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January, 2005
ESQUIRE MAGAZINE

The American Dream
In all of Iraq, Jumana Hanna was the bravest witness to the horror of Saddam’s regime, telling the Americans of torture, rape, and mass murder. In Washington, Hanna became a potent symbol of Iraqi liberation, and the Bush administration brought Hanna and her children to the United States for their protection. Then the author discovered the really horrible truth.

Jumana Mikhail Hanna sits on the edge of an overstuffed floral-patterned love seat, digging excitedly into the black leather handbag she once carried into a meeting with Uday Hussein. The meeting had been scheduled at her request, and by the time it was over—two years, three months, and seven days of imprisonment later—the strap of her handbag was broken and the bag had become a repository of memories and talismans arising from that fateful encounter.

“You must see this,” she says, her voice as soft and confiding as Marilyn Monroe’s. She is clasping a worn shred of green fabric between her fingers as if it were some kind of holy relic. "This belonged to Fatma. Do you remember I told you about Fatma?”

How could I forget? Fatma was the young girl who had been beaten to death, the one who spit in her jailer’s face and became, in that fatal act of defiance, a real-life saint to Hanna and the fifteen other women in Loose Dogs Prison in Baghdad.

She digs a little deeper into the bag and draws out a torn piece of paper with this message from two Shiite sisters: “We need help desperately. Thank you for carrying this letter.” Another search produces a tiny prayer bag of holy sand from Karbala and Najaf, a gift from Sindus, a sixteen-year-old girl killed by electric torture; a black-and-white photograph of a heavy-featured woman named Lila Shah, buried alive; a little envelope with six passport-sized photographs of a debonair-looking man, eaten alive by dogs; the ID card of a Christian woman named Amira who passed it to Hanna with these last words: “I’m going to torture now. Hide and keep it for me.”

Silently, without explanation, Hanna then presses a laminated card into my hands. I stare, not sure what I’m looking at: a picture of a wide-faced girl in braids that reminds me of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. “Me,” Hanna says, almost shyly. “Please. I want you to have it.”

I am deeply touched because now I know exactly what I am looking at: a childhood ID card that is one of Hanna’s last remaining mementos from her life before prison. I think I will keep it with me always.

Of all the poor souls locked inside Loose Dogs Prison, Hanna was the only woman to come out alive. Today, she is seven thousand miles removed from Baghdad, yet when she opens her window in northern California, the smell of honeysuckle reminds her of the scent of flowers carried on Iraq’s west wind. Freed from jail nearly nine years ago, she relives her torture and imprisonment—even while enjoying the good life in a two-bedroom condo that’s been stuffed to the gills with all the accoutrements of Silicon Valley: a computer with a DSL line, satellite and cable TV, two phone lines, and a steady supply of Belgian chocolate.

It’s been two years since she arrived like the Angel Gabriel in Baghdad’s Green Zone: the bearer of revelations. Like thousands of Iraqi men and women, the forty-year-old mother had been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the Baathist regime. But Hanna, unlike anyone else before or since, had the courage to come forward and name her attackers. In July 2003, three months after the formation of the coalition government, she led U. S. officials to the overgrown prison yard where, she declared, scores of bodies lay buried. She showed them the dead tree trunk where she was tied like a dog, sodomized, and prodded with electric shocks. There was the cell in which she was hung from a rod and mercilessly beaten during her imprisonment. Here was where her husband was murdered and his brutally tortured corpse handed through a steel gate like a piece of butcher’s meat. She identified her jailers with such point-blank accuracy that occupation forces ultimately arrested nine Iraqi officers, including a brigadier general, on her word alone.

In July 2003, The Washington Post published a heartrending front-page story about Hanna under the headline A LONE WOMAN TESTIFIES TO IRAQ’S ORDER OF TERROR. Post reporter Peter Finn had accompanied her on a tour of Al Kelab al Sayba, Loose Dogs Prison, and his piece turned her into a bona fide hero. Fearful that her outspokenness had put her life in jeopardy, U. S. authorities moved Hanna, her seventy-two-year-old mother, and her two young children out of a homeless shelter and into a trailer in the Green Zone. There, for the next three months, they lived under twenty-four-hour guard, just a few feet from the office of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, head of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority, in one of Saddam’s palaces. Everybody in the palace knew Hanna. The soldiers photographed her in one of Saddam’s golden thrones, her seven-year-old daughter, Sabr, and five-year-old son, Ayyub, perched on its gilded arms. In their free time, the Americans taught the kids how to swim in Saddam’s Olympic-sized pool, and in the evenings, a couple of the young women, including Bremer’s assistant, snuggled up in bed beside the kids to allay their fears and help them fall asleep.

Hanna became a symbol of survival, of the indomitability of the human spirit in one of the most repressive states in modern history. “I’ve been in seventy countries and taken testimony about many atrocities—including right after My Lai,” said Donald Campbell, a New Jersey superior court judge who served as the coalition’s top judicial advisor. “And I have to tell you that I found her story to be the most compelling and tragic I’ve ever heard.”

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Copyright 2005
Esquire