Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
NOVEMBER 26, 2005 DAY 1
We present ourselves to the guards at the main entrance. They’re cold, cheerless, brusque. “Passport, passport,” they demand. I hesitate. I have never before been asked by an Iraqi security guard to show my passport. I look at Tom. He nods to me and hands them his passport. It must be okay then, I think.
“Camera, camera,” they say, pointing to me and Norman and Harmeet. A guard sitting at a desk inspects our cameras with scrupulous care. We empty our pockets and lift our arms. Their hands are rude, gruff, intrusively thorough. I am taken aback. My experience of Iraqi security guards is that they are unfailingly courteous, even gentle, when conducting body searches. “No picture, no picture,” they chastise as they hand back our cameras.
“That means you,” I say to Harmeet under my breath. He flashes me an innocent smile.
The Umm al-Qura mosque is nothing if not impressive. At the centre of the gleaming complex is a purple and gold dome ringed by four towering minarets made to look like Scud missiles. Surrounding the dome is a reflecting pool enclosed within a rectangular quadrant. The corners of the quadrant are adorned with a second set of four towers, built to look like Kalashnikov rifles. Two big signs stand at either side of the main gate. “This mosque was built according to the orders of President Saddam Hussein. The cornerstone was laid on April 28, 1998, and the mosque was finished on April 28, 2001”—Saddam’s birthday. He called it Umm al Marik: the Mother of All Battles. The mosque, with a new name, became the headquarters of the Muslim Scholars Association in 2003, a few weeks after Saddam fell.
Outside the security office, we are met by the human rights officer for the Muslim Scholars Association, a heavy-set man with an abundant brown beard and a parsimonious smile. He leads us through the splendiferous precinct of the mosque compound into a gloomy, bunker-like office. He sits behind a barren desk, sullen and remote, and we sit along a wall in plastic lawn chairs, our notebooks open and pens ready.
Norman introduces us as members of a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation who have come to Iraq to learn about the realities of life under American occupation. The human rights officer speaks at length about the suffering caused by the thirteen years of economic sanctions that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the difficulties of life under occupation; the lack of security, electricity and employment; the failure of the United States to initiate a meaningful program of reconstruction; the plight of security detainees. Things were better under Saddam Hussein, he tells us, and he is not hopeful about the prospects for a political solution. He folds his hands on his desk and looks down at the floor. We ask a question. He looks at his watch. Our appointment is over.
We thank him for taking the time to meet with us. He escorts us back to the security office. Harmeet manages somehow to charm a picture out of him. We say goodbye to the grim-faced security guards and trek across the desolate expanse of the Umm al-Qura parking lot to where our driver is waiting. I check my watch. It is 3:10 p.m.
“Did you notice that they didn’t bring us tea?” I say to Tom. “In all of the meetings I’ve had in Iraq, I don’t think that’s ever happened.”
Tom points to the public washroom located outside the mosque entrance. “When I went to the restroom before we went through security, there was somebody in a car watching us. I caught his eyes for just a moment. It was really unusual. I never have these feelings about people, but there was something about him that gave me the creeps. It was like … it was like he didn’t mean us well.”
I wish now that I could remember that walk across the parking lot, the exact number of footsteps it took us to reach the van, how I held my notebook, the things we said to each other as we climbed into the van and took our seats. How I wish I could remember everything about those last, unremarkable motions, this last handful of things we did as free men before being disappeared into the world of the gun for 118 days.
The van door closes. Issam, our driver, takes us through the mosque checkpoint and turns left onto a lonely arterial road bordering the south side of the mosque. I am sitting with my back to Issam, on a bench seat facing Tom and Harmeet, our knees almost touching. Norman is in the seat behind them, at the back of the van by himself. I turn for one last look at the mosque when the driver slams on the brakes. We all lurch forward. “Hey, what’s going on?” I say.
A white sedan has stopped in front of us. Three doors pop open and four men with guns pour out, surround us, pull our driver and translator out of the van. There are gestures, urgent voices I can’t understand. One of the men gets behind the wheel of our van. Another slides back the panel door and points an AK-47 at us. Two others climb in. Their movements are smooth, quick, precise. They’ve done this before.
