If you find it hard to look at the photograph of the young Iraqi boy covered in flies, lying half-starved and near death on the concrete floor of a "special needs orphanage" in central Baghdad, then think about this:
One of the American soldiers who came to rescue this boy told me that before they took that picture, they waved thousand of flies off his fragile, bleeding body.
"It was much worse before," the soldier said to me. "When we found him he was black with flies."
There were hundreds in his open mouth. They were crawling out of his nose and ears and anywhere they could feed on his flesh and bloody, open sores, in what appeared to be the last few hours of his life.
The medics did not think he could be saved.
But he was. Not only did the 82nd Airborne and civil affairs soldiers save his life, he was released from a hospital a few days later, well enough to continue his recovery in a different orphanage, where the care was remarkably better.
What's so strange about this story is that the caretaker in charge of the orphanage where 24 handicapped boys were abused beyond belief was also a psychologist and worked at another respected orphanage for a long time. The staff there confessed to being shocked and saddened when they saw these boys in their terrible state shortly after being rescued; but they also were shocked and surprised that the man responsible was someone they thought they knew so well.
Like many social workers I've encountered in other countries, they were reluctant to condemn their colleague outright without hearing from him what had led to this terrible cruelty. Perhaps it was simply too much for them to accept. Until a few months before, these boys had actually been housed in their orphanage. But "someone" — no one could tell me exactly who — had decided that boys and girls should be separated. That someone sent the boys off to the other home where there was no government oversight.
There were records of food supplied to the orphanage by the government, like chicken and other meat, but no sign of where this food had gone. None of it was fed to the children, who lay in puddles of their own urine and waste, their sharp little bones protruding from their tiny bodies.
One soldier described the scene as being like a Bosnian death camp. Others talked about the rage they felt when they found three adults cooking in the kitchen, preparing dinner for themselves, while the children lay dying from starvation in other rooms.
The smell was so bad, one soldier told me, that you could smell it from outside in the street. He said it even overpowered the smell of the food cooking in the kitchen.
That did not appear to bother the adults living there, including two women employed to work at the orphanage. They are both seen in two of the photographs, and this is perhaps one of the most curious things of all: they didn't mind having their picture taken with these starving boys in the background. Looking at their faces, one even smiling for the camera, I can only imagine they thought this was absolutely normal. Or that these special needs boys, who could not talk or communicate properly, were not human to them.
They must have seen them as non-human to treat them this way: to see them growing weaker and sicker every day and do nothing to help them; to stand by while their lives slipped away into the filth and heat and misery of neglect. They had to be non-human in their eyes, for who would treat a human that badly?
It was difficult to imagine it all when I walked around the now-empty building, trying to envision what took place here, what it looked like the day U.S. and Iraqi soldiers made their grisly discovery.
But here and there were little signs. The urine stains on the floor. The stench. And the soldiers.
The men of the 82nd Airborne and the civil affairs team that came to the rescue of these boys were clearly moved by what they found here. Some even wept as they confronted the full horror before them. In the blistering Iraqi sun, reaching temperatures over 100 degrees every day, boys were tied to chairs and fences and deprived even of water for days at a time. They were dehydrated and weak to the point of death.
How could you take the most vulnerable children and subject them to such torture? That was on the mind of every soldier that saw what was done in this terrible place, where the caretaker's air-conditioned office stood neat and tidy, carpets lining the floor, a computer at his desk. The brand new cribs still had the plastic on their unused mattresses.
The local Iraqi council members who were called to the scene by the U.S. soldiers also wept at the sight. In fact, the head of the council continued to cry over and over as I interviewed him about what he'd seen. A woman on the council described how she had bought cake for the children and fed it to them at the hospital when they were being treated later that night.
"They ate like monsters," she said to me, showing me with her hands how they frantically shoved the sweet food into their mouths.
These Iraqi officials played a critical role in helping the children to the hospital that night and then to get back into the better orphanage. And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office responded by ordering the arrest of all involved and telling the United States they would investigate.
But nothing has been made public about what happened and, in fact, efforts were made to keep the entire incident secret.
Our attempt to cover the story was initially shut down from up high, but we were ultimately able to expose what had happened because of support from within the U.S. military.