Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
They take us into the house one at a time, Harmeet first and then Tom. It astounds me. This is where they’re taking us—a house on a quiet residential street with neighbours all around us? “Come,” a voice says when it’s my turn. The voice grabs my arm and pulls me out of the van. My mind screams Run! Run! but my body obediently follows. Eight steps to a door, an immediate right, six brisk steps through a dark kitchen and I’m in a spacious living room.
My first impression is of the colour blue, the colour of the room’s grubby, threadbare carpet. Then I hear the undulating cry of Quran song, a commotion of Iraqi men around me. Harmeet and Tom are standing against a wood-frame couch. A young, lean man with a moustache walks in front of Harmeet. “Ogod,” he snarls, pushing him in the chest.
Harmeet drops like a stone. Young Moustache Man steps sideways. “Ogod,” he orders, pushing Tom in the same way. Tom braces himself against the shove. Young Moustache Man glares. Tom sits down slowly and puts his right foot on top of his left knee. The sole of Tom’s shoe is dangerously exposed. In Arabic culture one never displays the sole of one’s foot unless to show contempt.
Young Moustache Man is not pleased. “No,” he says, slapping Tom’s foot. Tom holds it in place. “La!” Young Moustache Man says, his voice louder, hitting Tom’s foot with more force, then threatening him with his fist. Tom looks at him defiantly. A man wearing a green suit jacket with a gun tucked in his belt touches Young Moustache Man on the arm and says something in Arabic. Young Moustache Man moves away, scowling. Tom puts his foot down.
Above Harmeet and Tom, hanging on the wall, is a picture of a bearded man with puppy-dog eyes. He’s wearing a crown of thorns and long flowing robes. His fingers are pointing to a flaming heart in the middle of his chest. It’s the Sacred Heart. Who are these people? I wonder. Young Moustache Man grabs my arm and turns me around. “Sit down,” he says, shoving me in the chest.
Don’t let him push you around, my brain screams, but my body stays relaxed and falls into sitting. Norman is brought in next and made to sit on a second bench seat located against the wall on our right.
The process of Observing Everything I Possibly Can begins immediately. Every scrap of information is vital. Who knows which detail will be the vital clue, the key that will open the door to freedom. Doors and windows first. No windows, four doors. There’s a glass door opening into an interior window-well in the corner to my left. Another door in the next corner moving clockwise. A door into the kitchen. A door in the corner to Norman’s right.
Quran song is coming from a 24-hour Quran channel and Arabic script flows below halcyon images of running water, green forests, blue cloudy skies. The television, with satellite hookup, sits in a white and grey plastic wall unit located along the left wall. There are three worn and scratched wood-frame bench seats: the one Tom, Harmeet and I are sitting on, the one Norman is sitting on, and one against the wall across from me to Norman’s right.
In the corner to Norman’s left, a waist-high wooden ironing board sheathed with a soiled coverlet. An antiquated iron and a disc made of clay from Karbala sitting on top, a set of Muslim prayer beads hung over the narrowing end. Above Norman, the only other picture in the room, a portrait of Saint Bernadette.
The room is spacious, fifteen feet deep and twenty-five feet wide, with faded lime-green walls and a pink ceiling. A naked light bulb hangs from ornate plaster mouldings in the middle of the ceiling. On the wall across from us, to the right of the kitchen door, there are two plaster arches. Inside each arch a decorative wall hanging has been taped to the wall: On the left, two straggly-looking purple plastic flowers; on the right, a wooden cooking spoon and salad fork crossing each other in an X. To the left of the arches, a broken heart-shaped wall clock, garish, plastic and red. To the right of the kitchen door, a wooden shelf holding a kerosene lamp. To the left of the kitchen door, a Western 2005 calendar turned to September.
Observing Everything I Possibly Can must be done carefully, discreetly, disinterestedly, as much as possible with peripheral vision, the art of seeing without looking.
There is a quick conference of captors in the kitchen doorway. Heads nod and everyone except Young Moustache Man leaves the room. He paces back and forth, rubs his hands together with an excited smile, stops in front of Norman. “My? My?” he asks, forming his hand into a cup and raising it to his lips, eyebrows lifting in question.
Norman shakes his head. “No, thank you kindly,” he says.
He turns to us and makes the same gesture. “My? My?” he asks.
Tom and Harmeet both shake their heads. “La shokren,” Tom says.
I want to say no. The water must come from the tap, and the last thing I want is to be stricken with diarrhea while kidnapped. Plus, the thought of accepting anything from these men, save the immediate return of our freedom, is repugnant to me. “Yes, please,” I say. I have to. It’s an opening, the first opportunity to communicate, a chance to make them see our humanity. It’s a lot harder to kill someone if you see him as a human being.
Young Moustache Man hands me a glass smeared with fingerprints. “Ramallah wal day ik,” I say, as Adib taught me.
He looks incredulous, says something in Arabic. The only thing I understand is that he’s asking me a question.
“Ramallah wal day ik,” I say again, nodding sincerely.
Young Moustache Man laughs and slaps his knee, repeats the phrase again and again. “This Arabi?” he asks me.
“No Arabi. English. I only speak English. My name is Jim,” I say, pointing to myself. Young Moustache Man nods. “Are you married?” I ask. The captor looks puzzled. “Married? Do you have children?” I point to him and use my hand to indicate the height of a small child.
“This? Whalid?” he says, pointing to himself, eyes widening. I nod. He shakes his head sadly. “La whalid.”
Suit Jacket Man enters the room with four sets of handcuffs dangling from his hand. He is followed by a great big giant of a man. Young Moustache Man laughs excitedly and points at me. He says something to them that ends with Ramallah wal day ik. The other men do not smile.
Suit Jacket Man motions for Norman to stand up. “Where is your passport?” he says. Norman gives it to him. “Norman Kember. You are British?”
“You are a doctor?” Suit Jacket Man says.
“Doctor?” Young Moustache Man says, reaching for the passport. Suit Jacket Man shows him where it says Doctor. “Ah, doctor,” Young Moustache Man says reverentially.
“Well, yes. I’m a retired professor of biophysics, not a medical doctor.”
“Your notebook please, Doctor. And everything in your pockets.” Norman hands over his notebook, empties out his trousers and jacket pockets. Great Big Man puts Norman’s things into a plastic bag. The last thing Norman gives him is a bubble package of medication.
“That’s medicine. It’s for high blood pressure. For my heart. My heart,” Norman says, pointing to his chest. “I need to keep that.”
“You have some heart condition?” Suit Jacket Man asks.
“High blood pressure,” Norman says.
“You can keep that,” Suit Jacket Man says, “but I must to have your glasses.”
“Oh dear,” Norman says. “Must you take my glasses? I’m an old man. I can’t read without them.”
“You do not need them for that. But they are right here. Everything is right here.” Norman hands over his glasses. “Now I must to search you, Doctor.” Norman lifts his arms above his head. Big Man and Suit Jacket Man pat him down thoroughly. “Now put your hands behind your back, Doctor.” Young Moustache Man locks his wrists into a set of handcuffs. “Now sit down, Doctor.”
It’s my turn next. Suit Jacket Man asks me for my passport. “You are Canadian?” I nod. “James Loney,” he reads. He puts my passport in his pocket. “I must to take your camera and notebook.” I reluctantly hand him the camera. “It’s old-fashioned,” he says.
“Yes,” I say. It’s the 35-millimetre camera Dan bought with his own money when he was in grade eight. It goes into the same bag as Norman’s things.
“Now your pockets,” Suit Jacket Man says.
I pass him a handful of Iraqi dinars, a pen and a cellphone. I watch him pocket the cellphone with a pang of desperation as I realize the only number I know to call for help is Doug’s back in Canada.
“Your watch,” he says.
“My father gave me this watch,” I say.
“You will have it. Everything is right here. We are not thieves. You have everything back. We not take one dinar. Now I must to search you.”
I raise my hands for the second time that day. They are thorough, check all my pockets, my jacket, every inch of my body.
“Your hands behind your back,” Suit Jacket Man says. Somebody, being very careful, locks my wrists into some handcuffs. As they click down, I wonder how tight they will go, if they will cut into skin, press mercilessly against bone, cut off circulation, as I had experienced at the hands of municipal police when I was arrested for civil disobedience. The clicking stops and there is no discomfort. “Sit down,” he says.
Harmeet is next. Suit Jacket Man wants Harmeet’s glasses. “I can’t see anything without them,” Harmeet says, objecting.
“You do not need them. We keep them right here. This not a problem.”
When it is Tom’s turn, he pulls his last folded-up copy of the CPT magic sheet out of his wallet and hands it to Suit Jacket Man. “This explains who we are and what we’re doing in Iraq,” he says. “We’re members of a peace organization.” Tom addresses him like a peer.
“I will read it,” Suit Jacket Man says, sliding it into his pocket. Then like the rest of us, Tom is searched and handcuffed. Young Moustache Man picks up a scrap of dusty rag lying on the floor and rips it into four long strips. I note with relief that it looks reasonably clean. They blindfold Norman first, then me. The blindfold is applied gently and sags at the bridge of my nose. I wonder what is going to happen to us as I am taken by the arm and led away. The voice beside me is calm and reassuring. I count twenty steps when a tug on my arm tells me to sit down. I manage to sit cross-legged without losing my balance. I am immediately uncomfortable, sitting without any support for my back. I know I can handle this for a while, Harmeet and Tom probably can too, but this will be very hard for Norman.
There are two more flurries of motion around me and then a long period of silence. I decide to chance it. “Tom? Harmeet? Norman?”
“Quiet. No talk,” a voice orders.
I test, probe, analyze every sound, take scrupulous measurements of the direction, force and intention of each footstep, each voice, motion, object being moved or used. Time passes. Discomfort escalates into full-body agony.
Adib will have called the team, and the team will have called Doug. One of the first things he will do is put together a crisis team. Do our families know? Has Dan been told? Where will he be and what will he be doing? This is going to be rather disruptive for a lot of people.
The captors come and go, talk in hushed voices, answer cellphone calls. A voice begins to read, in Arabic. It must be the text of our magic sheet. The voice is rich and mellifluous, flows in perfect bass tones. It is calm, deliberate, in charge. The other voices seek instruction from it, respond with deference. Bodies move whenever the voice speaks. It is a voice we will never see the face of. We call this voice Number One.
Time passes. Then a sudden thump, a moan, silence. My heart pounds. Has somebody been struck on the head? I wait another minute and then chance it. “Norman? Are you okay?”
“Sorry. Just making an adjustment,” he says. His voice is strained.
“La killam,” a voice commands. Silence again. Then the sound of a chain being pulled across a concrete floor. A dog snarling, barking savagely. A voice, crying, begging, pleading in Arabic. Coming from somewhere within the house. Sounds that make my eyes open wide with terror beneath my blindfold. Then, mercifully, the silence returns.
More time passes. Norman asks to use the bathroom. I hold my breath and wait for the answer. I’ve been wanting to ask myself, as a way of being able to stretch and move a little, learn more about where we are being held, but decided the safer course remained with silence and enduring.
“Yes, Doctor. One minute, please,” Number One says.
Then, footsteps entering the room, a voice out of breath. Suit Jacket Man perhaps? “Where are the Italians? Who is Italian here?”
There are no Italians here, we say.
“Who is Indian here? You. Are you Indian?”
“My parents are Kashmiri, but I am Canadian,” Harmeet says.
“We are two Canadians, one British and one American. None of us is Italian or Indian,” Tom says.
I hear a flurry of Arabic and then, “Doctor, would you like to go to the hamam?”
I hear Norman grunting, his body struggling to get up, movement out of the room. A few minutes later I hear steps entering the room, the legs of a plastic chair scraping against the floor, Norman saying, “Thank you.”
I am suddenly lifted into standing. They unlock my handcuffs. I look down through the crack at the bottom of my blindfold and am astonished by the bare sandalled feet of one of the captors: they are the biggest, most powerful slab-of-meat feet I’ve ever seen. The captor locks my hands together at my waist, takes my arm, brings me to a destination thirty steps and two turns away. He stops, opens a door, pushes me into a closet-sized bathroom and closes the door.
I immediately tilt my head back and scan the bathroom through the bottom of my blindfold. There is a small rectangular window above my head. Impossible to climb through with handcuffs on. The toilet is a ceramic squat basin set into the floor. There’s a tank affixed to the wall with a pull chain to release water into the basin. A plastic jug on the floor. No toilet paper.
I am surprised at how easy it is to lower my zipper in handcuffs. Try as I might, my urethra won’t let go. They bring me back to the room and make me sit in a chair with my knees touching a wall. Norman and Tom are next to me. Harmeet sits behind us on his own. The captors leave the room.
“My blindfold is really loose,” I whisper. “It’s ready to fall off.”
“I know. Mine too,” Tom says.
“If my eyes weren’t closed, I’d be able to see everything,” Harmeet says.
“Should we say something?” I ask. It seems crazy to me. Excuse me, Mr. Kidnapper, but my blindfold is coming off … Someone enters. I decide it’s better to say something. “Excuse me?”
“Yes?” the voice says, gentle and solicitous. It’s Number One.
“Our blindfolds are falling off,” I say.
“If you don’t want us to see you, then we don’t want to see you,” Tom says.
“Yes, I see that,” Number One says. “I have something for that.” He gives an order. A drawer opens and closes. Then, standing directly behind us, he says, “I have a hat for each of you.” With exquisite care he removes my blindfold, places a hat on my head and pulls it down over my eyes. “You must not to see me. It very dangerous. For you and for me. Are you hungry? Would you like some food? Some biscuit?” We don’t answer. “Doctor, would you like some biscuit?”
“No, thank you,” he says.
“Tom? Jim? Harmeet? Something to drink? Seven? Miranda? Pepsi?”
I shake my head. The only thing I want is my freedom.
I hear water pouring into a cup, someone drinking. “Thank you,” Norman says. More water-pouring sounds, and then a cup being placed in my hands.
