10 August 2012
IRAQI KURDISTAN REFLECTION: Overcoming barriers
By Carrie Peters
It was a Sunday, a visitors’ day, in late July. Men and women sat under
trees in a courtyard; children played. If you could ignore the high, barbed
wire-topped fences and the guards roaming the perimeter, it looked more like a
schoolyard than a prison.
We had come to see Bilal, a team acquaintance, who had served nearly a
year of a twenty-year sentence for a murder he swears he did not commit.
As a prison employee walked us across the courtyard, Bilal emerged from a
doorway, leaning heavily on a cane and raising his other hand in greeting. His bright
smile made me forget for a moment that he was a prisoner.
The employee then escorted us to a room with not enough chairs. We asked
Bilal to sit because of his injury, a gunshot through the ankle last year that
left a terrific scar. He says he needs a second surgery and plans to have it
done whenever he is freed.
As Bilal spoke, we moved to another room with enough seats and a guard behind
a desk listening intently. Bilal didn’t mind. His story is no secret. Given
what he has said, it seems an awful lot like he’s been framed for a murder he
didn’t commit – the murder of a police officer, in fact.
Within the guard’s earshot, he added that we were all unknown people here,
and that guard there could take a book from a desk for himself, and when another
guard would ask about it he could say, “Those new people took it!” and get us in
trouble. That’s how things roll around here with the authorities, Bilal said.
It was not encouraging, given that he and his lawyer are preparing an appeal of
Bilal’s family then welcomed us in a hall where they had prepared a big
lunch – during Ramadan. His mother and sister greeted me with kisses, a Kurdish
custom, and the men exchanged the customary salutes and handshakes. We learned
that Bilal’s family travels from Halabja every week to visit him at great
personal expense. The fact that everyone was supposed to fast during Ramadan
didn’t seem to bother them. I think we were the only ones there with food. The
warmth of Bilal’s family, their smiles and considerate attentiveness, in this place,
under these circumstances, were surreal.
Bilal said the guards treated him well; prisoners are fed well and have
access to WCs and showers – but it’s still a prison. Bilal sleeps in a room
with fifty full bunks. Authorities forbid non-state-run TV and newspapers or
books not published by the political parties. The exercise room, he was told, is
only for prisoners who’ve been in for a long time. Maybe in five years he can
use it, they said.
He has access to his lawyer, and hopes his appeal will succeed and that he
will walk free by winter.
The guards told Bilal he had to return to the bunkhouse, and we began
saying our goodbyes. As I air-kissed Bilal’s mother’s cheek in farewell, I saw
her tears. Desperate to overcome the language barrier, I poured all my lost
words into my eyes, and pressed my hand against hers.
“Khwa hafis,” we said to each other in parting. Go with God.
It will have to be enough.