A Prisoner’s Tale


The saga of a hapless New Zealander who ended up behind bars after seeking work in Iraq reveals the darker side of the U.S.-led coalition’s operations.

When Andreas Schafer was released from a prison in Iraq earlier this year, the Iraqi police apologized abjectly for having inconvenienced him for three months. They made sure he knew that if ever he wanted to get back at the arresting officer by, say, slaying the man’s brother, it would be all right by them. And he could expect not to be prosecuted for the crime.

It says something about Iraqi justice and the American-led occupation that Iraq’s finest viewed an invitation to murder as a triumph of decency and due process. Schafer, a hapless, idealistic 26-year-old New Zealander who had gone to Iraq in search of a job with a nongovernmental organization, ended up languishing in a prison in southern Iraq as an unacknowledged prisoner of the U.S.-led coalition. By keeping Schafer in an Iraqi-run prison, rather than in a prison monitored by Americans or international observers, the United States avoided putting him on the books and having to account for his treatment, even to his own government.

It took nearly three months of diplomatic wangling to get him released, and in those three months he observed startling ineptitude on the part of coalition soldiers. He also observed the private life of a segment of Iraqi society that has gone mostly unreported on during the occupation.

The coalition’s stalling and prevarication about Schafer’s status reveal at best a state of utter bureaucratic disarray, in which prisoners can disappear or appear without the slightest official record. At worst it suggests that the secrecy and abandon with which the United States treats prisoners in Iraq are every bit as dark and uncontrolled as critics fear.

I met Schafer in Iran in January 2004, just weeks before he entered Iraq. He had spent months living meagerly in grubby Iranian and Afghan hotels as one of the many unwashed backpackers whom every country but the United States seems to dispatch to the ends of the earth. His half-baked plan in Iraq was to do what he had done in Kabul, Afghanistan, four months earlier — show up, knock on doors and get a job with an NGO. Afterward, he hoped (in a plan doughier in the center than his Iraq plan) to head from Baghdad to South Africa by land, learn to fly a microlight aircraft and chase elephants around the savanna until his cash ran out.

Schafer entered Iraq in late January 2004, at the end of that vanishingly brief moment of post-invasion safety, when visiting Baghdad was merely an act of stupidity and not yet one of stark-raving lunacy. Nick Berg hadn’t yet been decapitated, and reporters felt free to travel major roads, even if they donned flak vests to do so.

Schafer had no flak vest, and with his body type it would be awfully difficult to buy one off the rack anyway. He is of ridiculous proportions, with an elongated physique that looks like Abe Lincoln stretched lengthwise in a funhouse mirror. Sharp features and ultra-skinny limbs give him the profile of a malevolent tree. In an Iraqi crowd, Schafer would have stood at least a head above everyone else, a distracting sideshow on any street corner and perhaps, given his Western looks, a bit of a bomb magnet.

After a couple of days at a cheap Baghdad hotel, Schafer decided on a trip south to Karbala, the spiritual omphalos of the Shiite faith and the site of the most intense observances of the martyrdom of the Shiite Imam Hussein. It was Ashura, the anniversary of Hussein’s death, and tens of thousands of pilgrims had gathered in Karbala, wearing black and self-flagellating in grief over Hussein’s death. Amid the scourging and wailing, bombers attacked the Kadhimiya mosque in Baghdad and the streets of Karbala. Both attacks left scenes of horrific carnage, with splattered human remains smearing the streets. In Baghdad, taxi drivers usually eager to earn a buck told me my money was no good that day, and that they would just as soon stay home than drive into a mob of blood-soaked, enraged religious zealots. That seemed sensible to me.

Schafer was not so circumspect. On the day of Asura, he ventured south from Baghdad to Diwaniya, where after depositing his luggage at a hotel, he met three Iraqi policemen on a city street, and did not leave their custody for almost three months.

The patrolmen said they regretted having to arrest him. The bombings that morning had put them on high alert, they said, so anyone who looked out of place needed to be checked out. (Police later told Schafer that his arrest was the work of overzealous police excited to meet the first tourist in Diwaniya, then arrest him and practice their English.)

