A volunteer committee of former Iraqi prisoners has been poring over hundreds of thousands of documents that detail arrests and executions under Saddam Hussein. They are trying to help families learn what happened to relatives who disappeared without a trace. The committee is being assisted by a former Iraqi prisoner who described the tortures he endured in Saddam Hussein's prisons.
Saad Mohammed, 39, stood in a room jammed with open metal file drawers and large white grain sacks overflowing with documents that detail the horrors of Saddam Hussein's rule. The committee he works for has taken over the house of a former Baath Party official that sits on the banks of the Tigris River.
The gaunt, bearded man said he spent from 1996 to the year 2000 in jail. For four years, he said, he lived mostly standing up with 50 other men in a room that measured four by three meters. "They turned on an air conditioner so it's very cold. They pour water on us so there will be fungus on our bodies," he said.
Saad said the prisoners in his cell would take turns sleeping on the floor for a few hours each day. They were never let out, he said, except for sessions of torture. "The door is this tall, just one meter. You have to crawl to go inside," he said. "So they control people [so they cannot] escape."
What crime did he commit to deserve this kind of punishment?
Saad said he cursed Saddam Hussein in conversations with his friends in the street outside his house. He thinks a member of the ruling Baath Party overheard and turned him in to the authorities.
The police came in the middle of the night to get him. "They come from the roof and come inside and pulled me out," he said.
Saad pointed to a padded metal table behind him, with an electric plug dangling from a panel of dials. The machine was found in the military intelligence offices nearby and brought to the office of the Committee of Free Prisoners to keep as evidence. He said one just like it was used for his torture sessions.
He explained how the machine worked. They stretch the victim on the bed. They tie his legs. They tie his hands. They put his head on the 'pulling machine,' then they keep stretching him until he gives his confession.
Saad pulled up his faded shirt and pointed to his waist. He said there was a metal belt on the bed that was wrapped around his waist after his body was stretched to the breaking point. "Then a belt with metal in it [was attached], and this belt had electricity in it," he said. "They used to torture us with stretching and the belt of electricity."
Saad said the men who tortured him said it was to teach him never to badmouth Saddam or the Baath Party ever again.
Saad's family was never told where he was kept or if he were still alive. He said when his parents tried to find him, they too were arrested. He found out when he was released that they had died in prison.
Saad Mohamed's story is not unique. The documents piled up around him reveal similar horror stories of Iraqis who were imprisoned, tortured, mutilated or executed during more than two decades under Saddam Hussein.
The Committee of Free Prisoners estimates it has retrieved more than one million documents. In the past two weeks, volunteers have already filled four ledger books with more than 25,000 names of Iraqis who disappeared into the prisons and have not been heard from since.
The files reveal a pattern of arrests and executions in the early 1980s among Iraqi students accused of membership in a Shia Muslim party that had ties to Iran, a country Saddam Hussein waged war against for eight years. Others were jailed because they belonged to the outlawed Communist Party.
Thousands were held like Saad just for criticizing the government: men, women, children - their sex, age, religion or standing in society made little difference. "We lived in the prison called Iraq," he said. "That's all that I tasted of this life. Big prison called Iraq."
Saad is bitter. He wants those who held him punished. Then, he said, he wants to leave Iraq and start a new life somewhere else.