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Amman, April 2009

Under a sky so light and remote it threatens to drift away
and abandon these homes,
we follow Abu Hassan wordlessly
up yet another shattered walk,
deeper into another anonymous neighborhood,
past feral cats who pick through garbage
and draw silently into shadows or behind walls,
waiting for us to pass.

This is where the invisible live,
the faceless and voiceless, the nameless.
People without papers.
People without a present or future.
The people with only a past.

And so our conversation leaps backward five and a half years,
into a time when Iraq still existed,
in the months after the American invasion.

I lived in a dangerous place, Abu Hassan begins
with characteristic understatement,
a small farm on fertile land ringing Fallujah.
Chickens, a cow, tomatoes, cucumbers, fruit trees.
We didn’t ask for war,
and when it came, we couldn’t escape it’s jaws.

One night, he says, stepping into that time, that place
and drawing us in after him,
an exchange of gunfire from the direction of my neighbor’s farm.
I heard it, but did I know who held the guns, who pulled the triggers?
Did I know what was in their hearts?

Two hours later, without knocking, war entered his home.
Teeth bared, barking orders,
every muscle taut and electric with battle,
marines burst through his door,
separated Abu Hassan from his wife and children,
threw him to the ground,
pointed a gun to the back of his head,
and demanded information about the resistance.

They went through everything, Umm Hassan says.
They even checked inside the baby’s diapers
and inside the pillows
.

Their guns, Abu Hassan adds,
were bigger than our children.
Every day our son lives with memories of that night
and its terror.
Like a heart, it beats inside him,
feeding the dreams which visit him at his night.

This is not old news.

The Americans had no evidence, but they took me anyway.

Later, in prison, an interrogator told him:
When we take fire,
if we can’t find the assailants,
we’ll arrest anyone in the area.
Chances are, we’ll get someone who’s guilty
or who knows something.

As a point of reference, Abu Hassan notes,
The head of Abu Ghraib prison (Brigadier Janis Karpinski)
estimated 90% of detainees were innocent.

Nonetheless, a year of imprisonment.
First, seven days at the American camp at Al-Tariq.

They used every kind of torture and abuse.

Detention in another camp in Baghdad
where the torture was psychological
and then, beginning mid-January 2004,
five months at Abu Ghraib.

This is the same period when the world is learning
about the abuse there.

But Abu Hassan wasn’t held in one of the underground cells
where that abuse occurred.
Instead, a terror the world never learned of:
under large tents in an open yard with nearly a thousand other prisoners.

Terrible conditions:
almost no food,
very cold and little protection against the weather.
And worst,
because the US military was housed there,
daily mortar attacks on the camp.

As though they were invisible or simply forgotten,
as though they were dead already
or dying and not worth the trouble,
as though they were so much refuse heaved on a garbage dump,
when shells landed among them, no protection was provided.

We were caught in the middle,
between the attackers and the US military.
We never knew when a next attack would occur or from where,
and no place to hide.
During my time in detention,
perhaps 120 of us were killed, and others wounded.

Among the Americans, at least one person with eyes and a memory,
with a heart and a willingness to voice its unease:

a young doctor.
A representative from the prisoners went with him
and spoke to the authorities.

The next stop in Abu Hassan’s 2004 tour of American detention centers
was Bucca Camp, in Basrah.

Here, conditions were better:
more and better quality food,
and safer.

Safer … at first.
But every day,
members of Al-Qaida were transferred into Bucca.

Soon Bucca Camp was filled with them and their proselytizing,
their pamphlets and papers and study circles.
Like a disease, they tried to multiply themselves.
I opposed them and their views,
and they beat me with fists and clubs.
Where were the Americans?

We became two groups in the Camp,
divided,
like our country.
Maybe eight hundred extremists and one hundred non-extremists.
As in Iraq outside our prison,
one group tried to swallow the other.

This is not old news.

They attacked,
killing two of us and wounding twenty-five.
Again, the Americans did nothing to protect us.
Instead, at night, we posted our own guards.

Looking me straight in the eye,
Abu Hassan lets this image linger, quiver,
fade,
then continues,

All the suffering of torture and hunger at the previous camp
was nothing compared to these days.
I wished I could go back.

Later, an American interrogator told him,
It’s not our problem.

Upon release, upon returning home,
death threats from Al-Qaida members
who recognized him from prison.

I’ve lost my whole life.
I’ve been kept in prison.
I have nothing in Iraq now.
I’m forty-one, how can I start over now?
And here in Jordan, I am allowed to exist,
but not to live.

This is not old news.