Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
Nothing happens. We sit and we sit. Someone enters the room. Tom asks for water. We are each handed a cup of water in turn. My saliva has grown thick for want of water, but I take only a few sips. There’s already enough pressure on my bladder. More time passes. Someone enters the room. Something rustles. “Biscuit?” the voice asks.
“Yes please,” Norman says. Something is put into my hand. I look down through the bottom of my hat. Two sandwich cookies with pink icing. They feel like a pat on the head. Here you are, have a cookie, everything’s going to be all right. Keep your fucking cookies, I want to shout. The only thing I want from you is my freedom. I hear the others munching. My resolve crumbles. They’re suddenly irresistible. I eat them quickly. The cookies are stale, chemical-tasting, dry my mouth out even more. I sit in disgust at myself.
We talk to each other in furtive snatches when the captors are out of the room. Every word is a risk. I find out that Harmeet and Norman have been allowed to keep their watches—cheap dollar-store digitals that keep track of the date. Norman is concerned about his supply of blood pressure medication. He has only five days’ worth. How can he get more? We’ll have to ask the captors. Norman says he doesn’t have the prescription. Tom says all we have to do is give the captors the name of the drug and they can get it over the counter at a pharmacy; prescriptions aren’t required in Iraq. Who should be the one to ask? Norman, we decide. His age gives him the most leverage.
Harmeet asks if we heard the Iraqi man pleading and crying. Yes. Tom wonders if he’s a collaborator.
Norman changes the subject. He asks how he can change his plane ticket and get his luggage from the CPT apartment when we’re released. Tom and I caution him against the expectation of being released any time soon. It could be weeks or months, we say, if we even get out alive.
Norman changes the subject and apologizes for his hamam emergency. I ask if anyone else is having trouble going to the bathroom. No. I ask if anyone else has seen the huge, thick feet? Yes.
Somebody wonders whether we have been kidnapped by criminals or insurgents. Tom says Harmeet and I will be safe as Canadians. He says he and Norman could be sold to a group like al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Norman says he doesn’t want to hear about it and changes the subject.
Tom says it’ll be a while before the news breaks in the media. He says the team will call everyone they know to try and make contact with the kidnappers, that there’s a chance the captors might release us if the right person vouches for us before our disappearance becomes public knowledge.
We agree Number One is the leader. We disagree about how many different voices we’ve heard.
Sometime in the afternoon we hear voices in the living room. Chatty and buoyant, they move into the room together. A voice from the doorway says, “Good afternoon. How are you?” We do not answer. “Please, you must to take your hats off. We are going to take some picture.”
I take my hat off slowly. My eyes blink rapidly against the sudden flood of light.
The voice tells us to turn our chairs around. As I do, I see Suit Jacket Man, Young Moustache Man and Great Big Man standing in front of us. Great Big Man is barefoot and wearing flip-flops; his are the feet I saw last night. There’s also a grim-faced man holding a video camera; a little boy, no more than four years old, hanging on the man’s pant leg and staring rigidly at the floor; a buxom woman in a long sand-coloured dress watching in the corner, her head covered by a scarf.
I get my first look at the room. It’s quite big, about twenty feet by fifteen. They have us sitting in a corner. There’s a door in front of us that opens into a hallway. I can see a set of stairs going up and what appears to be a door to the right at the bottom of the stairs. There’s a jumble of shoes lying on the floor to the left of the stairwell.
The wall to our left is covered by a gauzy, floor-to-ceiling curtain that turns the light filtering through it a stop-sign red. The window behind the curtain appears to look on to an internal courtyard. The wall to our right is banked by a finely crafted armoire. The tile floor is covered with a green outdoor garden rug. The walls are pink.
There are two single beds in the room. The one closer to us is laden with folded-up sleeping mats, blankets and filthy-looking pillows. The other bed is covered with a rumpled blanket, where Number One must have slept. Next to the bed is a cluttered night table. On the wall across from us, at the height of a man’s chest, two exposed wires dangle from an electric heater. I shudder at the thought of what they’ve been used for. Next to the door is a coat rack burdened with jackets, track pants, shirts, trousers, belts, towels.
