BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Sometime during his imprisonment, maybe when he was hung naked with his arms tied behind him and guards were beating him, Salah Abdul-Kareem was as good as dead. This is known only because he is alive.
He speaks softly, slowly, nervously. When he reaches for the most painful memories, his hands tremble as if a residual shock is passing through them.
Sometimes when he talks he looks intently at a spot only he can see, as if viewing a film clip of the memory he is relaying. When he seems a word or two from tears, he looks up and manages to smile. It is a weak smile, but strong enough to keep him from crying.
"If you lose your life, you lose everything," he says. "I lost my life. I lost everything."
He is exceptionally pleasant and polite and is a handsome man, 33 years old, but the skin under his eyes is darker than on the rest of his face, so he looks older. He is skinny. The watchband on his left wrist is tightened as much as it can be, but he easily could fit two or three fingers beneath it. He gets tired easily.
But he is alive, and he knows that many prisoners are not. Somewhere in Iraq are the missing brothers and sons, thousands of men, perhaps tens of thousands, who have died and will never come back from Saddam Hussein's prisons.
Some of the inmates were common criminals. Others -- it's unlikely the number will ever be known -- were political prisoners, as broadly defined by the regime, and never formally charged with a crime and never brought to trial but nevertheless tortured, imprisoned, tortured more.
"Help us, help us," the families of the missing yell to anybody they think is an American, now that Hussein is gone. But to talk to them is to realize that they suspect their missing are dead.
Abdul-Kareem was, too, as far as he is concerned. So his story, in a sense, might be told by those who are lost, if they could come back as he did. It is a story of secret police and their secret files, of brutality and perseverance and bravery, though Abdul-Kareem would not call it that. There was betrayal and death and, in Abdul-Kareem's case, life again.
At 19 years old and having seen the Iraq-Iran war shred young men by the thousands, Abdul-Kareem decided he would join the army so that he would be an officer, maybe escape any fighting because he was smart and educated and his brains were more valuable than his hands.
The problem with the plan was that once in the army, he could never get out. That was fine with him for a few years; it seemed a decent route considering some half-million Iraqis died in the war.
Change of heart
Then, in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
"I saw what was happening," Abdul-Kareem says. "We were invaders and I didn't like that. I said, `This is what the army has become?'"
He waited for his opportunity. Iraq was pushed out of Kuwait. He waited some more. At 24 years old, as a first lieutenant in the Iraqi army, he saw what he thought was an opening. A friend in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, knew someone willing to smuggle him to Turkey for $400.
Abdul-Kareem, the fourth of seven children, adores his family, especially his mother and father. They lived in a comfortable house big enough for all of them, and after each three-week period in the army, usually in Basra, he could return home for a week.
To desert meant that he might never see his family again. And if he decided to leave, he could not tell them beforehand, could not risk what might happen to them.
"I decided, first I get out, then I work to communicate with the family," he says. "I made arrangements so nobody would know I was going, so they would not execute my family."
He sold his car. It was the summer of 1994, he recalls, and he finished three weeks in Basra and was supposed to go home to Baghdad. Instead he headed to Kirkuk, where he began a journey that lasted eight years and killed part of him.
He met the smuggler there, got in his car, traveled back roads, sweated the checkpoints, got past them, continued on. He was 50 miles from Zakhu, a few miles from the Turkish border.
"We saw two cars stopped. They were military agents," he recalls. "The smuggler stopped the car near their cars, and one of the military policemen asked me for identification. I said I didn't have any identification. Immediately, he punched me in the mouth. They tied me up and put me in the trunk of a car. They drove me five or six hours, I don't know. When I got out, I was in Baghdad, but I didn't know it."
Tools of brutality
He is still not certain where he was, but undoubtedly, he says, it was one of the jails run by Iraq's secret police. They had information on him, probably from the smuggler, whom the military agents did not touch at that final checkpoint, he thinks.
At one of those prisons run by the secret police, the Security Directorate, the remnants of Hussein's brutality were strewn last week across the ground. Prison photographs of young men. Their fingerprints. Did they survive? What kind of tortures did they go through?