Friday, January 3, 2020

Crimes And Misdemeanors Of Kataib Hezbollah During War Vs ISIS Interview With Free Lance Journalist Jonathan Lee Krohn

(Reuters)

During the war against the Islamic State there were various reports about abuses carried out by Hashd al-Shaabi groups such as Kataib Hezbollah. They were accused of widespread property destruction after the liberation of Tikrit. During the operations to clear Anbar hundreds of men were detained and went missing. Some of these were covered in the media and by human rights groups, but the full extent of what happened is still not public knowledge. Jonathan Lee Krohn was a freelance journalist in Iraq at this time and was able to document several incidents in Salahaddin and Anbar. This is an interview with Krohn about what he found. He can be followed on Twitter @JonathanLKrohn.

1. The Hashd al-Shaabi saw the battle for Tikrit in 2015 as a major test. It was initially in the lead in the operation, but then heavy losses stopped the offensive. That allowed Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to have the Iraqi Security Forces take over backed by U.S. led Coalition air strikes, and they were able to liberate the city. Afterward however there was a flow of stories that the Hashd were looting and destroying homes and buildings in the city and the surrounding towns. A member of the Salahaddin council accused the Hashd of kidnapping 125 civilians from Al-Dour just outside of Tikrit. There were also arrests and disappearances during the operations in Anbar in 2016. What did you find in your investigations of these two campaigns?

The initial list I was given by a local tribal Sheikh in al-Dour included about 300 names of people disappeared by the Hashd during the week of March 6, 2015. Over the following year, I spoke with relatives, survivors, and eyewitnesses who independently confirmed almost all the disappearances on the list and even added more. All told I have 330 individual names from Al-Dour. Many include photos and videos. Almost all include recorded interviews with family members and eyewitnesses. 301 of that 330 were still missing last time I checked. Of the 29 survivors, several spoke with me on the record. They told me of beatings carried out with regularity, of being hung from the ceiling of torture chambers and beaten until they passed out. The most devastating information provided by survivors were the locations of two Kataib Hezbollah black sites that prisoners from Salaheddin and Anbar were held in during 2015 and 2016. One was located in Balad, not far from a market. One survivor described his experience in the Balad facility in the following words. 

"When we crashed down or passed out, they kept beating us on our hands and knees until they started to blister from the beating, and they would bruise and bleed until they got infected and puss started coming out of the wounds."

Most of the al-Dour disappearances were carried out by Kataib Hezbollah and the group was quite open about their work. Though there is footage of several detainees and no evidence any of the civilians from Al-Dour were armed, Jaffar al-Hussaini, then the spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, told me the following:
“The armed people who were detained in Jillam al-Dour by Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq were under investigation for a little while...Some were turned over to the government, some are still under investigation [by Hezbollah],” confirming that many are still being held illegally by Hezbollah itself.
When pressed further on this point, Jafar refused to give specifics regarding how many of Kataib Hezbollah’s extrajudicial detainees had been turned over to the government and how many were still in militia custody—“we don’t want to embarrass the Iraqi government”—but he did double down on taking credit for the disappearances, giving a reason for their intial detention which came straight out of left field.
“The armed guys that were captured there,” he said—though, again, not a single eyewitness has mentioned any armed detainees nor has any of the footage filmed by pro-KH propaganda channels during the raids shown this—“had a connection with the US forces and we have evidence.”

A year later, after the Siege of Ramadi, KH handed over 47 bodies to the Anbari government. I was provided the list by Anbari officials and called Hussaini again to ask.

“We don’t keep any detainees,” he said now. "The detainees we took, we delivered them to the security forces and the government forces.” There is no record to prove this--lawyers who tried to find Kataib Hezbollah detainees in the Iraqi prison system never had any luck.
And it’s not solely Kataib Hezbollah’s fault. The government of Iraq has made it clear they are more than willing to play dumb on the issue.
“The Prime Minister’s office does not have any information about that [event in al-Dour,]” Sa’ad Al-Hadithi, the official spokesman for the PM’s office, said in 2016. He also added that the PM’s office had a policy not to comment on things that happened a year ago.
2. Eventually some of the men that were taken away from Al Dour returned home. What tales did they have of what happened to them?

Most of those who were returned were children, though there were a few older men--like the gentleman who described his torture in Balad. Everyone who was detained in al-Dour described their detention in near identical terms.
Most had been staying outside of the town in the rural area known as Jillam al-Dour when they were detained. The Iraqi government broadcast a shelter-in-place order for civilians in the area of Tikrit and al-Dour in preparation for the battle so families were essentially sitting ducks when the militias arrived. Militants arrived--generally with the green-and-yellow KH flag on full display--and asked the families to come out. The men and boys would be taken for questioning. Sometimes they would be told to follow the militiamen in their own cars to the base--in these cases, not only were the relatives never seen again, but neither were the cars.
Three young brothers--aged 13, 15, and 16--who were among those few released recalled their experiences in a series of interviews with me. I will not identify them by name for obvious reasons, but their tale is emblematic of most others who go missing at the hands of KH and others.
The boys were staying at their family farm with their father, a former federal policeman named Khalil, when Kataib Hezbollah arrived. A militant asked the family why they were still there. Khalil explained (according to the brothers and their mother, who all witnessed the exchange): "We have the sheeps and cows to take care of. And we have old ladies, we have old people, with us. We could not leave and leave them here, we had to stay.” But this answer was not satisfactory. 
The boys and their father were thrown in the back of a KIA pickup and driven a kilometer away to another farmhouse, where they were handcuffed with zipties and shackled together. More prisoners and more militants arrived as the day grew on. The militants grew increasingly abusive. "You're ISIS!" the KH men shouted. "Your mother is a whore!" The boys remember thinking they were surely going to die.

But then, before the day was out, the militants got the prisoners into more pick-up trucks and drove them to the Al-Hamarra schoolhouse in the town of Tal Ajeel. "“During the whole five hours [of the drive] they kept beating us with the back of the guns they had and with batons,” recalls one of the brothers, “we thought they were taking us to be killed or slaughtered.”
At Al-Hammara the adults and the children were separated. The kids had their handcuffs replaced with cloth ties and were told to wait. Through the doors, they could hear the screaming of their adult relatives nearby. Through cracks in the doors they got a peak. 
“They cut their chests and put salt in the wounds they’d carved,” recalls the 15 year-old.
“All we could hear were the screams,” recalls the 13 year-old.

The boys noticed their father, the ex-policeman Khalil. The boys begged the KH fighters guarding their room to let them visit their father. After a week of pestering, they finally got a moment alone.
The eldest son looked at his dad’s hands. One of Khalil’s hand had swollen from the tight zip-tie hand cuffs he’d been wearing. Then he looked at the rest of his father’s body and saw how badly he’s been tortured.
“Did they hurt you?” the son asked, knowing the answer.
All Khalil could do was nod meekly. Moments later, the militiamen returned dragged him out of the room and away from his sons. This is the last memory the boys have of their father.
From Al-Hammara the boys were transferred to another makeshift prison and from there they were transferred, finally, to Balad. In Balad the young boys fared little better than the men. The children were guarded by a Kataib Hezbollah commander who went by the name 'Major Abu Wahab.'
"He started beating us with a stick and iron tubes," one boy tells me. "He said to confess or he would kill us." 
Every time they leaned against the wall, they got smacked. Every time they looked like they’d fall asleep, they got smacked. On and on it went, until one day--seemingly at random--Kataib Hezbollah released the brothers, seven other boys from Al-Dour, and a group of bedouin kids they had kept in captivity.

To this day the brothers do not know why they were released and wonder why they were chosen--and not the others in their cell.
3. At its height the Islamic State held all the major cities in Anbar from Qaim in the west by the Syrian border to Fallujah in the east. It took months for the Iraqi forces to free the province. During all that fighting hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes and became displaced. Many tried to move to Baghdad for safety. There were reports that the Hashd and Iraqi forces set up checkpoints in east Anbar to block this movement. What did you find happened in that province?

