Meeting Prisoner #151186
Tell me the truth!
On September 22, 2003, the unit I was with while filming GUNNER PALACE, 2/3 FA, received orders from Brigade intelligence to do a "hit" on a house in Baghdad's Adhamiya neighborhood. The operation order stated that the "target" was a bomb-making cell comprised of brothers who were building explosives to be used in an attempt on Tony Blair during an upcoming visit to Iraq. I had gone out on a dozen late night operations with 2/3FA, but this raid had the most specific intelligence of any I had experienced. Intel knew how many weapons they would find (two) and 2/3 FA was told to look for videotapes and CDs. The brothers shared the family name Abbas, so 2/3's commander, who had a habit of giving every raid a sophomoric handle straight out of ANIMAL HOUSE, dubbed the raid "Operation Grabass".
At half past midnight, I jumped into an open backed Humvee with 2/3's breech team. At 1230, we arrived at the target. The breech team formed two stacks and went in cautiously through the front gate. By the time I was in the yard, five suspects were subdued. I followed the MPs into the house and started filming the search. The women of the house were in the living room busy covering themselves. The soldiers asked for names.
Outside, one of the men claimed to work in a hospital. Another, on his knees, looked at me and told me he was a journalist. I kept filming as he said, "You see that in the camera, this is a mistake." The soldiers yelled for him to shut up. He turned to me and said, "I know that shut-up. Just shut your mouth in Iraq."
The women wailed for the men. They took four brothers from the house and a lock box with cash. Their elderly father was released. No concrete evidence was found in the house. One large ammo crate contained party decorations and shampoo (of all things). The MPs took an ammo can full of U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinar. A handgun and an AK -47 were found (the exact weapons that they knew were in the house). Along with the suspect's claims of being a journalist, the lack of solid evidence caught my attention.
Questions still burned: was it a successful raid that prevented Tony Blair from being killed in Basra or was it the wrong house? They didn't look like terrorists to me, but who does? They could have been school teachers, merchants and doctors; or they could have been members of Mohammed's Army or a fledging Al Qaeda cell.
When I returned to Baghdad later in February 2004, I followed up with the intel section and inquired about what happened to the brothers, who I only knew under the name Abbas. A young specialist looked in the system and said that they were still being held, most likely at Abu Ghraib.
Fast forward to March 2005: I receive an email from a young American journalist who tells me that a friend of his saw our film Gunner Palace and identified the "journalist" in the film as an Iraqi cameraman named Yunis. We traded calls and it all checked out. It was him. Yunis, the journalist I had filmed, spent nearly 9 months in detention--most spent in Abu Ghraib Prison--before he was released without charge.
Two months later, with the aid of the journalist and his Iraqi fixer, Yunis reluctantly agreed to meet me in Baghdad at a safe location. When we met, Yunis apologized for his English. He stated that before the arrest he could speak English well, but now it made him uncomfortable. He explained that on the night of his arrest he and his brothers had just returned from a wedding party. An hour before the raid he had called his fiancée. He told me that his mother was very sick at that time and now she is worse stemming from the stress of his arrest and subsequent raids.
He talked about Abu Ghraib and how he lived with 4,000 men in the most primitive conditions and how he watched as friends died from neglect, mortar attacks and from gunshot wounds received during the demonstrations the detainees staged to protest conditions. Clearly, beyond the pornographic abuse of the Hard Site that most of us have seen, the detainees in the prison suffered from systematic indifference where all were presumed to be guilty.
Talking to Yunis, I realized that his story was about far more than Iraq. It was about our fundamental definitions of freedom and liberty. Months later in Amman, when I sat with Yunis and his brother Khalid in a safe house, Yunis told me, "Before my arrest, I had never evaluated freedom before." Those words gave the film a raison d'être.
There is a directness about Yunis that is impossible to ignore. During our interviews, Yunis, said something repeatedly that struck me as essential to understanding the Iraq experience. Simply he said, "This is my country."
From the night of his arrest until his release, those words framed his disbelief and disappointment. In Yunis' mind, words like freedom, liberty and justice have become reduced to the level of the slogans used to sell more laundry detergent. It's the same old soap, only new and improved.
Since his arrest, nearly three years ago, not a day has gone by without Yunis asking "why me?". Was he arrested because of his association with Western journalists who were off-message? Was a telephone conversation intercepted and misinterpreted? Did an informant sell false information to the coalition? Or was he simply in the wrong place at the wrong time--a case of mistaken identity or worse, the victim of a tragic bureaucratic blunder? After making multiple Freedom of Information Act inquiries to the Army and perusing thousands of pages of declassified documents, we still don't have an answer. The Army claims that Prisoner # 151186 does not exist.
As we were readying "The Prisoner" for the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, I received an email from a young American soldier:
I am looking for you....
Last week I [read about an Iraqi prisoner named] Yunis being captured [by U.S. troops] in [your movie] Gunner Palace. I ... rented it and saw that it was the Yunis I know.... I served at Abu Ghraib from February 2004 [to] February 2005 at Camp Ganci, the enclosure where Yunis was my detainee.... I've been typing his name into google since I [returned to America from] Iraq.... I was very close with Yunis [and his brothers], Khalid [and] Abbas.... Obviously you can never tell for certain in such a crazy environment what is really going on, but I felt that these people were my good friends and that we survived that hell together with support from one another. I truly love these people....
After receiving Thompson's note, I went back to our interviews with Yunis and discovered --upon careful listening--that he spoke about the humanity of Thompson and a handful of other guards in Camp Ganci. He called Thompson "The Good Soldier".
With that, we realized that Thompson's story was essential to understanding what Yunis and his brothers experienced in Abu Ghraib. We asked Thompson for his cooperation and a month later began production on a feature length version of the film.
During nearly two years of production--and in the three and half years since his arrest--the situation in Baghdad has only gotten worse. The promises of Bush and Blair in 2003 and the future Yunis dreamt of in a free Iraq are just that, dreams. His nightmare--the Iraqi nightmare--continues.
Yunis hasn't made any demands in regards to his case, but I sensed more than anything, that he would like to have his dignity and his honor back. We are hopeful that through this film, we will be able to help accomplish that.