I turn to look at Norman, Harmeet and Tom. It is reassuring to see their faces. They look solemn, their eyes are blank, but I sense they’re watching everything.
The man with the video camera tells the little boy to sit on the bed. Tom asks if they want us to say anything for the video. Suit Jacket Man says no. This surprises me. If I were a kidnapper displaying my wares, I would instruct my merchandise to at least say their names to confirm their good working order. Suit Jacket Man gives Video Man the signal to start filming. They exchange some words, place candies wrapped in blue iridescent Cellophane into our hands and then turn to leave the room.
“Excuse me,” Norman blurts out. The men turn around. “I’m terribly sorry, but may I ask a question?”
“Yes, Doctor?” Suit Jacket Man says.
Norman points to his heart. He speaks loudly, enunciating each word, like someone speaking to an uncomprehending child. He explains that he has high blood pressure and needs medicine.
Suit Jacket Man looks concerned, asks if he’s sick. “Tell me, Doctor. What do you need? I will get it.”
“Any beta blocker will do.”
Suit Jacket Man looks confused. “I do not know this. You must to write this down.”
“Yes, of course, but I don’t seem to have a pen.”
Suit Jacket Man pulls a pen out of his jacket. Great Big Man grabs one of the books lying on the floor next to Number One’s bed, tears a page out and hands it to Suit Jacket Man. It shocks me to see a book being treated that way. “Here, you write this,” Suit Jacket Man says to Norman.
“This will make Mrs. Kember very happy,” Norman says.
Suit Jacket and Video Man leave with their entourage. The remaining captors tell us to put our hats back on and turn our chairs against the wall. I position my chair just a few inches farther from the wall so I can move my legs.
They come back an hour later. They want to do another video. “This time you make some speech,” Suit Jacket Man says. I suppress a flash of rage. I’m not a zoo animal, I want to say. They take off our handcuffs, put a table in front of us, and I lay out our ID on it.
“This is your money card? American Express?” Suit Jacket Man says to Harmeet. Harmeet nods. “How much money is on it?”
“None,” Harmeet says. “I only use it for emergencies. I’m a student. I don’t have any money.”
Suit Jacket Man picks up another card. “How much money is on this?” he says to Tom.
“It’s a bank card,” Tom says.
“How much money on this?” Suit Jacket Man demands.
“It doesn’t work in Iraq. There are no bank machines here.”
Suit Jacket Man turns to me. “Where is your passport?” His voice is hard.
“I don’t know. You took it from me yesterday.” I wonder what kind of operation this is. They don’t know how to document proof of life and they can’t keep track of our passports. I begin to shiver. That little blue book is my only link to Canada. What is going to happen to us?
“What is the matter? You are shaking,” Suit Jacket Man says to me.
“I’m fine,” I say.
“Are you cold? Do you need some jacket?” He takes off his turquoise suit coat and hands it to me. It smells of cologne. I feel filthy putting it on, but I don’t dare say no. I suppress the urge to wretch.
Video Man and Suit Jacket Man consult over the video camera. Suit Jacket Man’s eyes are intelligent, penetrating, ruthless, his skin smooth and clean-shaven, chin disappearing. He is maybe five foot seven and sports a heavy round paunch. His hair is jet black, cut short, meticulously coiffed. I find it hard to judge his age; he’s at most thirty. His clothing and demeanour suggest wealth.
Video Man looks to be about ten years older. His eyes are hard and his face severe. He’s losing his hair and the skin around his eyes has begun to crease. He wears a drab, shapeless suit jacket that’s just a little short in the arms. He seems anxious and driven, capable of doing just about anything. Something about him gives me a chill.
They turn towards the woman. She laughs and touches Suit Jacket Man’s arm. The little boy sits on the bed across from us, sucking his finger. He stares at the floor but sees everything.
Video Man says something to us. We don’t understand. Suit Jacket Man steps forward. “We are going to take some picture of you. This is to show to your side you are alive.” He steps back and Video Man aims his camera at us, pans slowly from left to right, closes in on our ID. He gives more instructions, points to his left shoulder as if indicating a general’s epaulettes. The only thing I understood is, “Thank you Martin. Thank you Martin.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I say, shaking my head. Video Man repeats the phrase over and over. I have no idea what he means. The only thing I can think of is an inquisitive-looking animal with a long bushy tail. Then it clicks. He means Paul Martin, thank Paul Martin, the prime minister. Presumably because Canada stayed out of invading Iraq. We nod and smile to signify that we understand.