“Get down,” one of them says to me. “On the floor.” I look at him. He waves his gun and pushes me. “Move,” he says. I move. Another gunman sits beside him.
Our translator, Adib, is standing alone, ten feet away from the vehicle. We reach for each other through our eyes. That look on his face—I’ve never forgotten it. Terror, helplessness, anguish. One human being bearing witness to the last seconds of another.
The last abductor, training his gun at Tom’s head, slides in next to him and slams the door. The van pulls away, leaving Issam and Adib standing helplessly by the road. Thank God they didn’t hurt them, I think.
I am calm. There is no room, no space for emotion, only observation and response. I look into the eyes of the gunman who has pushed me off the seat. Something tells me he is the boss. He is dark-bearded, twenty-something, impeccably groomed, a steel beam in a navy blue suit jacket. His eyes are hard, cold with murder. He sits ready, AK-47 on his lap, his finger around the trigger. The one next to him is rounder, wipes sweat off his brow, shifts uneasily. The one next to Harmeet slowly chews a piece of gum, his face acne-scarred and villainous.
Tom, Harmeet and Norman are alert, composed, self-possessed. I search out their eyes. Harmeet sees me. We exchange a quick smile that seems to say, “Can this really be happening?”
Harmeet Singh Sooden is a 32-year-old Canadian Sikh, former computer engineer, student of English literature in Auckland, New Zealand. He’s casual and sporty in loose-fitting trousers and a golf shirt; his hair is jet black, shoulder-length, his right arm hard and sculpted from years of competitive squash play. Norman Kember is a 75-year-old Briton from a London suburb, husband, father and grandfather, retired professor of nuclear biophysics. He’s white-haired, ruddy, robust, bemused and professorial in his tweed jacket, beige vest, brown cotton tie, woollen pants and scruffy oxford shoes. Tom Fox is a 52-year-old American, divorced father of two young adults, retired member of the Marine Corps Band, from Clearbrook, Virginia. He’s tall, lean, severe; clean-cut and military in khakis and a moss green button-down shirt.
The van proceeds east five hundred metres and merges onto a divided highway. I watch, try to absorb and remember everything, strain with every neuron to lay down a mental map of where we are being taken. I say to the one in charge, “My name is Jim.” His eyes don’t even flicker. I keep on trying. “This is Tom”—I point—“and Harmeet, and—”
“No talk,” he says.
Tom reaches slowly into his back pocket to get his wallet. The captor with the AK-47 points his gun at him. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I just want to show you something.” Tom takes out his wallet and pulls out a folded-up copy of our “magic sheet.” “This says who we are. We are men of peace. Salam. See? Arabi.” The gunman curls his lip and drops the paper on the floor.
The van turns off the divided highway into a neighbourhood of sand-coloured houses hidden behind sand-coloured walls. We turn right, then right, then right again, as if making a circle. The driver honks as he drives through a gaggle of boys playing soccer in the road. We stop in front of a house where two men are holding a gate open. We turn into the driveway and the gate closes behind us. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes have passed.
Our captivity has begun.
The evening before I left for Iraq, Dan showed me some things he’d found on the Internet: photos of men whose tortured bodies had been found in Fallujah; night-time video footage of U.S. soldiers gunning down an unarmed Iraqi man escaping from a burning truck. I could barely look. “This is why you have to go,” he said.
The house filled with friends who came to say goodbye. Joseph and David, a married couple who are friends of ours, took a picture of Dan and me sitting together. I had no way of knowing, but in a few days that picture would be beamed around the world, Dan’s smiling face cropped out of it so the kidnappers would not learn about my sexual identity.
As we lay in bed that night, I asked Dan a question. “If we knew this was our last night together, what would we do? Would we fall asleep as usual, or would we do something different?” I was so exhausted I could hardly keep my eyes open.
“I don’t know,” Dan said. The question floated around us in the darkness. Dan put his arm over me and held me close. I fell asleep.
The next day, Dan went to work and I spent the day in a frenzy of packing and last-minute errands. I borrowed a friend’s car and met Dan at his workplace so we could go together to the airport. I pulled out a bar of fair trade chocolate for us to share and slid a disc into the CD player. The Proclaimers began to sing about walking five hundred miles. “It’s too bad we’re in the car,” Dan said. “We could be dancing.”
