JACKI LYDEN, host:
In Iraq, there are many ways to measure the ebb and flow of the conflict: casualty numbers, employment rates, anniversaries. It was six years ago yesterday that the U.S. invaded.
Then, there's the Iraq History Project, which tracks more than just numbers. It's collected more than 9,000 personal testimonials in the voices of Iraqis themselves. We'll hear a couple of those stories in a moment, and just a quick warning. They include some brutal descriptions.
The founder of the Iraq History Project is Daniel Rothenberg. He's a professor at DePaul University. He says these accounts of rape, kidnapping and torture go back to 1968, when Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party took power. I asked Rothenberg what he found when he compared the abuses of that time compared to what's going on today.
Mr. DANIEL ROTHENBERG (Founder, Iraq History Project): Probably the most significant difference in the nature of the violence is that under the prior regime, the violence was largely perpetrated by a centralized state that had key administrative entities, whereas the violence subsequent to the fall of that regime is very disparate.
There are many different organizations and groups with many different goals involved in a type of violence that produced the sort of uncertainty and dislocation that led so many Iraqis to flee their homes.
LYDEN: But it sounds as if you found that in many cases, they had borrowed the techniques that had been used to torture them when they were under Saddam's regime?
Mr. ROTHENBERG: That's true, yeah. You know, certainly I would say that torture was the iconic violation of the regime of Saddam Hussein. It was practiced in a highly systematic manner and created a culture of fear among the population.
LYDEN: You aired some of these testimonies on the radio. This one is really heartbreaking if you read it in its entirety because you're not only looking at victims. You look at perpetrators and how the perpetrators, the torturers, were brutalized and turned into the types of people who would do this. Let's listen to one of those, from a Sunni man who is from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and basically, he's hired to be a torturer.
Unidentified Man #8: (Through translator) I used to hit them until I was exhausted. And then, I used to strike them with a cable without mercy and without sympathy until I would see the blood from their body. But I was unconcerned, not with their pleadings, not with their begging, not even with their weeping. My heart was like a stone.
LYDEN: You wonder if he is trying to expiate his guilt or he's just been through agony and wants to confess.
Mr. ROTHENBERG: What's fascinating about hearing a perpetrator's story is they typically tell their stories in a way that provides insight into the truth of the social reality of Iraq at the time. In this case, he tells a story of being a victim, of being a very poor child who has no opportunities, who's seeking to do anything to uplift his family, and he ends up getting this position.
And at first, he refuses to engage in torture, and he is himself tortured and brutalized in order to get him to become a torturer - at least, this is the story that he tells our interviewer. And later on, as you go through this whole tale, which is complex and horrific, he ends up losing a hand.
And after he loses his hand, he loses his position as a torturer, and he subsequently goes into a deep depression. And out of all this, he finds religion, and he gets close to a particular imam and seeks to have redemption in belief in God.
LYDEN: There's something almost Tolstoyan in some of these testimonies.
Mr. ROTHENBERG: Well, we had - there was a moment when we decided that it would be useful and interesting to present this material to as wide an Iraqi public as possible. So we published some books in Arabic, Kurdish and also English, as well as some newspaper inserts.
But because of the nature of Iraqi society, it's fairly clear that the best way to reach the largest number of people is through the radio. And so, we contracted with some local radio stations in Kurdish and Arabic, and got some actors to read these testimonies and had a call-in show that ran for three months.
LYDEN: Let's look at another story. This one is from a rape victim describing her attacker.
Unidentified Woman #5: (Through translator) He approached me in the strangest manner. His eyes were bloodshot. He threw me down on the bed and began to rip my clothes off. I shouted at him, what are you doing, you bastard? At that moment, he spit in my face and hit me and said, look who is talking, you whore.
LYDEN: You know what really struck me, having spent time in Iraq, is how did you get someone who suffered like that to open up, particularly on something as taboo as rape?
Mr. ROTHENBERG: What we did was, we trained an all-Iraqi staff of interviewers, and they then traveled around the country and interviewed members of their community using social networks and different sorts of personal, familial, tribal relations, to speak with people about their experiences.
And we used a very open-ended methodology, asking people to talk about what they had experienced. And it's something, interestingly, that we see around the world in similar kinds of projects, which is that there is some deep desire, if not a deep need, among victims to have their voices heard.
And if you can create a circumstance where victims believe that there is adequate trust and a sense of value to telling their stories, they open up, often in ways that they, themselves, find surprising.
LYDEN: Daniel Rothenberg is the founder of The Iraqi History Project.
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