“Canada good. Canada good,” Video Man says. “Britannia, Amriki mozane. Mozane!” He points to his feet with contempt. “Bush shoes.” For better or worse, I think, we are seen through the lens of our governments’ actions.
“You must to make some speech. In a high voice,” Suit Jacket Man says. “You say your name, your passport, you have the good treatment, your health is okay, you have some food, and you ask your government to release you. We use this to make some propaganda statement, some publicity for our organization. And then you release. The Canadians I think release first. This is not something hard.”
“I don’t know what to say. I’m not good at this kind of thing,” Harmeet whispers to me. He sounds panicked. I don’t know what to say either. My heart is pounding. I can’t believe this is really happening.
“Okay. You begin,” Suit Jacket Man says to me.
I take a breath. “My name is James Loney. I am forty-one years old. I am from Canada and I am a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. We are against the war and the occupation of Iraq. I am well, um, we are all well. We have everything we need. I urge the Canadian people to work for peace … to mobilize its resources for peace in the world instead of war.”
Then it is Harmeet’s turn. There is a tremble in his voice. “My name is Harmeet Singh Sooden. I am thirty-two and I am working … I am a volunteer for the CPT in Iraq. We are all being treated well, we are sleeping okay and, um, we would like to say thank you to our captors for that and hopefully we will be home soon.” I cringe at “thank you to our captors.” I am not thankful to our captors—for anything.
“Now the British and the American,” Suit Jacket Man says. “You must to make some speech, in a high voice. You must to say your name, your passport, you have the good treatment, and to beg your government for your release. You,” he says to Tom. “Tell to Bush he must to get out of Iraq. And you, Doctor,” he says, pointing to Norman. “Tell to Blair he must to leave Iraq suddenly. Do you understand?” Norman and Tom nod. “The American first.”
Tom’s voice is flat and calm and direct. “My name is Tom Fox and I am fifty-four years old. I am from the United States and I am a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. Our treatment has been adequate and we are in good health. As a representative of Christian Peacemaker Teams we feel that continued British and American occupation is not in the best interest of the Iraqi people.”
Then Norman, the embodiment of British dignity. “My name is Norman Kember. I am a British subject. I have come to Iraq on a peace mission with Christian Peacemaker Teams. We are being treated well by our captors. I ask Mr. Blair to take British troops out of Iraq and leave the Iraqi people to come to their own decisions on their government.”
Video Man nods at Suit Jacket Man and the two men leave, followed by the woman and the boy. Great Big Man and Young Moustache Man handcuff us and turn us back to facing the wall. I notice that each of us has positioned his chair a little farther from the wall, giving our legs a few more inches of space to move in. I smile at this. We’re all doing the same thing, pushing for the next tiny increment of freedom. This, I think, is the ceaseless cause of every captive.
Evening. “Okay? This okay?” Young Moustache Man says.
“Okay,” I say.
Young Moustache Man hands Norman a black plastic bag. “This duwa. Duwa. This Big Haji.”
“Thank you,” Norman says.
“Shokren,” Tom says.
“Do you speak Arabi?”
“Shwaya, shwaya,” Tom says.
“Shwaya, shwaya,” Young Moustache Man mocks. “This Amriki. This CIA.”
“Hamam?” Norman asks.
“Hamam? Yes, hamam.” No one moves. We wait for him to take us, one at a time, as has been the routine. “Hamam!” he snaps angrily and waves towards the door. Now we’re to go on our own, it seems without his escort.
When it’s my turn, I can hardly stand. The effort of holding my bladder is physically painful. I navigate my way to the bathroom by scanning the floor through the crack at the bottom of my hat. I close the door and say a prayer. If I don’t go this time, I swear I’ll explode. I break into a sweat, lean my head against the wall, try to think relaxing thoughts. My urethra begins to let go in tiny increments. There’s no captor waiting at the door, so I feel I have time. Then, sheer full-body relief, my bladder finally lets go. I almost skip back to my chair.
