Mon, Feb 23, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi exile returns to find `house of horrors'

BRUTALITY NEXT DOOR The man's former family home in a prestigious neighborhood had been seized by Saddam and transformed into a center for torture and interrogation


Dhia al-Hariri returned to Iraq after decades in exile to reclaim his father's beloved home, only to find that Saddam Hussein's regime had turned it into a house of horrors.

What was once the backyard is now a dark maze of iron-doored cells. One bedroom has a hook in the ceiling from which interrogators hanged prisoners, breaking their arms and zapping them with electricity.

"This was my grandmother's bedroom," al-Hariri, 54, said on Saturday, standing in a room barren except for the remains of iron bars embedded in the floor where lines of prisoners were chained.

For years, neighbors on the street of walled homes heard screams at night from the house down the lane and saw handcuffed men being led in and out.

Saddam's security agents seized the house in 1980, after al-Hariri's family fled the country, and for the next 23 years it was used as a secret interrogation center for political prisoners.

After Saddam's fall in April, prisons were opened and former inmates flooded in to revisit the scene of their ordeals. Mass graves have been uncovered and families have begun the task of tracking down loved ones among the hundreds of thousands of who disappeared.

Al-Hariri's house illustrates how the regime's brutality was literally right next door -- and how it remains woven into the fabric of the neighborhood.

One officer who worked in the al-Hariri house still lives on the street. "No one can touch him; we don't dare," said Ali Zeini, a neighbor.

The house was the realization of a dream for al-Hariri's father, Kadhem. He built it in 1968, a one-floor, modern-design home in a neighborhood of doctors in Baghdad's upper-class Mansour district. "He brought in architects to do it American-style because that's what he liked," al-Hariri said.

One of the first to be tortured there was al-Hariri's younger brother Safa, held meters from his old bedroom. He was executed in 1982.

Dhia al-Hariri, visiting from his home in Leeds, England, sounds like a rental agent as he walks through it. "This was all wood paneling on the walls here. Oak. See those windows? All oak frames," he said in what was once the sitting room. "There were chandeliers in every room."

Al-Hariri was 18 when the family moved into the house and he lived there until he went abroad for studies six years later. The outside facade looks much the same, but the interior has been transformed. Windows are bricked over, cinderblock walls block the passageways and cut rooms in half.

It is this other house that Qays Abu Muhammed remembers.

"This is where they did the interrogations," he said, standing in the bedroom next to the grandmother's old room.

Al-Hariri, who counts 10 relatives killed by Saddam's regime, said he'll never live there again.

"I want a home in Baghdad, but this house is too difficult. I need something where I won't see it every day," he said. "In this house, I can hear my father's voice, my uncles' and cousins' voices."

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