By evening he heard that someone in the stationhouse had alerted nearby U.S. forces, who commanded the Iraqis to hold Schafer indefinitely for interrogation. The Iraqis again apologized and told Schafer he would have to sleep that night at the jail. “I was still sure it would be definitely no more than one night,” Schafer says.

The holding area was small, with three cells of 30-40 criminals each. “I was mostly scared of the other people — the freaks of the freaks of Iraq.” Their offenses ranged from prostitution to murder. Many had been caught with the amphetamine pills that Iraqis started popping eagerly soon after Saddam fell.

Almost a week later, American troops showed up for the first of four interrogations that ranged from crisply professional to ridiculously inept. Cuffed, Schafer was led to a room with eight U.S. soldiers decked out in desert fatigues and carrying automatic weapons. Schafer explained who he was, then was politely told that he would have to stay in jail a few days more.

Several weeks later, a completely different set of Americans showed up, this time with a Lebanese-American interpreter. This second group showed no evidence of having read the first team’s report. Moreover, they were ignorant of the most basic facts about the Middle East. At one point, Schafer says, the officer leading the interrogation asked him, “Do you mean to tell me that you were in Iran and Afghanistan four months and you don’t speak a word of Arabic? ” (The translator pulled the officer aside and gave him a lesson on Middle Eastern languages. Iranians and Afghans don’t generally speak Arabic.)

And even the translator exhibited some staggeringly incompetent interrogation tactics. “He said to me, ‘I’m going to write something here in Arabic, and you’re going to tell me what it says.'” Schafer replied that he did not speak Arabic. The translator belted out a triumphant “Aha!” and asked how Schafer knew the word was Arabic, rather than Persian or Urdu, both of which use a similar script. “You told me it was Arabic,” Schafer said. Later the translator yelled a word in Arabic and looked for traces of comprehension on Schafer’s face. Schafer again told him that he did not speak Arabic. One more triumphant gotcha later, he asked again how Schafer knew the shout was Arabic. Schafer pointed out that they were, after all, in Iraq.

“They didn’t know the languages. They didn’t know the culture at all, and you could see it just from the way they presented themselves around Iraqis,” Schafer says. The failing most relevant to Schafer was the Americans’ failing of imagination. “They cannot imagine that someone would come to a country less pleasant than their own, unless they’re invading it or have got a really good job.”

Every three to four weeks, a different group of Americans showed up, asked the same superficial or stupid questions and left. Then the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, and at the end of one session an interrogator threatened Schafer with a transfer. “What’s probably going to happen now,” he said, “is you’re probably going to Abu Ghraib. You know what happens there, don’t you?” Schafer says the interrogator followed the threat with a suppressed grin and a sheepish laugh.

Schafer was, it must be said, a suspicious or at least implausible figure. You don’t wander around war zones without a reasonable story about who you are and where you’re going. Schafer acknowledges that his presence in the combat zone was odd and that the U.S. coalition would have been negligent not to have demanded more than his own word that he was no threat. “I can understand that they would want to keep me for a couple days,” he says. Mere weeks after he had been picked up, the police raided his former hotel and captured two Saudis bearing a kilo of heroin and a picture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But less explicable was the lack of any serious effort to discover Schafer’s history or real reasons for being in the country. In New Zealand, Schafer’s mother, Ursula, worried about her son — she had not heard from him since receiving a brief e-mail from Baghdad — and contacted authorities to track him down. New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded information from officials in Washington, but they denied that any U.S. personnel in Iraq had ever met Schafer, much less kept him in custody and interrogated him repeatedly. Schafer was, in essence, a ghost detainee, a prisoner in legal limbo whose identity was kept secret from even as harmless and friendly an ally as New Zealand.

