A small citrus grove was the last stop on our tour of this farming hamlet on the Tigris River, 30 miles north of Baghdad and Mohammed Al Taai wanted to give us a gift of fruit. I put the two oranges he gave me in my right coat pocket. In the left clinked two spent shell casings I’d just found on the ground that came from a 25mm gun mounted on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. We listened to the story of how the U.S. military came to Abou Siffa three times in one month, leaving a terrorized community in its wake.
"On December 16, at 2:00 am, on a rainy night, all the houses in this village, about two dozen, were surrounded by U.S. troops in tanks and humvees. They surrounded the fields of the farmers by tanks and they destroyed the fences of the fields," Mohammed tells the six people from Christian Peacemaker Teams who have come to document detainees’ stories.
"They destroyed the doors of the houses and of the rooms. At night usually the doors of the bedrooms are locked, so they kicked the doors in and destroyed them by their weapons. After that they gathered the men, beating them severely. One was an old man and they smashed his glasses, and for that old man they had to guide him."
Rounded up in the raid were two attorneys, 15 schoolteachers, men in their 80’s, a blind man, an elderly man so frail he had to be carried by the soldiers virtually all the men of Abou Siffa. They even apprehended police officers and three children.
Mohammed explains more of what happened that December night. "They stole from Imad, the attorney, about 14 million dinars ($10,370). From his father, Kamel, they stole 4.5 million dinars ($3,300). They stole 4 million dinars ($3000) from Ziad, an Iraqi police officer, and from all the other houses together, about 100,000 to 150,000 dinars ($75 to $110). They also took five cars. Later they returned two of them that belonged to police officers who died in the line of duty."
The reason for the raid was to apprehend Kais Hattam, Mohammed said, adding that Hattam claimed he planned to surrender to the Americans the following morning. Military authorities told CPT members the day after our visit to Abou Siffa that Hattam was on a "wanted" list because he was reported to be a Ba’ath Party leader in the Tikrit area and his name appeared in documents found when Saddam Hussein was captured. Hattam’s lawyer is Kamel Khoumais, one of the two attorneys detained in the raid.
Mohammed takes us to a house where Abbas Abdwahid, a 41 year-old primary school teacher, lived with 15 other people. No one lives there now. Abdwahid and several of the others were among those detained the night of December 16. Two weeks later, on December 31, the military returned. Holes in the brick walls large enough to drive through, daylight through the roof, and a 1987 orange and white VW Passat taxi smashed up against the corner of the house indicate more of the Bradley’s handiwork.
Then on January 2, the military paid Abou Siffa another visit. Mohammed leads us to the rear of another vacant house where four brothers lived, now all imprisoned. Still visible are the tracks the Bradley made as it approached the home of Hamis, Abd Kadir, Mohammed and Jasim, their flattened brick outhouse, and a pile of shell casings. In what had to be a deafening, blinding display of firepower in the middle of a quiet, dark country night, gunners opened fire with the 25mm Bushmaster chain gun and the 7.62mm machine gun, blasting holes large and small into the brick and cement-block home. Amid the rubble, a steel door shot off its hinges leans against a wall, bleeding rust stains fro! m dozens of bullet holes.
In the December 31 and January 2 terror strikes on Abou Siffa no men were apprehended there were none left. "There was no resistance during the raids," Mohammed said, making the violence and fury with which they were executed the more mysterious. Then one of the villagers added, "The soldiers warned the people that they will make this area ‘just like the land of the moon it will not be good to plant it will be like the desert.’"
"We now depend on our relatives. Only women stay here and their children are suffering from shock. Nobody will come to work the farms because they are afraid of being detained," Mohammed says, adding optimistically that the fruit can last quite a while if left on the trees.
Two explosions thud in the distance as we are invited to an early supper. With apologies for the simple fare, we are served soup, flatbread, roasted chicken with rice, tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh fruit, Pepsi and tea.
After dinner, Kamel Khoumais’ wife, Hania, tells us part of her story. She says sadly, "For 47 days I did not see him. I tried. I went to Abu Ghraib prison twice. I was turned back with tears." Their family car was taken by the soldiers and her little finger, still swollen and red, was broken when the keys were ripped out of her hands, she says.
Six weeks later, 79 adult men are still held in Abu Ghraib prison, still unable to have visitors. One ill detainee has been released. The three children have been transferred to Al Karkh, a special youth prison in Baghdad. They are allowed visitors. Mohammed and a friend have gone to see them. "However, it is difficult," he said. "It is not easy to get there, the lines are very long, and even family members are kept behind a line 20 feet away from their children."
If the military got its man, Kais Hattam, on December 16, why did they imprison 81 other men and boys from this hamlet of two dozen homes? Why did the troops and the Bradley return on December 31 and January 2 to destroy houses? The farmers of Abou Siffa say they do not know. Perhaps the Army does.