They stood out, these three visitors to Los Angeles. They looked jarringly out of place in the lobby of their Hollywood hotel, a place full of young, excited Americans, some of them seemingly high on more than youth, running in and out, playing "hold the elevator," their shouts and shrieks echoing in the vast hall.
The visitors made their way to the lounge area slowly, out of deference to the blinded one, Yonan Yousif Mansoor, who had none of the cautious-but-sure moves of one long-blind or well-trained.
The youngest of them, Adil Rafik Lazim, walked with one aluminum crutch, his right leg appearing to end in some strange artificial-looking apparatus jammed into his shoe.
The third, Raad Abd-Al-Hadi Mousa, unsmiling and intense, moved stiffly, favoring one foot.
The three are Iraqis who not too long ago were prisoners of war in the Islamic Republic of Iran. They were accompanied in Los Angeles recently by several Iraqi representatives from the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad and their embassy in Washington, and a few friends from the National Assn. of Arab-Americans.
"We are soldiers of the so-called forgotten war," they said through an interpreter at an interview.
A war of high attrition that has been waged on the Iran-Iraq borders since 1980, the war has not been so forgotten of late. The Iranians, steadfastly refusing to negotiate a truce unless Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is removed from office, have been reported readying for a major confrontation.
Also, while the POWs and their companions did not say so, it seemed no accident that the visit came in the wake of well-publicized charges and reports out of Iran concerning the alleged use of chemical warfare on the part of Iraq.
Rather, Mousa said, they had come "to show the American public the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the Iranian regime and to try to move hearts to pressure the International Red Cross to do more work for the release of 50,000 prisoners."
Specifically, they were urging, they said, a mutual exchange of prisoners, the granting of permission by the Iranian regime for regular visits to the POW camps by the International Committee of the Red Cross, thrown out by the Iranians since 1984 on accusations of spying for Iraq and provoking violence, and that the Iranians agree to release the names of prisoners.
Over the course of the war, the Red Cross has had harsh charges to make against both sides regarding the treatment of prisoners and observance of the Geneva Convention. In the past few years, however, the criticism has focused most on Iran, protesting the same situations that the POWs announced they seek to change.
In a statement about the conditions made by Alexander Hay, president of the international committee of the Red Cross in 1984 in Geneva, the Red Cross charged that "ideological and political pressure, intimidation, systematic 're-education' and attacks on the honor and dignity of the prisoners have remained a constant feature of life in the camps."
The Iraqi POWs who came to Los Angeles sought to underscore those charges by telling their individual stories through the media and directly to individuals, especially Arab-Americans, as they would later that day at a dinner at the Arab Community Center.
The oldest of them, Mansoor, 41, was a private in the volunteer Iraqi Popular Army when he ran out of ammunition and was captured east of Basra in May, 1982. A Chaldean Christian from Sulaymaniyah in the northeast, he was married, the father of three children and had been a government technician.
A balding, gray-haired, heavyset man, he speaks, the interpreter said, a colloquial Arabic that is both colorful and humorous. Mansoor remembered the only meal given him while being transported, "a piece of bread and three dates"; he said of the desert location of the prison camp near the Afghan border, "even a pigeon does not live there," and recalled coming upon two prisoners engaged in a game, not of chess as he first thought, but in "who could remove the most lice from his body," then dryly commented that because he was Christian he had to clean the toilets.
It was his Christianity that got him most in trouble in prison, he said. He would not convert. And thus the beatings that eventually blinded him, permanently in his right eye and temporarily, it is hoped, in his left. He also lost his hearing in his right ear. Those injuries finally won him his freedom when he was part of an exchange of handicapped prisoners last October.
As he spoke, his colleagues had him lean over to show the deep gash that traverses most of the right side of his head.
"Three-face cable," they all say knowingly, in English. They are words that returned frequently during the three narratives, always in English, always referring to some sort of heavy electrical cable they said the Iranians use for beatings.