The 'Abu Earless' Brigade

They're among the saddest of the sad, in a land full of sadness. They push forward from the crowd of beggars and supplicants that gathers wherever they find foreigners, whether soldiers or journalists or aid workers.

Most, like Ahmed Hussein, have no words in English, but they don't need them. Outside the HQ of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in An Nasiriya yesterday, Hussein only had to turn his head to show his profile, and utter a single word, "Saddam," as he pointed to the stump where his right ear used to be. He wasn't begging for money, though he had none, or asking for a bottle of water or a telephone call abroad, like so many others in a place where the water doesn't run and the phones don't work. He just wanted to tell his story.

The story of Iraqi men with amputated ears is becoming a depressingly familiar one as people grow more convinced that Saddam Hussein and the Baathists will never come back. Finally, they can talk freely. This will probably not be the greatest atrocity committed by Saddam's regime, but with its clinical brutality and its echoes of Nazi medical mutilations, it stands out.

Hussein was among those arrested in a crackdown on Iraqi Army deserters in 1994; he had left his unit because, he said, "I didn't want to invade Kuwait again." The same day that he was arrested, he was taken to an operating room in Saddam General Hospital in An Nasiriya and blindfolded. A surgeon gave him a local anesthetic, but it was still severely painful when he severed the ear nearly to the bone with a long-bladed scalpel. "I wanted to kill myself right away," he said. "How can a man live without his ear?"

Afterward, sentenced to 25 years, he was thrown into prison and tortured on a daily basis in an effort to get him to confess that he was plotting against the regime--which would have meant a death sentence. He has deep knife gashes and bones that were broken and healed improperly in his arms and legs. A general amnesty four years later brought little respite; his ear stump was his red letter D for deserter, and it made him unemployable. "I could not get married while my ear is off," he said. "No woman would want me."

The ear amputation campaign went on for three days, May 17-19, 1994, in every city in Iraq. It was unknown to the outside world, as was so much that went on inside Saddam's Iraq. No one knows how many men lost their ears, but it must number in the thousands. One victim said his guards told him the total nationwide was 3,500. In Basra alone, 750 Iraqi soldiers were imprisoned at a police lockup called Seryat Dhowaria al Shirta, near the marketplace in downtown Basra. They were all taken in groups of 10 to each of the city's three major hospitals, where rotations of surgeons were set up to perform the amputations over that three-day period. All surgeons were obliged to participate; a few managed to flee the country, and one, at the Al Joumariyah Hospital, refused to pick up his scalpel and was executed on the spot, according to doctors there. There's little doubt that the order came down from the top; in Basra, victims said that they saw both Abdul Bakr Saddoun and Noori Saddoun, the two top Baath Party officials in the city, at one of the hospitals just before their amputations. "Why are you deserters?" Noori Saddoun allegedly said to Anwar Razak. "I said, 'I'm not,' and he hit me himself."

Anwar was one of many victims who were caught up in the sweep, even though they weren't deserters. He had been granted leave by his officer for the weekend, but didn't have his papers with him when he was stopped at a party checkpoint near his home and recognized as a soldier. They refused to check with his unit, probably since party cadres who caught deserters were paid a handsome bounty. In some cases, the bounties paid were as high as 200,000 dinars, according to Baath Party documents: roughly 18 months' average salary. After the beating from Saddoun, Anwar was taken to an operating room where he managed to lift his blindfold enough to see and recognize the surgeon. But he won't name him. "He was apologizing and said they forced him to do that," he said. "It wasn't his fault." They were not given painkillers, only tied down to their gurneys. "We were all crying, all of us," he said. Anwar lost both his ears; other victims only one. Why isn't clear.

Anwar Razak, like Ahmed Hussein and the other victims, was imprisoned afterward and tortured routinely. The guards taunted them. "They called us Abu Thanat Mabtura," he said. It's Arabic for Abu Earless, or Father Earless. Released after two years, his fiance broke up with him rather than marry a disfigured man with no job prospects. None of the earless men were able to find work, since the party controlled employment in most sectors of the economy. All of the earless men know numerous others who suffered the same fate. "I know at least 50 just here," said Hussein of Nasiriya, a small city.

Anwar's cousin, Nabil Abdul Razak, similarly was picked up in Basra for being away from his unit, though he says he had no intention of deserting. He was just AWOL for a couple days to finish his accounting exams. He was lucky, though. An accountant in a Pepsi firm owned by one of Basra's richest men, Ghareb Kubba, Nabil was also an old friend of Kubba's. Kubba managed to pay a million dinars in bribes to soften Nabil's mutilation. Nabil was allowed to give blood first, in case he needed to replace what he lost in surgery. He'd get painkillers. And most importantly, the doctor would only slice half his right ear off. "He kissed me and said he was really sorry but he had to do this." Other victims weren't so lucky. "Many of us bled to death in prison afterward," says Anwar Razak. Some were even branded with a hot poker at the hospital, with the Arabic word for coward scorched across their foreheads.

It's striking that none of the victims seem to blame the doctors who had to perform the operations. Many of the surgeons still seem racked with guilt and shame over it, and few will talk openly about it. "They wanted to make us complicit," said a surgeon at the Basra Teaching Hospital, who maintains he managed to evade the duty by calling in sick when his rotation came up. "And they wanted everybody to know about it." Afterward, doctors didn't dare try to help the disfigured men. "It was such a dirty business," said Dr. Abdul Khalik Zater Benyan, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the teaching hospital. "No one would dare do plastic surgery."

Plastic surgery is what these men all want most now. Many of them suffer hearing loss, and infections from poor aftercare in prison often caused inner ear problems, as well. Anwar Razak says he's had tinnitus ever since the amputation. Rebuilding the outer ear, using skin and cartilage from elsewhere on the patient's body, is well within reach with modern plastic surgery. "We're just hoping that some NGO from America will come and give us our ears back," says Nabil Razak. For men who have suffered so much, it's a modest request.