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Iraq: Family visits to prison bring smiles and hope

13-02-2013 Feature

After learning that a number of people held in Chamchamal Prison had not been visited by family members for many years, the ICRC set about making it easier for such visits to take place. Four of the visitors tell their stories and share their feelings.

Chamchamal Prison

On the regular visits the ICRC has been making since 2008 to Chamchamal Prison, in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq, to assess the conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees, the organization observed that a number of detainees had not been visited by members of their families for long periods, in some cases for as many as nine years.

An ICRC delegate welcomes a man and his son who have come to visit a relative. 

Chamchamal Prison, Iraq.
An ICRC delegate welcomes a man and his son who have come to visit a relative.
© ICRC / P. Krzysiek

The main reason for the lack of visits was the fact that many of the families live in the centre and the south of Iraq, far from the prison, and could not afford to travel there.

In cooperation with the prison authorities, in November 2012 the ICRC undertook to help the families visit their loved ones held in Chamchamal Prison. Members of the families of 85 detainees were given financial assistance to cover the costs of transportation and accommodation.

The visits took place during the second and third weeks of November 2012, on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Families went to Chamchamal from 11 different governorates in Iraq.

Families from Baghdad leave Chamchamal Prison after visiting their relatives. 

Chamchamal Prison, Iraq.
Families from Baghdad leave Chamchamal Prison after visiting their relatives.
© ICRC / P. Krzysiek

Two tents were set up for the visits in the prison courtyard. At first, the atmosphere was filled with anxiety as family members waited for their relatives to emerge from nearby cells. But as soon as they saw them coming, one by one, their fear was replaced by tears of happiness. It was time to catch up after years with little or no contact. The visitors and detainees enjoyed sharing news, memories and a lunch together.

After more than two hours, it was time for the visitors to the prison and their detained relatives to part. Although it was difficult for them to do so, they took comfort in knowing that many precious memories would remain with them.

Every family came away from the visit with a story to tell and feelings to share… Here are just a few.

"I'm not sure I will recognize him"

"I'm not sure I will recognize my nephew Ziad*. I have not seen him for eight years," said Raâd M'hissen, a middle-aged man from Baghdad, the uncle of a detainee. While waiting outside the tent, Raâd was a bit nervous. Whenever a detainee approached, he took a few tentative steps towards him, fixing his eyes on him and trying to recognize a familiar face – a face he expected would have changed a lot in eight years.

Raâd M’hissen arrives at Chamchamal Prison to finally meet his nephew after eight years of separation. The plastic bags contain the food he will share with him during the visit. 

Chamchamal Prison, Iraq.
Raâd M’hissen arrives at Chamchamal Prison to finally meet his nephew after eight years of separation. The plastic bags contain the food he will share with him during the visit.
© ICRC / P. Krzysiek

 As soon as he caught a first glimpse of Ziad, his countenance brightened and he flashed an enormous smile. He could not hold back his tears as he hugged his nephew. "He did not change that much. He is still the same," said Raâd, surprised.

Raâd had been filled with doubt as he embarked on the visit. "I came alone because we were not sure that the visit would take place," he confessed. "Even on the way to Chamchamal, I was expecting to come back to Baghdad at any moment, without meeting Ziad."

The other members of the family had been too wary to join him. Raâd explained that they feared getting lost on the way to Chamchamal. "We were also thinking that the prison authorities would be too hard to deal with," he added.

However, all doubts vanished as soon as he was with his nephew. On the way out, Raâd was smiling when he said: "My family asked me for a proof, and I am bringing back the good news about Ziad."

Raâd now feels ready to organize visits for the rest of the family. "Thanks to this initiative by the ICRC, I made the first visit and found it easy. I will come back again with other family members."

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

"I'm so relieved after seeing him again"

Boshra made the long journey from Baghdad to Chamchamal with her two sons, Hssine (14) and Mustafa (6), to visit their father. This mother of three had not seen her husband Zahi * for a year and a half. "I used to visit him when he was detained in Baghdad, but I have not seen him since he was transferred to Chamchamal," she explained.

Boshra and her three children head for home after visiting a relative. 

Chamchamal Prison, Iraq.
Boshra and her three children head for home after visiting a relative.
© ICRC / P. Krzysiek

Boshra could not afford the cost of the trip. She works hard to support her family. "I bake bread and cook for daily workers in our neighbourhood. I'm tired of waiting for Zahi's release."

Mustafa and Hssine could not sit still. They stood up and waited like grown-ups for their father to appear. Mustafa talked through a barrier to other detainees as he waited. Without realising it, he also brightened their day.

"My husband left when Mustafa was very young, and Hssine does not remember his father that much," explained Boshra. The moment Zahi showed up, they both ran to hug and kiss him. Mustafa gripped his neck and Hssine put his little arm around his father's waist.

Throughout the visit, Zahi was surrounded by his two boys and his wife. They chatted, caught up on news, laughed and ate together. Zahi was happy about what the ICRC had done to make it possible for his family to visit him.

Boshra and her sons left the prison with bigger smiles and lighter hearts. "I'm so relieved after seeing him again," Boshra said on her way back to Baghdad.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

"The visit eased the suffering"

Ismahan had not seen her son Ahmed* for five years. She came from Baghdad with one of her daughters. "My husband is suffering from serious health problems and could not come to visit our son. Of course he wanted to be with us," said Ismahan as tears began to fall down her cheeks.

Ismahan looks back at the prison door one last time as she returns to Baghdad after visiting her son. 

Chamchamal Prison, Iraq.
Ismahan looks back at the prison door one last time as she returns to Baghdad after visiting her son.
© ICRC / P. Krzysiek

Ahmed was the only member of the family who provided financial support for the others, which he did by working as a photographer at weddings and special religious events. His absence has had a severe effect on the rest of the family, which is now very poor and relies mainly on charity from neighbours to make ends meet. Ahmed was married and has two girls that Ismahan could not bring with her because of the distance. "The girls are too young. They would not be able to endure such an exhausting road trip," she explained.

Despite her age and fragile health, and the tiring journey, Ismahan appears strong-willed and determined, with a heart full of love and kindness. She tried hard during the trip to Chamchamal to be as strong and cheerful as she could. But when her son walked into the tent, she could not control her emotions anymore and tears of joy and sorrow appeared alongside her smile.

With the soft touch of a mother, Ismahan checked to see if Ahmed had lost weight, and if he looked older than the last time she had seen him, five years ago. She sat between her two children. She kept looking at Ahmed as if she were trying to engrave every detail of his features and demeanour in her memory.

Ahmed could not describe his feelings about this visit. "My mother's crying was like bullets in the heart," he said with sorrow. But he added: "I feel like I was dead and I've come back to life again. I feel like I've been re-born."

While he could not hide his disappointment that neither his father nor his daughters had managed to visit, he accepted that in the circumstances it was impossible for them to come. His final comment was positive: "The visit eased the suffering."

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

"Now I am filled with hope"

Majid spent five years trying to figure out where his father Mehdi * was detained. "My father disappeared and we had no news. One day I heard about an organization that searches for missing people and visits prisons, and I went to see them. It was the ICRC, and they finally succeeded in finding my father."

Majid leaves Chamchamal Prison wearing a big grin after visiting his father. 

Chamchamal Prison, Iraq.
Majid leaves Chamchamal Prison wearing a big grin after visiting his father.
© ICRC / P. Krzysiek

 

Although he had found out where his father was, Majid was unable to visit him because he did not have enough money to pay for the trip. Majid is the family's eldest son. He has four brothers and nine sisters. "I had to support all of them after my father went to jail," he said. "In addition to my brothers and sisters, my disabled mother lives with us."

Majid is 31 years old and does not have a stable job. He works whenever there is an opportunity to do so. On many days, he has no choice but to stay at home.

"My youngest brother is eight. He was born the same year our father was sentenced to life in prison. He never met his own father. With our father gone, he has been calling me 'dad' or 'uncle'," he said with pain.

Despite his young age, Majid looks 10 years older. His many responsibilities have been a heavy burden. As he walked towards Chamchamal Prison, he told himself that every step brought him closer to his father. He was smiling nervously in front of the prison while waiting for him, smoking one cigarette after the other.

When his father arrived, they kept looking at each other for a long time without saying a single word. The encounter was filled with mixed feelings of joy and despair. Majid finally relaxed when he took care of his father during lunch, making sure that he was eating well.

Majid left Chamchamal Prison filled with happy thoughts and good news to share with the rest of the family. "Even now, I cannot believe this is real," he said. "I've seen my father for the first time after eight long years of separation. I would not have been able to come up with enough money for the trip to go see him."

"You cannot imagine my joy," he said, wearing a broad smile. "That visit changed my life. When I was desperate, I was thinking of suicide, to get rid of all the pressure. Especially when we did not have money…Now, I am filled with hope that the future might bring solutions to our problems."

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.