The traffic was a nightmare. In half an hour we moved one kilometre. “You’re going to miss your flight,” Dan said.
He hates the stress of being late; I love the thrill of arriving just on time. We got to the airport with less than an hour before the flight. We hugged, said goodbye and I dashed off. “Call me if you don’t make it,” Dan yelled. “Okay,” I yelled back.
I arrived in Amman, the capital of Jordan, the next evening at eleven o’clock. I caught a bus to Abdali Square, Amman’s chaotic transit hub, fended off the taxi drivers and carried my luggage to the Al Monzer Hotel, CPT’s home away from home in the Middle East, where delegations assemble before going into Iraq and CPTers stay before travelling to Israel.
I met Harmeet and Norman for the first time on the morning of Sunday, November 20. After breakfast, we gathered in the room Harmeet and I shared. The agenda for our first meeting was very simple: introductions, overview of the schedule, orientation to our immediate surroundings, review of security measures for travel to and arrival in Baghdad, worship, and a “check-in,” the daily CPT practice where team members share whatever they want about what they’re experiencing and feeling.
Norman talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of cheap grace. Although a lifelong pacifist, Norman found himself in the unusual, and fortunate, position of never having had to pay a cost for his convictions. He’d lived a very good, comfortable life as a professor of biophysics at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, and he felt it was time that he took a risk for what he believed, especially now that he was retired and his remaining years of good health might be few. Although she was fully in support of his decision to come, his only worry was about his wife, Pat.
Harmeet was looking for a way to give something back. After an unsatisfying career as a computer engineer in Ottawa, he had moved to New Zealand to be with his sister after losing his job in the 2001 high-tech crash. He went back to school to study English literature and decided to get involved in the peace movement.
Over the next two days—the time it took us to get our visas—we met with representatives of the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq, the Red Cross and the Mennonite Central Committee. We also met Iraqis who had fled to Jordan for safety. Over a million Iraqis were living as refugees in Jordan, a country of only five million.
We flew out of Amman on a thirty-passenger turbo-prop Embraer operated by Air Serv, a not-for-profit airline that flies NGOs in and out of humanitarian crisis zones. From twenty-nine thousand feet we descended in a tight, gut-wrenching corkscrew over the Baghdad International Airport—a technique used to avoid insurgent fire. A Canadian CPTer named Greg Rollins and Adib, one of the team’s translators, met us at the airport. My heart pounded in my chest as I put my luggage in the trunk. The airport highway was the most dangerous road in Baghdad.
Issam, our driver, puffed on a cigarette and chatted nonchalantly as we followed a U.S. military convoy through the slalom course of earthen berms that protected the highway. I sat on the edge of my seat, eyes riveted to the soldier nervously manning a fifty-calibre gun on the rearguard Humvee in front of us. The closer you were, the more danger you were in. The smallest misunderstanding between a driver and a soldier could be lethal.
I began to relax only when we entered the familiar avenues of Karrada Darkhil in central Baghdad. I was overjoyed to see its fruit stands, Internet cafés and barbershops—until gunshots and wild honking rushed towards us from behind. I turned around and looked out the rear window to see a convoy of white pickup trucks barrelling towards us. An urgent voice blared in Arabic from a loudspeaker. The cars around us immediately pulled over. Instead of doing the same, Issam passed the vehicle in front of us and sped through an intersection. “Get over, get over,” I shouted. Issam glanced in the rear-view mirror and pulled expertly into the right lane just before the convoy would have hit us. Four white pickup trucks escorting a shiny black sedan roared by. Men in black masks leaned out of windows and stood in the open truck beds, shouting, waving frantically, firing their weapons into the air. Adib sat in the front seat with his elbow resting on his open window while Issam worked his way through another cigarette. They were deep in conversation, oblivious to the convoy that had just passed us. I touched Adib on the shoulder.
“Yes, Mr. Jim?” he said.
“Sorry to interrupt, Adib, but what was that all about?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Oh, this happens all the time. It must be somebody important passing by.”
I sat back in my seat and willed myself to disappear as we threaded our way through Baghdad’s choking traffic. It was unnerving, the way people looked at us, their faces startled and surprised, as if we were a rare, endangered species.