When Young Moustache Man leaves, Norman tells us they’ve brought him a 120-day supply of pills. “That’s a bad sign,” I groan.
The TV is on. There’s enough background noise to cover our voices. I decide to ask Tom a question, something that’s preoccupied me from the first moment of our kidnapping. “Are you worried at all about what might happen if they find out you used to be in the Marines?”
“Huh?” Tom says. He’s hard of hearing—the occupational hazard of professional musicians. I lean closer to repeat the question. He says he hasn’t thought about it. It’s out of his control. Whatever happens, happens. He’s just trying to stay in the present moment.
I roll my eyes under my hat. How can Tom not be afraid? Is this his way of coping? Is he trying to protect us? I don’t want to be protected, and I don’t want to be stuck with somebody who’s trying to be a stoic hero. If we’re going to survive, I think, we’re going to have to be as real as we can with ourselves, and with each other.
“The reason I’m asking is because … I’m worried they might find out I’m gay.”
He seems surprised. “How would they find out?”
“If they googled me. They said they were going to do background checks on us. If they do, they’ll easily find stuff I’ve written about being gay. Or it could come out in the media. If Dan identifies himself as my partner … But I’m sure he’d figure that out, or Doug, or somebody. But even then, somebody could say something without thinking, and then it’d be all over the media.”
Under Saddam Hussein, homosexuality was discreetly tolerated. When the regime fell, Islamic militants began to kidnap and murder gay men. In October 2005, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa against homosexuality. “Those involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way possible.” Gay men lived in terror as death squads with links to the Ministry of Interior and police ran a campaign of social cleansing.
“I don’t think these guys are going to go to all that trouble. You’re Canadian. That’s all that matters. Your country isn’t one of the bad guys. And besides, I don’t think anybody around here has enough English to figure it out. I don’t think you have to worry.”
“I hope you’re right,” I say.
The begging and pleading again. A man in sheer terror. Coming from upstairs. Other voices, hard and ruthless, lash, cut, perforate the helpless screaming. The screaming suddenly stops. The other voices continue. They speak to each other, suggest, consult. Men vying against a problem. For a moment of silence. Then movement coming down the stairs. The sounds of struggling, bodies labouring and out of breath. A single voice strains hysterically, impotently, pathetically against a gag.
Each muffled scream jolts me with a thousand volts of shame. Just a few feet away from me a man is fighting for his life. I must do something! Get up from my chair, pull off my hat, walk into the hall, say something. NO! Haram! Take me instead! I could grab their arms and try to pull them away, block the kitchen door, create a distraction by trying to escape. I could simply stand at the door with my hat over my eyes. All four of us could. This man’s life is just as important. But no. I sit like a statue. Silent, inert, paralyzed by fear. I want to live too much.
This, I see in a flash, is the plight of the Canada Men. “Canada” was the section of Birkenau where the possessions of the gassed and the imprisoned were warehoused. Canada Men met the trains as they arrived, packed to suffocating with Jews from all over Europe. They welcomed the wretched cargo, took their luggage, reassured them they were going to have a shower while helping them onto the trucks that would take them to the gas chambers. The Canada Men knew exactly what they were doing. Bread, marmalade, sausage—survival in exchange for co-operation. The food brought by this daily influx of doomed human beings was keeping them alive.
At the crematoria, another group of inmates called the Sonderkommando were busy in a more gruesome transaction. Their job: clear out the gas chambers and move all the corpses to the ovens for burning. The return: food, clothing, cigarettes, a straw bed, medicine, survival for a few weeks until the Gestapo replaced them. The horror of this is beyond imagining or describing.
Never, I used to tell myself; I would rather die than make such a depraved bargain. In fact I am not different. I am striking the same deal they did. I sit and do nothing while a man is being taken to his death. Silence in exchange for survival.
Later I will read the words of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi:
We have learnt that our personality is fragile, that it is in much more danger than our life; and the old wise ones, instead of warning us “remember that you must die,” would have done much better to remind us of this greater danger that threatens us. If from inside the Lager, a message could have seeped out to free men, it would have been this: take care not to suffer in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.
