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What should you do when two Isis suspects are interrogated right before your eyes?

On the ground in Mosul, the terror group's stronghold is crumbling.

It was nearly midnight when the prisoners were brought in. A couple of the Iraqi soldiers in the room had already drifted off to sleep in the effortless manner of front liners, while those still awake had dropped the volume on their conversation to a murmur, focused mainly on how to capture the unit’s final objective from Islamic State the following day.

I was sitting on one side of a sofa, half-listening to the conversations around me, my eyelids starting to hood. From time to time there was the muffled thump of an explosion, but the rhythm of violence was on the ebb. There was nothing much to be worried about in that house that night, full of armed troops nearing the end of a nine-month battle to recapture the last Mosul stronghold of Isis, known in the region as Daesh. Thoughts of sleep unrolled easily across my mind.

Then, suddenly, the front door opened, and two Isis suspects were frogmarched in. The captives were young men in their early twenties; short, tough-looking guys, already beaten and bound, plastic cuffs holding their wrists tight behind their backs.

“Shit,” I thought, as they were pushed down on the floor in front of us between the sofa and TV. “Interrogation. Just when I am about to get some sleep.”

The beating and abuse of bound prisoners is widespread among Iraqi forces; and that is just the low end of the human rights violations scale seen in the country during this brutal war. Intensive torture; the slaughter of human shields by Islamic State; civilians killed by air strikes and artillery; rape; murder; extrajudicial execution. It was all out there on the snarling Mosul battlefield.

The battle did have its share of heroes, though, and many brave men. The Iraqi army – which had so shamefully run away from Mosul in 2014, leaving two million people to the mercy of the world’s cruellest terror group – redeemed its reputation for courage, enduring huge casualties in nearly nine months of fighting to take the city back. That said, history should simply record the battle as the hard-fought, high-cost turning point in which the caliphate died. No one should call it pretty, or try to discern some greater glory.

Right from the beginning it was looking bad for the two captives. Found in the street outside after curfew, they looked like escapees from the Old City, where Isis made their final stand in those last weeks of the Mosul battle. They had hard faces and the sinewy build of impoverished urban fighters.

Prisoner A had fresh scabs pockmarked up the left hand side of his body from shrapnel which he admitted had been thrown up by an airstrike. It would be seen as incriminating evidence that he was a fighter. “Uh-oh,” I thought, sitting up. “Bad start.”

A smiling fat soldier brought in a length of twin cable, knotted, to start the beating, and put it on the floor at his feet. Another opened a laptop in front of the commanding officer to check the suspects’ names against a database of wanted people.

From my years spent covering the fighting in Iraq, I had learned how interrogations usually progressed. Anyone suspected of possible Isis membership – and that included almost any male coming out across the lines from the Old City during the final stages of fighting there – was likely to be beaten with cables and flex across his back and the soles of his feet. That could progress to stress positions, or being hung upside down for further beating. It depended on the mood of the unit, the corroborating information on the suspects’ database or the suspicious nature of the prisoner. If the soldiers really wanted to go for it they would wrap a length of rope or cable around the suspect’s upper chest and tighten it with an improvised winch from behind, which provoked extreme pain and the sense of suffocation.

After a while the captive might either be released, or else handed over to division level intelligence officers for further questioning, in which case the torture options increased. In the latter stages of the battle, when the holding areas became too full of suspects, some were killed merely because there was no space to detain them. Earlier this summer in the Old City I saw the body of one Isis suspect who had been shot without being questioned at all. His sister had denounced him as they clambered out of the rubble together.

The challenges for a journalist were complex. A reporter’s presence could either antagonise the interrogators or mitigate the treatment of captives. Should journalists just watch and say nothing, like they do in so many other incidents during war? Say something? Or walk away?

The officer’s laptop powered up. The database appeared. He ran the suspects’ names through it, while starting to ask some simple questions. Prisoner A – short-haired, clean-shaven, in dirty tracksuit bottoms, a filthy T-shirt and sandals – made an early beginner’s mistake, by saying he knew of no one in his family affiliated to Islamic State.

The database said different, and the commanding officer yelled: “Liar!”

He was a big guy, the CO. His shout echoed in the room. The prisoner hung his head and beside him the fat soldier stood ready with the whip, rocking on his toes while looking at me as if I was the maiden aunt who should have gone to bed before the party started.

“It says here you have six brothers with the Daesh, one of them fighting in Syria!” said the CO.

“Six brothers in Isis?” I thought, aware of feeling intensely hostile to the captive. “You prick. You’re dead already.”

