Translated from Spanish by Toshiya Kamei
Abu Ghraib was like any other inmate in any other prison. His incarceration was not unjust – he was not imprisoned for his race or class. Nor was he a good man suffering the consequences of the system. He was serving time for a petty offense, even though his punishment could seem too harsh – it was too harsh but within the limits established by some criminal code for petty offenses.
What was peculiar about Abu was not that he was a victim – which has nothing peculiar about it – but that he had an odd personal trait, almost a physical disability, the one that had been the worst of his problems all his life. From a very young age he got into trouble, especially with authorities, for this trait – the inability to express emotions. It was impossible for him to connect emotionally with what his body and brain felt. Abu could be happy or sad – very happy or desperately sad – and no one noticed it. He suffered from emotional constipation: a sensation was produced, and there was pleasure or pain, but it didn't show. Laughter, sobbing, excitement, fear, and distress... these were off-limits to him; or rather, they were things the world would never see in Abu.
Once, while studying in high school, Abu failed all his classes – he got less than fifties in all of them, which caused him great humiliation at school and severe punishment at home. Well, Abu Ghraib remained unperturbed. What school authorities said or what his parents did to him did not seem to faze him one bit. Life slipped through his body like an egg tortilla in a frying pan with too much oil.
It's futile to count the number of problems that befell Abu because of his emotional illness, not to mention frustrated relationships caused by his stoicism. How many women had left him thinking he was cold and curt, a good-for-nothing, smug tyrant? How many times did he end up sleeping alone in the bed after making love because his lover was offended as she failed to elicit from him any expression of satisfaction?
That Abu had been condemned to serve the maximum amount of time for someone who committed a petty crime seemed like the best thing that ever happened to him. Within those cold grey walls, dressed in a khaki uniform, sleeping in a cell where every wall looked the same and the bed was almost like the floor, eating insipid, tasteless food every day, Abu and his illness would go unnoticed by most inmates. The impersonal system would guarantee a quiet, worry-free life. Committing a crime, fleeing the scene, and getting caught – that was one of the best decisions Abu Ghraib had ever made in his life.
Months later, it would become clear that none of that was true. There was no newspaper that did not report the tragedy, an astonishing case of police negligence, an atrocious crime committed by men – the horrible news that went away only when you turned a page of the newspaper or changed the TV channel. The national and international press commented on the incident: Abu Ghraib died while serving his sentence in prison, at the hands of guards who were supposed to guarantee his safety. It's not that something like this had not happened before. On the contrary, it happened all the time – but this time Abu's strange medical condition warranted the media coverage.
The official story was almost implausible. But reporters reconstructed the story from start to finish. Desperate in the face of Abu's apathy and lack of emotions as he engaged in his activities and took their orders, the prison guards decided to teach him a lesson. At dawn six guards pulled Abu from his cell and dragged him into the prison courtyard, where inmates took a stroll and got a bit of sunshine trickling through the grey walls during the day. There the rest of the prison staff waited for him. They had gathered to break Abu. "Make him show emotions," they said.
The guards formed a circle around Abu, who remained on his feet. Two police officers with dogs stepped closer to him and ordered him to take his clothes off. Abu obeyed and got completely naked. The dogs were set on Abu. They mauled him, not distinguishing between a leg and an arm, the neck and the back. While being attacked Abu didn't scream – he showed no emotion. At first he tried to run, but the police officers cornered him and soon the dogs caught up with him. A few minutes later, the officers stopped their dogs. Someone told Abu to get up, which he did with great difficulty.
In the middle of the courtyard, naked and bloody, Abu showed no trace of fear, pain or suffering. He acted as if nothing had happened, showing non-existent dignity and projecting a superhuman force he didn't have. Inside, Abu had been destroyed since he was dragged out of his cell. His calm appearance infuriated the guards. For over one hour and a half they bludgeoned him with their clubs. After playing with him, they formed a circle again and watched him collapse, forceless, lifeless, bathed in blood, and soiled in dirt.
One of them went closer to Abu's body and hosed it down. Then they dragged him back to his cell, threw his clothes at him, and the following day found him dead on the floor, drained of blood and naked.
Even though the leaked photos the guards took of themselves with Abu while bludgeoning him and then with his lifeless body revealed what happened, the prison authorities and the government announced that Abu Ghraib had killed himself by banging his head against the wall of his cell. His psychological profile, constructed when he went to prison, confirmed these self-destructive tendencies. Dog bite wounds all over his body were never explained.
CARLOS BORTONI was born in Mexico City in 1979 and still lives there today. He studied history at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. His books include El imperio soy yo (2007) and Perro viejo y cansado (2007). English translations of his fiction have appeared in The 22 Magazine, In Other Words, and Johnny America.
TOSHIYA KAMEI holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations include Liliana Blum's The Curse of Eve and Other Stories (2008), Naoko Awa's The Fox's Window and Other Stories (2010), Espido Freire's Irlanda (2011), and Selfa Chew's Silent Herons (2012).