Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
We’re in the Green Zone, occupation headquarters. I am marvellously, luminously, deliriously happy. The nightmare is over. We’re going home.
I search the horizon around me for familiar landmarks. I recognize, to the northeast, not far, perhaps four hundred metres away, the convention centre where I took delegations and went to meetings at the so-called Iraqi Assistance Center. To the southeast, the empty, bombed-out hulk of the Telecommunications Building. To the south, the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, just a few blocks from the CPT apartment. I wonder if they even know we’ve been released. Does anyone know?
It used to be called Karradat Mariam. In those days, it was the lush, palmy centre of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule; the home of the Republican Palace, the National Assembly, Baath Party headquarters, government ministries and official palaces, posh villas owned by Baathist elites; a desert Shangri-La of gardens and ponds where ornamental bridges crossed artificial streams and garish military monuments dominated august boulevards. All of which changed on April 9, 2003. The U.S. Army came rumbling into town and Karradat Mariam’s powerful inhabitants fled for their lives, leaving behind a luxury ghost town. Homeless squatters were the first to move in—an estimated five thousand of them. Then, over the following weeks and months, the United States and its allies seized whatever had not been reduced to rubble. The American embassy set up shop in the Republican Palace, and so one pharaoh replaced another.
The optimism and goodwill that greeted U.S. forces quickly vanished. Over that first summer the insurgency began its first tentative strikes. The U.S. retreated further and dug in deeper with each attack. They enclosed four square miles of central Baghdad with eight miles of blast wall, surveillance towers and concertina wire.
I had been to the Green Zone twice before, when I was on the CPT team in the winter of 2004. I thought of it as a giant open-air prison. You had to have an appointment, and the person you were going to see had to meet you at the final checkpoint. You waited in line, exposed to the hot, baking sun and whoever might be on a suicide bomb mission that day, and followed a winding gauntlet of razor wire through a labyrinth of earth-berm walls, passing through four checkpoints along the way. If you were lucky, the whole process took half an hour. I only ever got as far as the convention centre, located at the northern end of the Green Zone, a dreary piece of socialist architecture surrounded by perfectly coiffed lawns. This was the only place in Iraq where the Coalition Provisional Authority interfaced with the public it was occupying. It was further separated from the main body of the Green Zone by another set of blast walls.
Harmeet and I are met by a tall, burly man in civilian clothing. “Harmeet! James!” he calls. It’s an indescribable pleasure to hear my name being called. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you. Gordon Black. RCMP.” He shakes our hands. “Do you know where you are?”
“The Green Zone,” I say.
“This is the American Hospital,” he says, motioning us towards the front entrance of a modest three-storey building. Ibn Sina it was called, a private hospital that cared for Baathist elites before it was taken over by the Americans. “We’ve arranged for you all to see a doctor. You guys look pretty good, but we just want to be sure …” We follow him through sliding glass doors into a reception area. We’re greeted by several concerned-looking medical personnel. Gordon introduces me to a young medic named Jason. I follow him through a cluttered hallway that opens into an emergency operating theatre. I imagine a bomb-blasted soldier on a stretcher, doctors shouting and nurses rushing, blood everywhere.
“It must’ve been quite an ordeal …” Jason says to me. “How are you doing?” He’s calm, gentle, a little shy, warm with caring.
“Pretty good, actually,” I say. I explain about having been sick, the fever, the mysterious lumps in my neck and under my chin, how the captors brought me some antibiotics and that seemed to clear everything up.
He gives me a hospital gown to change into. “You look like you lost some weight,” he says.
“They didn’t feed us very much,” I say.
He asks about our treatment. “They never tortured us,” I say. “Our treatment was … consistent, I guess you could say. I guess they wanted to keep their merchandise in good condition.”
When I’ve taken all my clothes off, he puts on a pair of gloves and places each item into a clear plastic bag. “Are you taking my clothes away?” I ask.
“I’m sorry, I should have explained.” It’s standard procedure, he says. They want them for forensic examination, to see if there might be anything unusual, traces of explosives or gunpowder, DNA from the kidnappers. They want everything, even my underwear. I feel invaded. I don’t want to do this. I want to know how this evidence is going to be used. Everything’s moving so fast and there doesn’t seem to be any choice. I feel as if I have a new set of masters to contend with. I reluctantly agree.
He asks me if I have anything else. “Just these,” I say, showing him my pen and solitary handcuff. “I don’t care about the other things, but I really want the handcuff back.”
He assures me everything will be returned once the investigation is complete. Then he gestures towards my notebooks. “They want everything,” he says.
A foot stomps down within me. He’s not taking them. “I don’t see why this is necessary. I’m the only one who’s touched them. I can guarantee there’s no gunpowder on them.”
“It’s okay,” he says, relenting. “Just keep them. I’m sure this is more than enough.” He gathers together the plastic bags. “Will you be okay if I leave for just a second? I’ll be right back. There’s somebody waiting for these.”
“Oh, sure,” I say. It is, in fact, the thing I most want. Simply to be alone. Even if it’s for only one minute.
An army chaplain enters the room. He asks me how I am, says it’s a miracle that I survived, asks me if I’d like to pray with him. No thank you, I say. He offers me a brown, leather-stitched bible. The feel of the cover is sheer comfort and pleasing luxury. It’s beautiful, I say, but I already have one. It seems extravagant, unnecessary to have two; someone might not get one if I take it.
“I have lots of bibles,” he laughs. He looks at me closely. His voice softens. “You don’t have one now, do you?”
“No,” I say. My resistance crumbles. He wants so much to give me something. “Call me, any time, if you need anything …” he says, handing me his card.
“Thank you,” I say.
Jason has been waiting discreetly in the hallway. He approaches as soon as the chaplain leaves. “Now, if it’s okay, I’d like to check you over, just to make sure everything’s okay. Would that be all right?”
Yes, fine, I say. He proceeds to examine me. It feels good to be touched, paid attention to, treated like a human being again. I almost start to cry.
He says I look a little dehydrated. He wants to start an IV. “Actually, now that you mention it, I am really thirsty,” I say. He gets me a bottle of water, then carefully slides a needle into my right arm. I brace myself for a stabbing pain, but I don’t feel a thing. He hooks up the intravenous and puts a big piece of tape over the needle.
“I’ve never had an intravenous before,” I tell him.
“You’ve probably never been kidnapped before,” he says.
“No,” I say, returning his smile.
“I’ll be right back. I’m just going to bring these blood samples in for testing.”
Gordon approaches as soon as Jason leaves.
“So your family doesn’t know yet. Ottawa knows, of course, but we haven’t told anybody else.” He smiles at me. “When we planned all this out, we wanted you to have the choice. It’s up to you. If you like, we can call and let your parents and Dan know, or you can call them yourself. It’s totally up to you. You’ve had your freedom taken away from you for four months. Our role now is to restore that freedom to you.”
They don’t know yet! I can tell them myself! I look over at the clock on the wall. It’s 10:10 a.m. That means it’s 2:10 a.m. back home.
I want to make the call, I tell him. His face is shining. He seems overcome with emotion. He hands me a cellphone. He has to clear his throat before he can speak. “You can keep this. You’ll probably want to make more than one call. Use it any time, as often as you like. I’ll get you the battery charger later.”
“I can call them right now?”
“Yes, of course.” He steps back. “I’ll give you some privacy.”
The cellphone is a Nokia. Just like the one I had when I was kidnapped. I dial my parents’ phone number. It’s ringing. My heart is pounding with excitement. I look over to where Gordon has been standing. He’s slipped away.
The phone only rings twice. “Hello?” the voice says. It’s my mother. “Hello …?”
