Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)

Chapter 10

DECEMBER 26 DAY 31

There’s a big aluminum tub full of hot water sitting on a ledge at the back of the bathtub. Curling fronds of steam rise and disappear. It’s my turn to bathe. Norman and Tom have already gone. Harmeet and I will share this tub of water.

I search out the cleanest, driest part of the floor and set my new wardrobe down. I take off my clothes and drape them carefully over a towel rack affixed to the wall near the door. I stand in front of the mirror for a moment, shivering in the stark ceramic air, amazed at the emergence of ribs and pelvic bones, the muscle my body has retained despite so much inactivity and so little food.

The tub is filthy with grime and hair. I frown irritably. Norman and Tom never bothered to clean it. There’s a small pot with a handle lying next to the aluminum vat. I fill it with water from the tap and clean the tub as best I can. It exhilarates me to do this, one small thing to change and improve my environment. I step into the tub and dip my finger into the vat. The water is scalding. I fill the pot halfway and add cold water from the tap. I hold my breath and pour the water over my head.

Oh my God! It’s beyond describing, the euphoric pleasure of hot water pouring down my body. I grab the soap and scrub my body with my hands. For a moment I’m alarmed—I’m suddenly covered with long, stringy black worms—until I realize it’s just my skin. This must be what happens when you don’t bathe for a while, the friction of your hands rolling up dead skin.

When I’m done, I squeegee myself dry with my hands. I move quickly so the remaining water won’t be cold for Harmeet. I step over to my clothes then stop. For a moment I am paralyzed. The thought of putting on the captors’ clothes repulses me. My clothes are all I have left, the last physical link to my stolen life. They looked like rummage sale derelicts when they emerged from the bathroom in their captor outfits, the violent clash of colour, fabric, design, Tom in the purple track pants and hideous grey sweater, Norman in his tweed jacket and the baby blue sweatpants. What will I become if I put on these slave garments? I wonder. Is this another invisible step in a continuing process of losing who I am?

I rub the sleeve of my shirt. The fabric is brown, saturated with grunge, impregnanted with oils from my body. I consider the clean clothes lying on the floor. Socks, underwear, undershirt, track pants, sweater. Nothing of my own. I pick up the sweater and finger the Sacred Heart zipper tab. It’s okay, I tell myself. I’m a child of God. As long as I remember this, it doesn’t matter what I wear.

DECEMBER 27 DAY 32

Using the zowagi cube as a desk, Norman meticulously folds and rips the cardboard backing our socks came packaged in. We are fascinated. What are you doing? we ask him.

“Something for our amusement. Perhaps a game,” he says.

“What kind of a game?”

“I don’t know, we’ll have to see,” he says.

He tears the cardboard into twenty-five pieces. One side is blue, the other manila. Norman, Harmeet and I work together to create an elaborate version of tic-tac-toe. The first one to lay down four cards of the same colour (blue or manila) within a five-by-five grid wins. Do you want to play? we ask Tom.

“I guess I could try.”

It’s okay, we say, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

“I’m sorry,” Tom says. “I’m just not much of a games person. But I can try.” He never does.

When Nephew sees us playing the game, he’s immediately suspicious. “What this?” he says, frowning.

Norman holds up one of the cards. “It’s a game. Would you like to play?”

Nephew takes the card and examines it carefully. He wants to know where it came from. Norman shows him a remaining piece of the packaging. Nephew sits wearily on the folding chair. He looks at the floor, arms cradling his round gut. “No happy birthday. No kineesa. I am sorry,” he says. We don’t understand. Nephew repeats the phrases. We still don’t understand. Nephew forms a cup with his hands, drinks from it, then offers it to us. “No kineesa,” he says. “No kineesa.”

I suddenly get it. “Christmas, he means Christmas.”

Nephew nods. “I am sorry. No happy birthday Issau.” His face suddenly brightens. “Bacher, tomorrow,” he says, “I bring cake for happy birthday Jesus.” Thank you, we say. I won’t hold my breath, I think.

Nephew asks each of us if we’re married. My chest tightens. No, I tell him. He accepts my answer without comment. We ask him if he is married. Yes, he says, smiling. We ask if he has any children. Five, he says, holding up his hands. He whinnies like a horse and pumps his pelvis. We ask how old they are. He shifts in his chair, suddenly uncomfortable. He answers reluctantly. The oldest is fourteen. A boy. Does he go to school? He’s in grade eight. How old are the others? Nephew shakes his head. This is a secret. His wife, his children, his parents don’t know that he is a mujahedeen.

