Exclusive: Iranian father reveals painful abuse in Abu Ghraib prison
In an exclusive interview for Al Mayadeen, Mohammed Belandian tells the world what he has seen, felt, and endured at one of the world's worst, most notorious detention facilities under the US occupation of Iraq.
"I was visiting [the Shrine of] Imam Hussain, and I have no political affiliation - what did I do? What was my crime for them to violate, torture, and destroy me?" said Mohammed Belandian, an Iranian torture survivor of Abu Ghraib, who still relives his pain 19 years later. "I wake up terrified every night."
With an aura laden in anxiety, trembling hands, and a face perspiring in sweat and perpetual disappointment which has brewed over the course of almost two decades, Belandian, an Iranian national, narrates a gut-wrenching tale, in an exclusive Al Mayadeen interview, about the period of time that changed his life forever. The interview was conducted by Al Mayadeen correspondent in Tehran Bissan Tarraf.
Belandian, who worked a routine job of dyeing carpets, was arrested by US forces and taken to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, simply for the fact that he was Iranian. The Abu Ghraib torture prison is one of the US’ most flagrant and notorious violation scandals which had affected the lives of many innocent Iraqis.
In the interview, with visibly troubled body language and distressed health conditions, Belandian begins recollecting: "In 2003, I traveled to Iraq to visit the holy shrines in Karbala and Najaf; my last visit was to the city of Kadhimiya. One night, I went out for dinner, during which I started hearing gunshots. The restaurant owner told me not to go anywhere, but I had no understanding of the Arabic language – I thought he was telling me to exit immediately."
Upon making his way out, a dismayed Belandian was met by the US Army patrolling the streets of Baghdad: "One policeman asked me: 'Where are you from?' I told him, 'I’m Iranian.'"
And thus, Belandian found himself in Abu Ghraib; what was once supposed to be a spiritual visit to holy shrines turned into almost two years of terrorist accusations, torture, and abuse.
Belandian was falsely accused of bombing the Baghdad Hotel. In prison, he appealed to his captors, frantically telling them where he was at the time of the bombing, and that he had nothing to do with it – to no avail.
A digit, rather than a soul
Under racist premises and an erroneous accusation and sentence, Belandian was thrown into Washington’s hell-hole of a prison, becoming one of many victims of US occupation and aggression. The prisoners were dehumanized in every way possible.
The prisoners had no names - they were identified by numbers instead, he revealed: “After giving me the number, they put it in my hand like a bracelet. They told us it should stay in your hands." Immediately ascribing into a mere digit rather than a soul, Belandian wore his number for a year and 7 months.
Speaking to Tarraf, the former prisoner revealed the torture methods he had endured and witnessed. Clearly distressed and troubled, Belandian speaks of his trauma, seeming to relive it over and over again – this time facing a camera.
Tarraf notes that she has cried watching American-directed Hollywood films, but this is a different kind of feature, a horror-film-turned-reality. She observed that he was very much tense, and angry, sitting with his fists clenched throughout the interview, where he spoke of what many are afraid to speak of.
False hopes, military dogs, evil laughter and bearing the prick
In the interview, Belandian narrated how the soldiers tortured him with hope at times, making false promises to release him eventually only to be met with disappointment and endless agony. This was continuously followed by nothing but more torture.
At times, the American soldiers would strip him of his clothing, baring him, offering him as a meal to the dogs: This is literal and unexaggerated.
"A black dog bit my leg, gouging out my flesh… While the blonde dog did not leave me. The American soldier threatened me that if I block the dog, he would kill me.”
As the dog approached Belandian, instilling terror and fear in his wake, Belandian’s nervous system shut down and he fainted, after which they sent over an American woman who, in all laughter and pleasure, shamelessly inflicted pain by stitching his leg with no anesthetic.
Pointing to an image during the interview of an American woman with her thumbs up beside his wounded body, he said: “At that time, they sent me an American woman. She started stitching my leg with needles without anesthetic, laughing and saying to me: You bear the pain."
This wouldn't mark the first time American soldiers laugh as they torture... or even murder.
“One day I went out at night to get some fresh air and I heard an explosion at that time. It targeted the same tent that I was in," he said. “All my fellow prisoners were murdered and their bodies were ripped to shreds… Three American soldiers were standing and looking at the bodies while laughing.”
Holding up the photographs, he described an episode where a soldier, wearing his combat boots, stood on his broken ribs which were severed from repeated beating, demanding that Belandian crawls to his room while the soldier was on his back.
“I can’t describe to you the severity of the pain,” he remarked.
American soldiers raped women... and men
Addressing rape and sexual abuse, Belandian revealed bitter memories of the deliberate, systemized ‘rape cells’ that were installed in Abu Ghraib.
See next: CIA’s torture program exposed
“I used to always hear the screams of a girl who was being tortured in front of her brother and father… her brother's name was Allawi," he recalled. "I used to hear her father and brother beg the American soldiers to stop torturing her..."
Describing the systemic use of rape as a torture method in the women's cells, Belandian said: “At the opposite end of my cell, there was a solitary confinement cell for women. I could hear their screams and their voices begging the soldiers to stop raping them.”
Belandian recounted when a US soldier threatened him that if he does not take all his clothes off, he would shoot him: “One night, I heard dogs coming from all the cells... Suddenly they opened the door of my cell and the US soldier forced me out and asked me to take off my clothes. When I took some time to do it, he aimed his weapon at me and said to me furiously: Take off your clothes…"
Tarraf had a myriad of questions about rape, an excruciating torture method cemented and affirmed by numerous testimonies of Abu Ghraib survivors. However, Belandian was speaking in front of his wife and two daughters, and thus the correspondent refrained from raising such a question.
She said, “In his eyes, I felt there was something missing: There was someone looking for safety, someone who wanted to tell the whole world: America has violated me.”
The correspondent also noted that Belandian’s complexion was flushed red, only to learn that he suffers from respiratory problems due to cold flashes he sustained during detention.
From trauma to truth
Abu Ghraib, today, is called the Baghdad Central Prison, and it is located in the city of Abu Ghraib, 32 km from Baghdad. The detention facility is notoriously known for Washington's and the international coalition’s use and abuse.
Images exposing the Abu Ghraib torture scandal were publicized on February 6, 2016, after judicial pleadings lasted 12 years since the crime was brought to light in 2004.
The most prominent images, in relation to this interview, are the two images of when Belandian was visibly frightened after being attacked by a dog, in addition to the other photo where his wound was sown with no anesthetic.
The interview marks the first time Mohammed Belandian testifies to an Arab media outlet that he, in fact, was the man in these world-famous photographs, valiantly exposing the true face of “American democracy.”
Before the heart-breaking experience, Belandian had a carpet-dyeing job that put the bread on the table for his family. However, today, he is unable to consistently work due to his dysfunctional respiratory system after he had been released.
Despite the pain and woes, Belandian strives to share his story with the world, to be a living witness and testament to the truth about 'US democracy', despite Washington paying billions of dollars to brand itself as humanity’s savior and the beacon of peace and humanity.
"These people do not enjoy humanity. Americans do not recognize others as human beings; they only recognize themselves as the only humans, - if they believed in humanity, they would not have committed all these crimes."
Belandian refuses to be just a mere number, with everything done to him to perish from generation and on. He pushes his narrative forward to shake the conscience of the world, and to tell his truth – with all the courage he has been able to muster.