“Yes? Hello?” she says. Anxious. Urgent.
“It’s … it’s me …” I open my mouth, but the word won’t come. Not without a flood of sobbing. “It’s …” Please don’t make me say it, James, the name you gave me.
I swallow hard and take a deep breath. I can say it now. “It’s James,” I say.
“James! Is that really you? Oh my God! It’s James! Pat, it’s James! Where are you? James! Thank God! You’re all right?”
“James!” Another voice on the phone. Worried and relieved. It’s my father. “Where are you?”
“I’m … I’m out. I’m free.”
“You’re out?” my dad says.
“I’m free! It’s over.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Baghdad. In the Green Zone. It’s over.”
“Oh, James! It’s really you! Thank God! I can’t believe it,” my mother says.
“And thank Allah,” my dad says.
“I’m sorry about all this, what you’ve had to go through,” I say.
“Oh no, James, you have nothing to be sorry for,” my father says.
“We’re just so happy you’re all right. You won’t believe everything that’s happened. We’ve learned so much,” my mother says.
They begin to tell me about the people who prayed for us, all the cards and letters they received, how people brought them food, sent money, how my brother Matthew cut his trip to Ecuador short, how Ed and Donna came from Vancouver, how they all went on television.
“It’ll take a whole day for us to tell you everything,” my mom says.
“We even have a cellphone and a computer,” my dad says.
“A cellphone and a computer!” I laugh. “The kidnapping has brought you into the modern age.” I’m relieved, astounded, amazed. They aren’t angry. Not even a little. They’re simply grateful.
Then I call Dan. This call is easier. I’m ready, ecstatic. “Hello?” he says, uncertain, nervous. Here it is, finally, the call he’s been waiting for—the call I’ve been waiting for.
“Dan, it’s me, it’s Jim, it’s over!”
“Jim! Where are you? Are you safe?”
“Yes, I’m fine, I’m okay.”
“Thank God!” he says. “Thank God!”
I’m standing in a hospital gown, I tell him, with an intravenous in my arm, getting a medical checkup. It’s over. It was a military rescue. No shots were fired, no one was hurt. Harmeet and Norman are safe, they’re both fine, everybody’s fine. He asks me if I know about Tom. The soldiers told us, I say. I ask if they found his body. I have to make sure. Yes, he says. I can hear him knocking on doors, calling to Michael and Jo and Lorraine, my housemates. It’s Jim, I’m talking to Jim, he’s safe, I hear, then cheers and laughing. I ask Dan to call Doug and let him know. Then I see Gordon motioning me. I have to go, I say, though I don’t want to. I want to keep talking and talking. I feel I have a lifetime of stories to tell.
“I can’t believe it. It’s really over,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, “it’s really over.”
I am in an altered state, delirious with joy, awash in gratitude. A trembling, newborn human being in awe of everything. They tell me, again and again, if there’s anything you need or want, any time of the day or night, just let us know. This, truly, is the only thing I want—for everything around me to stop, and to just sit, and bask, in the glory of just-being-alive.
But things are moving fast. Too fast. There are things to do, people to speak to, decisions to make. After four months of nothing-ever-happening, I feel as if I’ve been strapped onto the wing of a supersonic jet. One of the first decisions I have to make is whether or not to take a call from the prime minister. I am stunned. The prime minister wants to speak to me? Yes, they say. I feel myself panicking, my tongue tying itself in knots. Why? I groan.
There were a lot of Canadians concerned about you, they tell me. The prime minister just wants to welcome you back—on behalf of the Canadian people. I suddenly remember the news clip I saw of the House of Commons early in the captivity. “Who is it? Is it Paul Martin?”
Of course, you don’t know, there was an election. You won’t believe it, they say. It’s Stephen Harper.
“What! Stephen Harper!” I’m in shock. If he’d been in power at the time, Canada would have followed George W. Bush into Iraq. “Tell me he didn’t win a majority!”
Just a minority, they say.
I’m immediately suspicious. “Why does he want to speak to me?” I ask. He must have a political motive.
Don’t worry, they say, it’s strictly a personal call. There’ll be no media. He just wants to welcome you back. Think about it. It’s totally up to you. But remember, he’s really representing the Canadian people.
After the hospital, they bring us to the British embassy’s guest rooms—a series of metal shipping containers that have been converted into personal quarters. “Pretty ingenious, ah?” Gordon says. “They’re inexpensive, safe and surprisingly comfortable.” He points to one that was hit with mortar shrapnel.
I close the door. Finally, I am alone. What bliss. The room smells of soap. Everything is scrubbed and dusted and polished and glistening. There’s a meticulously made bed, a desk, a reading chair, a private bathroom with a shower—all mine to use! I feel as if I’m in heaven. On the desk are a basket of fruit and a handful of energy and granola bars. I eat one immediately. There’s a bag sitting on the chair full of wonders: disposable razors, shaving cream, packages of soap, deodorant, clean socks and underwear, a comb! And, most thrilling of all, the pants and shirt I’d left hanging on the clothesline the day we were kidnapped. Proof that I really did have a life before the kidnapping.
I strip off the clothes I was given at the hospital and jump into the shower. I want to live the rest of my life under that shower. I have to force myself to turn off the tap and swear an oath against taking any more long showers. I am in Baghdad, after all, where it is a sin to waste even a drop of water. I comb my hair for the first time in four months. I stare at my body for a long time, marvelling at the chariot God has given me to move in, the wondrous, incomprehensible fact that I am alive and safe and no longer have to be afraid.
I am just getting dressed when I hear a knock on the door. “Hey Jim, are you in there?” Gordon calls. He sounds impatient. I wonder how much time has passed.
“Be right there,” I say. I like it here. I don’t want to go anywhere else.
Gordon takes Harmeet and me to a big reception room in the British embassy, where we are joined by Stewart Henderson, Canada’s chargé d’affaires to Iraq, and his assistant Sonia Hooykaas. Harmeet looks like a university dude once again in his track pants and sweatshirt. Norman is already there, dressed in the slacks, dress shirt and tie he travelled to Iraq in. He looks stricken, anxious, vulnerable. He’s on the phone with his wife, Pat. All he can manage is a stammer. Adrian, Gordon’s counterpart at Scotland Yard, has to finish the call for him.*
Adrian pulls me aside. He is worried about Norman. Is there anything he should know, anything he can do to help? I think Norman will be okay, I say. He’s just overcome with emotion, needs time, and most of all, he needs to get home to Pat. Adrian nods.
They bring us to a groaning board buffet heaped with salads, cold cuts, rolls, vegetables, dips, sandwiches, soups, casseroles, fruit, pastries and desserts, and, unbelievably, somebody standing by in a white uniform waiting to cut us slabs of prime rib. Do we want to sit inside or out in the sun? they ask us. The sun! we say. We sit down with our plates on plastic chairs arranged around plastic tables next to the dazzling aquamarine of the British embassy swimming pool. This lunch is part of their plan, they tell us, to help restore our freedom, to let us know we have the power to make choices again.
Do we need anything? Sonia asks us. She is a fountain of warmth, laughter, exuberant grace. Shoes, we say at once. “Hmmm,” she says, looking at our feet. “I’m not sure what they’ll have at the commissary, but I’ll have a look. Anything else?” Norman needs a sweater, I need a belt.
She returns an hour later, out of breath, hands full of bags. “I hope this is okay,” she says. “It’s all they had.” She hands us each a pair of Nike Air running shoes. They fit perfectly. She hands me a sand-coloured belt made of webbing. It’s all they had, she says apologetically.
“That’s great, much better than this,” I say, showing her the green string I’ve been using to hold my pants up. “How do we pay you for these?” I ask, uneasy because we have no money.
They laugh, wave their hands. Don’t worry about it, they say.
The call comes at two p.m.—six a.m. in Ottawa. I swallow hard as Gordon hands me his cellphone. What does one say to a prime minister whose policies you totally disagree with? “Hello?” I say.
“Hello? James? It’s Stephen Harper,” the voice says. “Congratulations! Welcome back. This sure is some good news. There were an awful lot of Canadians praying for you. How are you doing? It must’ve been quite an ordeal. I can’t imagine …”
“I’m quite fine … now … that it’s over. I’m … it’s … it’s great to be alive.”
“We’re all so relieved that you made it. Though, of course, not all of you. I’m sorry about your friend, Tom Fox.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Well, I imagine it’s going to take some time to get over something like this,” he says.
“Thank you. For everything … I mean … the government did so much …”
“Don’t you worry about that. We’re just glad you and Harmeet are okay. Be gentle with yourself. Just take things one day at a time. And your parents? Have you talked with your parents? They must be thrilled …”
“Yes, they were the first ones I called. That was the best phone call I’ve ever made.”
“I’ll bet,” he says.
When the call is over, I wonder why I’d been so stressed. He was remarkably easy to talk to—like talking to an ordinary person.
“Do you want to see our operations room?” Gordon asks the three of us. “There are some people there who worked on your release. They’d just like to say hello. We only have to go for a minute.”
Sure, we say. We leave one walled and guarded compound, cross a road and enter another, what was once a girls’ school. We walk through a courtyard where two mortars landed on the day of Gordon’s arrival. “I had just crossed through. If they’d hit a minute sooner, I’d be dead,” he tells us, shuddering at the memory.
We follow Gordon into a windowless room. I am nervous, remembering the reprimand the officer gave us before we got on the helicopter; I wonder if these people will be resentful too. We are greeted with cheers, people standing, clapping, wiping tears from their eyes. They shake our hands as if we are returning heroes. I am stunned. The room is divided into about ten workstations. There are phones, computers, piles of paper. There’s a map of Baghdad on the wall, specific places marked with coloured pins. This is where the joint-release effort was coordinated. People worked here twenty-four hours a day, manning phones, following up on leads, talking to Ottawa. I can’t believe it.
He shows us our pictures, surrounded with printed reports, Post-its, various handwritten notes. “We put these up so we’d have a picture of who we were working for—to help us feel connected to the four of you. It’s strange, isn’t it,” he says. “We’ve just met you today, but I feel like I’ve known you forever. It amazes me how you can feel so … how much you can feel for a person you’ve never even met. And now to … to have the three of you standing in this very room … right beside me … I can’t express how … to have it work out … We didn’t know what was going to happen, but it worked out, except of course for Tom. In that I failed. I wanted to bring all of you home. But we’re not. We’re leaving one of you behind.
“You know, I predicted it, a week before it happened, that they were going to kill him. That’s part of my job, to try and anticipate what the kidnappers are going to do next. And that forms the basis for what we decide to do next. You can get to know them. If you can get inside their skin, then they can be very predictable. I wish that I’d been wrong, but sadly I was right. It’s sort of a grim consolation. It tells me I was on the right track, doing my job properly. In my last report, I came to the conclusion that you had about two weeks. It wasn’t imminent, but it was coming. It was becoming clear that we had to act, we couldn’t wait any longer. But we weren’t going to do anything to jeopardize your safety. That was the goal from the very start, to get all of you out safely. And we wanted to respect your values as much as possible. We didn’t want any violence. And there wasn’t. We got you out without anyone getting hurt, without a shot being fired. We were successful there. The tragedy is that we weren’t fast enough to get Tom.” Gordon pats each of us on the shoulder. “But we have you guys.”
I look at him and smile, then look down at the floor. I don’t know what to say. I could never have imagined that a total stranger—and an RCMP officer at that!—could care so much about my welfare.
Gordon wants to take Harmeet and me to meet some RCMP officers. “They just want to shake your hands,” he says. “Do you mind? It’ll just be a minute. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but they’ve asked just to see you. It’s hard to explain … they’ve worked so hard.” I’m not sure, but I think he might be fighting back tears.
Sure, we say. We want to thank anyone and everyone.
They stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder. Five muscle-bulging cop-bodied men in civilian clothes, arms folded across their chests, eyes staring hard into the distance. Gordon formally introduces us and we shake each of their hands. Thank you, we say to each man. They nod in reply. A couple smile tightly. Only one looks me in the eye.
“Are they angry at us?” I ask Gordon.
“No, no,” he says. “They’re not angry. Not at all. They probably didn’t look at you because they would’ve burst into tears if they did. We don’t do emotion very well in the RCMP. Tom over there, he always kids us about that.” Gordon points to where, just out of earshot, one of the men we have shaken hands with is leaning on the shoulder of another man, wiping tears from his eyes.
I am astonished to learn that the CPT team never left Baghdad. Harmeet and I are desperate to see them, Norman not so much. They finally come at four-thirty.
“Oh my God! Anita! Maxine!” I say, squeezing each of them. “What are you guys doing here? Have you been here the whole time?” I assumed that if the team had decided to stay they both would’ve gone home for a break and been relieved by someone else.
“Of course!” Anita says, pretending to be offended.
“We weren’t going to leave you here!” Maxine says.
Peggy Gish is there too, whom I’d worked with twice before in Iraq, and a CPTer I’d not met before named Beth Pyles, whom I like instantly. “You’re all so brave,” I tell them.
“We have to have a picture!” Anita cries, thrusting her camera at Gordon and lining everybody up. “Let me get between my men,” she says, squeezing between Harmeet and me.
They present us with our luggage. “Oh, hey, I remember this!” I say, lifting my backpack. I can’t wait to look inside.
We move to the plastic chairs beside the pool. Norman stands at the edges and then discreetly disappears. Gordon presents the CPTers with bowls full of ice cream. Maxine laughs delightedly. “Thank you, Gordon!” she says. “But you know, this time we would’ve come anyway, even without the ice cream!” Maxine explains how they hate making the trip to the Green Zone—it’s probably the most dangerous thing they do in Baghdad. Whenever Gordon called to set up a meeting, they would always try to find a reason not to go. Until Gordon started bribing them with ice cream—then they could hardly refuse. They had searched everywhere; ice cream was impossible to find in Baghdad.
We laugh and talk ravenously as the March afternoon fades into twilight. We need hours—there is so much to learn, so much to tell—but at six o’clock Gordon comes with the sad news: it’s time for the CPTers to go.
Maxine looks surprised. She says they came prepared to stay the night. Gordon says he is sorry but that isn’t possible. Maxine wants to know why—he promised if we ended up in the Green Zone someone from the team could stay with us. He says he is sorry but the Canadian contingent is a guest of the British embassy. If it was up to Gordon, the whole team could stay, but it’s not. He looks uncomfortable. Maxine’s face darkens. But you promised, she says. Gordon apologizes, says it just isn’t possible. Maxine looks betrayed.
I ask if they can come again tomorrow. Yes, sure, not a problem, Gordon says. We’d like to spend the whole day together, I say. That shouldn’t be a problem—we’ll see what we can do, Gordon says.
“We should take a quick press statement before we go,” Anita says, pulling out a notebook and pen. We groan in objection. “Just a couple sentences would be fine. It doesn’t have to be anything profound. We’ve been getting requests all day, from all over the world.”
“Really!” I say.
“You guys have no idea, do you? This is a huge story. People really want to hear from you. Just something quick. It’ll take the pressure off.”
I take a breath. “Okay. How about: We are deeply grateful to all those who worked and prayed for our release. We have no words to describe our feelings of great joy at being free again. Our heads are swirling and when we are ready we will talk to the media.”
“That’s perfect,” Anita says. “Harmeet?”
“I don’t know … I hate this kind of thing. I like what Jim said.”
“This can be from the both of us,” I say.
“Okay, now you guys really have to go. The security gates are shutting down for the night. I’m sorry, but we have to end things here,” Gordon says.
We hug each other goodbye. Gordon confirms that he’ll call the team to work out the arrangements for getting together tomorrow.
We’re worried about Norman, Gordon tells us. We don’t think it’s a good idea for him to be left alone in one of those shipping containers overnight. Arrangements have been made for us to stay with the British ambassador, where, if we want, we can all share one room. Would that be okay?
Of course, we say.
The ambassador, Sir William Patey, is in his early fifties, a bald, vigorous, barrel-chested man bristling with competence and unpretentious charm. He strides towards us, clasps our hands warmly. “Welcome to my humble little abode,” he says with a chuckle. “My house is your house. Come on in! Help yourself to whatever you can find in the fridge.” He instantly puts me at ease.
His “house” is a cavernous mausoleum of marble pillars, vaulted ceilings, interior balconies, grand sweeping stairways, fountainous chandeliers, heavy brocade draperies—everything in ostentatious excess, utterly lifeless. “It’s a bit much, isn’t it,” he sighs. “It belonged to one of Saddam’s aunties. Unfortunately, this was about all we could find. Everything else had already been claimed.”
He sits us down around the Gertrude Bell Dining Room Table, “the only thing of real value in the place. The map of Iraq was drawn up on this very table.” Stewart, the Canadian chargé d’affaires, is there, as well as Marion, the RCMP officer who will accompany Harmeet home, and Adrian. A butler stands to the side. I can’t take my eyes off him—the smile on his face, the perfect ease and serenity of his eyes, a living Buddha radiating effortless grace. The dinner he has prepared for us is incomparable: chicken breast with a white sauce, broccoli, rice pilaf, an exquisite dessert. “The Green Zone is bad for this,” the ambassador says, patting his waistline. “Sitting at a desk all day, being driven everywhere.”
The ambassador does most of the talking, which is a relief since I’m not in the mood for fielding questions about the captivity. He is the perfect diplomat: funny, urbane, judicious, expansive, discreet. He speaks at great length about the various challenges facing Iraq. His assessments seem frank, well informed, hard-headed. In his hands, the horror and hubris of occupation are transformed into a hopeful and benevolent exercise in nation building where the good intentions of the Western powers (regardless of what their initial purposes might have been for invading Iraq) will eventually carry the day if given half a chance to succeed. If only they could instill an ethic of public service in the nascent Iraqi government, everything else would fall into place. At the end of the meal my head is spinning, and I leave the table wondering, have I somehow got this whole business wrong?
They show us to our rooms on the second floor. Norman is at one end of the building and we at the other. Harmeet and I share an enormous, disorganized room cluttered with miscellaneous wardrobes, chairs, beds and dressing tables that all seem to have come from Ikea.
For the first time today, Harmeet and I have a chance to talk. Harmeet is in crisis. Things aren’t going well at home. His brother-in-law has signed a contract with one of New Zealand’s national broadcasters giving them exclusive rights to film Harmeet’s reunion with his family. In exchange, the broadcaster is flying his father and brother-in-law wherever they want to meet Harmeet. Harmeet told them he didn’t want that. They said there was nothing they could do, they’d signed the contract and now they were committed. Harmeet doesn’t know what to do.
I ask Harmeet why he said, “We’ll talk about it later,” when I asked at the time of our rescue if that was Medicine Man standing at the door. Harmeet doesn’t think it was a “rescue.” At least, he isn’t sure. It could just as easily have been a “planned release.” Like what happened with Douglas Wood, the Australian who had been kidnapped the year before. At first they said the Iraqi army found him by accident in the course of raiding a house. But then, after researching the story, a reporter uncovered evidence that Wood had been brought to an empty safe house where he could be “found” as part of a pre-arranged release plan. He thinks our “rescue” may have been contrived in the same way. He says maybe the reason I didn’t recognize Medicine Man is because it wasn’t really him, that maybe they brought somebody in to make us think it was him to convince us of their story. He isn’t going to believe anything, one way or the other, until he has proof.
I’m not sure what to make of Harmeet’s suspicions. I am confused, reeling. Now, more than ever, I want to know the truth of what happened. I spend the next day trying to find out, probing with different kinds of questions. All I get are vague generalities and well-rehearsed obscurities. It was an intelligence-led operation, Gordon tells me. “You wouldn’t believe the fabulous resources available to us through the NATO alliance.” By monitoring all the cellphone conversations going in and out of Baghdad, and by tracking different leads, they gradually narrowed in on the group that was holding us, until they were able to catch somebody—Medicine Man—who could lead them to us. It all happened very quickly. They captured him early in the morning, and within a few hours the rescue force was assembled.
Who was he? What was his name? He can’t tell me. If a deal was made to let him go in exchange for certain kinds of information, he doesn’t want to put him in jeopardy by revealing his name. He says they have to protect their methods so they can be used again in the future.
Who was the group that kidnapped us? He says they called themselves Swords of Righteousness Brigade. No one had heard of them before.
Was there a process of negotiation? No, they only made contact with our captors in the last few days. That was the video they took of Harmeet and me holding up a newspaper on March 19.
What about the video they took of Norman, and the three questions he was asked to answer? They didn’t know anything about that, Gordon says. They only established direct contact five days ago.
What about Tom? They have no information about who might have done it.
What else can you tell me? I ask. What else would you like to know? he says.
Everything, I answer. He says he’s told me just about everything he can. I feel like I’m trying to scale a wall that keeps getting higher and higher.
Gordon probes with questions of his own. Did they move us? How did they treat us? How many were there? What did we know about what happened to Tom? Did we have any sense of where we were or what was going on in the outside world? Did we see or hear anything that suggested there were other hostages? This is just for his own information, he says. They aren’t going to debrief or interrogate us. They don’t do that kind of thing.
I am conflicted. Part of me wants to tell him everything, as a way to honour all the work they’ve done to secure our release. And for the most part I do, hoping I might be able to get more information out of him in turn. But always I am on my guard. I don’t know how this information is going to be used. While I have no interest in protecting the captors from the consequences of their actions, there is no way I want them to be executed or sentenced to life in prison. I don’t tell him anything that will enable the police or the army to identify the captors. I feel as if we’re playing cat and mouse.
Decisions decisions. I sit on my bed, staring into space, trying to decide whether or not to change my socks and underwear. It has not even been a day. It seems like an outrageous luxury to change them so soon, after having worn the same things for days and weeks on end. I gather the socks and underwear I was given yesterday with what was in my backpack. It’s overwhelming—eight pairs of socks and six pieces of underwear—all in different colours and styles!
Then the decision of whether or not to take a shower. This one is easier. No! It’s a crime to use water frivolously. If nothing else, the past four months have shown me how little water it is possible to use.
And then there’s breakfast. The butler hands us an embossed menu. There are several kinds of cold cereal; milk or juice; tea—regular or herbal; coffee—regular or decaf; hot cereal; toast with butter or toast without; toast with several kinds of jam; eggs scrambled, sunny side, over easy, poached; eggs in omelette; potatoes mashed or crisp; bacon or sausage or ham; French toast or pancakes. Harmeet and I look at each other and laugh. It is impossible to decide. “Very well, then,” the butler says, taking back the menus. “We’ll have a little bit of everything.”
Gordon stops in after breakfast to see how we’re doing. He tells us that Norman is leaving in the afternoon, on a two-thirty flight out of the Baghdad airport. He will have to leave the embassy right after lunch. Gordon asks about our travel arrangements. When do we want to go? Any time after we debrief with the team, I say. Tomorrow would be fine. Harmeet doesn’t know. He says he has to work some things out with his family before he can decide. And where would you like to go? he asks us. We’ll fly you anywhere you want to go. Toronto, I say. Auckland, Harmeet says.
I ask Gordon if it would be possible for us to see Medicine Man. “No,” he says, “he’s in American custody. I can’t even see him. But we have pictures.”
Can we see them? we ask, excited. This is an opportunity to verify if it was indeed Medicine Man standing at the door.
Yes, he can arrange that, he says. He wasn’t going to mention it, but since we’ve asked, he’ll show them to us. But it won’t be him—it’ll be a couple of the guys from the investigative side. I look at him quizzically. He explains that the operation is divided into a negotiating side and an investigative side. He’s in charge of negotiation, which involves trying to talk with the kidnappers. He says his goal was much like ours: he wanted to negotiate a non-violent resolution. They’ll do anything that doesn’t involve a political solution, or what he calls an Unreasonable Demand. So, for example, if the group has a particular message they want communicated, he’ll get it out there for them. But if they want the release of all political prisoners, or for a particular country to withdraw its troops from Iraq, anything like that, they can’t do it. That’s outside their power.
I ask him when we can see the pictures. He says he doesn’t know, but it will probably be tonight.
I ask him when our debriefing with the CPT team will be. He says he’s still working on it, he’ll let us know as soon as he knows. That would be great, I say, feeling slightly alarmed. It’s already nine o’clock in the morning and a plan still hasn’t been made. Time is passing. I want to spend the whole day together.
In my last act as delegation leader, I suggest to Norman and Harmeet that we might want to debrief, maybe have a little prayer service where we can express our gratitude, ask each other for forgiveness, say goodbye. This might be the last time we’ll all be together.
Harmeet seems unenthusiastic but agrees. Norman says he’ll think about it. I’m disappointed by their lack of interest. There is no pressure, I tell them. Lunch is at noon. “Any time before then, if you want.”
I prepare a little prayer service and debriefing for us just in case. At eleven-twenty I decide to go hunting around. Norman’s departure is rapidly approaching. The door to his room is open. “Hello?” I say, peeking my head inside.
I am nervous. I don’t know where things stand between us. We’ve hardly spoken since the release. I wonder if my presence is somehow intrusive to him, a grating reminder of things he’d just as soon forget.
“Hi!” he says. “Would you like to see my room?”
“Sure,” I say, stepping onto a plush carpet in a spacious five-star room decorated with ornate plaster mouldings. No clutter here. “I see you got the deluxe accommodations.”
He laughs. “Yes, I suppose it comes with being old. And being British doesn’t hurt. My guess is that this must have been the master bedroom, but it could just as easily have been the ballroom.”
“Hey, you shaved! You look good,” I say. He looks fit, steady on his feet, ready to meet the world—much better than yesterday.
“What about you?” he asks, pointing to my patchy beard.
“After I kiss my mother,” I say. Then silence, heavy, awkward. “Are you almost packed?” I ask, reaching for something to fill the vacuum.
“Well, yes, but there isn’t much to pack, is there,” he answers, pointing to the suitcase on his bed. Silence. Norman coughs, looks down at his hands. I look down at the floor. I see Norman’s Nike running shoes, smile, look up at his shirt and woollen tie.
“I see you have your new shoes on,” I say.
“And I see that you have yours,” he says. We both laugh. “They’re not quite my style, but they’re certainly much better than what we had.”
“How I hated those shoes.”
“Would you like to sit down?” he asks me.
“Yes, sure, thanks, I would,” I say. We fall easily into talking. About the arrangements for our travel home, our families, the British ambassador, yesterday’s lunch. He wants to know if I still have my notebooks. Yes, I tell him, but I had to fight to hold on to them.
“I gave them everything. I wish now that I had kept my notebook. I hope I get it back,” he says.
The topic turns to the CPT team. “They probably thought I was rude,” Norman says. “I certainly didn’t stick around very long. I didn’t mean to be. It’s just that I couldn’t … I couldn’t talk to them right then. Maybe you could thank them for me …”
“It’s all right, Norman. I know they’ll understand. Yes, I’ll tell them.”
“Perhaps later I’ll send them a note.”
Silence. I turn to look at Norman. Our eyes meet briefly. I take a deep breath. “I want to apologize to you,” I say. “For anything I might have done that made things harder for you. I wasn’t always the easiest person to be locked up with, and I … I wasn’t very generous at times. To you, or to Harmeet.”
“Well, none of us was at our best, were we?” His hand briefly touches my shoulder.
He looks at his watch. “I’m glad they at least let me keep my watch. Well, it’s 11:45. Shall we find Harmeet?”
We face each other for a moment. Norman shakes my hand. “We got through it,” he says.
“Yes, we got through it,” I say, grinning.
“I guess we’ve had our debriefing, then?”
“Yes, I guess we have.”
The British ambassador is travelling back to Britain with Norman. “Thank you. For everything,” I say, shaking his hand.
“No problem, any time, come again,” he chuckles. “Here’s my card. Just call me if you ever need anything. And make sure you sign the guest book.”
I turn to Norman. It’s a stiff leave-taking. There it is again, that strange absence of emotion. We shake hands and say goodbye. Adrian takes Norman’s suitcase and they walk to a waiting SUV, a top-of-the-line occupation model complete with tinted bulletproof windows, armoured body and self-contained air circulation system. A Gurkha opens the gate and the vehicle drives away. Norman never looks back.
I am both relieved and sad. Norman is going home to Pat and my responsibility has come to an end. But I feel his sudden absence intensely. It is too soon; so much has been left unsaid; for better or worse, we are brothers. I turn to go back into the ambassador’s house with a big, gaping hole in my heart.
Sonia and Stewart, the Canadian diplomats we met at lunch yesterday, come for us at two-fifteen to take us to the Canadian embassy. They hate driving in the Green Zone. I immediately see why. It’s impossible to get anywhere quickly. We crawl behind a military convoy through a slalom course of tire-shredding road plates. They say it is really dangerous to drive in the Green Zone. This surprises me. I ask them why. Stewart points to the fifty-millimetre gun mounted on the Humvee in front of us. They’ll shoot you if you get too close, he says.
I don’t believe it. This is a constant danger for anyone travelling in Iraq, but here too, in the Green Zone, where everyone is security-cleared? Stewart and Sonia laugh. Why do you think we’re driving in this? You’re looking at half a million dollars of armoured car. And this is an economy model.
Really? I say. It looks like a normal four-door sedan to me.
“Look again,” Stewart says. “Look closely at the windows and doors. You’ll see they’re quite a bit thicker than the norm. There’s an inch of glass there. A month ago we were driving along just like this, and I don’t know what happened but the convoy stopped really fast, and we must not have stopped quickly enough or something, because they opened fire on us. We were lucky. We could’ve easily been killed. The bullets went right through the middle of the car into the back seat. After that, Foreign Affairs said we couldn’t go anywhere in the Green Zone unless it was in an armoured vehicle. Another reason why this is one of our more expensive diplomatic missions.”
