, a physician from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Rusudan’s a warm and engaging woman whose expertise lies in the darkest side of human nature. She covered the physical side of torture—the range of methods commonly used, signs of torture on the body, the really gruesome stuff. I got nauseous looking at the photographs she projected onto the large screen, though I’d seen similar pictures countless times. At the same time, I also found the imagery grotesquely fascinating, the innovative methods our species has developed to inflict severe pain. Over the centuries, the techniques have remained as brutal as ever, but with the help of physicians and psychologists, newer methods have been developed that leave few if any physical scars. Of course, sometimes leaving scars is precisely the point. They serve as a visible warning of what can happen to anyone who crosses a particular line.

I had the “softer” side of the training: trauma and other psychological effects of torture, methods of psychological abuse, and how to conduct interviews with torture survivors in ways that don’t retraumatize them. I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Rusudan passed me the baton and we shifted from the body to the mind. It’s hard to see those images of mutilated and broken bodies. Even for doctors who’ve seen an awful lot of them.

It’s interesting, though: survivors consistently describe psychological torture as more devastating than the physical abuse they’ve endured. A mother who believes she’s hearing her child being assaulted in the next room will often suffer more acutely than if she’s been beaten herself. The abusers know that, of course, and use it to great effect. People will confess to just about anything to stop the torture of those they love.

Love. In the dark world of torture, it can leave us woefully vulnerable.



Forensic doctors are the only physicians in Iraq legally allowed to assess the veracity of torture claims. Turns out, though, they aren’t allowed to actually ask about experiences of torture. Not in a general way, anyway. If a woman says she was beaten on the belly, a judge can require a doctor at the MLI to examine her belly for bruising or other evidence of a beating. During the exam, if the physician happens to discover signs of rape, she isn’t allowed to investigate them further or comment on what she’s seen. The victim’s lawyer has to go back to the judge and request another exam, this one focused on the claim of sexual assault. The doctor is also not permitted to comment on whether the evidence is consistent with a particular experience of torture. That bit of absurdity undermines the whole process; stating whether the evidence is or isn’t consistent with the prisoner’s claims of torture is precisely what a physician is meant to do, according to international protocol; it’s the essential purpose of the physical exam.

The whole process is a circus, meant to protect everyone but the victim.

And the circus can get dangerous for the lawyers who defend survivors of torture. An attorney based in Baghdad told me about a colleague who’d been representing a man who claimed he’d been badly abused by a prison guard in order to exact a confession for a crime he hadn’t committed. A medical exam showed evidence consistent with the man’s claims of torture. The guard, angry and afraid, made a deal with another prisoner who was serving a life sentence for his involvement with an anti-government militia. The guard told him he’d make prison a lot more comfortable for the remainder of his sentence if he’d accuse the lawyer of being connected to the same terrorist group this other prisoner had been affiliated with.

Talk about your easy decision.

By the next day, the lawyer was imprisoned, at the mercy of the same guard he’d identified as a torturer. Spent three months in a very frightening place before his colleagues were able to secure his release.

Iraqi justice. It can be hard to use that phrase with a straight face.


Survivor Guilt

During a break in the training, a young man approached me to ask if we might speak alone. He was shy, hadn’t said a word during the first few days of the workshop. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old. He was a legal assistant, one of a handful of young attorneys-to-be who were attending the training. He seemed anxious and eager to unburden himself of something. We sat down on a sofa in the lounge, beyond earshot of the crowd gathered by the tables loaded with coffee and cookies.

“It’s my girlfriend,” he said. “I don’t know how to help her. I love her very much, but I just don’t know how to help her. She and her brother left the country last year to visit relatives in Syria. They were only gone for a few weeks. When they got home, their whole family had been killed. Their parents, their brothers and sisters, all dead. They were all shot in their home. If my girlfriend had been there, she would have been killed too.

“It’s been nearly a year, and she’s not getting any better. She gets very angry at herself. She says all the time, ‘I should have been there. Why was I gone? I should have been there.’ I tell her, you and your brother couldn’t have stopped what happened. You would have been killed, too. There’s nothing you could have done. But it doesn’t help. She doesn’t seem to hear me. I can’t get her to talk about her sadness. She’s afraid to share her feelings.”

He was silent for a moment, then said, “Nothing seems to help. What can I do?”

I wished I had something profound to say, or some nifty clinical wand to offer him. Here, just wave this, she’ll be at peace.

Yeah, no.

Survivor guilt. It’s noxious, and resistant to any sort of rational argument. “It’s not your fault” may be absolutely true, but it seldom makes a dent in the harsh, unforgiving script of self-condemnation. “Why did I survive?” There’s no rational answer. Unless we want to invoke God and some sort of cosmic plan, we’re stuck with the random nature of devastating events. Why did this young man’s girlfriend and her brother escape the massacre of their family? Because they went to Syria for a visit. That’s the entirety of it. They just happened to be gone at the right time. And that sort of randomness doesn’t offer much comfort at all.

“You really love her, don’t you?” I asked.

“I do. I want to ask her to marry me.”

“Then keep on loving her,” I said. “That’s what you can do. It may take a long time for her to accept that there was nothing she could have done, that she would only have been killed with the rest of her family if she’d been in the house.”

“I’ve got time,” he said. “I’ll keep reminding her. Hopefully this will change. Inshallah.” God willing.

Inshallah,” I replied.


[i]. Lynndie England was the young woman who was photographed holding a leash around the neck of an Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib.


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