“Is this from the tap? If it is, it will make us sick,” I say.
“It is good water,” Number One says.
“Thank you,” I say. I don’t believe him and I don’t want it, but there doesn’t seem to be any choice. I gulp it down. I am thirstier than I thought. He offers me a second glass. “No, thank you,” I say.
“I get the phone call from another group,” Number One tells us. “You know this group, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad? This very dangerous. They want you, especially you Thomas, and you Doctor. This very dangerous. Iraq very dangerous. There are many groups that take you. I not give you to them. I cannot. Inshallah, you will stay with me, and I make sure you release. You safe with me, inshallah. We are not terrorists. We are not al Qaeda. We are different. We are Iraqi. We fight for Iraqi freedom.” He speaks gently, like a parent reassuring a frightened child.
“Are you Sunni or Shia?” Norman asks.
Number One is suddenly angry. “We are not Sunni, we are not Shia. We are Iraqi! No Shia-Sunni. This something America make. We are Iraqi! Do you understand, Doctor?”
“Yes, you are all Iraqi,” Norman says.
The captors chat amongst themselves, yawn, fall into silence. I have to talk to them, open a channel of communication, punch through the muting effect of the blindfold. I rack my brain for some way to engage these men and make them see our humanity. I send mental prompts to the others, hoping they will speak. It is a relief when I can finally think of something to say. “Excuse me,” I say when I am sure Number One is in the room.
“May I ask a question?”
I feel his hand on my shoulder. “Yes, of course.”
“Did you read our white paper, the one in Arabic and English?”
“Yes, I read it.”
“What did you think?”
Number One takes a breath. “You are the peaceful man. I love the peaceful man. Your group … the name of your group …?”
“Christian Peacemaker Teams,” Tom says.
“I not hear of this. You are the Christian?”
“Yes, but we aren’t here to make anybody Christian,” Tom says. “We believe in peace, non-violence, salam. We are against the war and we are against the occupation. We came to Iraq before the war to try and stop it from happening, and we’ve been here ever since to try and get the United States to leave. We are independent. We are not part of any government or church.”
“Thomas, it very dangerous in Baghdad. Very dangerous.”
“Yes, so it seems,” Tom says. “But we are a human rights organization that works in war zones. We have a team in Palestine as well. Harmeet, Jim and I have all been to Palestine.”
“You go to Palestine?” Number One says to Harmeet.
“Yes. Last year, with the International Solidarity Movement,” Harmeet says.
“What you do in Baghdad?” Number One asks Tom.
“We work for justice for security detainees,” Tom explains. “Iraqis who are imprisoned by the U.S. We go with families to the American authorities. We document torture and mistreatment. We are here to find out the truth about what’s going on in Iraq and we tell people back home so that it will change. The most recent place we visited was Fallujah. We were taken by Sheik Mohammed to the site of the mosque where the video was taken of U.S. soldiers killing Iraqis on the floor.”
“What can this do? This can do nothing,” Number One says.
“We are in Iraq trying to do the same thing you are doing, which is to get the Americans to leave, except we’re trying to do it non-violently.”
“Not everyone in America wants this war,” I say, jumping in. “Many many people are against it. The media just never talks about us. They make it seem as if nobody is against it.”
There is a period of silence. I hear someone walking about the room. Suddenly Number One’s voice is at my ear. “See this?” By looking down through the crack at the bottom of my hat I can see he’s holding a photograph in front of me. It’s a wallet-sized studio portrait of four children. The two oldest stand behind the two youngest in front. Their faces are proud and solemn. “This is a picture of my family. My sister’s children. Can you see them?”
“Yes,” I say.
“This is a tragic event. They are all killed. All of them dead. Seven members of my family. In one night, at a checkpoint. My sister and all of her family. The Americans shoot them, kill every member of my family. They are innocent! Why! I look at this picture every night. I keep it by my bed.” He points to each child, starting with the oldest. “This is Mohanned, and this Mohammed, and Zayneb and Noor.”
“Mohanned, Mohammed, Zayneb and Noor,” I repeat. “I will remember them.”
“Thank you.” The oldest is seven, he tells me, the youngest two.
“I am sorry. They are beautiful children.”
He hands the picture to Norman. “Doctor, look. Do you see? They are all gone.”
“Yes, I am sorry. I have two daughters of my own,” Norman says.
“This happen one year ago. I died that night. I am a dead man now. I see their face every night. I can’t sleep … I can’t sleep. What can I do? The only thing I can do is stop the American occupation. I am a dead man.”
Number One’s story transports me back to an emergency room in Balad’s hospital. Mahmud Achnud Nejin, a 43-year-old farmer, was lying unconscious on a stretcher, the left side of his hip and abdomen covered in a mass of bandages. He had been shot the day before by U.S. soldiers at an impromtu checkpoint. “He is in shock and has severe bleeding. The bullet exploded in the groin,” hospital director Dr. Kassim Hartam told us. “This is not the only case.” He estimated that his hospital had treated twenty “innocent civilians” shot by U.S. soldiers at checkpoints in the past six months.
“We know about this,” I tell Number One. “I have met several families who had people killed at checkpoints. This is why we come to Iraq. We learn about these stories, document them, bring them back to our countries so people can learn about what’s happening in Iraq, and when enough people find out, things will change.”
“What good does this do? This does nothing. You say many Americans are against this war. Why do the parents send their children to this war? Why do they send their children to Iraq? Why? One night we make some attack against a Humvee. This north of Baghdad. We make a good attack and kill three soldiers. I see him after, this boy, his face very beautiful. Maybe he is twenty, twenty-one. He is very beautiful. I see him, lying on the ground, this boy. He is dead. I see him and I think of his mother. Why this? Why?” His voice is anguished.
Words! I need words. Our lives could depend on what I say. “You know, there is a woman in the United States named Cindy Sheehan whose son—his name was Casey—was killed in Iraq. And she wanted to ask George Bush why her son had to die in Iraq, and he refused to meet her. Many times she asked and he never answered her. So finally, when George Bush was having a vacation at his ranch, she went and set up a tent on the road to his ranch. And the media came, and she got on TV, and then more and more people came, until there were hundreds there with her, all asking for George Bush to come and meet her.”
“Yes, I know this. This very famous,” Number One says.
“It is usually the poor who end up in the army. They join because they don’t have any other choice,” I say.
“Yes, I know this,” he says, impatient. “There is no way for them to get the education. But what can this do? This does nothing. We must to fight.”
“We are in Iraq trying to do the same thing you are doing,” Tom says. “I want my country to leave. What my country has done is wrong. It makes me sick to think what we’ve done. But we’re trying to change things non-violently.”
“They will never leave. Your way will never work. The only thing we have to do is fight. I have to fight for Iraqi freedom,” Number One says.
“If enough people find out about what is happening, they will vote against George Bush. The United States will have to withdraw. In other conflicts non-violence has worked. Take the Badshah Khan in Pakistan. He was like a Muslim Gandhi who forced the British to leave Pakistan non-violently—”
Number One interrupts. “Do you expect us to stand there and let them shoot us? We are not crazy.” He turns abruptly and leaves the room.
I was vaguely aware in university that there existed a group of people who refused on principle to use violence and that they were called pacifists. The very idea seemed preposterous. Of course war was bad, that went without saying, but if another country invaded yours, or if somebody attacked you, you had the indisputable right to defend yourself—with whatever force was required, so long as it was commensurate with the threat you were facing. This was basic common sense and a self-evident truth. The only alternative was to allow your enemy to walk all over you like a doormat.
I was sharing an apartment with Dan Hunt and William Payne. William suggested we visit a place called Dorothy Day House in Detroit. He said it was a house of hospitality. What’s that? I asked. He didn’t know exactly, but it was a place where homeless people could go. The auxiliary bishop of Detroit, Thomas Gumbleton, was going to be speaking there about non-violence. He had been arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. He must be one of those fringe lunatics, I thought. I didn’t want to go, but William wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Dorothy Day House was an old, dingy, falling-apart place with slanting floors and paint-peeling walls. The furniture looked as if it had been rescued from the curb in front of someone’s house. The kitchen was cluttered with jars of strange-looking beans and grains. A man wearing women’s clothes who lived at the house sat down beside me. The impulse to switch chairs was overwhelming.
William, who has this annoying gift for inviting people to think about doing something they would never have imagined themselves doing (and inevitably end up doing!), told me they were looking for live-in volunteers. It was my last year of university and I was in agony about what to do next. I shook my head and rolled my eyes. There was no way I was going to live in a place like this.
Dinner was announced and everybody lined up with a plate. They called it a potluck supper. I’d never been to one before. I thought it was rather a good idea. Everybody brought a different dish and you shared whatever there was to share. After supper, people were invited to gather in the living room to hear Bishop Gumbleton speak.
My arms were crossed and my mental defences were ready. He was warm and gentle and spoke with deep humility. He talked about how love of enemy was integral to the Gospel, and the Cross was the way of non-violence. He explained how the first tradition of the Church was pacifist: a Christian could not be a soldier under pain of excommunication and was prohibited from using violence in self-defence. He talked about Martin of Tours and Oscar Romero, Dr. Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. He talked about the power of non-violence to transform society and heal the wounds of violence. I listened and found it impossible to dismiss what he was saying. I uncrossed my arms. A window had opened in my mind.
