As the sun began to set, the evening of 14 December seemed destined to be no different to any other for Hayder, a former military medic in Baghdad. After leaving the protest camp in Tahrir Square, where he had been treating the wounds of injured anti-government demonstrators, he went out for dinner with friends in the neighbouring district of Karrada.
Like thousands of other young Iraqis, Hayder first took to the streets two months earlier on 1 October. He was chanting slogans demanding better services and denouncing the corrupt ruling parties when security forces opened fire on the crowd. He stood on a highway leading to Tahrir Square and saw young, unarmed protesters fall around him, some dead, others injured.
The next day, he packed his military backpack with bandages and medicine and went back on to the streets. By the end of October, when protesters were regularly occupying Tahrir Square, Hayder was leading a team of medics, treating the casualties of military-grade teargas grenades and plastic bullets as well as live ammunition. When one of these grenades smashed through his right arm, he was evacuated to a nearby hospital but was back in the square three days later with metal bars protruding from his bandaged arm. The blue tent that he shared with his friends, with its piles of mould-covered blankets, had become his home.
After the dinner that December night, rather than going back to the square as he usually did, Hayder decided to go to his house in a working-class neighbourhood in east Baghdad to check on his pregnant wife and his mother. Just after midnight, he was sitting on the pavement outside his house – where the internet reception was better – checking his Twitter feed for the latest news from the square when a small van stopped in front of him. Three men in black military uniforms and white trainers stepped out and approached him. “Are you Hayder?” one of them asked, he recalled
The ploy didn’t work; one of the men grabbed him by the neck and dragged him into the van. Another picked up his phone and wallet. The men blindfolded him, tied his hands and pushed him to the floor of the van under their feet. One of them put a pistol to his head and told Hayder he would shoot if he opened his mouth.
When the car stopped, an hour or so later, the men walked him in silence into a large, bare room and locked the door. Early the next day, two masked men dressed in the same black uniforms and carrying sticks and thick cables entered the room. They blindfolded him again and, without asking any questions, began beating him until he was unconscious.
Some of these security forces are, the Guardian has been told, following a parallel crackdown to end the protests and silence activists and journalists through kidnappings, intimidations and assassinations. Last month a television reporter and his cameraman were killed in their cars hours after the reporter denounced the clampdown in a Facebook video. Hayder’s kidnapping, it would seem, was part of the same effort.
“From day one, the government chose to pursue violent options in dealing with the protesters,” a senior official at Iraq’s human rights commission told the Guardian, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The violence came in waves,” he said. “First, there were mass killings; 157 were killed in the first three days alone. By early November we started getting reports of kidnappings, not only in Baghdad but also in Ammarah and Nassiriya. Activists, journalists, academics and anyone suspected of supporting the protest movement logistically or morally started receiving death threats before they were kidnapped.” Two activists in Karbala, the commissioner said, were assassinated a few days after meeting with him and his colleagues.
In Tahrir Square, pictures of the disappeared are posted on walls, electricity poles or flapping tent doors. Some are old, yellow and tattered, others are fresh and new.
“They came in stages; first they began with the leading activists, especially those appearing in the media, then academics and poets, followed by journalists, and now we have reached the medics and doctors. All to terrorise the protesters and prevent demonstrations from expanding.”
When Hayder woke up, he said he found himself lying naked on the floor of a small dark room that reeked of urine and faeces. There was a hook in the ceiling and a dirty bathtub filled with brown water and electrical wires.
A few hours later, masked men entered the room and spoke to him for the first time. They demanded that he unlocked his phone and, as they resumed their beating, began interrogating him about his political affiliation, asking which embassy was financing him and his protester friends.
He wept and pleaded, telling them he had not been to any embassies and pretending he had forgotten the password to his phone. The torture went on, lasting two or three hours; he is not sure. When he fainted he was submerged in the bathtub, and when he woke up they hung him from the hook in the ceiling, attached wires to his fingers, toes and genitalia and sent electric shocks through him.
After three nights of torture – the masked men only came at night – Hayder unlocked his phone. They went through his pictures and asked him to identify the protest leaders in Baghdad and the provinces. When he said there were no leaders, they put him in icy water in the bath tub, piled concrete blocks on his chest and one of the torturers heaved himself on top, crushing him under the water. They took particular joy in beating him on his injured arm, he recalled.
