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Geert Van Kesteren: Why Mister,Why? April 16, 2008

Posted by Geoffrey Hiller in Iraq.
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Iraqi Prisoners, Tikrit. August 2003

Why Mister, Why?

Born in Amsterdam, Geert Van Kesteren, first worked as a photojournalist in Iraq during Operation “Desert Fox” in 1998. He returned to Iraq in April 2003 and spent several months working on assignment for Newsweek and Stern magazines. His work has been published in many other international magazines, and has led to two books: Mwendanjangula! Aids in Zambia and Why Mister, Why?, about his experiences in Iraq. In 2004, he received the Visa d’or at the Festival Visa in Perpignan. He joined Magnum the following year. He believes that the quality of independent journalism is an index of the quality of democracy in a country. His latest book Baghdad Calling reveals everyday life in the Iraq of 2006 and 2007 through the eyes of Iraqis themselves.

About the Photograph:

“It was in an unbearable heat. Heavily armed soldiers with bullet proof vests and kevlar helmets were cramped together in a Bradley vehicle. When they opened the hedge they ran into what appeared to be a farm in the desert. A young woman wanted to hand over the keys, but the soldiers did not understand arabic and impatiently grabbed her arm, dragged her out and then kicked in doors. Insurgency was hardly active by then, but the haunt for Saddam was at full speed. A field phone and some guns were found, completely normal in the US and in Iraq. After the war I saw endless lines of grenades, bullets and other armory packed inside warehouses and schools. The US military had, by then, no interest or manpower to collect. But what could these soldiers do? They had no translator with them, could not interrogate nor understand these farmers, so they arrested all men present. You never know.”

They were driven blindfolded and handcuffed in an open truck to an improvised prison at the base. The prison stank of piss and sweat. A hundred prisoners, like animals in the dirt behind barbed wire, guarded by soldiers with cudgels. I have to say that living conditions of the soldiers were not so much better, but also the commander thought this was a disgraceful scene. He did not know where else to hold the detainees. Things could be worse, however. ‘You should be there when I hand over these people to the base in Tikrit for questioning. Then the soldiers jab their boots in the prisoners’ back to yank the handcuffs as tight as possible around their wrists.

It’s the period when the atrocities in the Abu Ghraib prison were being perpetrated. Months later, in December, the US Secretary of Defense Donald Runsfield has the audacity to say the prisoners in Iraq were treated “very, very well.”

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