Iraqis Dismembered by Saddam Received Artificial Limbs in U.S.
Washington -- Iraqi journalist Basim Al Fadhly can't wait to return home and
walk down the street holding his daughter with one hand and his son with the
Until a week ago, that was impossible. Al Fadhly is one of nine Iraqi men whose right hands were amputated in 1995 on orders of Saddam Hussein as punishment for their alleged crime of dealing in American dollars.
Thanks to remarkable cooperation and generosity of U.S. government agencies, private industry, doctors, hospitals, and individual Americans, seven of the nine were brought to the United States and fitted free of charge with state-of-the art prosthetic hands.
After only a few days of practice, the men were able to write, throw a ball, shake hands, raise a glass, tie their neckties, and put on their shoes. When speaking, they gesture naturally. Some proudly adorn their new hands with rings and watches.
On May 25, just one week after being fitted with the devices, the men were invited to the White House, where President Bush shook each of their new hands and said he was "so proud" to welcome them to the Oval Office. The President assured the men that "we have a plan to help Iraq achieve free elections, we'll transfer full sovereignty, we'll continue to help with reconstruction, and I will continue to ask the world to help."
The President's pledge to stay the course in Iraq "gives me hope of having closer the day when we get rid of all these injustices," said Ala'a Hassan. "I think we are in a period when all nations and all peoples have to come together to build a society and a world where there is peace."
At a Washington press conference, the men expressed their unwavering gratitude to the American government and the American people for liberating their homeland from Saddam's tyranny.
"The Iraqi people and the American people are brothers in humanity," said Salah Znad, a teacher. "We appreciate that you paid a price to help the Iraqis out of these problems and injustice. We are thankful to the American people."
During their visit to Washington, which was organized by the American Foreign Policy Council, the men had an opportunity to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell May 27. The Iraqis also met with other government officials and, at their request, with American soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital who were injured in Iraq.
The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs provided program support and language interpretation for the men's visit to Washington.
Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Patricia S. Harrison said, "The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has initiated and supported many successful programs involving Iraqi men, women, and youth. As one of the Iraqi Fulbrighters said, 'The American people have opened the gates to my future. I will return to Iraq and help build the perfect society.'" Reflecting on her meeting with the Iraqi amputees in Washington, Harrison added, "These brave men had a chance to meet with American entrepreneurs and discuss ways to work together after they return home. One by one as they related their harrowing story, they expressed gratitude to the American people for their generosity. Salah Znad said, 'You have not only restored our hands, you have restored our hearts.'"
The seven Iraqis, all in their 30s and 40s, include a salesman who once enjoyed playing tennis; a jeweler who was arrested after wiretaps revealed that he called his bank each day to check on the price of gold; a former textile importer who hopes to study in the United States one day; an economist turned journalist who works as a reporter/producer for Iraquia TV; a currency exchanger who proudly admits to trading foreign currency in 1995 and has since founded a group to help Iraqis discover what happened to relatives under the Saddam regime; a teacher who purposely and repeatedly failed college exams in the 1980s to avoid serving in Saddam's army; and a businessman who after his release from prison escaped from Iraq and was granted asylum in Holland, where he still lives with his family.
The men were arrested in 1994, then sent to the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison, where after a 30-minute trial and a year's imprisonment they were sentenced to have their right hands amputated. Hassan Al Gearawy, today a Dutch citizen, asked the surgeons to take his left hand, crippled by an injury received during the Iran-Iraq war, and spare his right. His plea was ignored. As a last act with his right hand prior to the amputation, Nazaar Joudi wrote to his wife, "Hopefully Allah will replace my hand with an even better one." When he received the prosthetic hand, his first act was to write another letter to his wife.
Not trusting that doctors would carry out his grisly orders, Saddam directed prison officials to videotape the entire procedure and deliver the nine severed hands to him. Besides amputating the hands, surgeons at Abu Ghraib methodically tattooed an X on each man's forehand to mark him as a criminal.
Basim Al Fadhly, who as a journalist has since interviewed one of the doctors who was present at the amputations, said that "the doctors who committed this crime - it was a crime, not an operation - have to be tried" and punished by the new Iraqi government.
After their sentences were carried out, the men were released from prison. Like Al Gearawy, another fled Iraq and today lives in Germany; he declined the trip to Houston. The ninth, a Kurd, never recovered from the amputation and died a few months later.
Branded as criminals both on their foreheads and on their citizen identification cards, the six who remained in Iraq were treated as outcasts, unable to find work, and trailed by the secret police. Often depressed and in constant pain from unrepaired nerve endings in their damaged forearms, the men banded together for support.
The story of their rehabilitation began a year ago in Baghdad, when Don North, a television correspondent and producer, was shown a copy of Saddam's amputation video, and he set out to find the nine amputees. He decided to make a documentary about the men's ordeal. The 55-minute film, "Saddam Remembered" was shown for the first time in the Arab world this week on the U.S. government-sponsored TV station Al Hurra.
The chain of events that brought the men to the United States started when an oil engineer from Houston overheard North talking about them in a Baghdad café. The Texan suggested that North contact Houston TV newsman Marvin Zindler, who in turn called Dr. Joe Agris, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. After seeing the video of the amputations, Agris and fellow surgeon Fred Kestler agreed to operate free of charge. In short order, Paul Bremer, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator in Baghdad, the Defense Department, and the Department of Homeland Security cleared the way for the men to come to the United States. Houston-based Continental Airlines flew the men from Germany to Texas. Several donors provided hotel rooms, and private citizens offered to house the men, cook for them and wash their clothes. Houston Methodist Hospital and the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research provided free care. Otto Bock Health Care donated its top-of-the-line prosthetic hands, which were fitted by Dynamic Orthotics and Prosthetics in Houston.
"I was amazed at how many Americans want to reach out and help Iraqis if only they have the opportunity," North said. "We didn't have to ask twice."
The Houston surgeons removed the hated tattoos from the men's foreheads, repaired nerves in their forearms to eliminate pain, and created proper surfaces on which to attach the prosthetic hands.
When the Iraqis first arrived, they were quiet and somber, Agris recalled. "They didn't smile, no matter what I said to make a joke. But after the surgeries and when they finally got fitted, [the transformation] was unbelievable." Agris added that he hopes to travel to Iraq to teach and perhaps eventually open a center to aid some of the estimated one million amputees left in Saddam's wake.
Asked at a Washington press conference about prisoner abuses by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, site of their own torture and punishment, the men were philosophical. "We see now the abusers will be tried, and they will face punishment," said Ala'a Hassan. "Secondly, there has been a formal apology to the people of Iraq. And third, I believe there are mistakes everywhere in every country."
The men said they welcome President Bush's decision to demolish Abu Ghraib. "In this prison many innocent people were killed, and many people suffered," Nazaar Joudi said. "Children were tortured, women were tortured, elderly were tortured. The decision to destroy Abu Ghraib is going to turn the page of suffering and injustice. We want to forget this period and turn to a new page of democracy and freedom."
By Phyllis McIntosh Washington File Special Correspondent
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: