Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
MARCH 23 DAY 118
I’m awake, watching the day’s new light gather and grow. Judging by the angle and intensity of the sun, I guess that it’s about seven-fifteen.
The kitchen door slams. I’m instantly alert. This is unusual. Junior is never up this early. I wait for the sound of a car door, an engine roaring to life, the kitchen door to slam a second time. Nothing. Only silence.
Then voices, urgent, indistinct. One voice, louder than the others, rippling with alarm, fear, warning. “Hamid! Hamid!” it cries. The ominous whirring of a tank engine.
I shake Harmeet. “Harmeet! There’s something weird going on,” I say.
Norman and Harmeet both sit up. There’s a heavy clang of metal hitting the ground. Boots run up the driveway and pass beneath our window. “It’s a raid,” I say, standing up.
“Open the door! Open the door!” I hear a British voice shout. The thud of metal pounding against metal. Smashing glass.
My body roars with adrenalin. I don’t know what to do. “What should we do?” I cry. I start towards the window. I need to see what’s going on. No, I might startle someone with a gun, or something could explode below us, sending glass and shrapnel everywhere. We have to find a safer place. I start towards the door. “Should we go out into the foyer?” I call out. I open the door and look into the foyer. No, the captors could come up the stairs and barricade themselves in the room with us, use us as human shields. There could be gunfire coming from the stairwell. I step back into the room.
A series of rapid-fire explosions. I hit the floor. “What should we do?” I call. “Should we barricade the door?” Another set of explosions.
English voices in the stairwell. They’re coming up the stairs. My panic instantly evaporates. We’re safe. There are no captors up here. “We speak English,” I call out. “We’re British and Canadian.”
“British Special Forces,” we hear. “Is Mr. Kember there?”
“Present,” Norman cries.
“We’ll be right there, Mr. Kember. Close the door and wait where you are. Don’t open it until we get there. We have to clear the rest of the floor.”
It takes all of fifteen seconds. We hear a commotion of boots, doors busting open, more percussion grenades, and then they’re opening the door, stepping inside, desert-camouflage soldiers in full battle kit. They look at us, their eyes wide with surprise. One of them gives an order. A medic rushes into the room and goes right to Norman. Somebody tells us to sit down. The medic is followed by a soldier with a pair of three-foot-long bolt cutters.
“Is everyone okay?” somebody asks, maybe the medic.
“Yes,” we say.
“We’ll have you out of here in a minute.”
There’s a soldier with a camera. He takes pictures of us in our handcuffs and chains. There’s a soldier bending close to me. Is it the medic? “Do you know what happened to Tom Fox?” I ask him. “The American who was kidnapped with us. Was he released? Is he at home?”
“No.” The voice hesitates. “He’s … he’s dead.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” the voice says.
“How do they know? Did they find his body?”
I’m about to ask another question. “You can find out more once we get you out of here,” he says. The voice changes the subject. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” I say.
“Here, let me get you out of those,” another voice says. It’s the soldier with the bolt cutters. I hold my right wrist out. He places the ratchet into the jaws of the bolt cutter. The handcuff slips out of place. “Here, let’s try that again,” the voice says. His movements are clumsy. He repositions the handcuff and closes the bolt cutter but the metal is too thick. He’s trying to get the whole bracelet off.
“Try doing it here,” I say, pointing to the chain that links the two handcuffs.
“Yeah, we can get that off later,” he says, referring to the main body of the handcuff. Yes, I smile, with the Instrument of Grace.
He has trouble getting the bolt cutter into place, his hands are shaking so much. He closes the bolt cutter across the link but the metal is too strong. “Just cut one part of the link, that should do it,” I say. He hasn’t done this before, I think.
“Sorry …” he says. The bite closes a second time and the link snaps.
“Thank you!” I say, immediately standing up. My arms are free! I am free! I clasp the handcuff around my wrist and marvel at the sudden loss of its power. It is now nothing more than a strange metal bracelet.
