A visit to prison

On Sunday, 22 July, the team visited a prison just outside the city, to meet with an acquaintance, Bilal, who has been imprisoned there for nearly a year. In early May he was sentenced to twenty years for a murder he swears he did not commit. 

Sunday is visitors' day, and as a guard escorted us through the grounds, we saw men lounging under trees in a courtyard, children playing, and women, as well. It was a surprisingly cheerful atmosphere, and overall, it looked more like a schoolyard than a prison. Of course, that illusion required one to ignore the high fences topped with barbed wire, and the guards roaming the edges and corners of the facility. 

There were two large halls on one side of the courtyard, and low purple buildings on the other. As a prison employee walked us across the courtyard, Bilal emerged from one of these halls, leaning heavily on a cane and raising his other hand in greeting. He walked toward us. He was smiling so brightly I forgot for a moment that he was a prisoner here.

The prison employee then escorted all of us out of the courtyard, through the gate, and into one of the rooms in the low purple buildings. There were not enough chairs, but we asked Bilal to sit, because of his injury. He'd been shot last year through the ankle; he has a terrific scar. He said it is better now, but he still has trouble moving his foot. He told us he needs a second surgery, which he plans to have whenever he is freed.

As Bilal spoke, we moved to another room with seats for all of us. A prison guard sat behind a desk, listening intently. Bilal said he didn't mind, that the guard could hear what he had to say, too. I had the impression that he's told his story many times, and what he shared wasn't secret. Given what he's said, it seems an awful lot like he's been framed for a murder he didn't commit. The murder of a police officer, in fact. One thing he did say to us, even while the guard was sitting there, was that we were all unknown people here in the prison, and that guard there, he could take one of the books on the desks for himself, and then when the other guards ask, “Where is this book?” he would say, “Oh those new people took it!” And then we would get in trouble. He indicated that this is how things roll, around here, with the authorities. It was not encouraging to hear, especially given that he and his lawyer are working to appeal his “guilty” verdict. 

After that, we went back outside, back into the courtyard, and into one of the big halls, where Bilal's family was waiting for us. They'd prepared a big lunch, hosting us in a prison, during Ramadan. We learned that his family travels up from Halabja every week to visit Bilal, at great personal expense, and the fact that everyone was supposed to be fasting during Ramadan didn't seem to bother them. There were other families there visiting too, but I think we were the only ones with food. 

Bilal's mother and sister greeted me with kisses, when we entered the hall; this is a Kurdish custom. The men greeted each other with salutes and handshakes. "Ba'kheir beit, ba'kheir beit", everyone said. Welcome, welcome. "Ser chao, ser chao, zor spas", we replied. Thank you. 

His family was so warm, so full of smiles and considerate attentiveness. It was surreal to think we were meeting inside a prison, where their son and brother was sentenced to stay for the next twenty years. As far as prisons go, this one seemed decent - Bilal said that the guards treated him very well, because he never made trouble, and he said that they are fed well and have access to WCs and showers - but it's still a prison. Bilal still sleeps in a room with maybe 50 other men, in bunk beds. The authorities there still forbid anyone from reading newspapers or books that aren't published by the political parties, or watching TV that isn't state-run. There is an exercise room, Bilal said, but when he inquired about being allowed to use it, he told us they said it was only for prisoners who've been here for a long time. Maybe in five years he can use it, they said. 

He does have access to his lawyer, and together they are working on an appeal. He has great hope that the appeal will succeed, and that he’ll walk free by winter.

Finally the guards told him that he had to return to the bunkhouse, and we began saying our goodbyes. As I once more leaned in to air-kiss Bilal's mother's cheek in farewell, I noticed she was crying. I wished -- not for the first time -- that I didn't have this language barrier to work around, that I could say something that might give comfort. As it was, I just tried to pour all my lost words into my eyes, and my hand pressed against hers. 

"Khwa hafis," we said, back and forth, in parting. Go with God. It will have to be enough.

- Carrie Peters

To read the original, somewhat longer reflection on the team's trip to see Bilal, please visit Carrie's personal blog here.