But he came back well, Prisoner A. “They were all my step-mother’s sons!” he said, sounding indignant and somehow credible. “They were the sons of my father’s second wife. I never lived with them! It’s true what I say! I beg you believe me.”

“Smart move,” I thought. Iraqi families are as complex and divided as any. Every second soldier in that room must have had a stepmother issue, or bad blood with a half-brother. “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world,” as the old Bedouin saying goes.

I felt intrigued but uncomfortable, watching it all unfold, the bound and kneeling men waiting for the whip or worse. I knew that if I left the room both prisoners would get thrashed for sure, and likely tortured. If I stayed, they might get thrashed anyway, in front of me, which might have implied my acquiescence. But I also wanted to know what would happen. It was awkward either way.

***

Ali Arkady’s story epitomises this dilemma. A 34-year-old Iraqi photojournalist, Arkady had been embedded with a unit from the Emergency Response Division during the start of the battle for Mosul. The soldiers whose heroism he set out to portray started torturing prisoners, hanging them from ceilings with weights on their bodies, gouging their eyes, beating them, sometimes shooting them.

Arkady was so involved with the unit that he later admitted to striking some of the prisoners too, an act he claimed to have done under duress. Nevertheless, he somehow managed to reclaim his integrity and fled Iraq, publishing a dossier of prisoner abuse images in May 2017, while the battle still had six weeks left to run.

I knew how difficult it could be to avoid bonding with troops under shared pressure. Although my own contact with them was brief, just a few days, I liked the soldiers with whom I stayed during the battle’s final act. It was hard not to. They looked after me and fed me. There was no formal “embed” process as such.

I had met the CO through my interpreter. He put me in a Humvee and took me to the front. His soldiers escorted me around the Old City, even when other journalists were blocked from the area. Tough guys fighting a terrible enemy, they were as nuanced and funny and complicated as any soldiers I met anywhere else.

The best conversations we shared were about fear. House-to-house fighting is terrifying. Sometimes they got stuck in a building with Isis fighters in adjoining rooms, or were temporarily cut off, or lost, or fought with friendly units in confused night-time bloodbaths in basements.

There were improvised explosive devices, IEDs, everywhere. The bomb disposal officer attached to the unit told me that he received his posting to Mosul after drawing names from a hat. “Oh fuck,” he had said when he saw where he was being sent.

But now these nice guys had a couple of prisoners and they wanted to beat the crap out of them. Prisoner B, who had eyes like black pebbles and a scraggly beard, looked even more messed up. The database recorded his elder brother as being a senior Isis commander fighting inside Syria, while his mother was an MP in the Iraqi parliament.

“It’s true of my brother,” he said, staring at the floor, utterly resigned to what was about to befall him. “But I am not Daesh.”

I had a sudden bolt of inspiration. On my phone I had a photo of my own face, taken in a hospital in 2014, a few hours after I had been worked over by a Syrian rebel group while being held as their hostage. It was a proper beating.

“Hey, this was me when I was beaten with my hands tied,” I said, producing the photo. In the UK anyone who has seen that picture winces and makes a sympathetic “oooh” noise. But in Iraq they raise their eyebrows and go “huh!”, as if admiring the professionalism of the beating.

“The thing is,” I began, “it really upsets me now, after this happened to me, when I see someone else with their hands tied getting beaten in a similar way.”

Then I took a tactical piss in the hallway loo to let the soldiers discuss the matter among themselves. I knew I had hit on a good idea. Iraqis are fabulous hosts. The thought of upsetting a guest was an anathema, even in an interrogation session.

Sure enough, when I came back in the prisoners had their plasticuffs cut off, and were sitting on the floor drinking juice, looking dazzled with surprise. They pulled up their T-shirts to reveal terrible raised welts – as well as proper cat-o-nine-tails scarring – which they said had been given to them during two earlier interrogations that same week by other Iraqi units. Then the soldiers let them go into the night.

“I think maybe they were innocent after all,” the CO said, rather unconvincingly. “It is important you understand we treat prisoners fairly.”

Only the fat soldier looked pissed off.

I went next door to sleep. One of the officers put an assault rifle by my blanket and said “just in case”. I was about to nod off when I suddenly twitched awake, fearing that maybe I had been duped after all, that maybe the captives had been set free, and then shot around the corner, out of my view.

“Oh well,” I thought finally, closing my eyes. “Maybe they were Daesh after all.”

Anthony Loyd is a reporter for the Times 

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”