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"Rumsfeld knew"

She ist one of the faces symbolizing the Iraq war. Pictures showing her abusing Iraqi detainees in Abu Graib prison brought her notorious fame throughout the world. In her first interview in three years Lynndie England talks about Abu Ghraib, about Charles Graner, about guilt, her current life - and the role of the Bush administration.

Mrs. England, a year ago you were released from jail after serving 521 days of a three-year sentence. How are you feeling now?

Not great but good.

What does that mean?

(She sighs) Oh, it's just little things going wrong. I'm just trying to get by. Trying to find a job, trying to find a house. It's been harder than I expected. I went to a couple of interviews, and I thought they went great. I wrote dozens of applications. Nothing came of it. I put in at Wal-Mart, at Staples. I'd do any job. But I never heard from them.

Do you think your name has anything to do with it?

I am starting to wonder if they realize who I am and they don't want the publicity. I don't want to lie. On my resume I have a brief little paragraph about what I did in the army and about being in prison and that I'm still on parole. I want to be totally honest. I have to find a job by September, that's part of the parole regulations. If you break the rules, then they can bring you back. That would be a big deal because I don't want to leave my son.

How do you get by? What do you live on?

We just got our taxes back. Thank God. Otherwise, I don't know. I live in a trailer with my parents. My Dad works for the railway and he tries to help out with bills and my Mom helps me with what she gets.

You live in Ashby, a small town with a population of 1300. How do people treat you now?

They don't treat me any different. I haven't met a person yet that's been negative to me. Not since I got home. Most of them back me up one hundred percent. They say, "What happened to you was wrong." And some even say they would have done the same thing.

What do they mean by "They would have done the same thing"?

That they would have followed orders, just as I did in Abu Ghraib.

Why did you join the army at the age of 17 and against the express wishes of your mother?

I always wanted to be in the military. My whole life. I just didn't know what branch - Navy, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force. I just wanted to serve my country and be a patriot, I guess. As a child I mainly grew up on military gung-ho movies so that's where I got the idea. Old Chuck Norris movies, "Delta Force", "Rambo", "Missing in Action", "Platoon".

It was always said that you saw the army as an opportunity to finance your education.

That was a bonus, no more than that. It wasn't the main reason. Just look at this place. There aren't very many jobs to be had outside of the army.

You were a reservist with the 372nd MP unit. That is where you first met and fell in love with Charles Graner, the so-called "ring-leader" at Abu Ghraib.

Yes, that was right before we were deployed. I really didn't even notice him because at the time I was married. He kept following me around, like when I went out for a smoke break. He didn't even smoke but he started smoking just to hang out with me. I started talking about my problems at home and he suggested I leave my husband. I was dumb enough to listen to him and I ended up believing him.

What did you like about Graner?

I really don't know.

We don't believe you.

Even though he was 34 when I met him, 14 years older than me, he sure as hell didn't act like it. He was an outgoing guy, and he was charming, always said and did the right stuff. I fell in love with him.

Was he in love with you?

I can't speak for him because apparently he was playing with me the whole time.

And then you were deployed to the Gulf region?

At first they didn't know where to deploy us. We had no idea right up till the last minute. We left the country on May 13, 2003.

That was at the start of the Iraq War.

No, technically the war was over. I mean, President Bush had already announced "Mission Accomplished."

What was your first impression of the war?

The heat, the smell, the noise of the mortars. But at least we managed to tame the town we were in, Al Hila. And then around the end of September we got orders to go to Abu Ghraib because they were getting hit with mortars every night. When we got up there, they sent us to guard the prisoners although we really weren't trained to do that.

What was your first impression of Abu Ghraib?

I remember on our way up they had to shut down the road because there was a reported I.E.D. The prison itself was huge. When you drove up to it, all you could see was this wall and the wall went on for a mile. And then, of course, there were all the prisoners. It was very overcrowded.

What kind of job did you do at Abu Ghraib?

I did paperwork. That was my job in the military.

So why did you spend so much time in the prisoners' block Tier One Alpha, although that wasn't part of your job?

Our sleeping quarters were about half a mile away, in the open, and we usually got mortared at night. So I ended up hanging out with my buddies from the 372nd MP unit that was only 50 yards away. That's where I'd hang out with Graner, Megan Ambuhl, Frederick and all the others. When they'd finished their shift, at 4 in the morning, I'd catch a ride back with them.

What happened during the nights you'd hang out together?