“I am sorry for the English,” he says. He used to be good at it when he was small, “talib, talib,” a boy in school. But he was conscripted, got married, became a father, and now he can’t speak it anymore.

Were you in the Iran–Iraq War? we ask. Yes, he says. Clatha sena, he says. Three years.

We ask him where he’s from. His face darkens. Fallujah, he says. The Americans bombed his house. Now he and his family are forced to stay with relatives in Baghdad. He holds his head as if he has a headache. The house is too small, there are too many people, too many children, always too much noise. “Mooshkilla, mooshkilla.” We are cursed to have oil, he says. We have fruit, we can grow food, we have water—we don’t need this. Let them have the oil and let us have peace. All this fighting—mooshkilla, he says.

He stands up heavily. “Bacher, I bring happy birthday Jesus cake.” Then he leaves.

DECEMBER 28 DAY 33

Evening. As usual, the power is out. The cacophonous jostling of Baghdad traffic disappears as dusk turns into night. The hum-throb of countless diesel generators, broken by sporadic gunfire, rises from the city like an industrial keen. The lantern Uncle brought for us is sitting on the floor, just out of our reach, the lens clouded with soot.

My body is suddenly alert. The captors are coming upstairs. Junior enters first, carrying a lantern. Nephew follows with an oval slab of cake on a metal tray, and Uncle behind him with a bottle of Pepsi. Junior leads the singing of “Happy birthday to you,” his head bobbing like an enthusiastic choirboy. They unlock us and put the zowagi cube in the middle of the room. Nephew sets the cake down on the cube and stands solemn and erect with his hands clasped behind his back. The cake is decorated with a thick layer of white icing, pink and blue flower-edging, a palm tree with green leaves and a brown trunk, a pink and blue slab of crystallized sugar with Arabic writing. Harmeet asks what the words mean. “Happy birthday,” Nephew says, beaming with pride. His wife got the cake in the market.

We sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” “Zane! Zane!” Junior exclaims, clapping his hands with delight.

Uncle tears a piece of cardboard out of a box in the barricade and gives it to Nephew to cut the cake. He serves us in the order of our age: Norman first, Harmeet last. Uncle pours Pepsi into one of our beakers and shares it around. Cake and Pepsi. Sweetness explodes like a fireworks of pleasure in my mouth. I can feel energy surging through my body. It is almost too much.

After we’ve eaten, the captors each take a piece for themselves. Junior wants us to sing again. The captors become very still with listening. The melody flows out of us like a prayer. Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. No more bombs, no more guns. Then we shall all live as one. Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

Uncle shakes his head sadly. “Issau salam. Messiahiy. La kineesa, la kineesa.” He cuts each of us a second piece of cake. Then, grunting like a pig, he plunges the great paw of his hand into the remaining slab and shoves fistfuls of cake into his mouth. Nephew and Junior laugh so hard they have to grip themselves.

Then, just as if a switch has been thrown, the party’s over. “Hamam, hamam. Nam!” Junior orders. We stack our chairs and move them out of the way. I reach for the broom to do a quick sweep. There are cake crumbs all over the floor. “La, la,” Junior says. The cleanup will have to wait until tomorrow.

We go to the bathroom and Junior locks us up. “Sorry, Harmeet. Sorry, Jim,” he says, stopping to look at us before he leaves, four men lying on a ragtag bed, faces peeking through hats and a carpet-like blanket. The omission of Tom’s and Norman’s names hangs ominously in the dark. Good night, we say.

DECEMBER 29 DAY 34

“Shlonik?” I ask Junior as he hands us our samoon lunch.

He looks pained and shakes his head. “Mozane, mozane.”

“I am sorry,” I say.

“This mozane,” he says, pointing to himself. “This no Fallujah. No mother, no father, no madame. Kool yum in beit. George Bush najis. Bush mozane. Jaysh Amriki in Fallujah, Baghdad, Ramadi. Kabir, kabir.”

“I am sorry,” Tom says. “What my country has done is very wrong.”

Junior nods. The Iraqi government is dominated by the Shia, he says, traitors and collaborators who are controlled by Iran. There’s no hope. Armed resistance is the only option. His face is dark and fierce with hate. He explains with his hands how he’s going to drive a car packed with explosives next to an American Humvee and blow himself up. He points to the ceiling. Jenna, he says. He will go to heaven and join his family, his fiancée, his best friend. He points to the floor and stamps his foot. Jehennem. The Americans will go to hell. I look at him dumbly. This can’t be happening. He repeats the same sequence of gestures. No, it really is. I am listening to a young man tell me he wants to be a suicide bomber.

There is a sudden high-pitched whirring sound, a loud metal clang. “Isma!” Nephew cries. Junior freezes. Nephew bolts to the window to peek through the curtains. He turns from the window, their eyes lock, Nephew runs out of the room. Junior grabs the handcuffs and locks us up as fast as he can. His eyes are cold and round like beads of steel. “What’s going on?” Tom says.

“Shut up!” Junior barks. “La killam, la killam!” He forms his hand into a gun and points it at his head. This is what will happen to you if you talk. He hurries from the room.

“It sounds like a tank,” Tom says. “It must be some kind of patrol.” Fear courses full-throttle through my body. Is this the nightmare scenario, a military rescue, the open-fire, gun-and-bomb fight to the death we’ve been dreading?

I strain to catch every sound. The whirring moves closer. Downstairs, furniture scrapes across the floor. Nephew’s and Junior’s voices are urgent, panicked, arguing, then silent. I look helplessly at my handcuffed hands. There’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves. There are clipped shouts, voices in the street giving orders. The whirring moves away slowly and fades into the night. Junior and Nephew return shortly afterwards. Junior looks at us intently. His eyes are sinister, almost crazed. We could’ve been killed, they seem to say. The soldiers, the occupation, the danger we’re in, it’s all your fault. You’re going to have to pay for this. He’s holding something in his hand. I can’t tell what it is. It’s not a cellphone. Nephew steps forward to unlock us.

Norman begins the rotation through the bathroom while Harmeet and I start setting up our bed. Tom approaches Junior. “What happened? What happened outside?” he asks, pointing to the window. Junior gives him a menacing look. “This soldier? Jaysh Amriki? Britannia?” Tom presses.

Junior steps towards Tom and jabs him in the chest. “No Amriki. No Britannia. This no hazeem—no escape.”

Tom shakes his head. “La hazeem,” he says. He turns away from Junior and busies himself with setting up our bed.

Junior sits down. He stares vacantly at the object in his hands. I can’t tell what it is in the dim light. “Shuhada bil Arabi?” I hear Harmeet ask.

“Romana,” Junior answers.

“In English we call that a grenade.”

My head turns and my eyes lock onto the object in Junior’s hands. Oh my God, he is holding a grenade! Junior looks up and sees me watching him. There’s a mad gleam in his eyes. He stands up and makes as if to pull the pin. “Boom,” he says, opening his arms in a slow-motion display of a bomb exploding. “Amriki mot.”

Nephew holds out his hand for the grenade.

“La mezjoon, la mezjoon,” he says, holding up his wrists as if they were handcuffed. He points at us and repeats the action of throwing the grenade. If they try to take him prisoner, he will fight to the death and take us with him.

Nephew gestures towards the grenade. He is calm, friendly, cajoling. Junior shakes his head. He doesn’t want to give it to him. They talk back and forth. Nephew waits patiently. Junior reluctantly gives him the grenade. Nephew continues to hold out his hand. Junior, petulant, takes a second grenade out of his pocket. Nephew flashes me a look as he turns towards the door and leaves the room. He too is relieved.

Sleep is impossible. I can’t get it out of my head. “This in car and BOOM,” he’d said. This is my body. Exploding for you. Take this. What you have done unto me, I shall do unto you. Limb for limb, life for life, ash unto ash. It is necessary. It is righteous. It is just. For my family’s blood I will be a martyr. At least then it will be done, I think. He won’t be able to kill anymore.

But no, it will never be done. Hate is never finished. It sickens me. The shrapnel-blasted lives, the futile cycle of reprisal and vengeance, the blind self-righteousness, the endless grief, the calamity and waste of war. This is not what we were made for. God did not give us our amazing, beautiful bodies for hating and killing. We were given life to give life. Eyes for seeing the wild beauty of the world. Ears for hearing the sweet songs of children and birds. Hearts for loving. Hands for blessing and healing and giving.

