ABU GHRAIB, Iraq—In the past three weeks, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Susie Miatke has snapped more than 4,000 photos of Iraqi detainees at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
In nearly all of the pictures, the prisoners are smiling.
Armed with a digital camera, Miatke is chronicling the detainees as they visit with their families. On a recent day, the detainees greeted their relatives, paused to wipe away tears, then grinned for a close-up.
The prison's new American administrators last month added a photo booth to the revamped visitors' center as part of a campaign to regain Iraqi trust in the U.S.-overseen detention system, made infamous by hundreds of images of Iraqi prisoners being abused by their American captors.
While the souvenir photos handed out to detainees and their relatives don't take away the sting of estrangement, they are tangible proof of a loved one's health and a keepsake for families with empty spots at the dinner table.
"A part of me died when I saw the abuse photos," said Nahida Abdel Karim, who visited her son this week for the first time since his arrest three months ago. "We heard so many stories of torture, but the photo we took today lets me see he's OK."
Families are bused from prison gates to a makeshift wooden photo booth on a dusty, gravelly strip of land near 10 air-conditioned visitor tents—another post-scandal innovation. Through metal fences, detainees glimpse their families and wave. One by one, they embrace in emotionally charged reunions and are quickly ushered to the photo bench. A box of tissues is close at hand.
A husband gently held his pregnant wife. Miatke raised her camera. A little boy sobbed on his father's lap. Click. Four brothers in traditional Arab dress linked arms and gazed proudly at the lens. Click. A mother placed her weathered brown hand on her son's knee. Click.
Within minutes, each prisoner and his visiting family received a copy of the snapshot. Children giggled at the technology, while adults clutched the papers to their chests as tears welled in their eyes.
"From everything I heard about Abu Ghraib, I thought we'd be hurt or punished here. Instead, we get photos," said Hussein Abd Hamadi, who drove all the way from a town on the Syrian border and camped near the prison for five days before a visit with his brother. "I'm going to make cards with the picture and give them to the rest of the family so they can see prisoners are better now after the scandal."
The idea of fighting photos with photos came from the wife of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller. Miller oversaw the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay before being assigned to run Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq. Since Miller's arrival, up to 250 families a day are granted visits. Prisoners are now eligible for weekly visits; previously, they waited eight months or more to see their relatives.
"You can't deny there's a context" that accompanies the latest batch of photos to emerge from Abu Ghraib, said Col. Barry Johnson, Miller's spokesman. But he said U.S. officials aren't seeking publicity for the new program; they just want to improve conditions for prisoners.
"We're doing it for the families," Johnson said. "A lot of them travel a long way and want to take something back with them."
Prisoners' families still railed at what they called the unjust detention of their men, and they clearly hadn't forgiven occupation authorities for the abuse that occurred under the watch of U.S. military policemen. But their words softened as they gazed at the moments of elation frozen in time by Miatke's camera. Only a few prisoners decline the stop at the picture booth, she said.
Shukriya Khazal, an elderly woman in a flowing black Islamic robe, praised God and dried her cheeks after seeing her son for the first time in eight months. Her granddaughters and son gave bright smiles for the camera, but Khazal remained somber.
Just before Miatke pressed the button, Khazal grabbed her son's face and smothered him with kisses. Afterward, she didn't miss a beat when asked where she would keep the picture.
"In my heart," she said, stealing a last glimpse of her son before he was led away.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRISON