by Anthony Browne | Timesonline | May 23, 2003
THE small dank cells with cold stone floors, tiny windows and iron bars for a door used to house criminals and the victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now Khan Bani Saad prison, overlooked by watchtowers and surrounded by razorwire, is filled with families who are victims, not of the war, but of the peace.
Sabrir Hassan Ismael, a mother of six, held her three-year-old daughter Zahraa in the cell that is now their living room and bedroom, and cried: “Look at me; look at my family. We live in prison. We can’t buy food because we don’t have money. We have no gas to cook.
“We can’t sleep because it’s very hot. There are huge insects that bite us. All night my daughters cry and they can’t sleep. I live without any hope. Just look at us.”
Outside children play in the foetid puddles, swirling dust and searing heat of the prison courtyard, where prisoners once walked in dread.
Before the end of the war Mrs Sabrir lived with her husband, a local mayor, on a farm in the town of Khanaqin, close to the Iranian border. They are members of the Arab Saraefien tribe that had survived unscathed through the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq. As opponents of Saddam they even welcomed the American invasion.
But it is the peace, and the disintegration of Saddam’s grip, that has destroyed their lives. On April 11, two days after the fall of Saddam, Kurdish fighters entered Khanaqin, ordering all 15,000 Arabs to leave within 48 hours.
“There were so many Kurdish fighters we couldn’t count them. They came into our house, and fired into the air, and grabbed me by the shoulder and said we had to leave in 48 hours or they would kill us,” said Mrs Sabrir’s son, Amar Hassan Tahar, 26.
The tribal elders insist that Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK Kurdish political party, was behind the purge. They went to the local governor, also a Kurd, to plead for more time. “But he said if Talabani gives us 48 hours, he will give us just 24, or else he would send in the bulldozers to flatten our houses,” said Fadhel Jasas, one of the elders.
The following day Mrs Sabrir and her family had not left, and the Kurds returned, installing eight armed men and women to live in their house. “They ordered us to cook for them, and slept there, and said they would kill us if we didn’t leave the next day. The next morning they threw all our belongings out in the street, and we left,” Mr Amar said.
After seven days of travelling by foot and by donkey from Khanaqin, 1,500 of the tribe ended up in the abandoned prison, 30 miles north of Baghdad. They had nowhere else to go.
They are part of the rising tide of internal refugees in Iraq, forced out of their homes by the ethnic conflict that yesterday resulted in more gunfights between Kurds and Arabs in the town of Kirkuk.
Every day on Iraq’s highways, Arabs who have been forced out of their homes are drifting south hoping to find somewhere to live. Many, but not all, of the Arabs in Khanaqin had been forced to move there in 1975 from southern Iraq because they opposed Saddam’s regime.
Saddam wanted to Arabise the predominantly Kurdish towns close to the Iranian border. The dictator gave the tribe houses and land, which he reportedly bought off the Kurds, but now the Kurds have taken them back as part of a drive to reverse the process.
The occupants of Khan Bani Saad prison, forced to leave their land for a second time, just want somewhere they call their own.
“I want a home to live in and land to farm” said Mrs Sabrir’s husband, Hassan Tahar Yassim. They have identified land nearby that used to belong to Saddam, but others have already occupied it.
The tribe has appealed for help to the coalition forces, but no one has even visited them. They have eaten or sold almost all their animals, and have only a week left of food. Now they hate the Americans.
“None of the American promises has happened. It is unbelievable what has happened,” Mr Yassim said.
His son concludes: “We have discovered that Saddam is better than the Americans.”
Hadeb Hamed Hamed, the tribe’s sheikh, sat on mats on the prison officer’s porch, and said: “The Americans promised us food and medicine and freedom. But we have lost our homes, our land, our crops. Now we live in prison with nothing, and they ignore us.
“It is the allied forces that have done this to us. When we run out of food, I don’t know what we will do.”
In fact, he does know, because with starvation looming, he has been talking about it with the other elders.
“If we don’t have a solution, we will fight the Americans even if they kill us. It is better than sitting here with nothing and just dying,” he said.