11 March 2006

Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare

Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times

Ali Shalal Qaissi in Amman, Jordan, recently with a picture of himself standing atop a box and attached to electrical wires in Abu Ghraib.


Published: March 11, 2006 in The New York Times

AMMAN, Jordan, March 8 — Almost two years later, Ali Shalal Qaissi's wounds are still raw.

There is the mangled hand, an old injury that became infected by the shackles chafing his skin. There is the slight limp, made worse by days tied in uncomfortable positions. And most of all, there are the nightmares of his nearly six-month ordeal at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004.

Mr. Qaissi, 43, was prisoner 151716 of Cellblock 1A. The picture of him standing hooded atop a cardboard box, attached to electrical wires with his arms stretched wide in an eerily prophetic pose, became the indelible symbol of the torture at Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. [The American military said Thursday that it would abandon the prison and turn it over to the Iraqi government.]

"I never wanted to be famous, especially not in this way," he said, as he sat in a squalid office rented by his friends here in Amman. That said, he is now a prisoner advocate who clearly understands the power of the image: it appears on his business card.

Despite the cruelty he witnessed, Mr. Qaissi said he harbored no animosity toward America or Americans. "I forgive the people who did these things to us," he said. "But I want their help in preventing these sorts of atrocities from continuing." (Entire story from the New York Times )

The photo of this man standing on the crate in Abu Ghraid has been forever seared into my mind. It is a symbol of the evil of torture and evidence that we Americans are not always as righteous as we like to proclaim to the world. How remarkable it is that the hooded man on a box in Abu Ghraib now has a name, Mr. Ali Shalal Qaissi, and that he now has a voice as well. And what a powerful message he has for those with ears to hear it. "I forgive the people who did these things to us," he said. "But I want their help in preventing these sorts of atrocities from continuing."

Mr. Qaisssi's story brings to mind Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 . I've often wondered what happened to the man who was attacked by robbers in that parable. The scriptures do not tell us what happened to him beyond the way he was ignored by two religious leaders like me and then helped by a person from another religious and ethnic group. Let's imagine the name of the man attacked by robbers was Qaissi. Then let's imagine he forgave the robbers after his recovery and thereafter he went to work to get some security on that road so other travelers would not get accosted as he did. I am not sure who is the Samaritan in this analogy but I do think Mr. Quassi could qualify as the man who was attacked by robbers.

Someone may say Mr. Qaissi should not be shown in an American newspaper or even here on this page. Someone may say he could be a terrorist. But if he were a terrorist we would never have let him go from Abu Ghraib. And if he was a terrorist then this is the first terrorist I've ever heard that preaches forgiveness. God bless you, Mr. Quaissi. Bless your heart.

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