The embassy is located on a small triangle-shaped piece of land surrounded by an eight-foot wall. Behind the wall are two buildings: a garage in a state of serious disrepair and a two-storey house adorned with Romanesque columns. The garden in front of the house is overgrown, and the empty land in the narrowing end of the triangle is full of metal junk that Stewart has no idea what to do with. “The house might look impressive on the outside, but it’s really quite modest,” Stewart says. It belonged previously to Saddam Hussein’s official photographer. They were lucky to get it—it was the last available property in the Green Zone. Nothing is set up yet. No phone line, no generator, no heat, no plumbing. But he comes here to work for an hour every day in the hope that one day it will be a functioning embassy. Eventually, he says, the whole diplomatic mission will live and work here.
Gordon arrives with Beth, Anita, Peggy and Maxine. They bring us into a room they call the library. “We have to sit here because it’s the only room that has any furniture,” Stewart jokes.
I am eager to start our debriefing—finally! They’ll wait for us outside, they say. They don’t mind, it’s a nice day. We have until four o’clock, and then the team has to go back. It is 2:50 p.m.
“That only gives us an hour and ten minutes,” I say, dismayed. They say they’re sorry, the checkpoints close early today.
“What happened?” I ask. I was hoping we would have the whole day.
They apologize, this was the best they could do, even to arrange this was very complicated.
“Well then, please wait outside so we can begin,” Maxine says. We start our debriefing immediately. There’s so much to tell, so much to ask. We pepper them with questions. What about Tom? What do they know about where he was found? How did they find out? When did they learn about the kidnapping? How did they react, what did they do first, how did the authorities get involved? Had the team ever established contact with a third-party negotiator? What do they think about our negotiated-release theory?
Harmeet wants to talk about his dilemma with his family. He tells us he feels as if he’s right back in handcuffs; he doesn’t know what to do. He’s just beginning to explain the situation when Sonia, Gordon and Stewart burst into the room singing “Happy Birthday.” Sonia is carrying a square slab of cake decorated with white icing and a pink Canadian flag. We immediately join them in the singing. I have to fight back tears. I’ve never felt such pride in my country.
Sonia puts the cake down on the coffee table we are sitting around. “Happy Birthday, Harmeet!” they exclaim. She is beaming.
“Thanks, guys!” Harmeet says. He blows out a tea-light candle.
“Here Harmeet, cut the cake,” Sonia says, handing him a knife. They sit down. My heart sinks. Our debriefing is over. When and how are we going to figure out Harmeet’s problem?
“Thank you for the cake,” Maxine says before Harmeet can start cutting. “Now if you don’t mind, we still have twenty minutes. We’d like to continue with our debriefing. Privately.”
Everything in the room stops. Sonia looks as if she’s just been slapped.
“We certainly don’t mean to intrude,” Stewart says. “We’ll give you a chance to finish up and we’ll come back in twenty minutes.”
I look at Maxine, astonished. After four months of obsequious captor-pleasing, I marvel at how anyone can be so assertive. She’s furious. “I can’t believe they did that,” she says. “Barging in here, taking away even the little time they’d given us. This is the way it’s been all along. They could’ve at least asked.”
“I think they wanted it to be a surprise,” I say.
“I don’t care. They should’ve asked.”
“Let’s focus. We don’t have much time,” Anita says.
“How about if we go until ten- to and then we invite them in to have the cake?” Harmeet says. Everyone agrees.
At ten to four I go outside to get them. Sonia’s eyes are red from crying. “I’m really sorry,” I say. “We just really needed the time.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Sonia says. “It’s not your fault.”
Sonia and Stewart carry on as if nothing has happened. The room fills with laughter as the cake is cut and shared. We gather around Harmeet for a picture. It feels good to celebrate. Like it’s my birthday too. In a way it is. I feel new and reborn. Today is the first day of a whole new life.
Two RCMP officers arrive at eight o’clock that evening. I like them immediately. André is soft-spoken, unassuming, cerebral, almost shy. Tom is a big, warm, open-hearted man—the one I saw crying yesterday. They greet us like old friends. We find ourselves a corner in the ambassador’s sepulchral living room. Tom has a file folder on his knee. After a bit of small talk, they ask if we know anything about Jill Carroll, an American journalist who was kidnapped in January.
No, nothing about Jill Carroll, we say.
Did your captors mention anyone else?
Just that they kidnapped a German archaeologist and killed an American contractor in December, and that they had kidnapped two German oil workers in February.
Tom and André nod. Then Tom explains they have some pictures to show us, all of different men, people who are in custody.
What is this, some kind of photo lineup? “Gordon told us you had pictures of Medicine Man,” I say. I feel set up, betrayed.
It’s not a photo lineup, they say. There’s one picture of Medicine Man; the rest are of other people who are in custody. This is just for our own purposes. None of this is going to the Americans.
We don’t want to identify anybody, we say. We only asked to see a picture of Medicine Man so we can verify for ourselves whether or not the man we saw at the house was him.
Their voices are calm, gentle, so very reasonable. They know how to soothe ruffled feathers. We don’t have to identify anybody, they say. In Canada we have certain values. We don’t agree with the death penalty, for example. This is just for Canadian purposes. Like for immigration. So that, in the future, we don’t unknowingly admit one of your captors to Canada. We want to protect you from bumping into one of them on the street. It’s happened before. Lots of people try to come to Canada to escape criminal pasts. And perhaps even more important, some of these men may be innocent. The Americans just pick people up. This is rough-and-tumble, it’s the middle of a war. So, by you looking at the pictures, we can eliminate anyone whose picture we have as a suspect in this particular crime. On the other hand, we don’t want to release anybody who is likely to do this kind of thing again. I’m sure you wouldn’t want this to happen to anyone else, they say.
Harmeet and I look at one another. We need to think. They keep talking, say the same things over and over, their voices repeating in a closed loop. My head is spinning. I have to fight against an almost irresistible desire to please them.
Can we have a minute to talk? I finally say. Harmeet and I step out of earshot. We agree to look at the pictures but we won’t say anything until we’ve seen all of them, and only then to confirm that none of the men are our captors. If we see even one we recognize, we won’t say anything.
Tom opens the file folder and passes the pictures to us one by one. He has about twenty of them. I study each face closely. It’s a sad exercise. Each man is a locked-up human being, just as we had been, with a story, a family, somebody who misses and needs them. Sometimes I think I can read defiance, sometimes fear, but mostly their eyes are distressingly vacant, not really there. No one looks to have been beaten. “Some of them could be innocent,” Tom had said. Most of them undoubtedly are. Colonel Janis Karpinski, the commander of Abu Ghraib at the time of the torture revelations, estimated that 90 percent of their detainees were innocent. I say a prayer for each man as his photo passes through my hands. I don’t recognize any of them. Except the very last picture. I am startled by something familiar. Something in the structure of the jaw, cheekbones, forehead. But the eyes … the eyes aren’t right. It’s as if somebody else’s eyes have been put into Medicine Man’s face. I look at Harmeet. He sees it too. I go back to studying the picture, my heart pounding.
“Do you recognize him?” Tom asks.
There it is again, that irresistible desire to please. I don’t know, I say, I can’t tell. It sure looks like him, I think, but I can’t be sure. I look at Harmeet. He shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he says.
I look at André and Tom. “What’s his name?” I ask.
“I think they call him Abu Luay,” André says, looking over at Tom. Tom nods.
Abu Luay. The father of Luay. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a nickname.
“When was he picked up?” I ask.
Around midnight, they say.
“And he voluntarily gave the information about where we were?”
Not exactly, they say, but they never touched him. They asked him to tell them where you were. When he wouldn’t, they said all right, take him outside. That was all they said, take him outside, and then he spilled the beans. This was all the Americans, of course. We’ve never had any contact with him.
