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Category: International, Violence against Women

What a War Crime Looks Like

| March 12, 2007

The account below is compiled from testimony given at the courts martial of Paul Cortez and James Barker, from accounts of the Article 32 Hearing and other court proceedings in the cases, and from previous WMC and newspaper reports. Former Pfc. Steven Green, Pfc. Jesse Spielman and Pfc. Bryan Howard are still awaiting trial. References to them are to alleged actions on their part according to the above sources.

Through court martial testimony, including that of the now convicted Paul Cortez and James Barker, a picture is emerging of what took place on March 12, 2006. Almost everything we know about the day one year ago when Abeer Qassim Hamza al Janabi was raped and, along with her parents and sister, murdered comes from her proven and alleged killers. The only other witnesses, the family members themselves, are dead.

On that day, Pfc. Steven Green, Pfc. Jesse Spielman and Pfc. Bryan Howard, all currently awaiting trial, were on duty with Barker and Cortez at Traffic Control Point 2 (TCP2), near Mahmoudiya, Iraq. While others stood guard, Spielman, Green, Barker and Cortez sat outside playing cards, hitting golf balls and drinking canned Iraqi whisky mixed with an energy drink.

As Barker put it, they were “pretty buzzed.”  Green started talking about wanting to kill some Iraqis, Barker said, but he didn’t take him seriously. As several soldiers testified, Green had said the same thing on almost a daily basis, to anyone, of any rank, who would listen. This time he was persistent. Instead of challenging him, Barker suggested a house they could go to—one that would be, Cortez later testified, “an easy target” since previous searches had shown that it contained only one adult male. It was fewer than 1,000 feet from TCP2, past one occupied and two unoccupied houses.

The soldiers had already noticed the family’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Abeer. Her mother Fikhriya told a neighbor that Abeer was afraid after American soldiers had been paying her unwanted attention at the checkpoint. They had started dropping by the house to ogle her, giving her mother a thumbs-up while they gestured to Abeer and passed their judgment: “very good, very good.” Abeer’s younger brother Mohammed, who was not home during the attack, once watched her stand, petrified, as Steven Green ran his index finger down her cheek. Increasingly worried at the soldiers’ behavior, her parents had arranged for Abeer to sleep at a relative’s house for protection.

According to Barker, it was Green who suggested they rape Abeer. This, say the prosecutors, provided the incentive for the others. “I’m down with that,” was Spielman’s response, Cortez told prosecutors, when presented with the idea as they left the TCP. Cortez, the senior soldier, might have put a stop to it. Instead he pulled rank insisting, testified Barker, that “if we were going to rape the girl, he was going to go first.”

Some of the men changed their clothes in a perfunctory way. Barker wore a black balaclava. Green simply pulled a t-shirt over his head, leaving part of his pale face exposed. Spielman, who joined the plan late, didn’t cover his face at all. They wore standard issue army boots and carried M4 rifles. According to Barker, they also brought weapons they had seen Iraqis carry:  an M14 carried by Spielman and a shotgun, useful for close range kills, carried by Green. The soldiers had a trump card: They knew that Abeer’s father Qassim, for the family’s protection, kept an AK-47 in the house, the preferred weapon of Iraqi insurgents, thus useful to point to sectarian involvement.

Leaving Howard as lookout, the group split as they approached the house. Barker and Cortez went to the right, Spielman and Green around the left, coming across Qassim and his youngest daughter Hadeel. Spielman, said Barker, grabbed Hadeel with one hand while he held his gun in the other. Abeer and her mother were in the family kitchen. All except Abeer were herded into the bedroom. Then, said Barker, Spielman left the room, closing the door and holding the handle while Green remained inside with the couple and seven-year-old Hadeel.

Barker saw Abeer struggling with Cortez in the living room. Deciding to help, he pinned the girl down with his hands and knees while Cortez, his “brother in arms,” raped her. Abeer screamed, cried and tried to keep her legs together. A series of shots were heard from the bedroom. Contrary to his training, which stipulates that if shots are fired during a patrol soldiers must immediately investigate, Cortez did not even flinch. Once he was finished, they switched places. Abeer’s screams must have bothered Barker when he took his turn: afterwards he yelled at her to “shut up.”

According to testimony, Green entered the room, saying, “I killed them all, they’re all dead.” He propped up the family’s AK-47 against the wall, then, presumably still covered with the blood of her parents and sister, raped Abeer. He picked up her father’s gun and shot her in the head once, then a couple more times. Now the witnesses, the Iraqi ones, were all dead.

Someone suggested they burn Abeer’s body. Barker fetched a lamp he had seen in the kitchen and poured kerosene over Abeer. The fire was set using a lighter allegedly provided by Spielman. A propane canister was set loose to cause an explosion. Then the soldiers fled back to TCP2. Barker recalled handing his clothes to Green to be burned. Spielman allegedly threw the AK-47 into a nearby canal. The men went back to grilling chicken wings and got on with their day.

About two weeks later, Cortez was promoted to sergeant. He had, later in the day, returned to the house purportedly to investigate the killings, and managed while he was there to get rid of a potentially incriminating spent shell.

Some months later, in May 2006, Green—who had been allowed to enlist under a moral waiver—was discharged from the army with a “personality disorder.” Days after the deaths of the al Janabi family, commanders heard, he had thrown a puppy from the roof of a building and then set it on fire. It has since emerged that months before the rape and murders, a military mental health team had found that Green had “homicidal ideations.”

Other soldiers began to suspect the truth but were afraid to tell. Spc. Christopher A. Till testified at Cortez’s court martial that Cortez had told him what happened, but that “there were weapons lying around and I didn’t know what they were capable of.”  In mid-June the soldiers’ roles finally emerged during combat stress debriefings.

One story is still untold: that of the last few moments of Abeer’s life, and those of her mother, father and sister. The little we are able to piece together from the accounts of their killers raises still more questions.

The family lived on their small farm while Qassim supplemented their meager farming income with an additional $3 a day from work in a Baghdad factory. Had he perhaps just come in from work, or was he just leaving, when the soldiers arrived at his home in broad daylight? What had he and his youngest daughter been doing outside the house—perhaps farm chores? Were Abeer and Fikhriya preparing a family meal, or doing some other household work in the kitchen? When Fikhriya, along with her husband and Hadeel, was forced into the bedroom, she knew that Abeer was out there alone with soldiers who had been eyeing her for weeks. Fikhriya’s cousin, who found the bodies, suggested that Fikhriya’s arms had been broken. Could she have been forced, as Cortez’s prosecutors described, to watch helplessly as her seven-year-old child and husband were shot?

Abeer must have died knowing what was happening to her family. While Cortez and Barker raped her, she probably heard screams and may have noted a sharp silence after the last gunshots were fired. After Green entered the room, presumably with her family’s blood on him, there can have been little doubt. We can hope that her terror prevented her from focusing on these details, or from feeling, however wrongly, that it was her fault that her parents and her sister had been killed so the soldiers might get to her. Perhaps she had a moment to thank Allah that her two younger brothers were away at school. They were later found crying by the burning house, where they could look inside and see the bodies.

We can’t be sure, of course. Key witnesses are dead. But this is what a war crime looks like.