Our personality is fragile indeed. None of us can know what we will do in the bestial hour when we are forced to make the life-and-death choice between complicity and doing the right thing. But let us take care to remember that we are being faced by a danger that is greater than the loss of our life. It is the danger of losing our Self, what happens when we trade away our humanity, who we are and what we believe, for the sake of physical survival. For then we lose everything. It is the ultimate degradation of being the victim. The body lives, but the soul perishes, and we become like the Sonderkommando, living corpses who toil without hope among the dead.
Deep in the night. Finally, five deep-sleep breathing patterns. Everyone is asleep. My heart pounds like a parade drum. My legs are free. I can get up, right now, go through the kitchen, slip through the door, climb over the wall, steal my way back to freedom. Is this it, the opportunity to escape that I’ve been waiting for, my one chance to get away before being shot in the head or worse?
My mind reels with questions. Are the captors really asleep? What if I need a key to open the door? What if the hinges squeak? What if the dog is sitting in the kitchen or outside in the courtyard? What will happen to the others if I do escape?
Nothing. I do nothing. This is me, I think, this is all that I am—a feckless question mark, a convulsion of fear incapable of action, a nothing for others to wipe their feet on.
NOVEMBER 28 DAY 3
Light in the room. Hat covering my eyes. Sound of bare feet padding on the floor. I steal a quick glance. A man with a green towel over his head is passing through the room. He’s wearing a white undershirt tucked into grey track pants. His arms and shoulders are muscle-sculpted. It’s Number One.
Half an hour passes. I hear hard shoes clicking on the floor. I steal another glance. It’s Number One, in navy blue slacks and a dress jacket, the same green towel over his head, turning into the kitchen. A door slams and a car drives away.
More time passes. It is impossible to find a comfortable position. Everything aches and burns: hips, shoulders, ankles, everywhere my body is in contact with the floor. I am in a rage at the senseless wasting of our lives. GET US UP NOW! GET US UP NOW! my mind screams. The captors sleep on.
It is painful to watch Norman struggle and heave to get himself up. It is so unfair to put an old man through this. I groan as my stiff body moves into standing. It is a message of protest against our confinement. Young Moustache Man is not impressed. “Oooooh, oooooh,” he mocks, putting a hand on the small of his back. I make a mental note not to do this again.
“Hamam?” Harmeet asks.
“Go hamam,” Young Moustache Man barks. Harmeet leaves the room.
Young Moustache Man is suddenly vigorous, bouncing on his toes, ducking kicking punching in martial-arts-prowess display. “This kung fu. Kung fu,” he says, pointing to himself proudly. Then, pointing to us, he asks, “This kung fu?”
“Norman knows kung fu,” I say.
His eyes light up. “This kung fu?” Young Moustache Man points to Norman.
“No kung fu,” Norman says with a laugh. “This hamam.”
Young Moustache Man picks up one of our blankets and begins folding it. We stand and watch, unsure if we should help. Suddenly aware that we are watching him, he throws the blanket down and barks at us. You do it, he seems to be saying. We spread the blankets out on the floor and bring the corners together one at a time, the only way to do it when you’re in handcuffs. Young Moustache Man points at Number One’s bedroom like a drill sergeant. We collect the bedding and follow him. He points to the empty bed. We put the bedding down. He points to our chairs. We sit.
Before long we hear pots and pans being worked in the kitchen, the sizzle-fry of cooking, singing. Young Moustache Man enters the room and presents us with our first meal: a burnt two-inch piece of humburger held between two crumbling pieces of hubis Amriki, what appears to be a very poor imitation of American sandwich bread. “Zane? Good?” he asks anxiously. It has the texture and taste of sawdust. Yes, we say, “Zane. Good.”
The whole gang is back. They all seem to be talking at once. Video Man pointing and issuing instructions, Young Moustache Man squatting next to the little boy, the little boy listening, nodding, shaking his head yes or no, the woman giggling and fawning over Suit Jacket Man, Suit Jacket Man with something bright orange in his hand, Great Big Man with a coil of chain.
