Mopping Up

The ordeal of the New Yorkers sent to clean up the mess at Abu Ghraib

Sgt. First Class Louis Guiliani: I think what happened at Abu Ghraib when we were there, and when previous soldiers were there, did more harm than good.
photo: Scott McDermott
The place stank of burning garbage, gunpowder, and heavy chemicals. "It felt like we were entering hell," says Staff Sgt. Christopher Manzolillo, 29, of Wantagh. "Abu Ghraib has a unique smell to itlike death, really. There's nothing else in the world that smells like that. You never forget it."

The place also had a palpable spookiness. There were hooks in the ceilings of most of the cells where the soldiers lived. Strange reddish blotches stained the walls and floors. The buildings seemed to groan and creak with a ghostly presence. And every evening, as the failing sun glowed in hues of orange and red, thousands of bats issued from some secret fissure in the walls and erupted across the sky.

"Right now, I am sitting here writing this and looking around the old lead paintinfested walls of this horrible place and asking myself if I did the right thing," Gerald Della Salla wrote in his daily journal. "This is going to be such a long year . . . I can feel it."


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Another soldier says that "feelings about the mission ran from Rumsfeld talking points to 'What the hell are we doing here?' "

Because the camps were built on a landfill, the very ground seemed to resist their presence. The sand itself extruded garbage, steel shards, shattered glass, and bone. At one point, a hole dug in the ground quickly pooled with fetid water, used syringes, and medical waste from some prior horror.

Rockets and mortars fell into the base every few days. The vast majority missed their targets, but the possibility of random death created a constant, unrelenting tension in the minds of the soldiers.

At least the soldiers, however, had helmets and Kevlar vests, and slept in concrete buildings. The prisoners, on the other hand, lived in canvas tents. Arguably, this arrangement was a violation of Article 23 of the Geneva Conventions, which states, "No prisoner of war may at any time be sent to, or be detained in areas where he may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone."

The danger came home one day when a mortar shell exploded in Level 1, striking three prisoners and nearly severing one man's leg. A fist-sized piece of shrapnel spiraled off at a hard angle and seriously wounded a fourth detainee in an adjacent camp. He later died. A second piece struck a fifth detainee in the neck two camps over. He was saved only by the towel wrapped around his neck.

Incredibly, none of the half-dozen soldiers standing closest to the impact point were wounded. It was pure luck. "Not one soldier got any joy out of that day," says Sgt. Kathleen Bogart, a Florida police officer. "It could have been me or anyone else. We were in prison just like them."

Officially, Abu Ghraib's main camp had been dubbed Redemption, one of the many strange allusions to 9/11 that the military attached to the prison. A smaller camp was called Liberty. Later, they would build a new camp called Remembrance, and create a shrine to the victims of the terror attacks.

But whatever the name, the camp layout was a major problem for the guards. In Level 1, for instance, there were 2,000 prisoners crammed into four compounds of 500 prisoners each, and only 10 guards per shift on the ground, says Guiliani, who oversaw two of those compounds.

"At any time, if they wanted to, the detainees could have taken down the fences and killed everyone before you got help there," he says. "If it was me, I would have doubled the number of guards, at least."

Each compound was run by a chief or an "imam" that soldiers routinely gave nicknames like "White Colonel" or "Snake" and who met weekly with 306th commanders. Some of the chiefs even had security squads, who periodically handed out beatings to other prisoners. In at least one case, an inmate was murdered by other detainees. Shortly after one evening head count in August, a 20-year-old prisoner was found hanged in a shower stall, his hands bound in front. Like a lot of things at the prison, the incident never made the newspapers.

Other prisoners impressed the soldiers with their ability to adapt to their environment. They turned bits of wire into heating coils. They fashioned bits of steel into weapons. They used hand signals and notes tied to rocks to communicate with other camps. They even tailored gloves and coats that would allow them to grip razor wire and fashioned rope ladders to scale the walls.

Even though Abu Ghraib was staffed with hundreds of troops and ringed with concrete walls and layers of razor wire, the place still experienced at least three successful escapes, and many more failed attempts.

In some cases, the escapees got away because of inattentiveness by tower guards. In others, the prisoners used the cover of night or a sandstorm to hide their departure. Abu Ghraib vets often chuckle about the night that three menone mostly blind, one lame, and one very oldsomehow found their way through two layers of wire and over the 18-foot wall without being discovered.

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