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Detention has a  Wide, Destructive Impact in Iraq

PART II – Society Undermined

By Nick Mottern and Bill Rau

On August 5, 2008, Richard Rowley posted a video on the website of the Pulitzer Center showing Iraqi families heading out into the desert of southern Iraq before dawn to visit relatives imprisoned by the US at Camp Bucca, which currently holds about 15,900 Iraqis, according to the US command in charge there.

Rowley explains:
“All the rooms are full at the Bourj Babel Hotel outside of Basra.  Every guest is there to visit a family member inside of the US detention facility at Bucca.

“At 3:30 am minivans take them out into the desert where they wait at the first gate until it opens at 7 am.

“There is no electricity and the town is dark.  Oil flares light the sky, Bucca burns on the desert floor like an alien city.”

As noted in Part I of this series, we estimate that since the 2003 occupation, as many as 2 million Iraqis have been in or are in US detention or have or have had immediate family members in US detention.  Task Force 134 (TF-134), which operates US detention facilities in Iraq, says that it is now holding about 17,800 Iraqis, divided between Camps Bucca and Cropper.  As noted in Part I also, the Iraqi government is believed to be holding thousands of prisoners, but the US Defense Department is unwilling to provide any information on the Iraqi prison system.

Rowley’s video and narrative make clear that for every person imprisoned in Iraq, it is very likely that there are a significant number of family members deeply affected by their detention. 

This is also evident in a survey of some 1,000 Iraqis detained by US forces, provided to Consumers for Peace by TF-134. (The survey is available at ConsumersforPeace.org.)

Impact on Families
The Iraqis in the US prisons are almost exclusively men.  TF-134 reported in July that it was holding about 10 women and 340 “juveniles”; some of the youth were recently transferred into the Iraqi detention system.

The TF-134 survey found that 63% of detainees were married and 97% of these lived with their wives.  Eighty three percent of the married men had children living at home and most lived with extended family members, as Graph 1 from the survey indicates.

Graph 1 – Most Detainees Live with Extended Family, Even After Marriage

With respect to children, 56% of the detainees had three or more children; 31% had five or more children, and 5% had 10 children or more.

Detention often has a dramatic economic impact on a family, judging from the survey.  Only one percent of detainees said they were unemployed when arrested, and 66 % were making enough money to care for their families.

Graph 2, from the TF-34 survey, suggests that most detainees had relatively solid jobs, an observation supported by the survey finding that 66% of the detainees said that they did not have financial problems.

As evidenced in the Rowley video, the cost of detention is not only in lost income to a family but the expense of traveling to see a loved one in prison.  In a 2008 report, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said:

“For a two-hour meeting with their detained husband, father, brother or son, they take their children on a perilous journey that can last several days but prior to the war would have taken only a few hours.  Many of them can only make the trip thanks to financial support from the ICRC.”

A TF-134 spokesperson says that family visits are permitted at three-week intervals and at Camp Bucca, the prison for longer-term detention, “family members have a second option of video teleconference visitation. VTC visits are available more frequently; about twice a month.”

In considering the economic strain of detention on the family, one must also consider that the loss of income has occurred in a society plagued by occupation-caused high unemployment, poor health services, food shortages, inadequate water supplies and sustained electricity blackouts.

While the economic strain may ease if a detainee returns to the family, it is not clear that this is the case, since a detainee’s job may not exist when the detainee returns or the physical and or mental state of the detainee may limit their ability to work.  The survey found that 64% of detainees suffered from anxiety; 44% had experienced psychological trauma and 25% were depressed.  These conditions may well ease upon release, but prison experience can bring long-term emotional changes, particularly for those who have experienced torture and other abuse.

Impact on the Level of Violence
Graph 3 from the TF-134 survey suggests that detention, in and of itself, may to be encouraging Iraqis to join the resistance out of anger at US forces for capturing family members.

Graph 3 – Have Any of Your Family Members Been Detained by the Coalition?

Sixty percent of detainees in another survey group comprised of 220 individuals had had family or friends killed or injured by fighting.

  In addition, the survey of the 1,000 detainees found that 61% held US forces responsible for their detention compared to 10% blaming the Iraqi government.  The prospect of civil strife related to detention is suggested by the finding that 15% of detainees blamed “tribal enemies” for their imprisonment, and 10% blamed neighbors.

Impact on Women
All the statistics of the survey suggest that wives and mothers of detainees in Iraq have been confronted by the pressures, threats, sorrows and suffering described in The Impact of Armed Conflict on Women, a 2007 United Nations study that finds:

“The popular perception is that men are soldiers or aggressors, and that women are wives, mothers, nurses and social workers.  While it is primarily men who are conscripted and killed in battle, women make up the majority of civilian casualties and suffer in their role as caregivers owing to a breakdown in social structures.  The concept of men going to war and of women staying safely at home with children and the elderly does not reflect the reality of war.  In fact, in war zones, women are abducted from their villages, displaced and killed along with their children in their homes.”