That year, 1986-87, Dan, William and I were Basilian associates, which meant we were interested in becoming priests and had accepted formation with the Basilian Fathers. We rented a two-bedroom apartment in Windsor’s poorest neighbourhood. We slept in the larger room and crammed our desks into the smaller room. We prayed the office each morning (the ancient prayer required of all those who take vows and enter religious life) and read the day’s Scripture reading.
I remember it vividly. The Gospel was vitally alive. It seemed that Jesus was pointing his finger right at me, speaking directly to me. “Go, sell everything you own, give it to the poor, and come follow me.”
I began to give what I was feeling a name. I called it the unknown option—the call to leave everything behind, all my possessions, all that was known and comfortable, for a journey along an unknown road where, through a life of radical poverty in solidarity with the poor, I would discover a new way of being, a life of joy overflowing, the Kingdom of God where all live as sisters and brothers in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
At the end of that school year I graduated from the University of Windsor with a BA in history and left the Basilians after deciding their comfortable institutions were not compatible with the unknown option. Dan, William and I went our separate ways for a while: Dan to the University of Toronto to study philosophy, William to Laval in Quebec City to study geography and I to the University of Toronto to do a master’s in social work.
On one of his trips through Toronto on his way to Quebec City, William suggested we visit a Catholic Worker community called Angelus House that, much to my surprise, was located right in Toronto. Over bowls of lentil soup and cups of herbal tea, Lauren Griffen and Charlie Angus (now a Member of Parliament for Timmins–James Bay) explained the philosophy of the Catholic Worker movement to us. “The aim of the Catholic Worker,” they said, “is to build a new society in the shell of the old where it is easier for people to be good.” The reconstruction of the social order was to be accomplished through the works of mercy performed at a personal sacrifice—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless. Every parish would sponsor a house of hospitality and every home would have a Christ Room where Jesus could be welcomed in the face of a needy brother or sister. Voluntary poverty was central: the extra pair of shoes, the extra coat in your closet, belonged to the one who was without. We were to be go-givers, not go-getters. Work was a gift to be freely given for the common good. By firing the bosses we could reclaim our work from wage slavery and build a new economy based on mutual aid and co-operation rather than personal profit. By going back to the land we could heal the earth from the ravages of industrial capitalism and restore our lost sense of communal identity. And we were to love our enemies just as the Gospel said. A disciple of Christ must not enlist as a soldier, work in armaments manufacturing or pay for war through his or her taxes. Christians were not to kill for any reason.
My heart was on fire. I couldn’t believe it: here it was, everything I’d been searching for, a practical manifesto for living out the unknown option! I looked over at Bill. Chuck and Lauren must have sensed our excitement. “Why don’t you guys start a Catholic Worker house yourselves?” they said.
“How do you do that?” I asked shyly.
“The Catholic Worker is an anarchist movement,” they said. “There’s no mother house, no rule book, no one in charge. No one needs to ask permission to live the Gospel. You just do it!”
I quit the social work program and went back to Windsor. A high school teacher I knew named Greg Mailloux wanted to start a house for homeless teenaged boys and was looking for somebody to work with. We raised money to buy a house, formed a board, recruited volunteers (William among them for a while) and opened our doors. We called it St. Don Bosco House after a nineteenth-century Italian educator.
The work was good, but I wasn’t happy. Greg and I were a mismatched pair. Greg was a charismatic Catholic who loved to sing praise songs and I was a social justice Catholic who wanted to do the Catholic Worker.
In September 1990, we started. Dan, William and I rented a three-bedroom house in Toronto. It was not long before we got a call from a friend who knew somebody who was just getting out of a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. He was recovering from AIDS-related pneumonia and needed a place to stay. Peter was our first guest. We found him a bed and hung sheets in the dining room doorways to afford him a little privacy. The second was a Spanish man named Marco who taught us how to make paella. He slept on the couch until he was deported to Spain.
We found a bigger house downtown: seven bedrooms for half the rent. We scraped, painted, scrubbed, searched for abandoned furniture, scavenged giant glass jars from restaurants and filled them with lentils and beans. We welcomed whoever came across our path: Adrian from the cathedral; Barry and Mike from the Fred Victor; Slash and Margaret Anne from William’s school; Jacob who had just arrived from Ethiopia. We hosted a weekly Mass in our living room and had meetings for “clarification of thought”—free-ranging discussions for charting a path from things as they are to things as they should be. We published a newspaper called The Mustard Seed that we mailed everywhere and distributed free all over town. People came by for something to eat or just to shoot the breeze. We sat on the front porch in the evenings, drank tea with visitors, trucked laundry to the laundromat, cooked and cleaned and washed mountains of dishes. To pay the bills, Dan worked as a carpenter’s helper, William as a high school teacher and I as a youth minister at an inner-city parish. It took us a year, but we finally came up with a name: Zacchaeus House, after the rich tax collector Jesus visited who subsequently gave away all his wealth. “Come down,” Jesus had said to Zacchaeus. Come down from your wealth, your status, your power, and live like a brother.
