BAGHDAD // For most of the 1990s Sabah al Zubaidi pretended to be insane, a ruse designed to avoid punishment at the hands of Saddam Hussein's security forces after he took part in a Shiite uprising against the former president. As a plan, it had its flaws. Scores of political dissidents and anti-government rebels had a similar idea, feigning mental illness in an effort to escape torture or execution. Rather than being condemned to prison, they were sent to insane asylums.
"I was a nurse and had helped in a hospital to treat injured fighters during the 1991 uprising by the Shiites in the south of Iraq," Mr al Zubaidi said. "The rebellion was defeated and I was captured at Nasariyah General Hospital. They'd killed some of my friends for helping the rebellion, and I didn't know what to do. I told them I was mad and they spared my life. "I thought I'd escaped but they put me into Shmayah mental hospital in Baghdad and I was tortured."
In order to make sure the insane really were insane, security agents used to live and work inside the asylums. According to staff and patients, secret police officers would electrocute, starve and beat patients with a logic reminiscent of European witch hunts from the Middle Ages; those who complained about their treatment were considered sane and transferred out to prisons, where they faced further brutality. Those who did not protest the torture were classified as mad, kept inside the asylum and tortured again to check they were not faking sickness.
"Most weeks there would be an investigation, they were suspicious of all of the patients," Mr al Zubaidi said. "They would tell you 'you can get out of here if you admit you're not insane' but I knew if that happened, I'd be killed." He spent 13 years in the asylum, during which time a few staff members learnt of his medical training - he had studied nursing at Baghdad university as a young man - and began to ask his assistance in treating the patients.
"Some of the staff were really good to me and they helped," he said. "I'm sure they realised I wasn't mad but they never said anything, they just took me on their medical rounds and sometimes asked me to help them." His situation was made slightly easier because he had a history of seeking medical treatment for psychological traumas suffered as a solider during the eight-year-long bloodletting of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
"I was in the Iraqi army from 1985 to the end of the war in 1988 and I never really recovered from what I saw," he explained. "I couldn't sleep because of the nightmares, when I closed my eyes I would just see corpses everywhere, which is what that war was like. "It was bad enough and then my brother was killed fighting the Iranians in Basra, he was the only member of my family who was alive, and I was lost. I blamed Saddam Hussein for that war, and all the suffering, and I still do. That's why I helped the Shiite uprising."
Mohammad al Aboudi, a psychiatrist currently working at the Ibn Rushid hospital in Baghdad, spent the first part of his professional career treating mental illness inside Saddam Hussein's asylums, including the Shmayah mental hospital. "We had many patients desperate to show they were insane because they thought it would make them safe," he recalled. "It wasn't a very successful way of avoiding punishment. Many of them were killed anyway.
"There used to be photos of Saddam up in the asylum and sometimes the patients would see them and curse. If they did that, they were killed, regardless of their real mental state. Some people would speak in front of the posters without making any sense at all. They would get killed too." Mr Al Aboudi said the state security apparatus was ruthlessly effective, with agents posing as inmates to try to weed out political dissidents.
"I know we had people in the asylums from the communist party and the Islamic Dawa Party [the current ruling party in Iraq], and they were claiming illness but were not really." When the Americans invaded in 2003 Mr al Zubaidi finally escaped the asylum together with most of the other patients. He had been there so long he had begun to question his own sanity. "I had lost hope, I thought I would be in that place forever. All the days I live now outside are days I didn't expect to have."
Three years after regaining his freedom he was married and, now 49 years old with three children, he works on the Shiite pilgrim routes between the holy sites of Baghdad and Iraq's southern cities, using camels and horses to haul food, water and baggage for those walking the long distances. "I promised that I would serve God if I ever got out of the asylum and now that's what I do," he said. "God has blessed me and I made a commitment that I would help at every religious event, so you will always find me there."
For those unfortunate enough to still be inside Iraq's asylums, conditions today are scarcely improved over the Saddam years, according to Mr Al Aboudi. "It's a different kind of suffering now for patients in mental hospitals," he said. "They suffer from neglect, from staff not getting paid salaries, and the food is awful because there is so much administrative corruption in some of the institutions. The situation is not good."