It was a relief to pull up in front of the CPT apartment. It was located on Abu Nawas Street, a major artery that ran along the Tigris River. Across the street, a sun-baked, rubble-strewn no man’s land was all that remained of what used to be a lush paradise of fountains, gardens and footpaths following the river.
Maxine Nash came out to meet us. “Welcome to Baghdad,” she said with a big smile.
“Max! It’s so great so see you.” I reached out to shake her hand, forgetting that public displays of affection between men and women were forbidden.
She shook her head. “Get the delegation into the apartment as quickly as you can.”
The team looked weary to me: Tom Fox, Sheila Provencher, Anita David, Greg Rollins and of course Maxine. The Iraq project was a grind. In order to reduce their visibility, they spent long hours holed up in the apartment. There was nowhere to get away, even for a cup of coffee or a cold beer, nowhere to go for a walk to unwind. The lack of electricity, the blazing summer heat and constant winter chill, the suffering of the Iraqi people that they were helpless to alleviate, the daily explosions and gunfire, the relentless, gnawing fear for one’s physical safety—all these things combined, accumulated, took their toll.
I had worked with Sheila and Max during my second stint in Iraq. They had been studying Arabic together at the time. Sheila was a 33-year-old Catholic from Boston who radiated warmth, ease, loving acceptance. She seemed to know every child, neighbour and shopkeeper in the team’s immediate vicinity. Max was a 43-year-old Quaker from Iowa. She was unflappably calm, decisive, grounded: the kind of person you wanted to have around in a crisis. Anita I had not met before but I instantly liked her. A 59-year-old Presbyterian from Chicago, she greeted me with sparkling eyes and an irreverent grin. Greg I knew as a fellow Canadian CPTer. He was a 33-year-old Mennonite from Vancouver with an incorrigibly dry sense of humour and a relentlessly optimistic disposition. Tom I’d met once before at a CPT retreat in 2004, just as I was starting out as CPT’s Canada program coordinator.
After some lunch, Greg took us up four flights of stairs to the new delegation apartment. It was a safer location than the ground-floor apartment where delegations used to stay.* Harmeet and I took one room and Norman took another. We put our bags down and then went to meet Greg and Abu Hani on the roof.
Abu Hani was our landlord, a Christian businessman who owned property throughout Karrada. He was a genial, self-assured man who, unlike most Christians with means, had elected to stand his ground against the bloody chaos that was consuming his beloved city. “There it is,” he said, pointing to a newly installed water tank. Ten days before, an errant mortar had struck the roof and destroyed the previous tank. “You can’t tell very much now, but it was a mess up here. Metal and shrapnel and roof tiles all over the place.” He raised his chin defiantly. “I fixed everything the next day. It was lucky that no one was up here and that it hit the tank. The water absorbed a lot of the blast.”
He pointed across the river to a skyline of domes and spires. “Those used to be Saddam’s palaces—the Republican Palace and Baath Party headquarters. Of course, now they are the headquarters for the Americans.”
“What’s that big building that’s been bombed?” Harmeet asked, pointing to the scorched shell of Baghdad’s tallest office building.
“That’s why our phone system doesn’t work. That’s the Telecommunications Building. Destroyed by the Americans,” he said. He pointed in the opposite direction, to four smokestacks on a smoggy horizon. “That is the Baghdad electricity plant. As you can see, there is only one smokestack working. Another big headache. After the Second Gulf War,* Saddam had the electricity fixed in a few months. It’s been three and a half years since the invasion and the electricity is worse now than it ever was.
“If you come over here,” he said, walking to the east side of the roof, “you can see Karrada Darkhil.” Before us was a blond and clay-brown expanse of flat roofs punctuated with palm trees, minarets, the occasional tall apartment building. “I have lived here all my life,” he said proudly. “There is the Armenian church”—he pointed to a high parabolic arch centred with a cross—“the Shia mosque”—a modestly ornamented minaret—“and the Sunni mosque”—a massive turquoise dome hovering in the smog. “In Karrada, we live together in peace. Or we used to.”
“How old is this neighbourhood?” I asked.
“Not very old,” Abu Hani said. “Maybe sixty years.”
“Really?” I said. “Some of the buildings look a lot older than that.”
He laughed. “Everything looks old in Baghdad, especially the people. Baghdad used to be very small. But then there was a mass migration into the city in the thirties and forties and it exploded. Now it’s a huge city of six million.”
I noted with pleasure that the team’s makeshift clothesline had escaped the mortar blast. There is always something that survives war, I thought.
The next day, Waleed, the team’s other translator, took us for a tour of Baghdad. Where in my previous two trips we could take pictures and walk freely just about anywhere, this time we rarely left the car and had to be very careful where we took pictures. You could feel the tension in the air, the fatigue, the edge of fear everywhere. There were more rolls of concertina wire, more fortressized buildings, more burly men with guns. There were more and bigger piles of rubble dumped along more roadways and boulevards. There was more smog, more burned-out vehicles, more squatters living in windowless buildings. There were more shortages of gasoline and electricity, more helicopters, explosions and gunfire. Otherwise, Baghdad was very much the same. Except for a repaved road here and there, no reconstruction had been done. It remained as I’d last seen it, a crumbling, chaotic, patched-up sprawl of potholes, burning garbage, leaking water mains, bombed and looted buildings, cement barricades and blast walls.
Still, I admired Baghdad. There was something irrepressible about it, a gritty, get-on-with-it, make-do determination that flowed like the Tigris and Euphrates through the chaos, the shortages, the soul-aching grief of war. You saw this spirit everywhere, in clothes hanging on the line, shops that unfailingly opened every day, trucks laden with goods for delivery, homeowners scrubbing down their sidewalks, children riding wildly decorated bicycles, boys hawking newspapers and tissue boxes at grid-locked intersections, the call to prayer punctuating the wheel of each day.
On the morning of Wednesday, November 23, I started a letter to my father.
Today is your granddaughter Olivia’s birthday, and it’s your oldest son’s first morning in Baghdad. The Communist Party generator is purring at their big headquarters across the street, the power’s out (hence this candlelight writing), and Tom Fox is in the middle of his yoga routine on the living room floor. It is 5:50 a.m. and all is right with the world. In Eastern Standard Time, it’s 10:00 p.m. and still a day before. You will have just gone to bed.
I know this is not an easy thing for you or Mom, and I lament this burden of worry you both must carry because of my choices. It is my sense that this burden is increased by your feeling that my being in Iraq is serving no effective purpose. You’ve said it before, and you said it in the course of our last phone conversation, something like what good is this going to do in the face of the never-ending centuries of the Middle East’s ever-escalating internecine violence. (In fact, we are setting our lives against something much larger than that: the apparently eternal violence of Empire itself, in this instance fuelled by an insatiable greed for fossil fuel.) It is my sense that this burden would somehow be easier if it didn’t seem so much like a mad tilting at windmills.
When we were in Amman, we met with the top UN and Red Cross officials responsible for the protection of civilians in Iraq: John Pace, the chief of the Human Rights Office for Iraq, and Joerg Gasser, deputy head of the Red Cross delegation to Iraq. As you know, both the UN and the Red Cross were forced from Iraq by suicide bomb attacks and must now conduct their work from the arm’s-length safety of Jordan. Both are eager to return but are unable to because of very real security concerns and their ponderous security protocols. Both must rely on intermittent visits. The UN relies on people coming to see them in their Green Zone lockdown, and the Red Cross flies through secure air corridors to permanent detention facilities located on three U.S. military bases. They cannot even get to Abu Ghraib because it is too dangerous to travel there. Their information-gathering systems, the lifeblood of human rights monitoring, are on life support. Both men were envious of CPT’s freedom, mobility and access to Iraqis. And I was both surprised and delighted: they not only value but also rely on our reports and documentation. We are able to get to places, meet people, hear stories, witness conditions that the UN and the Red Cross, with all their vast international resources, are helpless to.
These meetings helped me to understand the importance of our work in a new way. We are acting as a kind of intermediary amplifying the cries of those who have no voice, in some small way serving as the eyes and ears of the UN and the Red Cross, a human rights special forces team that can get in close and shine the light where it needs to shine.
I hope I haven’t sounded preachy. I’m just trying to find a way to ease this burden you’re carrying. Maybe if you can better understand why I think this is worth doing it will be easier for you to bear. Failing that, I guess the best we can do is entrust each other to God’s hands.
Well, the day is breaking here. Sleep well, Dad.
With love, James
That morning, we went to Baghdad’s electrical power plant, an awe-inspiring complex of steaming pipes, towering chimneys, catwalks interconnecting everywhere. Despite their best efforts, the plant manager told us, they were only able to get two of the four generators going at one time, often only one. He explained it was because there was a shortage of oil in the country and they couldn’t get spare parts. The plant had been built by a German company and Halliburton was in charge of the contract. Why can’t Halliburton get the parts from Germany? we asked. I don’t know, he said, you must ask Halliburton about this.
Upon leaving the plant, we had to stop at the security gate. “Ramallah wal day ik,” Adib said to the guard.
“Hum d’Allah,” the guard answered. Praise be to God.
Adib turned around in his seat as we drove away. “Do you know this saying? Ramallah wal day ik?” he asked. I shook my head. “We have many sayings like this. It is part of our custom. When someone does something good for you, you can honour them by saying Ramallah wal day ik. It means May God bless your parents. I like to say it for the work of the simple man, like that security guard. It tells them they are doing something good. But you can also say it to someone who is doing something bad. It is a way to say a reminder to them—‘You are doing the work of the bad man.’ ”
“Ramallah wal day ik,” I said. “Thank you, Adib.”
“You can use it any time,” he said.
I sent my letter on the morning of Friday, November 25, just before Greg, Norman, Harmeet and I left for our meeting with Father Douglas Al Bazi, a Chaldean priest who was the pastor of St. Mari Catholic Church, located in a northern Baghdad suburb. We parked on a quiet residential street and walked towards a leafy property surrounded by concrete barriers and coils of concertina wire. The church itself was enclosed by eight-foot-high walls, and at the main gate there was a little hut that housed two armed guards.
Father Douglas, a hearty, big-bellied man in his mid-thirties, welcomed us with open arms and ushered us into his study. He left the room and returned with a nun, each of them carrying a tray laden with dishes of food. There was chicken, rice, salads, stuffed grape leaves, savoury pastries, grilled fish, lamb, things I’d never seen before. A feast of biblical proportions.
As we ate, Father Douglas talked. Under Saddam, the Christian community had numbered about two million and enjoyed full protection as a religious minority in a secular Iraq. In the turbulent “New Iraq,” Christians were in serious peril as forces within the society sought to forge a new national consensus based on the elimination of all differences and enforcing conformity to a narrow spectrum of values and behaviours. Christians selling alcohol had been killed or had their shops destroyed, Christian women experienced growing pressure to wear the hijab, churches had been bombed. St. Mari itself had successfully defended itself against a car bomb attack by the guards who were hired by the church and paid by the government. Father Douglas himself had run outside firing his Kalashnikov. The lack of security and miserable living conditions meant Christians were leaving Iraq in droves. The ones who remained were too poor, too old or too stubborn to leave and kept as low a profile as they possibly could. Of the three hundred families that Father Douglas once served, only a hundred remained.
When our meal was finished, Father Douglas introduced us to one of his parishioners. “This is Lawrence, one of my altar boys. He’s going to university now.” Lawrence smiled shyly. “Lawrence was kidnapped last year. This is happening every day to Iraqis.”
Shocked, we responded with questions. Avoiding our eyes, Lawrence explained how he’d been walking home from school when some armed men forced him into a vehicle. “I have the blindfold, but they not beat me or anything. They make to me to phone my father on the mobile. They make me say to my father you crying you torture you afraid to be kill unless my father to give $50,000.” A final ransom of $10,000 was negotiated and Lawrence was released within ten days.*
At dinner that evening, Greg complained that he had laundry to do. The team’s laundry facilities consisted of a plastic tub and the rooftop clothesline. “When am I going to get time? I can’t do it tonight, I’m with the delegation all day tomorrow, and we leave for Karbala on Sunday. I can’t go to Karbala in these,” he said, referring to the clothes he was wearing.
“I don’t have anything planned for tomorrow,” Tom said. “Why don’t I take the delegation for the morning meeting and you can get ready for the trip. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Kadhimiya. I like it there.”
“Are you sure?” Greg asked.
“Yeah, it’s no problem, but I need to be back for the afternoon.”
“We can do that, no problem,” Greg said. “Our morning meeting is at ten. That’ll give you lots of time to get back to the apartment, the delegation can grab a bite to eat, and then I’ll take them in the afternoon for the two o’clock meeting at the Muslim Scholars Association.”
I had first met Tom in August 2004 at a CPT retreat. He had just completed his training in Chicago and I had just been appointed to the role of Canada coordinator. I happened to overhear him say he had been in the Marine Corps. I was immediately intrigued. How does a former Marine become an activist, pacifist, violence-reduction Christian peacemaker? He explained that he had been a musician, not a soldier. He played the clarinet in the Marine Corps Band. In fact, he had never learned how to use a gun. He retired after twenty years, sold all his musical instruments and took training to become a baker in 1993.
I found this curious. I imagined that if I were a musician capable of making beautiful music, I would never want to part with my instruments. I asked him why.
“Well, I’m an artist. And art is something you give yourself to completely or not at all. You can’t do it in half-measures. It’s all or nothing.”
Led by a mutual spiritual curiosity, Tom and his former wife, Jan Stansel, began to explore Quakerism in 1983. A spiritual awakening during his transition out of the Marine Corps Band led him deeper into the practice of Quaker spirituality and he experienced a growing desire to live Quaker non-violence in an active way. When 9/11 happened, he was profoundly disturbed by the hard turn of American policy towards unlimited global warfare. Feeling an urgent call to respond in some way, he began to research different options and found CPT’s website. He left his job as a manager in a large organic food chain, went on a delegation and took the CPT training. Now his work was about to begin: he was leaving for Iraq in three weeks.
I asked him if he had any family. Yes, he said, two children: a son named Andrew, who was nineteen, and a daughter named Kassie, who was twenty-four. I asked him how they felt about his decision to work in Iraq. He answered in his matter-of-fact way that they were of course worried but he explained to them this was something he had to do. “Armies expect casualties when they go to war. Those working for peace in war zones have to expect the same,” he’d said.
The next day, I got up early to do my laundry. I scrubbed my clothes by candlelight in the bathroom. I was excited about our trip. Karbala was a fabulous city of gold-brick domes and minarets, Byzantine markets, solemn pilgrims, gracious boulevards. And we were going to meet Hussein Al Ibraheemy and Sami Rasouli, the founders of Muslim Peacemaker Teams, a group of Muslim peace activists CPT had trained in January 2005. They had ambitious plans to train twenty teams to do development work and human rights education across the country.
I went up to the roof to hang out my clothes. The sun was rising over Baghdad and the air was remarkably breathable. I lifted my face to the glorious new light. How I loved it up there. The roof was the team’s retreat centre, spa and gym, the only escape from visitors, the phone, the confinement of the apartment. There wasn’t much to it—a big cement pad furnished with some plastic lawn chairs and piles of junk that had nowhere else to go—but when you were there you could reach up and touch the sky, and for a little while feel that anything was possible. I hung up my laundry and descended the stairs. It was time to leave for our first meeting.
Kadhimiya was my favourite place in Baghdad. At its centre was the Kādhim shrine, a gold-gleaming complex of towering minarets surrounded by a vast, teeming market where you could buy everything from bales of second-hand clothing to major electrical appliances to pomegranates. I had been to Kadhimiya several times before and never felt alarm, but that day I was on hyper-red alert. As we followed Adib into the Gordian market, it felt as if we were walking into a wall of hard stares. I checked constantly to make sure I could see Tom’s bald head following behind Norman and Harmeet. If we were separated, it would be impossible to find our way out of the market and back to the van. I didn’t want to think about what could happen to a lost foreigner.
We turned right at a tea shop I remembered for its exquisite pyramids of pistachio sweet goods. Imam Ali’s house was just around the corner, a modest two-storey brick building marked by a set of concrete stairs on the edge of a labyrinthine world of crumbling arabesque houses.