We needed more room. In the summer of 1993 we learned that the Queen Elizabeth Hospital owned a number of vacant houses in Parkdale. They rented us two semi-detached houses with a total of twelve bedrooms for the same rent we were paying downtown. The phone rang and the rooms filled. We took whomever we could sanely live with: people seeking refuge in Canada, people struggling with mental illness, people in recovery, people getting out of jail, people trying to get back on their feet, people who lived better when they were living with others. Sometimes it was for a night and sometimes it was for years.
The rules were simple. Don’t come home under the influence. Treat people with respect. Clean up after yourself in the kitchen. Attend a weekly house meeting. No smoking in the house. No television in your room. Home by 11 p.m. for the first few weeks. If things go well, you’ll get a key and you can consider yourself a member of the family.
We gathered around two tables in the dining room, sometimes as many as twenty of us. I’d look around at all the faces, people from all over the world and every walk of life, sharing stories and laughter, big bowls of homemade soup and fresh-baked bread. It seemed like a miracle to me, and it was, but sometimes it got to be too much: the noise, the relentless needs, the freeloaders who never helped with cleaning up. I couldn’t decide sometimes if I was living in the Kingdom of God or a bus station.
Friends who wanted to be part of what we were doing moved into the empty houses around us and we grew into a little village of households comprising about thirty people. A whirlwind of activity was unleashed. Monthly open-stage cafés for the neighbourhood. An organic pay-what-you-can bakery. Annual apple cider canning bees. Christmas dinner and gifts for fifty, Easter Dawn breakfast for a hundred. A food pantry to get people through to the end of the month. Prison and hospital visits. A worker co-operative sawmill employing twelve people. Vegetable gardens. Protests, prayer vigils, street theatre actions, civil disobedience.
The more I lived with people who had been forced by poverty to seek our help, the more I began to see how violent poverty was. It stained and soured, diminished and degraded, marked with inextinguishable worry and condemned to cheerless drudgery. There were times when I bore the brunt of that violence in the guise of passive-aggressive rages, smashed windows, poisonous accusations and shouts of “Die faggot!” I learned too that violence wasn’t only something that happened outside me, it existed within me as well. I had to face the ugly fact that I was fully capable of hatred; those with shrill laughter or lack of hygiene especially evoked my contempt.
“Community is a terrible place,” Jean Vanier once wrote. “It is the place where our limitations and our egoism are revealed to us … our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we were alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, we realize how incapable we are of loving.”
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, often quoted Dostoevsky, who said, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Truer words about community have never been spoken. If ever I thought of myself as a “good” person, community life brutally corrected that illusion. Community was a blast furnace that burned away my every pretence of unconditional love, emotional maturity and equilibrium, of having all my shit together. Community was the place where my little sailboat of hopes and dreams crashed and broke apart on the jagged shore of unmet expectations, emotional frailty, personal limitations, the fear of being vulnerable. The closest I ever came to throwing a punch was at a fellow Catholic Worker who refused to take his dirty shoes off when he came into the house.
In spite of all this, a sense of needing to do something more nagged at me. Soldiers trained and equipped themselves, stood ready to risk their lives in war. What about me? I believed the Gospel was calling us to non-violence. Was I prepared to take the same risks for peace?
It was through William that I first heard about CPT. It was in the years after Dudley George had been shot and killed by the Ontario Provincial Police—the only Aboriginal man to be killed by police during a land claims dispute in twentieth-century Canada. William had joined with a group of Mennonites based in Kitchener-Waterloo who were forming a CPT regional group that could respond in the event of a similar crisis and hopefully prevent such a violent outcome from happening again.
Hobo had heard about it too. He had the same twinkle in his eye as he did the day I first met him. I was sixteen years old at the time, and he was the director of the summer camp I was going to work at. I was afraid. It was my first time away from home. “You’re going to have a great summer,” he reassured me. He said his name was Bob Holmes but everybody called him Hobo. He was a Basilian priest and a high school principal.
It was the spring of 1998. “How would you like to go to Hebron?” he asked me. He had just been there on a delegation. “I raised double what I needed. I can pay for you to go.” At $1,800, it seemed like an impossible amount of money to find. I didn’t know what to say at first. “Think about it,” he said. “The money’s there.”