After I had been researching the cases in Salaheddin for about a year, I found a lawyer in Baghdad who claimed to be working with the families of several hundred missing people who were taken at a checkpoint between Baghdad and Ramadi. He had gone to the Iraqi Supreme Court building to register as the attorney for several of the missing--but he was given a signed document saying none of his proposed clients were in Iraqi government custody.
He provided me with a list of about 1000 names if I recall--but it was impossible to corroborate these because the handful of survivors I was able to track down were too terrified to speak. All I can tell you for sure is that hundreds of Anbaris went missing en route to Baghdad. Who took them, where they are, and why they were taken is beyond me.
In June of 2016, during the battle for Fallujah, Kataib Hezbollah disappeared at least 50 civilians from the town of Saqliwia. Nancy Youssef and I documented this in-depth for the Daily Beast at the time. The Anbari government provided me a list of 49 dead men they had identified as being civilians disappeared by KH. Three of the bodies were so badly damaged they could not be identified, but the other 46 had names.
When, as usual, I asked Jaffar al-Hussaini about the incident he replied:  "The government of Anbar knows that Kataib Hezbollah is in charge of killing more than 10,000 ISIS members. So the government of Anbar is trying to take revenge on Kataib Hezbollah, so they are claiming that Kataib Hezbollah did that so they can take revenge for the 10,000 ISIS fighters."
I asked KH's al-Hussaini again about the missing people at the checkpoint and the hundreds from Al-Dour--how there were so many people missing because of KH, as he had admitted before. And he doubled down. The missing "Have been sold by the government [to the public] as detained or missing people so they can claim civil rights for them--actually they are ISIS fighters killed during battles." When I asked Hussaini for evidence he said it existed--but would not be provided to reporters. He told me to have Human Rights Watch take Kataib Hezbollah to court and only then would they reveal the evidence that the missing were all combatants.
4. Did you try to contact human rights groups with your findings and if so how did they react?

I tried multiple times to get Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International interested in these crimes. No one ever gave a flying fuck. Sometimes I was told there was no money. Sometimes people just didn't respond. Often times I was told by editors from news outlets that the story was not interesting unless there was an American angle.

I spent several thousand dollars of my own money working on my own with a couple Iraqi friends to document as many cases as we could, but when my paltry savings ran out and no one was willing to invest in the investigation I had to close up shop. I do, however, still have all the evidence waiting for someone to give a shit. Perhaps now that one American contractor has been killed by KH the lives of the thousands of missing people will be of some value to editors and alleged "human rights" folks.

5. You collected stories covering thousands of people. Why have these events still not been reported within Iraq?

There are some, like the great Ned Parker, who have done incredible work on the war crimes carried out by Hashd groups over the years--but most interest from our colleagues has been focused on the fight against ISIS, the barbarians at the gates. The militias have been around for decades, going back to the old Badr commanders in the 1980s. Their motivations require careful research and understanding on the part of reporters--something that is often missing from the carpetbaggers who fly to Iraq for a quickie every few months. 
Additionally, war crimes investigations take time and money--something few news outlets are willing to invest for research into dead Iraqis. There is a prevailing feeling that it would be easier to leave well enough alone--to not embroil yourself in someone else's problems that do not directly affect our Western readers. This was, again, a common problem I faced when pitching this piece in 2015 and 2016--hell, I tried again in 2017 and 2018 too!

Often I was asked by editors what the American angle was. How can we make Americans and Britons care about the rotting corpses of poor brown people in the Iraqi desert, they would say? Frankly, I have always found this view rather myopic and slightly racist. Journalism and nonfiction work should never be restricted to what white people care about back home--rather it should be about doing the most possible good for those most-directly effected. Thousands of Iraqis are missing and their bodies could be easily located with a few thousand dollars and a dedicated publication. On my own, I identified mass graves, black sites, and found out more information on hundreds of missing persons than even their own relatives knew. Surely those people--the families and friends of the missing, left in limbo after all this time--surely those are the people that deserve quality reporting on Kataib Hezbollah and the Hashd ash-Shaabi the most. They should be our audience--our work should be victim-facing, not driven by clicks and ad revenue.
6. After you collected all this evidence what is your ultimate goal for what to do with it?

Ideally, I'd like to create a bilingual database (in Arabic and English) with information on all missing persons in Iraq so relatives can search and share information--and so the disappeared will never be forgotten. I'd like to set up a website where people can securely share information about new or  unreported disappearances. I'd like to have a small team that can deal with new cases and gather evidence on all the missing before it is too late to collect information, before memories start to decay, before evidence is destroyed, etc.

As stated earlier, I would also like to write a detailed, painstaking narrative of the disappearances. The story itself is full of so many complex and important characters that are important to delve into deeply. The country of Iraq--as you and I know--is separated more along class lines than religious or foreign policy divisions. Poor Iraqi folks are being disappeared by similarly poor Iraqi boys (mostly from the South) who join the militias largely because they need a paycheck in an economically depressed nation. No one benefits from this cycle of violence except for rich folks who lead the militias and while away their hours in expensive villas.
This is the truth at the heart of it all--the brutal soul of Iraqi militia politics--that it is all about power and keeping the poor at the mercy of the rich. It is a story of corruption as much as violence, and it deserves to be told. 

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