Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)

Chapter 6

NOVEMBER 30 DAY 5

Staring at the ceiling. Eyes fixing uselessly on scabs of peeling paint, smudges, cracks, a long spatter of something that looks like tomato juice. My back a single sheet of burning. I can’t stand this I can’t stand this I can’t stand this. I have to do something. I lift my right knee into my chest, extend my leg out straight, bend it in again, rest it back on the floor. I do this over and over, right leg then left leg. It’s somewhere to put the rage.

I thought it would never happen. The captors pull themselves into the day, put their bedding away, move in and out of the room, do things in the kitchen. Finally they unlock us. Getting up is a co-operative effort now that we are handcuffed to each other. Junior and Great Big Man chortle as we struggle to stand. Junior wags his finger at Tom. “La hazeem, la hazeem.” He says something in Arabic and slices his finger across his throat.

“Haji, mumkin hamam?” Harmeet says.

“No hamam,” he snaps. Then, eyes darting to the doorway, he barks, “Killeators down!”

Every movement has become complicated. I bend my head towards my hand so I can pull my hat down without pulling on Harmeet’s wrist. “I hear about what happen, I hear about this. I am sorry,” Number One says from the doorway, his voice grave.

“This must be some kind of misunderstanding,” I start to say.

Number One interrupts me. “I am sorry. You must not to escape.”

Junior leads us into the bedroom, a blind chain gang of four, our bodies tensing against a sudden collision. “Ogod,” Junior says. He maneuvers us in front of a bench in the middle of the room. We sit and Great Big Man chains Tom’s wrist to the metal frame of a bed. “Shut up. La killam,” Junior orders.

When we speak to each other, it’s in whispered fragments, always after checking to make sure no captor is watching. Tom was punched in the chest. Everyone else was slapped in the face. We’re all bewildered. No one had been trying to escape. Tom thinks Junior did it to impress Number One. It’s ironic, I say, how they’re accusing Tom when I’ve been thinking about escape since the minute of our capture. I tell them how I came within a hair’s breadth of pushing Junior into the window well. “I’m glad you didn’t,” Harmeet says.

I ask if anyone else has been thinking about escape. Harmeet says it’s too much of a risk, we should wait to see what happens, they say they’re going to let us go. I say I wouldn’t put too much stock in that. Norman says maybe he would’ve tried it in his younger days but it doesn’t seem to be much of an option for him now. It’s like a puzzle, I say; we just have to figure out a way so we all get out. They only have to make one mistake.

Tom doesn’t say anything. I ask him directly. His answer shocks me. “When we’ve been here a hundred days, maybe I’ll think about it.”

“A hundred days,” I groan. The very idea sends me into paroxysms of despair.

Harmeet says he’s worried about how we were separated for the video. “They’re treating us differently. That’s not good.”

I tell Tom I’m sorry, it looks as if they’re singling him out. “That’s the price of having an American passport,” he replies. “There’s nothing we can do about it. I’m just trying to live in the present moment. The past is gone and the future doesn’t exist. All we have is the present moment. I’m just meditating as much as I can, praying for us, the team, my kids—letting go of everything and just being in the now.”

He’s right, but I can’t help but be irritated. “That’s easier said than done,” I say.

Norman says he’s going directly to the Green Zone when we get out. He doesn’t care about his things at the CPT apartment—he’s getting the first flight back to London. “I could be back in time to go to church on Sunday. It’s the children’s annual Christmas liturgy. I haven’t missed it in almost forty years.” Norman chuckles, “I’m supposed to play God this year.”

Tom cautions Norman to be prepared for a long wait. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.

“Yesterday was such a good day,” I say. “Tea and jam and TV. This must be some kind of plan. They’re messing with our heads, trying to throw us off balance. They want us to know they’re in control.”

“Maybe,” Harmeet says.

Sounds. A throat clearing. Bodies shifting. Handcuffs clinking. A helicopter roaring low over the house. Windows shuddering. A burst of gunfire somewhere nearby. The constant chatter of television.

I’m ablaze with pain. I lift, roll, pull my shoulders back, sit straight, slouch, stretch my neck—nothing helps. It astonishes me. What an agony it is to sit like this, without any support for my back.

There’s a bird calling out to us from the courtyard. It reminds me that there were swallows darting in and out of their living room, fluttering in the mud nests they’d built high along the ceiling. I tell the story of the day we visited Ahmed and his son Ali at their farm on the outskirts of Baghdad. We took off our shoes at the door and sat on the meticulously swept hand-woven rug that covered the brown dirt floor. Ahmed’s wife brought us tea. The door, a sun-faded bolt of cloth, puffed back and forth in a February breeze.

Ahmed was fifty-two years old, the father of eight children, the youngest eleven. His hands were hard, his body thick, his face weathered—the physical accumulations of a lifetime spent in hard agricultural toil. Ali was twenty-six, the father of three children, the oldest four. The line of his hands, the edges of his body were softer and rounder than his father’s. He was a driver for the Ministry of Education. Ahmed puffed calmly on a cigarette while Ali simmered under a dark cloud. They had a story to tell, and we had come to listen.

