Hands of horror, hands of hope

Rebecca Hagelin

6/23/2004 12:00:00 AM - Rebecca Hagelin

As I struggle to find the words to describe the horror of what I have learned, I find myself doing more tossing and turning than mental writing. The lighted numbers on my alarm clock indicate that the hour is late: 2 a.m. Flipping on the lamp, I then reach for my Blackberry, which was awaiting me on the nightstand for this precise purpose. I quickly type a few thoughts and return to darkness and my attempts to frame this column in my sleepless bed.

Days earlier, I had met seven extraordinary Iraqis ? simple shopkeepers who now share far more than their mercantile experiences. What has bound them since 1994 are the unspeakable details of arrest, torture and their bizarre final sentences from Saddam Hussein ? the sawing off of their rights hands.

At a Heritage Foundation screening of the video "Remembering Saddam," that documents their horrific stories, my stomach churned with the description of what happened to the once healthy limbs after being sliced from their victims: The dismembered hands were put in jars of liquid and sent to Saddam Hussein.

Somewhere in the numerous storehouses or endless snaking underground dungeons beneath Iraq, along with boxes of gruesome photos and videotapes documenting the torture of millions of innocent Iraqi citizens discovered by American liberators, apparently there once sat jars of pickled human hands along with God knows what else.

As I sat in the dimly lit Allison Auditorium at the Heritage Foundation to view the remarkable documentary by Don North, one row ahead of me a man gently wept throughout the 50-minute production. As the screen flickered with footage of the "surgical" removal of a healthy human hand while the "patient" lies partially sedated, the man in front of me bowed his head and winced in pain as his tears began to flow more freely. The bloodied hand, now separated from its victim and tossed aside like a cancerous tumor, was his.

The story began in 1994 when Saddam Hussein ordered nine businessmen to jail for allegedly trading in foreign currency as opposed to the nearly worthless dinar. He then ordered that their right hands be cut off "to show what happens to those who undermine our economy."

A video camera was on hand to record the horrendous acts and to remind anyone who considered opposing the brutal dictator of the likely consequences.

After the liberation of Iraq, Don North, 65, a TV reporter who had covered the Vietnam War from up close, obtained the video. Disturbed by what he saw, North sought out the victims and took on one of the most important missions of his life ? to document their stories and provide further evidence to the world of the atrocities performed by the madman named Saddam.

But Don North didn't stop there ? he set out on a mission to turn hands of horror into hands of hope.

North's commitment to find prosthetics for the men led him to Marvin Zindler, a well-known television personality and philanthropist in Houston, who immediately offered his help.

He introduced North to his friend, Dr. Joseph Agris, a plastic surgeon. Agris agreed to donate his services and got his friend, well-known hand surgeon Dr. Fred Kestler, to do likewise. Zindler and the two doctors then secured Methodist Hospital to donate its facilities. Continental Airlines flew the men to Houston for free, and the Otto Bock Co. of Minneapolis donated the bionic limbs and paid for therapists to help the men become accustomed to them.

After the Heritage screening, I had the opportunity to visit with seven of the Iraqis who had come to the United States for their hands of hope. I was struck by their gentleness and their love for each other born out of their shared misery and their new found awe at the generosity of strangers from America. They spoke to me in broken English or through an interpreter, but their message was clear: They are overwhelmed with gratitude for the Americans who freed their country and restored their bodies, and they couldn't wait to return home to a free Iraq.

At the writing of this column, Don North's "Remembering Saddam" is being reviewed for possible national broadcast in the fall on the History Channel. North is soon to start a speaking tour in the Midwest to promote the video through the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also working with a Basra hospital and several organizations to raise funds to provide prosthetic limbs for the 500,000 other Iraqi amputees in desperate need of artificial limbs and the psychological and emotional healing that accompanies them. For more information on the documentary or what you can do to help, contact Don North at dnorth6743@aol.com.

In my final conversation with Salah, one of the Iraqi "band of brothers," he told me he had just spoken with his 9-year-old daughter: "She said, 'Hurry and come home ? I want to hold your hand and walk down the street and show everybody that you have two hands again.'"

American sacrifice and generosity produce more rewards than we could ever imagine.