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Millions of pages of Iraqi pain

A team of archivists collecting evidence of Hussein's atrocities finds that each yellowing piece of paper is witness to a family's suffering.

September 17, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer


Staring directly at the camera, Zahra Badri begins: "I have not had one good day in my life."

Saddam Hussein's regime imprisoned and killed 23 of the Shiite woman's relatives, including her husband, her son and her pregnant daughter. To save two other sons, she kept them hidden inside her home for more than 20 years.

As Iraq is swept up in new bloodshed, a small team of archivists and videographers has begun the painstaking work of collecting, classifying and preserving evidence of such atrocities. Some of it is newly recorded, a cataloging of terrible memories, but much of it was documented in obsessive and chilling detail by Hussein's vast bureaucracy.

Each one of the more than 11 million yellowing pages and more than 600 hours of footage amassed by the Iraq Memory Foundation is witness to a family's pain, says its founder, Kanan Makiya, a longtime Iraqi exile in the United States and author of "Republic of Fear," the book that brought Hussein's savagery to international attention in 1989.

Many of those interviewed donate photographs and other personal mementos -- Badri gave the foundation her daughter's wedding dress.

Inspired by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Makiya had hoped the material would be used to help Iraqis face their past, heal their wounds and make a fresh start after U.S.-led forces toppled Hussein in 2003. Instead, he watched as the country slid into a nightmarish cycle of revenge, and as the memories that were supposed to help reconcile a tortured people became the subject of bitter dispute.

"In essence, what we ended up doing was the truth part, but nobody did the reconciliation part," he said by phone from London, where he was visiting a foundation colleague. "That needed Iraqi politicians to lead it, and here . . . the new political class failed Iraq, as it has failed Iraq on so many levels."

Until Iraqis face the horrors in their past, he believes, they are doomed to repeat them. Every day, Baghdad streets yield another grim collection of corpses, many punctured with electric drills or seared with hot irons. They are victims of sectarian death squads linked to some of the largest groups in government and remnants of the former regime trying to claw their way back into power.

"My life is very complicated, a never-ending saga of pain and sadness. I cannot bear much more pain. I went through a traumatic time with the death of my daughter and son. My son was executed. I was told that my daughter, who was four months pregnant, died of a hemorrhage in the arms of my sister-in-law. She died of fear in prison before they could interrogate her. That's all I know of her."

-- Zahra Badri, recorded in Baghdad on Nov. 10, 2004

In the chaotic aftermath of Hussein's fall, thousands of Iraqis descended on the security offices in every Baghdad neighborhood, tearing through the files for answers about missing loved ones. Boxes of documents were carted off by political groups and others, many of them to be bought and sold later on the street. Others were torched by enraged throngs, or former functionaries seeking to hide their deeds.

The largest collection -- an estimated 100 million pages, Makiya says -- ended up in the hands of the U.S. government. The U.S. Embassy said about 20 million pages were being held at a secure location for use by the Iraqi High Tribunal, charged with prosecuting the worst crimes committed under Hussein. Others were transferred outside the country.

The Memory Foundation, which is funded by the U.S. government, obtained the permission of the now-defunct U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council before retrieving a vast store of Baath Party records from the party's Baghdad headquarters.

But in an echo of the divisions that are tearing this country apart, squabbling has broken out over who should control the documents and how they should be used.

Iraq's National Library and Archives, which lost rare Ottoman texts, minutes from government meetings and other historical documents to the looting and destruction, argues that it should be the repository of all national records. It accuses the Memory Foundation and others of acting illegally.

Former detainees, who formed the Iraqi Assn. of Free Prisoners, argue that the records of Hussein's abuses belong to those who suffered them. The association has supplied more than 60,000 people with certified copies of court rulings and execution orders it seized during the looting to help them reclaim jobs and property taken under Hussein.

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