At first I'd just sit in the office and let them do whatever. And then they started getting shorthanded as we got more prisoners so they asked if I could help out. That's how it all started.

When did you realize that something wasn't quite right in this block?

Graner told me about some of the stuff they were doing. When we first got there in September the prisoners were already naked, they had them wear women's underwear, and they had them in stress positions. The company that we relieved was doing the exact same stuff. We just took over from them.

Was Graner already a part of that?

There was a three-week ride-a-long where two of our guys would work with two of their guys to get to know the ropes and during those three weeks Graner would tell me how they were doing this and that.

What do you mean by "this and that"?

Pushing them around, stripping them down, putting them in stress positions, yelling at them.

Why did they choose Graner? After all he had a past history of violence.

Graner had a very commanding voice and they wanted him in that tier specifically.

Who do you mean by "they"?

The people from Military Intelligence.

How did you react when Graner told you how the detainees were being treated?

Of course it was wrong. I know that now. But when you show the people from the CIA, the FBI and the MI the pictures and they say, "Hey, this is a great job. Keep it up", you think it must be right. They were all there and they didn't say a word. They didn't wear uniforms, and if they did they had their nametags covered.

Which photos did Graner present to them?

All of them. He showed them on his laptop. He'd say, "Hey, let me show you this, this is what we're supposed to be doing." And they said, "Yeah, we got great results, keep it up, you're doing a good job." He actually got a letter of commendation for the stuff he did.

Where were you when the M.I. guys said, "Keep up the good work"?

I was there, within earshot, or Graner told me about it.

What did you think when you first saw the detainees wearing women's underpants or rubbing feces on themselves. Did you feel sorry for them?

Well, it was kind of weird at first. But once I started to see the big picture, I thought, okay, here come these guys, the OGAs, the MIs or even officers, and they don't even look twice at it. If they approve, then I'm not going to say anything. Who was I to argue?

These photos made you famous the world over. Even the Rolling Stones wrote a song about you. You have become a symbol, the face of this war.

That's how I read about it in the papers. People stare at me a lot. When we talk about the negative things that happened in the war, then Abu Ghraib is one of the first things to come up, and they usually name me by name. Although I was only in five or six pictures, I am the most famous. So I suppose I am a symbol of this war. Unfortunately.

Let's talk about the photos, especially the one with Gus, the man on the dog-leash. Why Gus?

The MPs who escorted him named him Gus because they couldn't remember or pronounce his real name. I know that picture happened first. It was in late October. It was like 10 o'clock at night, so I had just gotten off my shift. It was pretty quiet on the tier and all of a sudden I heard a pounding on the door of the isolation cell below us. I said, "What the hell is that?" and Graner said, "We have this crazy guy in there who keeps shouting that he wants to kill Americans." Gus had been in the cell for four hours already and it was time to bring him out. So Graner said, "You gotta back me up, right? He already had his camera. He always carried his camera with him. Megan Ambuhl and I went down with him. Graner opened the door and Gus is lying on the floor. Graner put the tie-down strap around his neck and said, "Come out of the cell." Gus was crawling on all fours and then Graner asked one of us to hold the end of the strap because he wanted to document the method of extraction from the cell. So I took the strap and he took three pictures.

Can you understand that people who look at this photo are offended?

Well, they weren't there. And they don't know what went on and they don't know how we felt at the time, in that environment and what we were told to do.

But do you understand the outrage?

To be honest, even if I wasn't there, I might think, "Yeah, what the hell was going on here? What are they doing to him?" But then I'd realize where it was. And then I'd think, "Oh, well, that's like standard procedure there."

Did you feel sorry for Gus?

At the time, I didn't. No.

He was mentally ill.

Well, now they said that he was. But at the time it was never mentioned. The only English he ever spoke was, "I hate you. I want to kill you." So I never really felt sorry for him.

Do you feel sorry looking back now?

To be honest, the whole time I never really felt guilty because I was following orders and I was doing what I was supposed to do. So I've never felt guilty about doing anything that I did there.

Guilt is one thing but feeling sorry is something else.

(Long silence) Like I said, what he was saying to us, and when he was thrashing out at us, I didn't even feel sorry for him at the time. And he's probably out there killing Americans now.

Let us talk about the other pictures, like the infamous pyramid of humans.