It took me a year to make up my mind. After the ten-day delegation, I joined the team for a month as an intern. I loved the work—monitoring the activities of soldiers and settlers, intervening on behalf of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints, networking with Palestinian and Israeli peace activists, documenting human rights abuses. When I got home, Doug Pritchard, at the time CPT’s Canada coordinator, asked me to consider applying for a regional CPT training in southern Ontario. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to and sent my application in. I was trained in the summer of 2000.
I did my first CPT project work that fall in Esgenoôpetitj, a Mi’kmaq First Nations community that had come under attack for asserting its historic treaty right to fish for lobster in Miramichi Bay, first from fishers from neighbouring Baie St. Anne, and then from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Esgenoôpetitj community leaders asked for CPT’s help after three thousand lobster traps had been destroyed by Baie St. Anne fishers. It had been a tense summer. Masked warriors gathered in Esgenoôpetitj from all over the country. The DFO pointed guns at unarmed Esgenoôpetitj fishers, rammed their boats and pepper-sprayed them after they had been thrown into the water. The RCMP beat and choked an Esgenoôpetitj man into unconsciousness while he was in their custody.
When I got there in early October, the fishing season was all but over and most Esgenoôpetitj fishers were battening down the hatches for winter. I spent the time watching for DFO boats on a grey horizon, visiting with community members and doing crossword puzzles in the team trailer. I told myself this was good; peace and quiet was what we wanted. I battled hard against disappointment. They never told us in the training that CPT work could be so dull.
It would be more than two years before I next served on a CPT project. My excuse was that I was too busy. A group of us had moved to a farm near Durham, Ontario, a Catholic Worker experiment in rural living that lasted only two years. Dan commuted to Toronto to pay the bills and the rest of us worked from dawn till dusk. We tended the garden, renovated buildings, fixed fences, cut firewood, milked a cow, welcomed visitors and washed mountains of dishes. Yes, life was very busy, but if I had wanted I could’ve made space for CPT. The truth was, I was afraid.
Men’s voices drift to us from the kitchen. Silence. The clicking of a nail clipper. Silence. Then, all together at once, a dog barking, vicious and rabid, a chain scraping across the floor above us, the begging pleading crying again, this time cresting in sheer terror. We are in a house of horror, I think. Make it stop. Please, just make it stop. It stops.
Time passes. My knees are aching. I need to stretch my legs. I can hear Tom deep-breathing through his nose. I turn my wrists and pull at my handcuffs, hoping they’ll dissolve like a bad dream. I figure by now our families must know, but I wonder if the news has been broken to the media. There is a sudden commotion of voices and movement, the sound of furniture being pulled across the floor. My heart starts beating faster.
“Hamam? Amriki, Britannia—hamam?” There’s a snarl in the voice.
“Yes,” Norman says.
Harmeet says yes, I say no. I picture myself as an island of rock rising out of the ocean. I am hard, solitary, invulnerable. I don’t need anything from them.
I am taken by the arm, moved through space and abruptly stopped. I risk a quick peek out of the bottom of my hat. Three mats have been laid out on the floor between two beds—sad, depleted rectangles of foam, their cotton coverlets faded and ripped, grimy with human body oils, swarming with brown stains.
They make us lie down in a row, on our left sides, so close we’re touching each other. The mat has as much cushion as a piece of cardboard. Three blankets are thrown over us. I wonder whose house we are in, whose sleeping mats we are using, whose blankets are covering us. I am glad for the protection of my clothes. The light goes out. A bed creaks and blankets rustle. “No moving. I am right here,” Number One warns. His voice is very close. I lift the hat above my eyes. It’s too dark to see anything. I pull the hat down again and tuck my hands under my chin. Somebody coughs.
I consider our situation as though it were an interesting vase or a painting in a museum. We are hostages. I am now one of those I once saw on the news or read about in the newspaper, a rare exotic species I had the luxury of deciding whether or not to pay attention to, learn the names of, care about. Now others will read about us and decide whether or not to be interested.
Sleep is an impossibility. I’m lost and floating in an ocean, time without measure stretching everywhere without end. My left side aches fiercely and my bladder is desperate for relief. The only sound is an unbroken chain of breathing. Sometime, who knows when, somewhere in the middle of that vastness, Norman’s voice pokes through the darkness. “Excuse me. Terribly sorry, but I must use the bathroom.”
I wait anxiously for the response. Norman is taking a huge risk. I hear a soft groan. Norman speaks again, his voice urgent. “I really must use the bathroom.”
“No, Doctor,” Number One says wearily. “Sleep.”
I hear Norman grunting. He’s standing up! “I have to go to the bathroom,” he says.
“No, Doctor,” Number One says.
“I am going to go in my pants,” Norman says, his voice rising in defiance. “I am an old man!”
I hear an exasperated exhalation. A lighter flicks. Number One rises from his bed. “Hamam hamam hamam,” he sighs.
There’s hope. Our captors are not heartless.