Later, I will read a book written by Mark Urban called Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq. According to Urban, the operation to secure our release was called Operation Lightwater. The British special forces detachment was under “constant pressure from London” to find us. The search involved monitoring cellphone traffic, raiding houses and using seized cellphones to generate network maps to target more suspects. As the kidnapping wore on and Tom was killed, the pace became relentless. In the final two weeks, Squadron B was out every night. Urban says fifty buildings were raided during the course of the operation and forty-seven people were detained. “Tactical questioning”—utilizing the shock of capture by interrogating detainees on the scene—was crucial. He quotes one veteran as saying, “Individuals were exploited to get to him [Kember]—both by putting them under duress and not.” They hit the jackpot in the early morning hours of March 23. The target, apparently, was a house in Mishahda, an area about thirty-two kilometres northwest of Baghdad. They found two men they were looking for. “One of them, Abu Laith,* clearly knew something about the kidnapping. Under pressure—people who know about the operation reject the use of such words as ‘beating’ or ‘torture’—Abu Laith began to talk.” Presumably using “Abu Laith’s” cellphone, the SAS called the captors to tell them they were on the way. “How about you disappear and we won’t come after you,” they were warned.
I read Urban’s book with a grain of salt. Among other inaccuracies, he calls me “Tom Loney” and reports the location of the kidnapping as the “university area of Baghdad.” We were nowhere near the university.
Tom and André want to know if they can ask us a few questions. It’s just for their own information; it’s important for them to learn as much as they can from each case so they can do their job better in the future. Hearing from us helps them to complete the picture.
I say okay. It is almost a compulsion—I want, need to tell the story—and it seems to be the least I can do, a way to express my gratitude, giving them the other half of the story. We don’t know much anyway, I tell myself. Beyond providing them with a complete physical description, whatever we tell them will be of little practical use apart from satisfying their curiosity. They listen carefully, without interrupting. Harmeet listens while I do most of the talking.
At one o’clock in the morning Tom and André say they’ve kept us far too long, we look tired, they should let us get some sleep. But it is they who need the sleep. I am wired. Neither of us sleep at all that night.
Our departure time is set for 10:30 a.m. The guest book the ambassador told us to sign is on a little table just inside the front door, where his assistant has his office. It feels momentous, to take the pen into my hand, to write my name, to say I was here, on this day, March 25, 2006, to officially declare it: my being here matters. My eyes fill with tears. There are no words to say how grateful I am. I write my name under Harmeet’s, who has written his under Norman’s. Beside my name there is a space to identify myself. “A free human being,” I write.
“You’ll need to put one of these on,” Gordon says, helping me into a flak jacket. “They take some getting used to. How does it feel?” he asks, stepping back.
I take a few steps. It is astonishingly heavy. I feel as if I’m moving through chest-high water on rubber legs. I rap my knuckle against the body of the jacket. “It’s like a steel life jacket,” I say. I think of the soldiers who rescued us, the full-body armour and all the equipment they wore, how effortlessly they seemed to move, how strong they must’ve been.
We pile into an armoured SUV. A Gurkha drives us to a staging area. Gordon gets out first. He opens the door for me and holds out his arm. “You want a hand?”
“I’ll be okay,” I say, declining his help. I slide off the seat and step onto the ground. My knees buckle and I catapult forward. Gordon, standing ready, catches me before I fall flat on my face. “Thanks,” I say, sheepish.
“It’ll be a while before you get your strength back,” he says.
“Don’t worry, the same thing happened to me,” Stewart says. “The first time I got out of a vehicle wearing one of these things, I just about went head over heels, and it wasn’t from love.”
A helicopter takes us to the Baghdad airport. As we vault over the city, I remember how at the first house the helicopters would roar overhead in a constant procession and how we always assumed they were travelling between the Green Zone and the airport. Now we are the ones roaring overhead, and somewhere down below us is a house with a picture of the Sacred Heart hanging on the wall where, for a time, we lived in the shadow of death.
We take shelter from the sun under a wood-frame pavilion on the edge of an airfield. It seems to be taking forever. Harmeet nudges me. “See that?” he asks under his breath, pointing his chin towards a concrete separation barrier, the words scrawled in black spray paint. Homos die. Yes, I nod.
Gordon gives us the sign and it’s time to go. It’s a long walk across the tarmac. I’m glad he insisted on carrying my backpack. My legs are trembling under the weight of my flak jacket and I am growing short of breath.
“That’s it over there,” Gordon says, pointing to the dark, hulking outline of the plane that will take us to Dubai.
Gordon had never said, and I never asked. I don’t know until I see it, the Canadian flag, the Government of Canada logo under the cockpit. My eyes fill with tears. I can’t believe it. They sent a Hercules! Here, to Baghdad, to bring us home! We were Canadians in trouble and they came. They came for us! I don’t know how or when, but I vow to give something back.
“Would you like to go up to the flight deck?” they ask us. Sure, we say, astonished. We follow a crew member up a ladder into the brilliant light of the cockpit. There are four men working in a tight space crammed with instruments, everything metal and glass. I am nervous, ready for a disapproving lecture about our having diverted them from more urgent tasks, wasting government resources. There is none of that. They welcome us warmly and give us headsets so we can communicate with them. Somebody points to the brown world below us and explains that we are following the Shatt al Arab to the Arabian Gulf and that Iran is to our left.
They ask us questions. What’s life like in Iraq? How are the people being affected by the war? Why did we go in the first place? I explain about Rick Yuskiw, how he had gone to school with my brother and lived two blocks from where I grew up. He joined the Canadian military and was sent to Afghanistan. His best friend was one of the first Canadians to be killed there. It really challenged me, I say. If Rick was prepared to risk his life serving his country, then I who believed in non-violence should be prepared to take some of the same risks too. Harmeet explains about joining the CPT delegation and wanting to learn first-hand about the realities of Iraqi life under American and British occupation.
What’s CPT? they ask. We explain. That takes real bravery, they say.
Someone pulls out a little black book. He opens his flight book to a page where somebody has written, Thanks for the lift, guys! Underneath, it is signed, Stephen. “Do you know who this is?” he asks me, grinning ear to ear.
“No,” I say.
“We brought him into Afghanistan just last week. His first big trip out of the country.”
“That’s right,” they say, laughing.
We just talked to him, we say. He called us just after we were rescued.
“Here,” he says shyly, handing me his book and a pen, “would you mind?”
“You want me to sign your book?” I say, shocked.
“Yes, if you don’t mind. It would be an honour.”
There are three more books for us to sign. Then somebody presents each of us with a khaki shoulder patch. 436 Tactical Airlift, it reads, On Target-On Time. In the middle of the patch is a picture of an elephant with a Canadian flag hanging off each tusk. That’s us, he says. We go wherever we have to, do whatever’s needed. We’re the pachyderm of the Canadian Forces.
Thank you, we say.
Hey, can you do us a favour? they ask. There are two flight crews—A Team and B Team. We’re the A Team. We’re always joking with each other about who’s the best. We are, of course, because we’re the A Team. So if you’re talking to the media, and you happen to talk about your trip home, if you could just mention sometime that A Team is the best, that’ll really burn their asses.
We laugh. We’ll do our best, we say.
The original plan was to land in Dubai. That’s where Harmeet’s father and his brother-in-law have gone to meet Harmeet, where the New Zealand media outlet that paid for their flight is waiting to film their reunion. But Gordon does an end run around the media by changing the itinerary at the last minute. They take us to Abu Dhabi instead, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
We say goodbye to the flight crew and barely have time to walk the fifty metres from the plane to the airport terminal before the big C-130 is turning back towards the runway. We wave one last time and watch with pride as they mount the sky once again. They weren’t on the ground more than five minutes.