I look around me. Nothing is clear or distinct. Everything is a haze of commotion and sound. “Get whatever you want to take with you,” a voice says.
I have to change, wear my own clothes to freedom. I go to my little pile of clothes in the barricade. Another voice breaks through. “Do you recognize this man?” I look to where the voice is coming from.
There’s a man in a white dishdashda in the doorway. His arms are bound behind his back. A black blindfold has been lifted onto his forehead. There’s a soldier gripping each of his arms. He’s not very tall. He looks at me. His face is sad. There are dark circles under his eyes. The lower half of his face is blue with unshaven beard. Who is this man? I know I’ve seen him before.
“Yes,” I hear Norman say beside me. His voice is clear and certain. I look over at him, but he’s already turned away, busy with collecting his things. I look back at the man. He nods at me. I reflexively nod back. The soldiers pull the blindfold down over the man’s eyes and lead him away. He does not seem to have been tortured or mistreated.
“Was that Medicine Man?” I ask Harmeet, who is changing next to me.
“Shh! We’ll talk about it later.”
I’m totally confused. “All right,” I say. It doesn’t matter anyway. We’re getting out of here. I strip off my captor clothes and put on my own socks, underwear and pants. I need a belt. With glee I pull the string out of the waistband of my green track pants and pass it through my belt loops. For warmth I wear the Sacred Heart sweater over my collared shirt over my T-shirt over the vest. I joyfully fold up the rest of the captor clothes—green track pants, socks and underwear—and leave them neatly in the barricade. I slip into my shoes, grab my notebooks and pen, and take one last look around me: I want to remember everything. “I’m ready,” I declare to the soldiers.
“If you could just wait out in the hall for a moment,” a voice tells me.
I go to the hamam first. I close the door. I stand over the shit-stained toilet and urinate. I pour water from the hamam jug into the bowl to flush the urine down. I go to the sink to wash my hands. I look into the mirror. A gaunt, clammy, bearded, greasy-haired man with blue eyes looks back at me. I laugh. Hey good lookin’! What’s cookin’? I wipe my hands dry on my pants. I decide to leave the toothbrushes. I turn away from the sink and walk out into the foyer.
There are soldiers everywhere. I look at their faces but I can’t find their eyes. These are not fresh-faced recruits. These are battle-hardened vets bristling with years of specialized training and what must be a hundred pounds of equipment—full-body armour, helmets with Plexiglas visors, headset communicators, guns, ammo, fierce-looking knives, pockets everywhere filled with the tools of their trade. One of them brings me a chair. I sit down.
I’m ecstatic. It’s over. We’re safe, we’re free, we’re going home. I’m wildly grateful. Astonished. They came, they risked their lives for us. Simply because it’s their job. At the same time I am sad, troubled, aching. That it had to come to this, a special forces commando rescue. How strange and paradoxical: we have been delivered by the very thing we were kidnapped for setting our lives against.
“How’re you doing? Is everything okay?” a soldier voice asks.
“Oh, yes, just fine,” I say, grinning madly. “It’s just that I never expected it would end this way.”
“It never does,” the voice says.
Harmeet sits beside me. He’s brought his own chair.
“Shall I bring the toothbrushes?” I hear Norman calling out from the bathroom.
“We’ll get you some toothbrushes,” a soldier voice says.
“It’ll just be another minute,” another soldier voice says. “As soon as we secure the perimeter, we’ll get you out of here.”
There’s no rush, I want to tell them. I want to go into every room, look in every nook and cranny, touch and feel and freely see everything. I look around me, look at everything, the once-forbidden foyer doors all broken open, light flooding the terrazzo floor, the high, whitewashed ceilings, the dust-coated walls.
Norman emerges from the bathroom. “I brought the toothbrushes anyway,” he tells us. “Just in case.”
“Okay, we’re ready to go,” a soldier voice says.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Just doing our job,” the voice says matter-of-factly.
