by Dan Coakley © 2012
Al Shaab Stadium (Photo source A H al Nakeb)
The Iraqi Al Shaab National Stadium was on the route to the Canal Hotel and as I was passing it I was impressed at its size and facilities. Built in 1966 with a capacity for 60,000 it is multipurpose, catering for football and athletics. It must be the only sports stadium in the world with a football hero buried within its walls. Ammo Baba was the greatest striker and football coach that Iraq ever produced. He loved football and Iraq so much that he separated from his wife and family when they went to the United States. Ammo elected to stay in Iraq and when he died he asked to be buried in the stadium. It must also be the only stadium that contained a Muhabarat prison and torture facility.
Two of my friends, Tom Lynch of Cork and John White of Limerick were incarcerated in the Al Sha'ab under atrocious conditions during 1990. They had been working in an oil facility near Tikrit in Iraq at the start of the war and were attempting to escape from the country, as they learned from their World Radio that foreigners were being rounded up by Saddam's forces to be used as human shields. The foreigners were to be dispersed to strategic sites to deter allied planes from attacking them. Tom and John decided to try and escape by going to the ancient desert city of Hatra and then driving across the Syrian Desert west of Hatra to the Syrian border and take their chances in escaping across it. John improvised a compass and it proved quite effective in guiding them across the trackless waste. As they were approaching the border they were captured by relatively friendly Iraqi military that had to hand them over to the dreaded Mukkhabarat (Saddam's secret police).
They were immediately taken to an up-market hotel in Baghdad to join other Western prisoners. While there their captors decided what sites their "guests" were to be assigned to. One day Tom found a phone with a live tone but without a dialling plate in one of the hotels en-suites. By tapping out the numbers on the phone cradle they were able to contact the Irish Embassy and made their plight known. A vice-consul from the Embassy came to visit them but could do little for them. While there they were witness to the western captives being led off in small groups by their captors to the various sensitive sites where they were to be exposed as human shields. This was done in front of their screaming wives and children who felt that they would never see their loved ones again. Tom and John were led out eventually but to their horror were consigned to a prison where they became part of the Iraqi criminal system. At night their sleep would be disturbed as they were wakened by volleys of gunfire as some of their fellow prisoners were executed. Terrified they awaited heir turn.
However after some days they were suddenly removed to the dreaded prison at al Shaab where they were horror-stricken by the continuous screams of the prisoners as their torturers slowly and sadistically murdered them. In the mornings they were witness to the sight of mutilated bodies left hanging in the view of other prisoners after the torturers finished their grisly work. Living conditions were atrocious. They had to sleep on the floor of the filthy over-crowded cell among the decomposing carcases of rodents and had to scrabble with the other inmates to pluck morsels of food from the communal bucket. They were eventually told that they were to be tried for attempting to leave Iraq without a visa and for being found in a prohibited military area. The second charge carried a sentence, if found guilty, of 18 years in prison. Eventually they were dispatched to Mosul by bus to stand trial at the High Court there. Before they departed one of the centres most enthusiastic torturers closed all the air-vents on the bus and they made the long journey north with an outside temperature of 50ºC.
The inside of the bus was like an oven and a number of prisoners succumbed to the suffocating heat. They faced trial at the High Court in Mosul and to their delight were found not guilty. This was another instance where their Irish citizenship stood them in good stead as Saddam was depending on the importation of Irish beef at the time. They rushed out of the court to where the embassy vice-consul was waiting with their own car that had somehow been recovered from the authorities. It would take them on the first leg of the long journey home. I worked later with them in Basra. Their story was recorded on the second episode, series seven (2010) of "Banged Up Abroad" on the National Geographic television channel.
I passed Al Sha'ab at least four times every week yet not once did our drivers ever mention its grisly secret.
Saint Patrick’s Day in the British Army Base in Basrah International Airport. Left to right: Tom Lynch Cork, John White Limerick, Flip South Africa, Steve Flint Cork, Paudie O’Halloran Cork, An Australian Army major and the author.