Two weeks earlier, the men had been picked up by the American army, Ahmed on his way home from the mosque, Ali at their home. The Americans were “collecting intelligence” about a nearby bombing incident. For seventy-two hours they were subjected to an excruciating regime of what the military calls stress positioning. Hooded with their hands handcuffed behind them for the whole time, first they were forced to lie on their stomachs, then to sit cross-legged on the ground (soldiers kicking their kneecaps to keep them awake), and then to stand continuously, each of these positions lasting for a period of twenty-four hours. They were held outdoors and given only water to drink, no food. Each day they were asked if they knew anything about the bomb incident. Ali was screamed at, kicked in the groin and beaten in the face. They held them for five days and then let them go. There were marks on Ahmed’s wrists where the handcuffs had been, and the bone of each of his ankles was covered with a round scab.

“Imagine what they’re going through in Guantanamo,” Harmeet says. “What we’re going through doesn’t even compare to that.”

The punishment appears to be over. When the ratchet slides free, I immediately grip and massage my wrists, red-ringed from the hours of metal pressing against bone.

“Go hamam!” Junior barks. I stand up and arch my back. The relief is instant. I want to jump, dance, cartwheel around the room.

After we go to the bathroom, they lock us up and bring our supper, another humburger, as well as a jug and a glass. It takes some figuring out, how to eat and drink when you’re handcuffed to the person beside you. Wrist locked to wrist—this is how it will be for the remainder of our captivity.

Killeators down!” Junior says.

From the doorway, the voice of Number One follows. “Doctor, Jim, Harmeet, Thomas. My man tell to me. You must not to escape. Why this? You are safe with me.” We try to explain, but Number One interrupts. “My man tell to me this. I know.” He moves closer, stands directly behind Norman, rests his hands on his shoulders. “Doctor, you very good with the English. Very good. You must to teach me the English, Doctor.”

“Well, thank you, but I—”

“I have some English book.”

“I should think Harmeet would be better qualified—he is studying English literature in university.”

“But you are the professor. You must to teach me.”

“Well, yes, a professor of biophysics, but of course I have been retired for many years now.”

“You do not want to teach me, Doctor? Why this? Have I said something bad to you?”

“No, no. It’s just not my training.” Norman is flustered. “Harmeet would be better. But if you want me to, I can certainly try.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I love the English. I want—I need to speak better. I need to speak the English so I can express everything—everything that’s happened. But there are no words to tell it, to tell everything about the war, the suffering of the Iraqi people. No words.” He speaks slowly, almost as if he is in physical pain.

“Catastrophe? Outrage?” I offer. He doesn’t answer. The words suddenly feel empty, trivial. “There are no words for the horror of war,” I add.

“No, there are no words,” Number One says. “I wish … I wish that I could speak the English. I wish that I take you. I show you everything. Everything that happen, all around Baghdad. I so wish to show you the destruction of the Americans, so you tell to everyone. But I cannot. I not have the English.”

“Your English is very good,” Harmeet says.

“No, it is not. I need to express everything, and I can’t.”

“What books do you have?” Norman asks.

“I have The Old Man and the Sea. It is about some fish man. And Faustus …”

“Oh dear,” Norman says.

“Yes, it is very difficult. And … this book by Fall-ker, it is call As I Dying.”

“Wow, those are difficult books,” I say. “Are you taking a course?”

“Yes. It is for the university. I have some exam on Monday.”

“You do?” Norman says. “Perhaps I might help you to prepare for it.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

DECEMBER 2 DAY 7

Tom turns to prayer like a warrior preparing for battle. The long, slow exhalations of his meditation-breathing punctuate the days like an intensive-care respirator. The chain at his wrist clinks softly as it passes through his fingers, one link at a time, as though he’s praying the rosary. His resolve and focus are astonishing. “I’m trying to think of our captivity as a sesshin,” he says.

“I knew somebody who did that,” I say. “It was at an ashram in India. Ten days of complete silence, fasting and meditation. All they did was sit and try to clear their minds of all thoughts. They weren’t even supposed to scratch themselves if they got an itch. I could never do it.”

“What do you meditate about?” Harmeet asks.

It’s a compassion practice called tonglin, Tom explains. He pictures someone—a member of his family, a CPTer, one of the captors, whoever he feels needs a prayer. On the inhale he breathes in the suffering of the person he is thinking about, and on the exhale he breathes out compassion and healing to them. With each breath he passes a link of chain through his fingers. He holds that person for a cycle of four breaths, praying With the warmth of my heartin the first breath, with the stillness of my mind in the second, with the fluidity of my body in the third, and with the light of my soul for the last. At the end of the cycle he pauses and surrounds the person with light.

His example chastens me, rouses me from my self-preoccupation, reminds me it is the one thing I can do: pray for the needs of others and the healing of the world. Sometimes I use my fingers to count off the decades of the rosary. Sometimes I say the Jesus prayer, Lord Jesus Christ only son of the living God have mercy on me a sinner, over and over, until it becomes a living force within me. And sometimes I make up litanies to the Sacred Heart. O most holy open heart. O most holy healing heart. O most holy loving heart. The obvious thing is to pray for the return of our freedom. But I can’t. I don’t know why. Something within me forbids it. It’s like adding gasoline to a fire. Praying for what I most want will only cause me to suffer more. My prayer is just to be open. Open to whatever comes, and to give whatever is asked of me.

DECEMBER 3 DAY 8

Late afternoon. We are sitting, as always, in our plastic-chair places, light filtering through the red curtains—a perpetual infrared twilight that wearies me beyond words. Harmeet has been entertaining Norman and me by summarizing movie plots he watched as a teenager. Tom is far away, breathing his way through his meditations.

The television is suddenly silent and there’s a stir of voices in the kitchen. Medicine Man enters the room. “How are you?” he says. He stands just behind us against the armoire at our left. We turn to look at him. He’s wearing a turquoise suit with a gun tucked into his belt. Great Big Man, standing beside him, looks startlingly businesslike: dark trousers, navy blue suit jacket, baby blue turtleneck. Junior watches from the doorway.

“We have some order. We take you, each of you, to a different place. One here, one here, one here.” He points to different places in the room. “Every one separated. We take you by car. In the boot. I go now to prepare.” He turns abruptly and leaves.

“I should think this is not an entirely positive development,” Norman says.

“That’s an understatement,” I say.

“I’ll go first,” Tom says.

“I can go,” Harmeet says.

“No, I’ll go. I’ve been preparing for this for a year now. Imagining, praying, meditating about it—ever since I came to Iraq. The way I feel now, I can do this forever.”

I turn to look at Tom, astonished that he could say such a thing. His face is illuminated by a serene determination. Forever is a long time, I want to say.

“All right,” Medicine Man says. “The American, you are the first one. Stand up.” His voice is hard, incontestable. Tom stands up. I’d forgotten how tall he is. They lock his hands behind his back. Tom looks straight ahead, face solemn and defiant.

“We take you first,” Medicine Man says to Tom, “and then we come for the British, and then you and you. This not be long. Maybe one half an hour. Just go and come back. It is not far.” He looks directly at Tom. “We take you in the boot. You must not to make any sound. No crying, no shouting, no disturbance. Nothing. Must I to tape you?” His voice is sharp like a knife. Tom shakes his head. “If you make any sound, I torture and kill you. Do you understand?”

Tom nods. “What about my shoes?” he asks.

Medicine Man looks down at Tom’s feet. “You do not need them. The rest of you, I not long. The British is next.”

Tom is in grave danger. We are all in grave danger. I feel nothing. There are only facts. The fact that I am sitting in a red plastic lawn chair handcuffed to two other men. That Tom is about to be taken away by a man with a gun. That men with guns like to be obeyed.

Tom turns to look at us. The moment is strangely awkward. I have to say something, but what? Good luck, take care, God bless? See you later? Jesus loves you, don’t be afraid, he is always with you? Everything sounds trite, pious, ridiculous. I say nothing. “Be strong,” Tom says.

Great Big Man blindfolds Tom and leads him past Junior in the doorway. “Amriki,” Junior says, his voice full of spitting.

After about an hour Medicine Man returns. “Doctor, we are ready for you,” he announces.

“Oh dear, I’ve never ridden in the boot of a car before,” Norman laughs.

“It is not long, Doctor,” Medicine Man says. “Fifteen, twenty minutes and you are there. You must not to say anything. Not anything. If you make any sound, I kill you.” Norman nods. “Okay, we go.”

“See you soon,” Harmeet says.

I reach for Norman’s hand. “Take care, Norman. Be strong. God is with you.”

Medicine Man pulls a second scrap of cloth out of his pocket and uses it to blindfold Norman. “I come for you next,” he says, pointing at me. I shudder.

“I have a feeling they’re not coming back,” Harmeet says when they’re gone.

We seize upon every movement and sound. Waiting, hoping, dreading Medicine Man’s return. Darkness falls. The power goes out. Junior sets a lantern on the floor, enveloping us in a sulphurous gloom. He returns fifteen minutes later with our humburger supper. They’re not coming back. Harmeet goes back to recounting movie plots. I pretend to be interested.

“Come on, sleep,” Junior says. He unlocks our handcuffs and holds the lantern up for us to see. We grab our bedding and follow him into the living room. Our shoes have disappeared from the bottom of the stairway. Junior chains Harmeet to the couch and then handcuffs me to Harmeet. He stands back. His face looks sad. “I am sorry,” he says.

I do not answer. There’s nothing to say. I turn onto my side and tuck my blanket under my chin with my free hand. Junior goes into the kitchen. “Harmeet, our shoes are gone,” I whisper.

“Really? That’s not good.” We’re quiet for a long time. “Good night, Jim,” Harmeet says. It sounds like a blessing.

“Good night, Harmeet.”