Two men with bulging arms and machine guns hanging from shoulder straps stopped us in front of the imam’s house. The last time I’d visited, we were greeted by an old, bent-over man. Adib explained that we had an appointment with the imam at ten o’clock. They offered us their chairs and brought us tea. At eleven we were invited into the house by the old bent-over man. We took off our shoes and sat on a plush blue carpet in a spartan waiting room decorated with pictures of black-turbaned holy men. At 11:20 we were taken behind an intricately carved wooden screen.
Imam Ali was sitting cross-legged and barefoot on an ornate, hand-carved wooden chair. He wore dark brown vestments and the black turban that signified his authority as a direct descendant of the Prophet. He greeted us warmly, we shook his hand and then sat cross-legged on the floor in a semi-circle in front of him. I guessed that he was about forty, young to be the senior cleric of the third-holiest Shia mosque in Iraq. He was attended by an aide who came and went, whispered things into his ear, handed him a phone.
It had been a traumatic year and a half for the imam and his community. On March 2, 2004, two weeks after I last saw him, fifty-eight pilgrims were killed when his mosque was bombed during the first open celebration of the Ashura since it had been banned by Saddam Hussein. Anticipating the possibility of an attack, Imam Ali had asked CPT to be present as observers at the religious festival. CPTers filmed the immediate aftermath of the bombing from the roof of a hotel located across the street from the shrine. Ashura is one of Shia Islam’s holiest days and marks the emergence of Shiism as a distinct tradition within Islam.* On August 31, five months later, rumours of a suicide bomb attack during a Shia religious procession caused a stampede across the Imams Bridge that killed 965 pilgrims. The Imams Bridge connects Kadhimiya with Adhamiyah, a Sunni neighbourhood located directly across the Tigris River with a reputation for armed resistance to the U.S. occupation.
Imam Ali looked to have aged ten years since I had last seen him. Then, I had been impressed by his gentle comportment, his conviction that the two denominations could work together to form a new political accommodation. This time he was full of suspicion and blame. Dialogue and co-operation with Sunnis was no longer possible or desirable. He talked in angry, repetitious circles.
Tom caught my eye and discreetly pointed to his watch. “We’ve got to wrap this up,” he whispered, “or we’re never going to make it back to the apartment.”
It was another half-hour before we could honourably extricate ourselves from the meeting. There was no longer enough time to go back to the apartment to make the switch. Tom called Greg to let him know. We grabbed something to eat in Kadhimiya and proceeded directly to the Umm al-Qura mosque in Ghazaliya.
The Muslim Scholars Association was founded on April 14, 2003, five days after the fall of Baghdad. It was a hard-line organization of Sunni clerics opposed to the U.S. occupation and believed to have links to the insurgency. Aspiring to be the Sunni counterpart to the Shia marja’iyya (religious authority) led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, it positioned itself as a behind-the-scenes power broker whose role it was to frame political goals and strategies for the whole Sunni community. CPT had been working for six months to establish a relationship with the Muslim Scholars. Our delegation’s visit would be CPT’s third meeting with them.
We arrived twenty minutes early for our two o’clock meeting. We pulled over within sight of the Umm al-Qura security gate and waited on a lonely arterial road bordering a middle-class residential area to the south and the open expanses surrounding the mosque complex to the north. There was no pedestrian traffic to speak of, and only the occasional passing car. At 1:50 p.m. we were allowed through the mosque checkpoint and entered the sprawling grounds of the Muslim Scholars national headquarters. The vast parking lot was empty but for a handful of cars clustered near the main entrance.
* The first delegation CPT sent to Iraq was in October 2002. There had been fifteen delegations before us, involving 131 people. The sixth delegation travelled by road to Iraq during the invasion of March 2003.
* Iraqis call the 1980-89 war with Iran the First Gulf War, and the U.S.-led attack in 1991 the Second Gulf War.
* Father Douglas himself would be kidnapped almost a year later, on November 20, 2006, and held for nine days.
* After the Prophet’s death in 632 CE, a dispute arose over his succession. A number of the Prophet’s companions elected Abu Bakr to be the leader of the Muslim community, while others believed the Prophet had chosen his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. This dispute culminated in the martyrdom of Ali’s son Husayn at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. The Shia believe in a divinely appointed succession through the lineage of Ali, while the Sunni choose their religious leaders through shura (consultation and election).