“In addition to representing most of the civilian casualties, women are often the sole providers for their families during conflicts.”

A study published by Global Research in January 2008, based on a survey of 150 Iraqi women who were part of 150 households, found that in 52.2% of the households the father was the sole provider, and a son was the provider in 9%.  The mother was the provider in 20% of the families, but the survey found that a variety of factors resulting from the occupation had resulted in an 85% unemployment rate among the women, even though more than half had achieved an educational level of high school or above. Thirty six percent of the families “lived with no income or a very low income of $100/month or less which has led to women and children doing menial labor or begging,” the study said.

The survey found that more than half the families, 87 out of 150, had one or more family members killed in the war, with the distribution shown in Table 1.  Table 2 shows the causes of death and that 22 members of the surveyed families died under torture by US or Iraqi forces.

Table 1 – The Number of Family Members Killed Within the Families of the Studied Population

Number of Killed Family Members* Number of Families Percentile
One 74 49.33%
Two 8 5.33%
Three + 5 3.33%
None 63 42%
Total 150 99.9%

* This question was asked regarding first-degree family members only – not extended family.

Table 2 – Circumstances of Family Member Deaths


Cause of Death Number of Victims Percentile
Occupation forces during torture 16 16.5%
Occupation forces during random shooting 1  1.03%
Ministry of Interior torture victims 6  6.2%
Target killings by militias 40  41.12%
Random killing by militias 19  19.6%
Lack of security (raped and killed) 2 women  2.06%
Lack of security 4 men  4%
Car Bombs 9  9.27%
Total 97  99.88%

Table 3, specifying causes of the disappearance of family members, also conveys the impact of detention, including detention in which family members were never notified.  

Table 3 – Circumstances of the Disappearance of the Missing Family Members

Circumstances of Disappearance No. Missing Percentile
Went out and never came back 35 53.3%
Sectarian kidnappings 6 9.09%
Accidents due to a lack of security 7 10.06%
Unjustified imprisonment 15 22.72%
Women were taken in place of other family members 3 4.54%
Total 66 99.95%

Added to this statistical litany of pain and sorrow for Iraqi women is the possibility of marital difficulty when men who have been imprisoned return home, suggested by Caroline Elkins’ investigation of the consequences of detention in the waning British colonial control of Kenya.  In Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, she reports:

“Throughout the Central Province former villagers recall men who spent years in the Pipeline (detention), only to commit suicide when they returned, after finding their families dead or the wives raising half-caste children.  Marriages, too, did not always survive.  Some men rejected wives who had been raped, particularly those who had borne children from such encounters.  Their anger and masculine shame was too much to bear.  They had failed in their role as Kikuyu men, as guardians of production and reproduction.”

Impact on Children
The Global Research family survey found that of 318 students among the 150 families studied, 64, or 20%, were failing in school; 40 of the students were male and 24 female.  The cause of failure for 19 of these students was listed as emotional damage as a result of one or more family member killed and for 10, raids and imprisonment of a family member.

Mahmood Jassim, a teacher in Baghdad told reporters for Inter Press Service (IPS): "How can a student pass such difficult exams feeling terrified, exhausted in the heat, in darkness without electricity, having to work in the absence of a dead or detained father, and all the problems of the world over his head."  Jassim says about 75 percent of his students are failing their exams.

The August 2008 IPS report quoted Omar Khattab, a Baghdad high school student:
“My father was detained by US forces in 2005.  His fashion shop was looted by the so-called Iraqi army who came with the Americans to take him away, and so now I have to work as a laborer to support my family.”

Global Research found that the threat of detention is a factor causing males to drop out of school at a higher percentage than females – 55% of males compared to 45 % of females in the studied population – “because the males do not stay in their residential areas and keep away from militias and American troops and police.”

In July 2008, UNICEF warned:
  “(The) climate of uncertainty (in Iraq) is hurting children psychologically and socially…Parents and caregivers – who are themselves affected by stress and violence – are less able to deliver care for children in need of support.  As a result, more children risk falling into dangerous and abusive situations, including work on the streets, conflict with the law and even recruitment into Iraq’s militia groups.”

The report noted:
“Iraq’s rate of child detentions has risen since 2006.  Children detained by Iraq’s Multi-National Forces may be detained for up to one year without trial.  Overcrowding and mistreatment has been reported by children in Iraqi detention centers.  Reports of use of children by armed groups in the country have also risen during this period, although no confirmed numbers are available.


Nick Mottern is Director of Consumers for Peace.org.  Bill Rau is a researcher on development issues based in Washington, DC and the author of “Feast to Famine: Official Cures and Grassroots Remedies to Africa’s Food Crisis”.