None of us knew what Graner was doing. He said he was stacking the men up to control them because it was seven of them in an enclosed area. Once he had got them into that position, somebody said, "That looks odd" and that they wanted a picture. And Graner took pictures too. Nearly everybody took pictures.

What's the sense in making a pyramid out of prisoners? It has nothing to do with controlling them. It doesn't make sense.

At the time I thought, I love this man, I trust this man with my life, okay, then he's saying, well, there's seven of them and it's such an enclosed area and it'll keep them together and contained because they have to concentrate on staying up on the pyramid instead of doing something to us.

You are seen smiling in the picture. What was so funny?

Sabrina Harmon took the picture and she said, "Hey, smile for the camera". So we did. It was a kind of the moment thing.

Have you never felt regret about smiling at a stack of naked Iraqis next to you?

I never really thought about it.

Do you feel ashamed looking back now?

(Long silence).

Can you understand that it's demeaning for Muslim men to be naked in front of a female American soldier?

That wasn't part of the reason of why it was done. It was done to search them and to get them into a jumpsuit.

And why were the detainees forced to masturbate in front of you?

Well, that happened right after. They were standing and kneeling in front of the wall. They still had sandbags on their heads and by this time most of the guards had gone. Frederick and me stayed downstairs to watch them. Freddie went up to the guy on the end and tried to get him to start by touching his arm and moving it back and forth. And when he didn't really catch on to what he meant he took his sandbag off and motioned to him what he wanted him to do and then he put the sandbag back on. And so he started doing it.

You can't even say the word "masturbate".

(remains silent)

You stood next to him and allowed it to happen. Did you not protest just once?

I did. I asked Frederick, "Why are you doing this?" And he told me, "I just want to see if he'll do it." So I was like, "Whatever."

No more?

No. I was like, "Fine, you know, whatever." Then Graner and Frederick tried to convince me to get into the picture with this guy. I didn't want to, but they were really persistent about it. At the time I didn't think that it was something that needed to be documented but I followed Graner. I did everything he wanted me to do. I didn't want to lose him.

Would you say that what happened at Abu Ghraib was torture?

(Long silence and then she grins.)

Is a smile your answer to that?

Torture? Would I say that what happened there was torture? Hm? To the Iraqis? Definitely, being naked. That wasn't only torture it was humiliating. Then having me, a female, point at them, that was double humiliating. I wouldn't say that when we had them running up and down the tier, crawling and just wearing themselves out, that that was torture. It was just to get their mind-set prepped for interrogation. To get them exhausted.

Who told you to soften the prisoners up for interrogation?

The OGA and MI-guys...

...the Other Government Agencies, meaning CIA and FBI...

Don't ask me their names because I don't know. They always spoke to Graner directly.

And what was the term they used?

"Soften ‘em up." "We're trying to get information out of this guy and he hasn't been cooperating for so many days." So they would give us instructions on sleep deprivation, on what we could feed them, and if they wanted them to be naked, we would be told to take their mattress and blankets away so they're sleeping on the cold floor. After the end of October it gets pretty damned cold.

Did you do any water boarding?

No, I didn't. And I didn't witness it. But that doesn't mean it wasn't done. Because a lot of the time the interrogators would take the prisoners into the showers and close the doors and we would have to put like sheets or blankets up over the windows. We could hear what was going on but we couldn't see.

You heard screams?

Yeah. Sometimes.

At the time, were you aware of people being killed while at Abu Ghraib? One of them was the guy they called "The Iceman".

Yeah, I heard about it. Actually, I was there the night the Iceman was killed. I went to Tier One and someone said this guy had been taken to the showers and they had the water running, and you could hear this guy just screaming bloody murder. It got to the point where it was so loud and unbearable that I went back to my room. And the next day when I came back there was this puddle of water outside the shower. And I asked, "What's that from?" And they said, "Oh, its ice from keeping the body till they could transport him." The Iceman was one of the "Ghost Detainees" that officially never existed.

And who took care of him?

The Other Government Agencies.

CIA and FBI. Did they kill the Iceman?

I won't respond to that.

The torturers and the politicians who are responsible for their actions are getting away with it. Does that make you angry?

Yeah, I think they used us because the unit that was there before us, the 72nd MP Company, was pretty much doing the same things we were. Only they weren't documenting it. I'm pretty sure that it was the same at other prisons. Only there are no pictures.

Why did the people from the intelligence units allow photos to be taken?

