war atrocities

The story of Private Charlie

On March 17 EL PAÍS released a video in which Spanish soldiers were seen kicking two detainees at the Diwaniya base For the first time in Spain, a military court has opened an investigation into prisoner abuse The testimony of Private Charlie (an assumed name used by a serviceman stationed in Iraq between August and December 2003), now offered by EL PAÍS, does not clear up who was behind that barbaric act, but it does describe the environment that made it possible: a combination of tension, inadequate training, phony camaraderie and a feeling of impunity

A Spanish helicopter pilot in the iraqi city of Diwaniya.
A Spanish helicopter pilot in the iraqi city of Diwaniya.BERNARDO PÉREZ

I joined the Army in late 2001, still influenced by the terrible impact of 9/11. I had just turned 20 and believed without a shadow of a doubt that the Muslims were our enemies, and that the West was a bastion of civilization and culture. When they asked me what unit I wanted to enlist in, I asked for one that would ensure me a spot in the line of fire in case of conflict. I ended up in a regiment that was embedded into the Rapid Action Force (FAR). It was considered an elite unit, and because of that, the psychological and physical requirements were very demanding, and the discipline stringent.

Life at the barracks. After a few months I felt fully integrated. The only thing on my mind was the Army, and conversations with my colleagues always focused on military life. Not everyone adapted as well. One kid was blacklisted from day one. He was very unruly, and every time he failed to follow an order, we all had to do push-ups as punishment. Everyone except for him, that is. While we sweated it out, brushing the ground with our chins, he just sat in front of us. We were told to look at him and thank him for our predicament. And so we did. He was assaulted on several occasions, and I sometimes participated in these attacks. At the time it felt fair to me. To us, he was the black sheep of the squadron.

I, on the other hand, was a good soldier. I was obedient, I was in good physical shape, I was resistant to stress. I did make mistakes, though. Sometimes I would goof up while driving the armored vehicle in the field. And every time I made a mistake, the sergeant would kick me in the head. Everyone stared. The public humiliation hurt me more than the blows. That is why I asked him to punch me in the ribs instead. At the time, I was certain that I deserved physical punishment.

To climb down from the armored vehicle, you had to put your foot on a side ledge. But none of us did that. We just jumped straight down to the ground, a distance of over a meter. We did this up to five times a day. My knees were hurting so badly that I could barely walk. But I did not ask for a medical leave, because I didn't want my buddies to consider me weak. I eventually went to the hospital for treatment and that removed the pain, but not the injury, which became a chronic condition.

Mock prisoners. About four months before heading out to Iraq we conducted a nighttime exercise in a forest near our base. The squadron split up into two groups: on one side, the "out-of-gracers" - the soldiers who, for one reason or another, had fallen out of grace with their superiors. On the other side, everyone else. Their mission was to avoid capture, and our mission was to capture them. We made four prisoners. My sergeant ordered me to select two for questioning. We didn't know what would happen next, because we'd been given no information at all. I ruled out two of the captives - one because she was a woman, and the other one because he was my best friend. Both remained seated on the ground, blindfolded, during the exercise, which had three parts.

First they ordered us to hit the "prisoners." The order was not aimed at anyone in particular, nor were we told how to do it, but in these situations you can feel the impunity, and it brings out the monster we all have inside. Or at least that's the way I've justified it to myself all these years. The others started kicking and punching the two prisoners. I'd never hit anyone in my life, so at first I just stood still. But my sergeant pushed me to get me to participate. I moved closer and kicked one of them. Once I started, I couldn't stop.

Complaints were ignored

M. G.

A few years after returning from Iraq, Private Charlie had to leave the Army. The Military Medical Court ruled that he suffered a "major depressive disorder, with a remote chance of reversibility, and constituting a complete inability to carry out his service duties." According to the Army doctors, he did not develop the condition during his military period, nor was there any cause-effect relationship with his military service. If they had admitted that his problems had originated in Iraq, he would have been entitled to a pension.

Charlie produced a report from the psychiatrist who treated him six hours a day and described his condition as "an unspecified anxiety disorder, probably connected to his service as a soldier in Iraq." In his appeal against the military ruling, which EL PAÍS had access to, Charlie described some of the episodes included in this story, including humiliation of other soldiers, abuse by his superiors and brutality against prisoners.

Despite the gravity of the facts and the names provided by Private Charlie, no investigation was ever conducted.