They remove our handcuffs. Tom and Norman are told to keep their hats over their eyes and stand up. They put two chairs next to Number One’s bed and make them sit facing the opposite wall. Number One’s night table is put in front of Harmeet and me. On the table they put two glasses, a bottle of Pepsi, a plate of cookies and some grapes. Video Man urgently motions us to eat. We look at him blankly. He thrusts a glass into each of our hands. I take a sip and put the glass down.
“Eat! Eat!” he commands, forcing a grape into my mouth. I resist the urge to spit it back into his face. “Canada good, Canada good,” he says. He takes three grapes from the little cluster and goes to where Tom and Norman are sitting. He barrages them with words and stuffs a grape into their mouths. He bends down in front of the boy and offers him a grape. The boy opens his mouth. Video Man caresses his cheek and pops the grape into his mouth.
“We take some video,” Suit Jacket Man says. “Just like before. You make some speech, you say your name, your passport, you have the good treatment. You must to plead to your government for you release.”
We nod. He gives each of us a cookie from the plate.
“Here we go again. Take three,” I say to Harmeet. “Maybe they never used the one from yesterday.”
“I hope not. I can’t believe I said ‘Thank you to our captors,’ ” he mutters.
I smile to myself as I imagine standing under a spotlight in a sequined dress holding a big bouquet of roses. I would like to thank my parents, my goldfish and most of all my captors …
When we finish our speeches, Suit Jacket Man points to where Norman and Tom are sitting. “You sit there. You must to look to the wall. No looking here.”
The table and the chairs are taken away. Tom and Norman are made to stand against the wall.
“You must to put these on,” Suit Jacket Man says. I peek over my shoulder. Suit Jacket Man is handing Norman an orange jumpsuit. My body starts shaking.
“I’m not wearing this,” I hear Norman say, his voice rising angrily. “We’re Christian peacemakers, not prisoners of war! Issau salam!”
Someone speaks in Arabic. “It might not be a bad idea,” I hear Tom say.
I watch cautiously as Norman struggles into the jumpsuit. Young Moustache Man offers to help. Norman ignores him. He’s determined to do it himself. The captors wrap a long chain around each of their wrists. The little boy snatches a cookie from the night table.
“Now you will make some speech,” Suit Jacket Man says to Norman and Tom. “Like before. Your name, your passport. You must to beg your government for your release. That is all.”
Tom and Norman are in great danger.
I take my shoes off with great reluctance. I feel defenceless without them. They represent the possibility of running, the hope we might yet walk out the door. They search each of us, beginning with Tom. I stand up with my arms extended, always with that damned hat over my eyes, while Suit Jacket Man, Young Moustache Man and Great Big Man work together with expert precision, hands probing the entire surface of my body, every inch of my collar, the cuffs of my shirt, each button, the waist and hem of my pants. They take my belt away and make me drop my pants. “I am sorry,” one of them says as they move their fingers along the waistband of my underwear. My mind placidly observes; my body shivers.
Suit Jacket Man holds up one of our shoes. “Do any of you have some device in your shoes?” I don’t understand. “Some GPS. Some device so the satellite can find you?” His voice is menacing. I shake my head. “You must not lie to me. I will rip your shoes apart to search them.” His eyes are savage, threatening.
They throw our shoes onto the pile at the bottom of the hall stairway. “You not need them now,” Suit Jacket Man says. “They are right here. When you release—not long, just some time and you release—you shoes are here.”
The captors leave. I glance mournfully after our shoes from under my hat. They are at most fifteen feet away, but they might as well be on another continent.
We’re back in the living room, laying out our sleeping mattresses. I have to keep reminding myself: these men, this situation, the handcuffs around my wrists, it’s all very real. In a moment I will be lying on the floor, covered by a blanket, utterly defenceless. The television is on. I monitor it constantly, hoping to catch some mention of us, though I never look directly at it. I don’t want them to know I am interested in it. The news is on. There’s a soft colour of green I recognize immediately—the Canadian Parliament. My eyes dart to the screen. I watch galvanized, a chaotic scene in the House of Commons, suits milling about, MPs everywhere, some jubilant, others grim-faced. The words are all in Arabic. I want to reach through the television and pull myself home. The channel changes. The government has fallen, I think. There’s going to be an election.