I don't know. They never said, "Hey, you're not supposed to be taking pictures." I never heard them say that at all. They never even said, "Don't get caught." Everybody knew what was going on. Once they heard there were pictures, they wanted to see. Graner started making copies on floppy disks or memory sticks. And he didn't even want money from them. So they took it and they showed it to their buddies and their buddies wanted a copy and so on and so on. And the hearsay around was that it was okay. It was approved by MI and the OGA.

And then a sergeant named Joe Darby brought the whole scandal to light.

Darby had those pictures at the beginning of November. Later on, somebody - it was probably Graner - pissed him off about something and he was like, "Okay, I'm gonna get back at him." So he turned those pictures into the CIA and became a whistleblower. He was with our unit for years. He was our buddy. And then he turned his back on us. He betrayed us.

You just mentioned the word "scandal". Do you regard what happened at Abu Ghraib as a scandal or just something that happens in war?

I'm saying that what we did happens in war. It just isn't documented. If it had been broken by the news without the pictures it wouldn't have been that big.

You apologized for it during your trial. You said that your actions probably led to the death of many GIs afterwards.

Yes. I received letters that accused me of being responsible for their deaths because the insurgents wanted to take revenge by attacking Americans. I can't say for sure I killed thousands of people. I can say I killed all these people, but I didn't kill them directly.

Thousands of Americans?

Both. I guess after the picture came out the insurgency picked up and Iraqis attacked the Americans and the British and they attacked in return and they were just killing each other. I felt bad about it, ... no, I felt pissed off. If the media hadn't exposed the pictures to that extent then thousands of lives would have been saved.

How can you blame the media? If you hadn't committed the crimes in the first place, we would have no reason to report on it.

The government had the pictures in December but they didn't come out till the end of April.

But you took the photos.

Yeah, I took the photos but I didn't make it worldwide. Yes, I was in five or six pictures and I took some pictures, and those pictures were shameful and degrading to the Iraqis and to our government. And I feel sorry and wrong about what I did. But it would not have escalated to what it did all over the world if it wouldn't have been for someone leaking it to the media. Hell, I was at Fort Bragg when the pictures came out and I had no idea.

Can you tell us about the day you heard the pictures had been made public?

The pictures came out on a Thursday, April 27 or 28. I called my Mom on Saturday. I was pregnant at the time, I didn't have a car, I didn't get the newspaper, I didn't have a TV, I didn't have a radio. I called my Mom from a payphone and she said, "There's a hundred reporters out in the front yard. You're all over the news, your face is in the papers, on CNN." I just said, "What are you talking about?" I didn't believe it. She started talking about the pictures and describing them. And I'm like, "Oh shit, how did they get out?"

Were you scared when you realized the pictures were out there?

I didn't really believe it. It was kind of like I was still in shock. I was like "No, me?"

But you knew at that stage that the investigation had been underway since January?

Yeah, but I didn't know it was so public with America, or even the world. So I went to this buddy I knew in the barracks, and I looked it up on the Internet and thought, "Oh my God." I couldn't believe it. And then I started getting paranoid. I was really getting scared at that point and thinking somebody's gonna beat the shit out of me. And I was only three months pregnant and I wasn't showing so they could beat the hell out of me and I could have lost the baby. I was pretty much alone, and I was scared. I couldn't trust anybody. It was crazy.

Did you feel ashamed when you saw the pictures in public for the first time?

At the chow hall they had these two huge big-screen-TVs so you could watch while you were eating. I was sitting there eating and there was this big TV in front of me and they started showing the pictures of me, and everybody in the room turned and looked at me. So I left and went back to my room.

So you did feel shame?

I was scared, I thought "Man, I'm gonna get the shit kicked out of me."

Any shame, any guilt?

Yeah, I thought, "These people are gonna think I'm horrible and, you know, I am horrible for doing this and getting into that." But somewhere in my mind I was thinking, you know they don't really understand the whole story.

Mrs. England, we've listened to you for hours. And the whole time we've been asking ourselves: Where is your feeling of regret?

Looking back on it, if I could change it I would. I would have never met Graner, I never would have gone over there, I would have stayed in my little work area in Abu Ghraib, did what I had to do.

How did your relationship with Graner end?

We were in Camp Victory at Baghdad International Airport. It was February 5 and the investigation was already underway. About that time, he finally decided it was time to break off the relationship. He said, "It's over. We don't even have to talk about it." He had said that he was going to marry me. We were going to have kids. I was just so pissed off with him.