How do I tell Junior this? How do I tell him that his life is sacred, his body a wondrous chariot, that he must not do this, foreclose every possibility of good in an irrevocable act of hate? I struggle to find words, for some way of communicating across the divide of language and power. He is captor and I am captive. I am slave and he is master. Words, I decide, are useless. He needs to taste and see, feel the goodness of God in his body. Only then will it be impossible for him to turn himself into a bomb.

Human touch. That’s how to do it. My heart starts pounding. It’s ridiculous, crazy, insane. I immediately sweep the idea out of my mind. One does not massage one’s captor.

DECEMBER 31 DAY 36

Morning exercise. The second-floor foyer is awash with light. How I love the reach and stretch of arms, the bend down and twist of waist, the all-around move of my body handcuff free, the feeling of being myself again.

Junior and Nephew are leaning against the stairway railing, talking. Junior is massaging the back of his neck with his hand. There’s a look of pain in his face. Something seizes me. The next thing I know, the blue folding chair is in my hands and I’m standing beside Junior. He looks at me. I point to the chair, touch my shoulder, make a massaging gesture with my hands. Junior looks at me strangely. “Massage, massage,” I say, demonstrating on my shoulders.

He looks at Nephew. Nephew shrugs. Junior takes off his sweatshirt and sits down. Now what? I stand behind him, take a deep breath, rest my hands on his shoulders. I can’t believe it. I’m actually touching one of the captors.

The edges of his white undershirt are yellow and worn, the fabric saturated with his body oils. I’m surprised by the animal warmth of his skin, the ordinariness of his body. His back is covered with acne scars and blackheads. His shoulders and biceps are thin, soft, lacking definition. Such a strange contrast to the bulging strength of his forearms. For a moment I am seized by the desire to close my hands around his neck. He looks flabby and weak. I could do it, choke the life out of him. No, I think, Nephew is right there.

I put my fingers and thumbs to work. I search, press, knead, strip the muscles of his neck and upper back, gently at first and then with increasing pressure. His back is a mess of knotted cords and tight little fists of muscle. “Zane, zane,” he groans, melting into the chair. I breathe deeply and pray for this young man whose name I don’t know. I pray for the healing of his spirit, that he might know the amazing goodness of God in every cell of his body. I start to hum, “Go now in peace/go now in peace/let the love of God surround you/everywhere, everywhere you may go,” a song Tom taught us.

The massage prolongs our exercise period. Nephew directs Norman, Tom and Harmeet to return to their chairs. Sensing Nephew’s impatience, I pat Junior’s shoulders to indicate that I’ve finished. “Come on, Jim. Massage, massage,” he protests. I continue for another five minutes and then return to my chair. Nephew handcuffs me and leaves.

“Well, that was pretty crazy,” I say. I worry that I’ve crossed the line. I want to know what they think.

“No, that was good,” Harmeet says.

“It gave us more time for exercise,” Norman says.

“It was like you soothed the savage beast,” Tom says.

I feel uneasy. “I wonder what I’ve started. I just hope he doesn’t expect me to do it all the time.”

“He was really out of shape,” Harmeet says.

“Yeah, I noticed that too,” I say. We are agreed. Of the three, he would be the easiest to subdue.

New Year’s Eve is a popular wedding day in Iraq. All day and into the evening we hear waves of honking, celebratory gunfire and blaring music as exuberant wedding parties make their way through Baghdad in hired vans and buses, women and men in separate vehicles. “I love it,” Tom says. “How even in the middle of all this uncertainty about the future, and all the terrible suffering that’s come with the occupation, people just keep living their lives.”

That night we have a special New Year’s Eve visitor. We can hear him yukking it up downstairs with the guards. “He better come up and see us,” I fume. We’ve been waiting on pins and needles ever since he told us three day, four day, Big Haji in UAE. He comes without party favours, but he does have news. “The negotiations are almost finish. Just some small thing and you release. All of you. One day, two day. Not more.” He holds up his cellphone. “I get the phone call. Money in Baghdad and you release.”

JANUARY 1, 2006 DAY 37

Laughing in the stairwell. The captors are coming. “La cahraba,” Junior says, entering with a lantern, followed by Nephew. “La cahraba,” we say. Uncle enters quietly and eases himself carefully into a chair. He appears to have been limping.