From prison, Schafer persuaded an Iraqi to e-mail a second message to his mother to inform her that he was fine (and that he needed her to deposit money into his bank account to cover his credit card payments). The messenger’s shaky English mangled the message, which New Zealand diplomats interpreted as a demand for ransom. New Zealand reaffirmed its policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Ursula Schafer fretted, the Kiwi press carried stories about its kidnapped citizen, the prime minister and foreign minister commented ruefully and, presumably, some antipodean credit card company billed Schafer for a missed payment.

Schafer remained optimistic about his release. “The Americans said, ‘Hold on to him until tomorrow.’ I never stopped thinking that they were going to release me in just a day or two.”

Meanwhile, Schafer’s incarceration made him a rarity among foreigners in the country — a Westerner who had spent time living with southern Iraqi Shiites. Journalists tended to live in or near the smaller of the two Green Zones in Baghdad, safe in the knowledge that they could pass their evenings with a chess game and chicken kebab at the Palestine Hotel. Their Iraqi employees tended to be educated Sunni professionals, not the Shiite illiterates and thugs who were Schafer’s intimates for his months in jail. And this is to say nothing of the political planners of the occupation, whose primary Iraqi informants appear to have been urbane, nonsmoking, secularist polyglots — people as different from the average Iraqi Shiite as one could possibly find.

Prisoners shared food and opinions, and they even offered to place their own lives at risk for Schafer’s sake. At the time, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army was rallying to take control of southern Iraq. In the prison, Sadr’s support was enormous, not least because he vowed to release all prisoners after overrunning Diwaniya. Fighting grew intense around the jail, and before long it appeared inevitable that Sadr’s Shiite guerrillas would spring all the criminals, placing Schafer at the guerrillas’ mercy.

Cellmates advised him to flee with them to a house and lie low. “They kept asking me, ‘Can you run?'” Schafer says. Once Sadr’s militia was outside, close enough to have conversations with the inmates over the walls, the police prepared him for chaos. “The cops came by and told everyone to put their clothes on, because you’re getting out tonight. Everyone wanted to help me. They said, ‘If somebody sees you, they’re going to kill you.'” At the last minute, U.S. forces arrived and pushed back the militia.

Schafer reports that the prisoners’ attitudes toward the Americans were less resentment than disappointment that their promises had come to nothing. The Iraqis harbored weird and pitiful notions of what those promises were. They knew Bush had vowed to make Iraq a democracy, but their understanding of democracy was childishly optimistic. For example, the looters who plundered Iraq after the invasion are reviled in Baghdad and other more educated areas. But to the prisoners, the looting was not just licit — it was a right and duty granted to Iraqis by George W. Bush himself. “They all confused democracy with anarchy,” Schafer says. “They thought democracy was lawlessness. They thought it was anarchy where everything works properly, where you can walk into shops and just take things.”

With few exceptions, Schafer says, his cellmates treated him and one another with respect and civility. They were men of God — 99 percent of them every bit as fundamentalist and strict in their observance as the unspeakably pious Muslims of Afghanistan. Schafer’s descriptions of prison life feature none of the rape and savagery found in Western prisons.

Most of all, Schafer says, the Iraqis he met were simply weary — drained of energy after too many years of a life only barely worth living. “A guy would get 20 years for visiting a prostitute, or for small quantities of drugs,” Schafer says. “After they were sentenced, they’d cry for an hour. And that’s it. They’re just used to suffering. They’re used to their life being really crap.”

It did not help that the justice system that determined their fates was corrupt and capricious in the extreme and meted out decades behind bars for a pocketful of amphetamines. But the same court would let a Mahdi Army foot soldier walk after he slaughtered two sons of a rival. “The level of justice was pretty much terrible,” Schafer says.

Many of his cellmates — Schafer estimated at least a third of the jail’s population — consisted of new Iraqi police. “A policeman hijacked a water truck and sold it for $15,000. And he got two weeks.” Other police were in jail in for sundry crimes, such as murder. “They’re all new recruits, guys who suddenly have a gun in their hand,” Schafer said. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” And since they were viewed as employees of the coalition, the American image suffered from their criminal incompetence.