You were pregnant.

Yes, but I didn't know it.

Did you know that he was having an affair with Megan Ambuhl, one of the other accused soldiers, at the same time?

I only found that out at his trial. Megan and I were friends at the time. He married her later on.

Does your son Carter remind you of Graner?

Yes, I try not to think about it but it gets harder the older he gets. The more he grows, the more he looks like him.

What will you tell Carter about his parents and Abu Ghraib?

I don't know. I'm trying to get together a scrapbook right now. My Mom kept every single article. And I'll probably cut them out and put them in a scrapbook and let him look at that. I still don't know what I'm going to tell him about his father. I guess the truth.

The former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, called you and your colleagues the "rotten apples" of the military. Bush claimed to be ashamed of what you did.

Well, back then I thought: How can they say that when it was happening all over Iraq. The same thing is happening in Guantanamo now and other places. We knew that our officers knew about it and our sergeants. We thought if they know then somebody else knows. And I really do still think that Rumsfeld knew what was going on. I mean he had been there while I was there at that prison. And if he was there I know he knew what was going on. How could he have not known? And Bush? He's the headman.

Do you feel more like a victim or an offender?

I feel more like a puppet. First I was played by Graner. Then the media portrayed me as their puppet so they could flash my picture out over and over and over and over again. And then I became the government's puppet because they didn't back me up, or remotely take my side. They just agreed with what the media said.

Saying you were a puppet again makes you sound like a victim.

Okay, I do take responsibility. I was dumb enough to do all that. And to think that it was okay because of the other officers and the orders that were coming down. But when you're in the military you automatically do what they say. It's always, "Yes Sir, No Sir." You don't question it. And now they're saying, "Well, you should have questioned it."

There is talk about new pictures that are even harsher than the ones we know.

I know there were some harsher pictures they had at the time of the trial that the media decided not to expose.

What was on those pictures?

You see the dogs biting the prisoners. Or you see bite marks from the dogs. You can see MPs holding down a prisoner so a medic can give him a shot. If those had been made public at the time, then the whole world would have looked at those and not at mine.

Was Abu Ghraib the turning point of the war?

I actually thought about that before the pictures came out. I thought, "I hope this never comes out because it'll change the way people see the war. And the way people see America." And it did, it changed everything. I felt bad about that. I felt sorry. And I still do.

Did you think three years was the correct punishment for your crime?

No. It's ridiculous. It was much too long. If you look at my charge sheet, I was only charged and convicted for posing in pictures. Not for physically abusing prisoners.

How were you treated in prison?

Literally, it was like flies on shit, man. When I got there, they were all like, "Oh my God." They loved me. I was like a celebrity.

How do you live with the burden today?

I don't know. I try to look forward and not to think about it anymore. If I think about it, then I get down; I get feeling sorry and pissed off.

Do the pictures still haunt you?

Hell, I'm seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist. I'm on antidepressants and meds for anxiety. If it wasn't for that I'd probably lose my mind. I just get freaked out. I'm paranoid as hell at people.

So it's getting worse over time?

According to the psychiatrist, yes. I'm going to blame it on my Mom because right now she is flipping out over little shit, and I don't know why. She tells me almost every day how she had to put up with my son for a year and a half because of what I did to get myself in trouble when I wasn't there for him and I was in prison.

But you still live with your parents.

I want to get a house of my own but at the same time I'm scared to do that because what if somebody finds out where I live and they're against me and they try to do some shit. I can't protect Carter.

It sounds as if you are a prisoner. A prisoner of yourself and your own actions?

Now it's like I have to think about everything I do before I do it.

What plans do you have for the future? What are your hopes and dreams?

Living a normal life. Not having to worry about looking over my shoulder every day, about thinking ten years down the road somebody's going to recognize me and come shoot me because of something I did when I was young and stupid and in love. I'm scared to death because Carter starts school this fall. What if somebody doesn't like me, and kidnaps him because of what I did.

Have you ever thought about going away to some place where people don't know you?

I can't go anywhere because everyone recognizes me.

You've let your hair grow.

But everybody recognizes my face and my voice. I even dyed my hair, but even then people still recognized me. They even recognize me when I'm wearing sunglasses and a hat.

So that's why you stay here in West Virginia?

Well I know more people support me here than are against me. It's that one crazy one that you don't know that finds out where you live and comes after you.

Interview: Michael Streck and Jan-Christoph Wiechmann

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