Shaking Off Saddam

Adnan Shaker has a tiny passport picture of himself that he's somehow managed to save during his three years in one of Saddam Hussein's prisons. It shows a handsome man in his 20s, lean and fit, with a luxurious mustache and thick black hair. Today his own three children would probably not recognize him as the same person.

His hair is cropped short. Half his teeth have been knocked out, his face is battered and the eyes sunken and haunted-looking. His chest is covered with 50 separate cuts from a knife, his back has even more marks, which he says are cigarette burns. Two of his fingers were broken and deliberately bent into a permanent, contorted position and there's a hole in the middle of his palm where his torturers stabbed him and twisted the blade.

Today, though, Adnan was a happy man, so happy that he could barely restrain his excitement. He was finally freed from a prison in downtown Basra, after British troops entered the city and drove the remaining defenders away. And as he took a small group of American journalists on a tour of the hospital, he enthusiastically led a crowd of fellow ex-prisoners, their families, friends and passersby in the first rendition of a pro-American chant that any of us have so far heard: "Nam nam Bush , Sad-Dam No" ("Yes, yes, Bush, Saddam No"). They chanted and danced, filling one of their former cells in a spontaneous celebration.

The prison was originally the School for Adult Reeducation, until the authorities converted it after the Shiite uprising against Saddam in 1991 and, perversely renaming it the Jail for Adult Reeducation, used it as a place to punish rebellious Shiites. The white walls outside are covered with blue-painted Baathist and pro-Saddam slogans, but nothing announces that it's a prison. In the central courtyard, there's a long-disused basketball hoop, under which are arrays of metal beds for prisoners who were lucky enough to sleep outside. Arrayed around that were groups of classrooms, now cells, which housed so many men that they had to lie down in shifts to sleep. Prisoners whose families had enough money to bribe the authorities at the prison went into Unit One, where they were only occasionally beaten; it cost the equivalent of about $1,000 for that privilege. Unit Two was worse, and so on. In Unit Four, where Adnan lived for his 10-year sentence, the prisoners say they were tortured daily, sometimes thrice daily. Only Unit Five was worse, in a sense. It was where they took them to die.

Adnan says his initial crime was simply stealing some bread, but even that had a political dimension. "The bread was only for the ruling Baathists and the rest of us could go hungry--they didn't care. We had no choice but to steal." In prison, though, he was tortured to get him to admit that he was an enemy of the regime. "They wanted me to say I stole the bread because I was against the party." He wouldn't admit that, but when they asked him to say. "Long live Saddam," he refused.

Adnan claims the tortures became daily occurrences, and he and other prisoners practically dragged us visitors through a succession of cells and torture chambers. In one, electrodes hung from the ceiling. He showed how they were placed on either side of his head while the voltage was turned on. On a wall were some hooks, high up. They produced a concrete reinforcing rod that had been bent into a sort of twisted figure eight, so that each loop served as manacles, and the middle was hooked to the wall. One room even had a complete dentist's chair and drill set, which the prisoners could use for tooth problems if their relatives paid enough--but was more commonly employed solely to inflict pain.

Now, says Adnan to general consent, "I want to kill all Baathists, I want to kill Saddam." He pulled up his shirt to show the knife wounds and turned around to show the cigarette burn marks. "When we said we were thirsty they brought us out here to drink," he says, running over to a drainage channel in the middle of the old basketball court, and miming getting down on his knees with his hands tied behind his back and drinking the greenish muck that streamed through.

Unit 4 was reached through an oddly yellow fence with spikes on top, and the mostly windowless cells were filthy and bedless. Perhaps saddest were two rooms, each hardly bigger than a normal bedroom, reserved for children; they had been crammed with scores of kids from 12 to 16 years old, say the former inmates. Ali Nasr, 13 at the time, was caught up in a sweep when Shiites throughout Iraq rioted after the murder of their Grand Ayatollah, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sader (also called Sader II) in Najaf. Sader had been gunned down with his two sons, and Iraqi authorities claimed to have no knowledge of who killed him. Nonetheless, it followed the killings of a series of lesser Shiite leaders in previous years, and the regime's execution of one of his fellow ayatollahs for his role in the 1991 uprising. Ali spent six months in the juvenile wing of Unit Four, sleeping on his feet when the cell was too crowded to lie down, or taking turns on the floor with other prisoners. The boy was still too scared to talk about it, even now.

Then there was Unit Five, a long corridor where prisoners were hanged or, in many cases, simply left to die of their torture wounds. In the looted rubble of the prison office, the liberated prisoners pulled out ID cards and photographs of men they had known who went to Five. There was Hilal Abbas, whose Ministry of Defense ID card said he was an officer in the Army; he had been heard chanting "Death to Saddam" during the uprising, and was hanged. Abdul Latif Sabhan had already had an eye put out by torture by the time his ID card photo was taken; he died of torture wounds. Fadil Jarallah died similarly, but his case was tragic even by Iraqi standards. He had, they said, looked at a Baathist on the street the wrong way. There were 16 other cards of men identified by the ex-prisoners as having died there. Many others perished as well; how many, they couldn't say.

Just before British troops entered Basra on Sunday, their guards locked them all in their cells and fled ahead of the advance. Among them was the warden, Jamal al-Tikriti, a member of Saddam's home tribe. "We'll find the Baathists," said Adnan. "And even if they have guns, we'll tear them to pieces with our teeth." And with that he led another chant of "Nam Nam Bush, Sad-dam No." Elsewhere in Basra, buildings were set on fire by looters and some of the unruly crowds were even denouncing the invaders. But for Adnan and his friends, there was no doubt whose side they were on now.