When he persisted in his refusal to identify anyone they began raping him with an electrical stick and forced him to sit on a glass bottle until it penetrated him. They showed him pictures of his mother and pregnant wife and taunted him that they were getting the same treatment with the bottle. They showed video footage of him inside the tent and told him in detail what he packed in his medical bag.
“By the end of the first week, I yearned for death. I wanted them to kill me. I just wanted to die and the torture to stop.”
“In the last week of September, we started receiving intelligence reports that mass demonstrations will take place, followed by a military coup,” a high-ranking official in the directorate of Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) told the Guardian.
The PMU, or the Hashed, is a state-backed umbrella organisation of militias that was formed in 2014 during the war against Isis, with some of its paramilitary units directly affiliated with Iran.
“An operation room was formed,” said the official. “Abdul-Mahdi was there as the supreme commander of all armed forces. Around him sat army and federal police commanders and leaders of the Hashed as well as the Iranians. They all saw the demonstrations as part of a larger conspiracy, and a decision to oppress it violently was taken collectively, and that’s why all the units opened fire.
“Then some of the [PMU] factions, and not all of them, decided to target the activists connected to foreign embassies and media organisations that are sponsoring the riots,” added the official.
Abdul-Mahdi’s office refused to comment on the allegations when approached by the Guardian.
The claim that there is government involvement in the kidnappings is backed by human rights groups. “The security forces exist in the vicinity of the square, and they are monitoring anyone who goes in and out, and a network of high-resolution cameras connects Baghdad, so it is not conceivable that the government can’t identify the people who are kidnapping,” the official from Iraq’s human rights commission said.
The Guardian also spoke to an intelligence officer in the ministry of interior who claimed he was ordered to take part in the demonstrations in order to spy on the movements of genuine protesters.
“The secret surveillance department of the ministry are all in the square, they have their tents, and they monitor who goes in and out,” said the intelligence officer, Hussam.
“We have cameras and can monitor the squares and all the entrances, and we know who enters and leaves the square. We take advantage of the protesters’ youth and inexperience, we talk to them, get their names and follow them to try and reach their leaders.”
A special target for surveillance, Hussam claimed, were those who distribute food and provide the protesters with tents and blankets. “The government wants us to file daily reports on who is financing these protests, but we can’t find these ‘financiers’ because everyone is sending money; old women, shop owners and students. But the government is obsessed by the idea of a conspiracy and that the demonstrations are all organised by [foreign] embassies.”
The torture sessions took place during the night, but during the day, if he fell asleep, guards doused him in cold water or beat him with a stick. Once, he says, a guard entered the room when he was sleeping and fired his pistol into the ceiling just to laugh at his screams of terror.
On the 14th day of his kidnapping, the guards dressed Hayder in pyjama bottoms, blindfolded him and led him out of the cell. “I knew they were taking me to be executed, and I was happy; I wanted to die,” he said.
They led him to a waiting car and sat him on the back seat. The vehicle drove for some time, and when he stepped out he felt rubbish and dirt under his bare feet. One of the guards nudged him forward, walked him a short distance then pushed him to his knees.
“I knew death was coming but I begged him to let me call my wife. He told me to wait while he got a phone but said if I removed the blindfold he would shoot. I heard his footsteps move away.”
Hayder waited for some time, but when the guard didn’t come back he removed the blindfold and found himself in a deserted, empty rubbish dump. He didn’t know the time or where he was. His first reaction was to run but suddenly he felt the agony of two weeks of torture and began to shiver from the cold and the pain. “I thought I was dead, and that this was my soul running.”
He saw houses in the distance and a highway in the other direction. He knocked at the first door that he came to but no one answered. He knocked at three more doors until he could hear people inside.
From the fourth door came a young boy. Hayder begged him for water and a phone to call his family. The boy asked him: “What’s wrong with you?”
When he realised the boy could see him, Hayder began to weep, finally realising that he was still alive. Thinking Hayder was drunk, the boy went back inside. Hayder heard the boy’s mother telling him not to go out again.
Someone called the police and when they arrived they wanted to take him to a hospital or a police department. He begged them to take him back to Tahrir Square where he felt the protesters would protect him.
The simple goal of kidnappings such as Hayder’s, the Hashed official said, is to create fear, “so that other activists will be scared and run away.”
To a large extent they have succeeded, according to the senior human rights official. “Most of those released migrate and leave, they refuse to talk, or submit a complaint, and many won’t even mention who kidnapped them.”