Nephew steps towards us with the keys: his first time unlocking us. “Sleep, sleep,” he commands, but his fingers are nervous, clumsy. He doesn’t know how to position the handcuffs, which way to turn the key in the keyhole, when to shake the ratchet loose. Junior snickers as Nephew struggles a fourth time to open Norman’s handcuff. Nephew’s face is red when he comes to open my handcuff.

When we are unlocked, Norman goes to the bathroom and we start right away to set up for the night. As I stack the plastic chairs and put them next to Uncle, I happen to look down at his feet. He’s barefoot and his right ankle is massively swollen.

“What happened? Shoo this?” I say, pointing to his ankle.

“Football, football,” he says, lifting his bruised ankle off the floor.

“Have you seen a doctor?” Norman asks.

“No doctor,” Uncle says.

Harmeet bends down to look. “You should see a doctor. This mozane.”

Uncle shakes his head. “Iraqi doctor mozane. No Iraqi doctor.”

“This massage?” Junior asks me.

“This no massage. Massage mozane,” I say.

We try to explain with our handful of Arabic words the best way to treat a sprain. Harmeet is something of an expert, having suffered several bad ones from playing squash. The one thing we seem able to successfully convey is that he should rest it as much as possible and keep it elevated. Then, without explanation, Tom is on his hands and knees, hands wrapping gently around Uncle’s ankle, eyes closed. Puzzled, Uncle and Junior look down at Tom and then at each other.

Shoo? What this?” Junior asks, frowning.

I fold my hands under my chin and point to heaven. “He is praying to Allah. For haji.”

Junior nods reverently. The room is quiet and still for a full minute. Then Tom stands up, eyes blinking rapidly as if emerging from a trance. “I was trying to draw the pain out,” he says. “Sometimes I can draw the pain out.” Junior and Uncle look at each other blankly and shake their heads. They are completely bewildered.

I’m the last one to go to the bathroom. When I return, the three captors are talking quietly. Norman and Tom are chained to each other by the ankle as usual, and Harmeet is handcuffed to Tom. I slide under the blanket between Norman and Harmeet.

“Shwaya, shwaya,” Junior says, earnest like a choirboy. Only a little longer to wait.

“Hubis, hubis,” Uncle says, miming a jet taking off with his hands.

“Mooshkilla, mooshkilla,” Nephew says, shrugging his shoulders.

We say good night and the captors depart. I’m shocked and amazed. They left without locking me up! I’m free as a bird! I feel myself starting to panic. I don’t know what to do. I slide my wrists against the blanket. I can’t get enough of it. The direct, smooth-gliding contact of wrist against blanket is delicious comfort. “What should we do?” Harmeet asks. He wants to know if we should lock ourselves up or let them discover their mistake in the morning. This is the wrong question, I want to shout.

No one speaks for a long time. I can hardly breathe. Is it now? Is this the time, the open window, the key to the door, the helicopter rescue hoist coming down? Adrenalin roars through my body like a cataract. There’s nothing to stop me. I can get up, find out if the windows in the other rooms are also barred, see if the door to the roof is locked, creep downstairs when the captors are asleep and try to get out by the kitchen door, or find some other avenue of escape.

But! What if, in opening one of the bedroom doors, it creaks, or there’s an alarm on the door to the roof, or I knock something over while feeling my way through the pitch-black kitchen? And if I’m successful, what will happen to the others when the captors discover I’m gone? Do I act to save my life or do I throw my lot in with the others? I’m frantic with indecision. Freedom! I want it desperately. But it means risking everything. Why are they so silent? We should be making a plan—acting! Don’t they know, can’t they see, what an opportunity this is? Damn them. Damn their passivity and resignation.

They’re waiting for my answer. “I’ll put them on in the morning,” I force myself to say, “before the captors come. So they don’t realize their mistake.” The thought of handcuffing myself is repugnant.

“Well, I’m certainly going to enjoy having my hands free,” Norman says. “Now I’ll be able to stand up for a bit in the night.”

“We’re all going to sleep better,” Harmeet says. “Good night, gentlemen.”

I’m suddenly exhausted. I turn onto my side, curl my hands under my chin and fall asleep.

JANUARY 2 DAY 38

“It’s time,” I say to Norman, sometime after the call to prayer, when the streets of Baghdad are still quiet and the day’s light is gathering. I close Harmeet’s handcuff around my right wrist. He sits up with a grunt and uses his free hand to lock us together.

There, I’ve done it. Chosen slavery over freedom. I lie back on my pillow in a stupor of self-loathing.