We are met by cameras, an official delegation from the United Arab Emirates, and the Canadian ambassador. The latter, a genial, down-to-earth man, drives me, Harmeet and Stewart to Le Royal Méridien Hotel. He tells us all about the UAE as he drives through the gleaming-skyscraper city. Only 20 percent of the population has citizenship, he says. The remaining 80 percent are guest workers from all over the world, most notably India and the Philippines.
We are astonished yet again to learn that we are the official guests of Sheik Khalifa, current president of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Abu Dhabi. We are each given a suite in which to rest before our next flight. Harmeet’s flight is at ten p.m., mine at eleven-thirty.
Our final adventure together is a shopping trip with Sonia to a nearby mall. Harmeet needs clothes and I need a belt. It is a bewildering world of consumer opulence and pampering. I walk around, staring at everything like a wide-eyed infant, surrounded by an infinity of choices. After much wandering and hopeless indecision about where to go, Sonia finally takes charge and directs us to a chain store called Giordano. I have to keep reminding myself that I am in Abu Dhabi, not Toronto or Buffalo.
I am glad I only have to decide on a belt. It is a very complex decision. I don’t want to waste taxpayers’ money, so it can’t cost too much, but it has to be of reasonable quality so it will last awhile, and I don’t want it to come from a sweatshop, and it has to be something that I am going to wear in the future, so it can’t be too thick or too thin, or too small, since I expect to return to my normal weight. And then of course there’s the colour, and the style of buckle … It takes me half an hour. I feel sorry for Harmeet, who has to choose a shirt and a pair of pants. He agonizes for an hour before Sonia, unable to stand it any longer, orders Harmeet to “Just pick something! Anything!”
Then Harmeet and I walk back to the hotel together. He is distraught. His father is taking a taxi from Dubai to meet him at the hotel. He worries that his father won’t understand why he doesn’t want to be bought and sold and packaged for some sensationalist media exclusive. He worries that his father will feel slighted, perhaps even dishonoured, and that this will overshadow their reunion. None of this is what he wants.
I leave Harmeet to prepare for his father’s visit. He expects his father in an hour. I will come to meet them in the lobby. In the meantime, I decide to go for a walk. I’m desperate to be alone. I exit the lobby and step outside. I am delirious with joy. Finally, for the first time in 120 days, I am really and truly alone. No one to be responsible for, no one to please, no one to fear. I can go left, or right, or stay right where I am, for as long as I care to! I can do anything, go anywhere! I turn towards the ocean. I skip, twirl, dance. I would cartwheel if I felt strong enough. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I am free!
I walk down a sidewalk through a garden onto the beach. Every step is bliss. Everything is incredible, amazing, astounding, miraculous. I cry with joy for every blade of grass and flower petal and grain of sand and washed-up piece of plastic. I raise my hands to the blue sky above me and send kisses riding on the ocean breeze. I greet all the glass buildings rising around me, the industrial docks reaching into the water, the rusty ships that sit anchored to them. I take my shoes off and run splashing along the water’s edge, exulting in the bone-chilling cold. I sit and pour sand through my fingers and say thank you a thousand times.
I sit for a long time. Maybe too long, I start to think. I don’t want to miss meeting Harmeet’s father. I turn to go back to the hotel. There is an outdoor pool between the beach and the hotel. There are all kinds of people, just lying around, sitting on towels, reading books, smoking cigarettes, chatting! All marvellously, obliviously, gloriously free! And no one afraid! I stop to watch. There are children, splashing, kicking, swimming, jumping in the water, calling out to parents, arguing over a floating toy! A father wraps a towel around his shivering daughter. A mother bends down to her son as he asks a question. A young couple talk animatedly, their legs touching under a table. I am surrounded by ordinary, everyday human love. I can hardly see for my tears. If I wanted to, I think, I could just disappear, right here and now, in a single, joyous burst of light. But I don’t want to. I want to go home.
We say goodbye in the hotel lobby. Harmeet looks good in his new golf shirt and loose-fitting pants, Sonia’s Nike running shoes, the toque he’d worn during the delegation. I keep watching the movements of his hands, marvelling at the fact that there is no longer a handcuff between us. “I’m going to miss you, brother,” I say. “There’s no one to bring me a glass of water in the mornings anymore.”
He laughs. “You kept me sane.”
“You too,” I say.
He is nervous about going home. His visit with his father has gone well, but there remains real tension in his family. I ache for him. I know that I am going home to the unconditional support of my partner and my community and my family. I so much wish the same for Harmeet. But I’m not sad. Harmeet is going home, and I am going home. The nightmare is over. Our lives have been returned to us.
“Would you like some champagne?” Gordon asks as we take our seats in business class.
I hesitate. “No thanks, I’m okay,” I say.
“Come on. We have to celebrate!”
“I don’t want to cost the government any more than I already have,” I say.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s already included. There’s no extra cost.”
I know Gordon is exhausted, but I can’t help myself. I pepper him with questions. I ask about his family, his work, what he knows about the psychology of hostage-taking. I tell him more stories from the kidnapping. He asks me what I am going to say to the media. My heart immediately starts pounding. I’d rather not say anything, I say.
He says I should think about it. The media are not going to give up until they get something from me. He recommends that I prepare a brief statement. I don’t have to take any questions, just read the statement; that will satisfy them and then they won’t bother me after that. I agree that it’s a good idea and something I feel I can handle.
I tell him about my conversation with Harmeet, our concerns that it was a negotiated release made to look like a rescue. I tell him about my frustration with not being given any real information about our captors, the events leading up to our release, whether or not a ransom was paid.
He asks me why it matters, since I am free. I say I need to know the truth. He explains again the reasons for not being able to tell me, the importance of protecting their methods, the possible danger posed to informants, the confidentiality he is bound by law and sworn by oath to keep. He swears to me as a Christian that no ransom has been paid. I am convinced. Gordon’s personal integrity is something I can believe in.
As for the captors, he says I’ll feel differently in the future.
What do you mean? I say.
He tells me that I’ve been protecting them. He talks about the Stockholm Syndrome, how it is a normal and helpful survival mechanism, how hostages will often attempt to bond with their captors, take on their agenda in the hope it will offer them safety. “Did you ever ask them to let you go?”
“No,” I say, stunned.
“I … I don’t know,” I say. I didn’t know how to begin explaining. I wanted to, considered it hundreds of times, but could never bring myself to do it.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m not here to judge. It’s going to take time. But you’ll feel differently someday.”
When we’re back on the plane after a stopover in Frankfurt, flying over the Atlantic on the last leg of our journey, Gordon asks if he can read my statement. I wrote it in the business class lounge in Germany. He says it’s good but I have to thank the people who rescued us. How can I do that? I say. I haven’t thanked anyone in the statement. It’s impossible! I don’t know where to start. There are so many people, I don’t want to value any one person’s contribution over another’s.
He understands that, he says, but if I don’t thank the people who rescued us, they’ll think I’m ungrateful, which clearly I’m not. If I don’t say thank you, that’s what they’ll focus on, and they won’t hear anything else that I have to say.
I get to work right away and show him the revision. Good, he says.
I see that Gordon is starting to nod off. I suppress my need to talk and let him sleep. I stand up, stretch, sit down, try to read the paper, try to sleep, can’t, get up to talk to the stewardesses. I am too excited to sit still. It is really happening. I am going home. Finally.
* Police officials asked us not to identify them by their last names.
* Name changed by Mark Urban.