We walk towards the stairway, soldiers in front and soldiers behind. I feel like I’m in a dream moving in slow motion. I look around me, wide-eyed, for the first time unafraid. We’re walking down the stairs. I turn to look back, one last time, at the foyer we’re leaving behind. I look down at the filthy, threadbare carpet that covers each stair tread, the translucent windows at the landing. We turn, go down the second flight of stairs, descend into the grand hallway of this grand house. Ahead of us, twenty-five feet away, is a set of wood and glass doors I never noticed before that open into a formal reception area.
We’re down the stairs. Five steps ahead and we turn to the right. To my left, the entrance to the butterscotch blue-curtained room. The door is closed. Three steps ahead to the left. The entrance to the red-curtained dining room is open. The plastic chairs we sat in last night are still in their exact same place. Goodbye plastic chairs! Two steps ahead the hallway sink. Goodbye hallway sink! Four steps ahead and we’re in the kitchen. The door leading outside has been smashed open and shards of tempered glass are strewn everywhere. I look closely at the lock. It’s a deadbolt you can only open or close with a key. I take a breath and step across the smashed-glass threshold. Across and out. Into fresh flowing air, good morning sunlight, a breeze on my cheeks, freedom!
I look up. It is stunning, miraculous. I want to open my arms, somersault, jump, dance. Above me blue, an ocean of blue! And green! The green growing fronds of a palm tree!
“We need to keep going,” a voice behind me says. I’m standing in the middle of a gauntlet of soldiers lining both sides of the driveway. They’re looking at us, smiling. I want to stop, shake their hands, look in their eyes, ask them their names, thank them. But there’s no time. We have to keep moving. Through the gauntlet. My feet move me towards an armoured personnel carrier. It’s a squat, desert-camouflaged steel bunker on a rolling tread of metal plates, thirty feet away. There’s an eight-foot wall to my right. A blindfolded man standing with his face to the wall. He’s between two soldiers. His wrists are bound with white plastic ties. He’s wearing a white dishdashda.
My heart is rent. My feet step towards him. My hand reaches out to touch his shoulder. He jumps. He doesn’t know who I am. I don’t mean you any harm, I want to say. My mouth opens, almost says it, Medicine Man, but then I realize he doesn’t know that name. The tables have turned. Just like that, in the snap of a finger. My heart is flooded with an immense sorrow. I don’t want this, what’s happening to you now. I don’t want you to suffer.
The soldiers beside him are becoming anxious. My mouth opens and closes like a fish gasping for water. The words won’t come. My hand pulls away, my feet step back, my body turns towards the armoured personnel carrier and my feet start walking again. With every step the chasm between us widens. I am in the land of freedom now, and he is being taken into captivity.
I join up with Norman and Harmeet. I look around me. We’re on the edge of a big traffic circle. There’s a monumental piece of architecture on the other side of the circle. I turn towards the house. It’s big and respectable, tidy, festooned with flowering roses, surrounded by high walls, indistinguishably ordinary. They tell Norman he’s going to ride in the Humvee parked behind the tank. A soldier points Harmeet and me to the armoured personnel carrier. We climb up the ramp into the dark interior.*
There’s a soldier inside. “Watch your head,” he says. We duck. He motions us to sit on a bench seat. He’s wearing a helmet and a headset that’s plugged into a jack somewhere.
“My name is Jim,” I say, extending my hand to him.
“And I’m Harmeet.”
“Yeah, I know who you are,” the soldier says, shaking our hands.
“What’s your name?” Harmeet asks.
“Rob,” he says. He looks to be no more than twenty.
My name! I should’ve told Medicine Man my name! There isn’t much time. “Who’s your commanding officer?” I say. “I’d like to ask him a quick question.”
“You want me to get ’im?”
“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind. I just have a quick question.”
