Prisons and palaces

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Prisons and palaces

March 16, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
407-897-1184     Orlando  {0262}

An e-Review Commentary
By the Rev. Terri Jones**

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Rev. Terri Jones (right) sits on the balcony of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Terri Jones, Photo #05-0145.

KUWAIT — Tuesday (March 8), I went just over the Iraq border to visit a prison camp with my Catholic priest friend. We were sandwiched in the convoy, surrounded by armor and heavily armed bodyguards. There have been no injuries on that road due to the vigilance of the convoy crews. These soldiers travel the roads up to three times per day and know every rock and crevice. Up at 4 a.m., they often don't finish their shift until well into the night. Their dedication to their job has increased the safety for so many.
Crossing the border reminded me of going south into Mexico. The quality of life took an immediate plunge. The Iraqis in the south had long been starved by Saddam for years, even before the war, while he diverted all his resources to his Sunni supporters and the area around Baghdad. 
Once we arrived at the prison we were given a personal tour by one of the physician assistants who provided health care to the incarcerated insurgents. He shared his daily struggle with the paradox of caring for those who, in free circumstances, would be taking his life. 
The prison has a new hospital, per the requirements of the Red Cross. It is the finest hospital in Iraq, better than any other civilian or military health care. While we were in a clinic, there were several prisoners waiting a turn to be X-rayed near where I was visiting with a doctor. One came to stand near me. We were separated only by the guard as the insurgent lifted his hands to be re-cuffed and stared me straight in the eyes. I'm not sure what I expected to see in his eyes. They didn't blink or betray emotion. We simply stood looking at one another. I wondered what my eyes said to him. 
Like other prisons, there were levels of security there, too. Some had more privileges than others, but given their status as Prisoners of War, they had wide latitude for services. Everywhere we went the Geneva Conventions was posted in both English and Arabic.

The guard tents were piled with boxes of cigarettes and tea ... both determined to be cultural necessities by the Red Cross and, thus, funded by our government for the incarcerated.  But the biggest surprise of all was their "right to privacy." All areas had large sleeping tents or buildings where the prisoners were completely out of site from the guards. In these places the prisoners would make weapons and plan escape attempts. The guards had boxes and boxes of ingenious contraptions made by the prisoners. In a recent riot, some areas slung rocks with homemade slings. The force behind the rocks was enough to break the glass in the guard towers and put a hole in the wall. 
In spite of the difficulty associated with the required privacy, the guards had creativity of their own. Any prisoners caught with weapons or misbehaving lost their cigarettes and tea. It was a huge motivation to refrain from violence. To that day, no one had ever been able to escape.
Two days later, I went to Baghdad to meet with the soldiers from the mortuary up. I went with my assistant and Chaplain King's assistant in a C130. We traveled in complete darkness once we crossed into Iraq. The pilot maneuvered the plane left and right and flew low to the ground until we came to a hard landing. Once we arrived, all my business was within the area, so I didn't have to travel on any convoys or dangerous roads.

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The hallway in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Terri Jones, Photo #05-0146.
I will never forget waking up the next morning to see Saddam's palace on the hill. Sitting like a fortress. Surrounded by water. But his fortress is now controlled by his enemies. Our coalition has set up offices in every room of the massive structure. The generals live in his villas. The command groups take up residence in the old Republican guard headquarters. The law office moved into his cottage down the way, and it was there that Saddam was read the charges against him. And somewhere in that controlled space was Saddam himself - prisoner in his own extravagance. 
That morning, I sat on Saddam's balcony as black hawk helicopters zoomed by on their way to a mission. Who would have ever thought I would be a visitor to this palace. I was struck by both the irony and the reality of his complete fall — that soldiers from all over the world use his gold detailed bathrooms and walk underneath his massive chandeliers.

The squalor of the south contrasted to the extravagance of Saddam's many palaces, however, was not the most surprising. My shock came with the beautifully carved ceilings, full of Arabic writing over the doorposts. My assistant is fluent in Arabic, and I asked him what one of the doorposts said. He read it out loud, "Mercy is the crown of justice." I had to ask him twice if those were his exact words, since they were not what I expected to be written there.
So much is gone. So much power has changed hands. So much is being fought over and so much is misunderstood. So much is neglected and forgotten. But those words still speak from above the doorpost. Even in changing kingdoms, truth still remains.
May you know the truth and may it set you free.

"These commandments that I give to you today are to be upon your hearts ... Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."  - Deuteronomy 6:6, 9


This article relates to Christian Ministry/Chaplaincy.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Jones is a military chaplain in Kuwait working with all branches of military and civilians entering and leaving the theater of operation, including Iraq and Afghanistan. When called to active duty, Jones was serving as pastor of Gulfport United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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