After beating them, we were ordered to pull down their pants and underwear. A colleague of mine brushed the barrel of his rifle against the anus of one of the "prisoners," pretending to stick it in as he made fun of the situation. A superior said: "What are you doing? Would you like it if others did that to you?" But then he left, and my sergeant forced the pair to kneel one behind the other, so that one guy's genitals were in contact with the other guy's ass. He made them move as though they were copulating. "Do the choo-choo train!" he laughed. One of them was whimpering.

Lastly, the interrogation was directed by another sergeant. They were asked all kinds of questions, from their parents' names to who their superiors were. He kept alternating the questions (some lacked all military relevance, some were relevant). But every four questions, he repeated a question he had already asked before. The goal was to test the prisoner's sincerity and his resistance. The sergeant spoke slowly and only hit them lightly if they gave different answers from the ones they had given before. But I did not have that kind of patience; I was tired and nervous, and I began insulting and hitting them until a colleague told me that this was not effective and drew me away. I'm not sure what happened later. I know that within five minutes, they were ready to answer anything they were asked, even if in theory they were only supposed to give us their name, dog tag number, grade and birth date. I can surmise that the goal of this exercise was to prepare us in case we were made prisoner in Iraq. If so, nobody told us. Neither I nor the majority of my colleagues played the role of prisoners. Just jailers.

Rules of engagement. My sergeant explained them to me in three minutes, when we were already in Kuwait, getting acclimatized before going into hostile territory. I remember he said that, unlike the Americans, we could only shoot if we were shot at first, and that the vehicles with the red half-moon were untouchable, although even that principle was relative, because the insurgents could use them for war purposes. And that was all.

The goal of the mission. I went into Iraq in mid-August 2003. The war had begun on March 20 and the situation was not excessively hostile. But in the four and a half months I spent in the theater of operations, security deteriorated. The Plus Ultra Brigade was in charge of controlling the cities of Diwaniya and Nayaf and their provinces. The contingent comprised 1,300 servicemen (Spanish and Central American), of which 400 of us belonged to operative units, and 900 to logistics, health, communications and so on. All the field work fell to just a few of us. This meant back-to-back 14-hour days, Monday through Sunday, and it was not rare to be pulled out of bed in the middle of the night for a mission, or to be placed on night duty after a day patrol. Our missions were presence patrols (a show of strength so the Iraqis would know who was in charge, in the words of an official); escorting any vehicle coming out of the barracks; setting up road checkpoints; watching sensitive spots (like a bridge close to the base) and protecting fuel convoys. Half of my Iraq stay was spent escorting these very long columns of tanker trucks carrying fuel for the Americans.

The climate was hell. It reached 50 degrees Celsius in the summer. There were frequent cases of sunstroke, and my feet were getting cooked, but I couldn't abandon my post until I vomited or fainted. The knee injury I got two weeks after arriving here only got cured when I returned to Spain.

We slept in canvas hammocks that destroyed our backs and necks, inside insalubrious barracks (we shared them with two scorpions until the place was fumigated) that were pretty packed: dozens of soldiers lived there, and there was no privacy whatsoever. The catering service left a lot to be desired, and people often ate what their families sent them from Spain in care packages. In any case, most days we were out on missions outside the base, and ate combat rations.

With the Iraqis. At first we were very welcome. People greeted us like liberators. I found this normal, because after all, we had freed them from Saddam Hussein and brought them democracy and prosperity. The problem is, it wasn't true. I couldn't tell you how the change came about. All I know is that we were subjected to extreme temperatures, suffering from discomfort, working like crazy, barely getting enough sleep and hearing gunshots all the time. The worst part is that any person around us could be an insurgent ready to immolate himself, and any object could be a trap. The effects of this permanent state of tension were visible: I lost nearly 10 kilos and developed nervous tics. A moment came when we started feeling a visceral hatred for the Iraqis; we used to talk about how we would kill as many as we could given the chance. And I'm sure they felt the same about us.

Road checks. These are control points on the roads where vehicles are randomly checked for weapons. The American command reprimanded us for not meeting the arrest quota, so these missions became more frequent. Naturally, everyone found with a weapon got a blow or two out of it, but there was a special case. We stopped a sedan with two men aged around 30 inside. We made them open the trunk and found a sack full of dollars and Iraqi bills (around 200,000 dollars, they told me). My sergeant decided they were insurgents. We picked up the money and arrested both men at rifle point. We blindfolded them, bound their hands and put them inside the armored vehicle. The car they were driving was left at the scene. The trip back to the base took four hours. The sergeant ordered them beaten, and so they were, even though there was no reason for it since they posed no threat to us. When we got to the base they ordered me to take them to the prison cell. Since they couldn't see, I grabbed one by the shoulder and twisted his arm so he would hurt himself if he tried to get away. They spent two days at the España base, where they were interrogated by a Civil Guard commander and CNI (intelligence service) officers. After that they were let go. They were simple businessmen.

A dangerous game

M. G.

The mock prisoner exercise described by Charlie is part of the training program for elite Army units and it is regulated by the MI7-010 handbook of Training and Doctrine Command. The goal is "to make military personnel know and adopt the correct conduct in the event of being made prisoner." This must be achieved without any form of humiliation or abuse. The problem is that in this role-play game, those who theoretically belong to an Army that respects international law are the soldiers pretending to be the prisoners, whereas the alleged captors take on the role of insurgents or terrorists. It is the perfect cover for anyone wanting to get carried away by an excess of realism.

It is not the first time that this training program has triggered abuse. In November 2010, the military section of the Supreme Court ratified the punishment of four-to-10 months in prison for those going far with the game by imprisoning a private and two first officers. Four soldiers were beaten during that exercise, and one of them was on medical leave for 32 days.

The driver. For three months I had to drive the armored vehicle. We learned from the Americans to force civilian cars off the road until the convoy got through. But the Iraqis rarely moved over. My sergeant's mission was to order them, using gestures, to move off to the side. If they didn't, I had to pull up close, and pretend there was going to be a collision, until they got scared and stopped on the curb. At first I did this maneuver really carefully. Towards the end, I invaded their lane without worrying about what might happen. There was no collision, but one truck nearly turned over.

The scout. He's the soldier located on the back of the armored vehicle, scanning the area with his loaded weapon to prevent a surprise attack from the back. I got this post after my psycho-physical conditions became less than ideal for driving. The instructions were clear: nobody could get within 100 meters of us. But I was not God, and I could not force Iraqis to do my bidding, which means I got lots of tongue-lashings.

In the end, I decided to follow orders strictly. A sedan came within 50 meters. I made signs for it to fall back. It ignored me. So I mounted the rifle and took aim. The car braked and veered sharply. The car behind it crashed into it. The first vehicle was propelled on to the curb and overturned. My sergeant asked what had happened. I said the car had disobeyed my order, and the conversation ended there. We continued on our way.

Siege on the mosque. We were alerted to the presence of insurgents in a location one hour away from the base. My detachment was sent out with two armored vehicles. We found them and pursued them until we thought we saw them enter a mosque. We were ordered to get ready to go in and capture them. Two hours later came the counter-order: back to base. Fortunately, somebody realized that if we attacked the mosque, we would not leave the village in one piece.

Sentry duty. One of the jobs of the unit that was on night duty was to watch and feed the prisoners. My first officer told me to accompany him to give the prisoners their dinner. He had a key that opened two cells: there was a middle-aged man in each one. It seemed to me that one of them had dark skin, although it was hard to tell because the only light came from a dim bulb. He was half-naked, lying on a blanket (there was absolutely nothing in the room, not even a bed) and scared to death. He whimpered words I could not understand, but which sounded like pleas. My superior's orders were to go in first and point my rifle at his head while he left the food tray on the floor. I did as I was told, but at that moment something inside of me snapped. I suddenly asked myself what I was doing there, pointing a gun at this poor devil, and wondered how I had gotten myself into this situation. For a week after that I had a constant feeling of unreality, as though I were under the effects of narcotics. One night while I was on duty, I was on the verge of shooting my brains out. Only the encouraging words of two colleagues saved me. At dawn, new prisoners were brought in, and they were begging for a drink of water. A soldier pretended to offer them a bottle but then he spilled it on the floor, to great general laughter. Another one took mocking pictures of himself standing next to them. I remember our captain congratulated us for being the only unit in the entire Plus Ultra Brigade where no soldier had asked to see the psychologist at the base.

I went home in late December 2003. Six months later I started suffering from sleeplessness and anxiety; I became obsessive, completely unsociable and unruly. In the end, the Army told me I was no longer useful to them. For two years I got psychiatric treatment at a hospital six hours a day, Monday through Friday. Although I have improved considerably since then, I have never been the same again.

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