The soldier shouts out of the hatch. A face appears in the hatchway. It’s a steely-jawed, tough-as-nails warrior face. “What do you want?” he says.
“That man over there,” I say, pointing to where Medicine Man had been standing. “Could I talk to that man over there? Just for a second. There’s something I need to tell him.”
He looks confused. “That man over where?”
“The Iraqi man in the blindfold and handcuffs.”
“No,” he says. “It’s not safe here. Our job is to get you out of here. There’ll be time for all that later.”
“We can talk to him later?”
The door closes. We’re inside the war machine. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I look around me. We are sealed inside what must be twelve inches of metal. Everything around us is dark green, machine-tooled functionality. We’re surrounded by pieces of equipment held in place with strapping and netting, flat metal boxes, mysterious switches and levers, conduit tubing for wiring, all the hard forms of the tank’s inner structural works, CAUTION and DANGER stencilled everywhere, instructions stamped on little metal plaques explaining things, like what to do in the event of a rollover. We have gone from one tomb to another.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Indiana,” Rob says.
“How long have you been here?”
“Nine months. Going home soon.” Silence. “And you?” he asks.
“Four months,” I say.
He nods. “Are you hungry?”
Harmeet and I look at each other. Yes, we say.
He points us to a khaki bag. “There’s a muffin inside there. It’s not much,” he says, “but it’s all I got. They’re not the best. You know, it’s army food.”
We break the muffin in half. It’s chocolate with chocolate chips. I eat it slowly. It is, I’m certain, the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. I look at the packaging. It was made somewhere in Ohio. A muffin, shipped to Iraq from Ohio! The ingredients list is as long as my arm—all long, hyphenated, incomprehensible chemical names. I show it to Harmeet. “They won’t have to embalm us now when we die,” he says.
Rob points to a rectangle of light behind his shoulder. It’s four inches wide and one inch high. “There’s a window here if you want to look outside,” he says.
I look through what must be a foot of glass. I see a distorted, blurry, convex slice of a small piece of the world outside. Underneath the window is a Velcro flap that functions as a fold-over curtain. I sit back to let Harmeet take a turn. So this is what the world looks like from inside the war machine, I think.
We are moving. Rob’s mouth is moving. He’s shouting something, but the engine roar-clang-pound is deafening. I can feel the power of it shuddering in my bones.
Rob watches out of a window, his attention sharp, focused, purposeful. He says things into his headset from time to time. He opens another Velcro window for us. I watch the world passing by, approximations of buildings, cars, people walking. We stop for a long time at an intersection. Rob’s jaw tightens. The tank turns 180 degrees over a traffic median and roars away. His jaw relaxes. We seem to be travelling through a dry, cement-lined water causeway.
I tap Harmeet on the shoulder. “Do you have the Instrument of Grace?” I shout into his ear.
“WHAT?” he shouts back.
“DO YOU HAVE THE INSTRUMENT OF GRACE?”
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a curtain hook.
“MAY I?” I ask, smiling mischievously.
He nods quickly, eyes alight. He holds out his handcuff for me and I insert the Instrument of Grace into the keyhole. The ratchet slides free. I hand him the hook and hold out my handcuff. Harmeet springs it open. Hooriya!
Our bone-and-teeth-rattling ride seems to take forever. Finally we stop, a half-hour, forty minutes later. The hatch opens. “Thank you, Rob,” we say, shaking his hand.
It is a relief to step out into sunlight again. We’re in the middle of what looks like a giant parking lot surrounded by blast walls. There’s an overpass nearby. In one corner, the rusting and derelict remains of a cement plant. This must be some kind of staging area.
We seem to be encircled by Humvees and tanks. There’s a phalanx of soldiers staring at us. I wonder what they’re thinking. A soldier steps towards us. His eyes are hard and his face is creased. His body exudes command. He is angry. “I know I’m speaking out of school here,” he says, pointing his finger, “but I’m going to say it anyway. You have no idea how many people were involved, how many people risked their lives to get you out. I want you to tell your people that. Just tell them to think about that before they decide to send anybody else here. I’m not saying anything else. Just tell them. Tell them to think about all the people that risked their lives to get you out.”
My mouth opens and closes. My mind races. How do I begin to respond? You are the reason I came here, I want to say. So you no longer have to do what you do. It is a paradox. Some men with guns came and took me. Then you came with your guns and took them. You have given me back my freedom. I am unspeakably grateful, but the gun is still in charge and nothing has really changed. We need a world without war. You, me, Junior, Uncle, Number One—all of us do. I wonder, if we sat and talked together for a while, if I could tell you about them, maybe you would see what I have begun to see, that there is no such thing as “Iraqi freedom” or “American freedom,” that there is only human freedom. We were created to give life, not to take it. Our freedom begins when we live in accord with this purpose. The gun will never make us free. The gun makes us a slave. A slave of fear going around and around in a spiral of death, becoming more and more like the thing that we hate.
In this moment it is all too much to know, too much to say. I nod solemnly. “Thank you,” I say.
“Let’s go!” he shouts to his men, turning away.
A man in civilian clothes steps towards us and shakes our hands enthusiastically. “My name is Dean. I’m from the Canadian embassy. Welcome back! You don’t know how great it is to see you guys. We’ve been working for this day for a long time, and we wanted to make sure there was a friendly face to greet you. Somebody in regular clothes who’s not dressed like all these dudes.” He smiles and points to the soldiers surrounding us. “It must be a little unnerving for you.”
Yes, a little, we say.
“There’s just a little more of this. We’re going to fly you to the Green Zone in that helicopter over there.” He points behind us. “You’ll just be with civilians after that. Ever been in a helicopter before?”
No, we say.
“Well, you’re going in one today,” he says. “We’ll have you there in five minutes.”
Soldiers escort us to the helicopter. Norman is already there.
“Norman! Long time no see!” I say.
“Greetings. I got to ride right up front in the Humvee,” he says, beaming. “I got to see the whole trip—everything. It was quite a tour of Baghdad.”
“What did you see?”
“Oh, we went right through the city, through all these shopping districts, turned at different traffic circles. But then we got caught in some kind of traffic jam, so we double-backed and took some sort of back way—it looked like a canal.”
Two men in the back hold of the helicopter grab our arms and hoist us up. We’re strapped into chairs that pull out of the floor, the engine roars to life and we lift into the air in a whirl of dust. We fly low over the city, no more than five hundred feet. From this height Baghdad is a sprawling ocean of brown rectangular shapes, green sprouting palm trees and ornate mosque towers. A soldier with a leg hanging out the door scans the horizon below us with a heavy-calibre machine gun. Here and there I see people on rooftops hanging out their laundry.
* In December of 2005, two Muslim men travelled to Baghdad to appeal for our release: Ehab Latoyef of Montreal, and Anas Altikriti of Harrow, England. While in the city, Anas (who was born in Iraq but moved to England when he was 2 years old) went to see his grandmother’s sister who lives “approximately four to five houses away from where you were held on the opposite side of the road.” According to his aunt, it was early in the morning when the whole street was locked down and the people who lived in the area were ordered not to leave their homes, draw their curtains or look from their windows. After a couple hours passed, she could no longer resist and peeked outside through her upstairs curtain. She saw the house “totally surrounded” and “an Iraqi man in a dishdasha standing with the troops outside the front door, and then a line of people who looked like foreigners being taken to waiting cars, including an old man with totally white hair and another with very long hair.”
Anas writes, “When she was telling [me] the story she had no idea that I was involved in this particular hostage negotiation … To think I paid my aunt a brief visit and had tea just across the road from where you were, when I was heavily engaged with trying to persuade tribal leaders in Al-Anbar and along Syrian borders to co-operate by informing me of where you might be held, is quite mind-boggling!”