Other agents of the Americans were more clandestine, which is not to say more competent. One of Schafer’s cellmates, an Iraqi named Ahmed who had lived in a Western country for years, confided to Schafer that he had responded to a TV ad in his adopted homeland soliciting Iraqi exiles to return home and “help with the reconstruction.” The sponsor of the ads, Ahmed said, was the U.S. Embassy, which flew respondents to Kuwait and gave them a two-week crash course in espionage — basic training in how to copy overheard cafe gossip and report back on who was planting bombs and where.

Schafer reports that the operation was botched from the first moment. Ahmed “said the Americans let him out of a Humvee in a crowded market square,” in full view of the very Iraqis on whom he was meant to spy. “And so on his first time out there, he just freaked out, ran off to Baghdad and never came back.” Iraqi police picked him up in Diwaniya the same day they picked up Schafer.

Even if Ahmed had managed to slip undetected into Iraqi society, he was too boorish to blend in and too lacking in basic sense to provide useful information. In Schafer’s presence, Ahmed committed atrocious breaches of courtesy and tact by bragging of his sexual conquests and consumption of drugs and alcohol, so that the pious Iraqis on whom he was intended to inform considered him repugnant, immoral and untrustworthy. His claims about having been recruited as a spy by the U.S. are credible, Schafer says, because Ahmed himself was patently too dim to have come up with stories so detailed and plausible.

After living with Ahmed for several months, Schafer concluded that his roommate from hell was not just a fool but “‘beyond your wildest dreams’ incompetent, the kind of guy who would not have been able to function even in New Zealand.” Schafer says he has no idea how many more village idiots the Americans trained and unleashed to be the coalition’s eyes and ears in southern Iraq.

Schafer says that Iraqi police under coalition authority tortured suspects regularly. He claims to have seen beatings by police and, after he was transferred to a more brutal prison in Kut, at least one instance of an Iraqi electrocuted to the point of unconsciousness lasting three days. Americans, he says, visited the prison regularly and did nothing to stop or discourage the torture.

Even worse were those identified to Schafer as the Mukhabarat, the secret police who did the bulk of the toenail ripping and penis clamping during Saddam’s rule. Ahmed was summoned for an interview with the secret police, who claimed to be operating with the tacit approval of the U.S. “He came back half-insane,” spooked senseless by the Mukhabarat’s promise to torture him “till you can’t tell day from night,” Schafer says.

Eventually the Iraqi police, who had taken a liking to Schafer, granted him five minutes on a satellite phone to talk to his mother, who relayed the information to New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry that Schafer was stuck in a jail in Diwaniya. Weeks later, after transfers to two other prisons, a British consular officer met him at Camp Victory in Baghdad and gave him a plane ticket to Jordan. Throughout the ordeal, the United States denied having had contact with Schafer, even when the highest levels of the New Zealand government made it clear they were set on pursuing the case. The U.S. State Department still has not acknowledged interacting with him.

Schafer’s experience demonstrates not only the unpreparedness of the coalition and the cruelty of its Iraqi allies but also the deception about what is actually happening in the war. It is disturbing that New Zealand — not as staunch a U.S. ally as Australia, but still friendly enough to have sent a few dozen noncombat personnel to southern Iraq — could not secure a straight answer about the fate of one of its citizens.

Most of all, it shows how poorly the U.S.-led coalition dealt with the unexpected. Their training apparently did not prepare them to meet shaggy backpackers or ungrateful illiterate locals any more than it prepared them for the pitiless Sunni insurgency in Iraq’s north. Although it is a cliché to point out that the military is a monstrous bureaucracy incapable of making fast feints to accommodate changes in situation, in Schafer’s case the cliché is relevant: He fit no battlefield category, and as a result found himself in a hellish holding pattern, at the mercy of the shadow U.S. military.

Schafer was just the type of person the coalition must have hoped would come to Baghdad: educated, unafraid of mortal danger, eager to put his training to use in a country from which anyone with a passport and money was fleeing. His story stands as a cautionary tale for potential U.S. allies, another example of the danger of testing the limits of the inflexible imagination of the Iraq war planners.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s