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 appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon