Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
We breathe, blink our eyes, shift in our chairs. Everything closes around me: emotion, time, space. When things happen in relation to each other I cannot say. There is only waiting. We tread water on waves that rise and fall in the middle of a vast ocean. There is no horizon. Only grey.
On an indeterminate evening, Harmeet and I are sitting, as usual, against the wall. I hear a loud sigh, movement towards Number One’s bed, sounds of undressing. Junior asks questions and Number One answers, his voice tired and flat. Their conversation peters out. Number One coughs.
“Salam alakum,” Harmeet says.
“Alakum salam,” Number One says. He stands behind Harmeet. His voice is warm.
“How did your exam go?” Harmeet asks.
Number One sighs. “No good, no good. I must to ask my teacher for forgiveness. I cannot sleep. I cannot to think anything. My mind is like—I don’t know how to say in English—it is like some thick cloud. I must to change my life.” He falls silent for a moment. “At night, when I close my eye, I see everything. It is in my mind like a movie. I cannot to make it stop. I am very tired. Every time I am moving to the different house, every night, every week a different house. It very dangerous here, very dangerous. For me, and for you. I must to change my life. How can I? How can I change my life?” His voice rises in anguish.
I’m astonished—an insurgent commander is asking me how to change his life. His question is a doorway, a portal, an opportunity. I want to say something about how much God loves us, that we were made for living with an open heart, for joy, that we can only discover our freedom when we give our lives in the healing service of others. I measure, test, knit words together. I must choose carefully. They’re all I have. I take a breath, but I’m a millisecond too late.
“Have you seen a doctor to help you with your sleep?” Harmeet asks. I want to curse him.
“I don’t know,” Number One sighs. “I don’t know.” Then he is gone.
Harmeet and I are sitting on our sleeping mats in front of the TV, waiting for the order to bed down. We have become used to the sound of gunfire, the explosions that punctuate the days. But this, out of nowhere, something I have never heard before, a sudden cannonade of ear-shattering rapid-fire gun sound, heavy and light calibre, war breaking out everywhere around us. I lie flat on the floor. What is happening? Countrywide insurrection? A neighbourhood feud? A U.S. military action? I want to take cover, but there’s nowhere to go.
“What the hell is going on?” I say to Harmeet.
“It sounds like we’re in a war zone!” he replies.
Junior and Number One enter from the kitchen, Number One in his green towel. I look up cautiously. Junior points the remote at the television and flicks through the channels. He stops at a soccer team running, jumping wildly, faces ecstatic with victory. Junior breaks into a big smile, speaks excitedly to Number One.
“What’s this?” I ask, forming a machine gun with my hands.
Junior smiles. “Iraqi football. In Syria. Iraq yes! Iraq good!” Junior flexes his biceps and puffs out his cheeks.
“Iraq crazy,” I say, circling my index finger at my temple. Junior laughs.
An indeterminate afternoon. Sitting. Staring. At hands, wrists, fingernails, knees. The pink smoothness of the wall in front of us. The bullet hole at my knee. The pebble speckles on the floor. It becomes an obsession: finding, sorting, mind-morphing them into patterns and shapes. A Hercules arm, a clown’s face, letters of the alphabet, a foot.
The sharp, cracking sound of a gunshot cuts through this useless thought-babble. I instinctively duck. Adrenalin floods my body. I strain to catch every sound. “Did you hear that?” I whisper to Harmeet. “It came from inside. It was a gunshot.”
“How could that be?”
I hold up my finger. We listen. As far as we know, Junior is the only captor in the house. Is he okay? We hear muttering, the clicking of something metal, a couch being moved. “Hello? Haji? Haji okay?” I call out.
Junior enters with his arms waving, eyes wide, face flushed, a gun in his right hand. He points it towards the ceiling. “Mooseh-dis! Mooseh-dis!” he cries, makes a shooting sound, explains in body language how he’d been examining the gun when it discharged. The bullet nearly struck him in the head, hit the ceiling and sent plaster flying everywhere.
“Haji okay?” I say.
He nods. “Yes, okay, but this mozane,” he says, holding up the gun.
Another afternoon. We’re sitting in the living room, under the Sacred Heart, hands free. In front of us, an end table with a plate of cookies, two glasses, a bottle of 7UP. We have visitors: Medicine Man, Video Man, the little boy. Junior squats down to talk with the little boy while Medicine Man, Video Man and Number One confer in serious tones.
I look up at the ceiling. It takes a minute to find it, the round pock-mark in the chandelier moulding where the bullet hit. I nudge Harmeet in the arm. “There it is,” I whisper. I catch Junior’s eye, grin and point to the ceiling. He scowls, puts his index finger across his lips and shakes his head. He doesn’t want Number One to know.
Video Man and Medicine Man turn towards us. Number One moves to the doorway. Medicine Man points to the Sacred Heart above our head. Junior takes it off the wall and drops it behind the couch to our right.
“Canada good,” Video Man says, offering each of us a cookie with a smile that makes me shudder. “Shokren,” we say, obediently taking them. He pats Harmeet on the head and gives me a thumbs-up.
“This you release video,” Medicine Man says. “We give to Al Jazeera just before you release. You must to look happy.” We nod blankly. “You must to smile. This for you release. You have some Seven.” Medicine Man fills a glass for each of us. “Drink! Drink!” We drink. “Have some biscuit!” I force myself to smile. “Good. Now we begin. No speech. You just to smile, laugh, make your glasses like this.” He holds up a glass as if he’s making a toast. “Do like the English.”
Video Man stands on a chair to film us, why I have no idea. He gestures towards the glasses.
“Smile!” Medicine Man says. “This you release.”
“Cheers,” we say, tipping our glasses together. It’s humiliating. I feel like a dog sitting up for its master. I look away from the camera. Junior is bouncing in and out of the living room with the little boy on his back. The boy laughs delightedly. I smile at him.
“Good smile,” Medicine Man says. “That is all.” Video Man steps down from the chair, removes the tape from the video recorder and hands it to Number One. Number One leaves through the kitchen.
“Al Jazeera give us some money,” Medicine Man says. “When we release you, Al Jazeera will show the video. Not before. This something exclusive for them.”
How long before we’re released? we ask.
“Not long,” he says. “Three day, four day.” What about Tom and Norman? “They are fine,” he says. “We separate you for the safety. We take the video of them, just like you. For release. You release first, and then the others. All of you release. Just some negotiation and finish.”
He motions for us to stand up. Junior puts our handcuffs back on. Medicine Man pushes the couch back into place and tells us to sit down. The captors chat together in the middle of the room. Junior shows them a gun. Medicine Man releases the safety, checks the magazine, looks down the barrel. He points the gun at the floor, squeezes the trigger, shrugs, hands the gun to Video Man. Video Man looks at it, pulls the trigger, shrugs, hands it back to Junior. Junior throws it onto the couch. The men continue talking.
The little boy wanders over to the gun. He hesitates, puts a finger to his mouth, looks over at the men. When he sees they’re not watching, he reaches for the gun. He tries to grip it in his right hand, the way he saw the men holding it, but it’s too heavy, he has to use both hands. He examines it reverently, and then, looking up, points it at us. I shake my head slowly. A cold smile spreads across his face.
Medicine Man sees the boy and points at him. The men break into laughter. Video Man pats him on the back and pinches his cheek. He seems to be saying something like, You will grow up to be a mujahedeen, just like your father. Whatever it is, the boy beams proudly.
Another evening. Junior is sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the bed next to us at our right, elbows resting on his thighs. If I tilt my head up just a little, I can see Junior’s face below my hat. Number One is standing behind us. He interprets as Junior talks.
Junior points to Harmeet. “Sadika, sadika,” he says with a curving gesture to indicate a woman’s hips. His face is earnest, inquisitive like a 12-year-old boy.
“He see you on television,” Number One translates. “Your picture. You are with a girl. She have yellow hair. Very pretty. She is your girlfriend?”
Harmeet shakes his head. “No, I don’t know anyone with yellow hair. I don’t know who he could be talking about. Unless it’s a very old picture. Maybe it’s someone I knew in university, but I never had a picture taken with her.”
Junior asks if he has any children. No, Harmeet says. Junior asks if Harmeet is married. No. Does he have a girlfriend?
“No sadika,” Harmeet says, pretending to cry. “This very sad.”
“I don’t know. I’m trying, I’m trying. This not love me,” Harmeet says, joking. He pretends to pull a ring off his finger, then draws a big X in the air.
“Mother? Father?” Junior asks.
“Yes, mother and father.”
“No, Zambia.” Junior doesn’t understand. “It’s a country in Africa.”
Junior’s eyes widen. “Brother? Sister?”
“One sister. In New Zealand.”
“Nuzlander?” Junior says, surprised.
“Yes, New Zealand.”
“This Hind?” Junior asks him.
“This Kashmiri,” Harmeet says.
“This Kashmiri?” Junior’s face is full of surprise.
Junior points to Harmeet, flexes his bicep, makes the gesture of a machine gun.
“He say the Kashmiri fight for independence, just like Iraq,” Number One says. “He say you have parents in Zambia, you and you sister in New Zealand, but you Canadian, and you Kashmiri. How can someone be all of those things? Are you Muslim?”
“No, I am Sikh.” Junior looks puzzled. “It is a religion, like Christianity or Islam.”
Number One and Junior converse back and forth. Junior finally nods. “But the rest of you are Christian?” Number One asks.
“Yes,” I say.
Number One asks me if I have children. No. Am I married? No. He is surprised. “How old are you?” Forty-one.
Number One explains to Junior. His eyes widen. “Why this? No madame? No whalid?”
“I don’t know,” I say. Junior wants me to explain. I swallow hard. “I don’t know why. I just never got married,” I say, shrugging, trying to look as natural as possible. I’m in mortal danger. I can’t lie, and I can’t tell the truth.
“He say you are the handsome one with blue eyes and you not marry. Why this?” Number One says.
“It’s a long story,” I say.
“We have time.”
“It’s a long, sad story,” I say.
Number One translates. “I am sorry,” Junior says.
Number One places his hand on my shoulder. “When you get back to Canada, you must to get married. This very important.”
“Inshallah,” I say.
“Inshallah,” Number One says. My heart rate eases. I passed the test for a second time.
Junior points to my shirt. It’s one of my favourites. It showed up on the porch of Zacchaeus House one day in a bag full of second-hand clothes.
“He says you have a very nice shirt,” Number One says. “He ask how much it cost.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s second-hand.” Junior looks puzzled, feels the fabric of my shirt.
“Was it eight dollars?” Number One says.
“I don’t know. Somebody gave it to me. Brand new it would be, I don’t know, maybe fifty dollars?”
Junior’s eyes widen. “He wants to know if you’re rich,” Number One says.
“No. I mean yes, compared to most Iraqis I am rich, but in Canada I am not rich. I believe we should only take what we need.”
“Thank you,” Junior says.
“Does haji have work or some business now?” I ask through Number One.
“This … taxi … in Baghdad,” Junior says, forming a steering wheel with his hands. “Shwaya faloos.” He rubs his fingers together, making the sign for money.
“How much does a taxi driver make in Iraq?”
“It depends,” Number One says. “He say at night it’s seven thousand dinars. During the day it’s nine thousand. He works at night.” It’s the equivalent of nine dollars.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No mother, no father, no sister,” Junior says. He shakes his head, his face sad. Then, looking up, eyes fierce, he points to himself. “This Fallujah! This Fallujah!” It is like a battle cry. Then, as he speaks, his face and eyes become blank, as if he’s stepped away from his body.
“He say the Americans bomb his house,” Number One says. “His mother, his father, his sister, his fiancée, his best friend—they all kill when the Americans bomb his house.”
“I am very sorry,” I say. “This haram.”
Junior looks down at his hands. “Thank you,” he says.
No one speaks for a long time. Finally I say to Number One, “Can you ask haji what he would be doing in Fallujah if there hadn’t been any war?”
Helping his father in the market, Junior answers.
Harmeet and I pass the time in long, wandering conversation trails, one question and story leading into another. Slowly, word by word, the contours of our lives begin to take shape for each other. I learn that Harmeet is a Kashmiri Sikh born in Zambia and a permanent resident of New Zealand with Canadian citizenship. He tells me his great-grandfather is buried in Iraq. He was a havildar, the equivalent of a sergeant, serving in the British Indian army when he died during the Mesopotamia campaign in 1916. There’s a memorial maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission near Nasiriya, south of Baghdad.
His great-grandfather had a son in 1913 named Bhagwan Singh, the father of Harmeet’s mother. Bhagwan’s mother died when he was only ten. He and his brother were looked after by their grandmother, and when she died tragically three years later, they were taken in by a Hindu family. Like his father, Bhagwan joined the army when he came of age. He was a subedar (lieutenant) stationed in northern Kashmir, in the town of Gilgit, when the British withdrew in 1947 and British India fractured along religious lines to form the Dominion of Pakistan (later the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) and the secular Union of India (later the Republic of India). Kashmir, a kingdom located in the northernmost corner of British India but not under direct British rule, became the epicentre of a bitter contest. Pakistani-backed forces invaded and Kashmir’s Hindu king enlisted the help of India, which promised to allow the people of Kashmir to decide their own future in a free plebiscite.
When his Muslim comrades switched their allegiance to Pakistan, Bhagwan suddenly found himself fighting against men who had once been his friends. He escaped with two gunshot wounds to his leg. It was winter, he was up in the mountains and he had no food. He was captured by Pakistan and taken to a transition camp, where he was saved from execution by a Pakistani soldier who had served under him. He was then transferred to Attock Fort as a POW.
The war ended in a stalemate, with Kashmir divided between India and Pakistan. When Bhagwan returned home a year and a half later, he was horrified to learn that his village was now part of Pakistan and ninety members of his extended family had been killed—basically all the people he had ever known, including his first wife and three sons. It would be seven years before he discovered one of his sons had actually survived. Harmeet’s grandfather remarried in 1951 and his mother was born a year later. Bhagwan retired in 1958 after twenty-eight years of military service.
Harmeet’s parents, Dalip Singh Sooden and Manjeet Kaur Sooden, were joined in an arranged marriage in 1971 during the third Indo-Pakistani war. They fled to Zambia, where Harmeet’s father had been working in a nitrogen plant. Harmeet and his sister were born and raised in the expatriate community that ran Zambia’s copper mines. Haunted by the spectre of war and poverty, the young couple were determined to provide their children with the best education possible. At great sacrifice, they enrolled them in British public schools—Harmeet at the age of eleven, his sister at the age of ten. Except for holidays, Harmeet spent his adolescence in British boarding schools.
In 1991, Harmeet was accepted into McGill University to study computer engineering. He graduated in 1997, got a job with Nortel in the techno-boom and became a Canadian citizen in 2001. When the bubble burst that same year, Harmeet was laid off and a long-simmering inner conflict boiled over. Becoming a professional and moving to a Western country, the path chosen for him by his parents as the means to a secure future, had led him to a soulless corporate career marked by long hours and superficial work relationships. Long troubled by the inequality that ravaged the world and now suddenly free, Harmeet began a lengthy process of rethinking his commitments and priorities. He went to Kashmir and stayed with his grandparents to reconnect with his Kashmiri roots. Then, unsure of what to do next, he followed his sister to New Zealand. After a long search for work, he finally landed a three-month contract with Cubic Defence NZ (formerly Oscmar International), a defence contractor specializing in military training and simulation systems. His savings were running low and he had to get back into the job market or risk becoming professionally obsolete in the swift-moving world of computer engineering. He told himself he’d take the job for a few months while he looked for something else.
Three months turned into a year and a half. A growing unease about his work turned into a full-blown crisis of conscience when he was assigned to a sensitive defence project for Israel that seemed to be in breach of New Zealand export law. He travelled to Israel/Palestine as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM)—a group much like CPT that supports Palestinian self-determination—to learn for himself what the situation was. Concerned that his work was supporting Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestine, he resigned and went to study English literature at the University of Auckland, at last embarking on a path that was truly his own.
After completing his first two semesters, Harmeet arranged to begin his summer recess by joining the CPT delegation to Iraq, and from there travel to Palestine to rejoin ISM. Disturbed by New Zealand’s decision to support the occupation of Iraq, Harmeet felt it was his responsibility to find out what was going on first-hand.
The excruciating hours and days of nothing-ever-happening-at-all accumulate and compound. Harmeet becomes helplessly garrulous. His normal reserve breaks into a stream-of-consciousness flood. I fall silent, nod my head, answer now and then with uh-huh. The endless flow of words begins to tear at me.
Though I’m desperate for quiet, I can’t bring myself to ask for it. I don’t want to say or do anything that will impose upon or limit what remains of his freedom. It has become as precious to me as my own. I worry that if I say something, he will feel hurt and withdraw altogether, and that, right now, would be far worse than his talking.
Harmeet has gotten onto chocolate again. “Chocolate—that’s at the top of my list. The first thing I’m going to have when I get back home. Thick chocolate cake, and chocolate milk. That’s what I always have, late at night, when I’m studying. It’s brain food!”
“Harmeet,” I groan, “please don’t talk about food.” Please, I want to say, just for a little while, don’t talk at all.
“When I was in Zambia, you used to be able to get it—chocolate milk. There was this store that sold it—it’s still there, with the same logo and everything. They would sell it in tetrahedral containers. That was back in the days when you could still get things like that in Zambia, before the country was embargoed by the West. You could get pretty much anything you wanted—as long as you had the money, of course. Not anymore. The economy has totally collapsed now.
“One time I was in the south—that was during the motor vehicle trip I told you about, when I broke down in the middle of nowhere—I was taking the bus back home and I was hungry. So I asked around for where to get something to eat. They told me to go to the Shoprite—it’s a South African chain. It’s where the poor shop. It was down the street from the bus stop and around to …”
I can see the words gathering within me, along a horizon far away. A voice within me says, No, don’t. As Harmeet talks, the words come closer and closer. They gather and grow like giant, sky-towering columns of cumulonimbus clouds. Don’t say it, the voice says, putting up a hand. Please Harmeet, my mind starts to beg, just for a moment, a little tiny bit of quiet. Don’t make me say it.
I can’t stop it. The words flash and break in a murderous screaming mind-rage: SPARE ME THE INCONSEQUENTIAL DETAILS OF YOUR INCONSEQUENTIAL LIFE! Loud enough, it has to be, to smash windows and blast apart walls.
I hang my head, fall prostrate in a cesspool of shame. I feel like I have just dumped poison into the room. Could he have heard? No, thank God, he is still talking. I nod, say uh-huh, go through the motions of listening. Forgive me, Harmeet, I say, in the voice he never hears.
It takes me several days. I search the whole of my life. I begin with my childhood and work my way through high school and university, young adulthood and recent middle age. I consider every school year and job, every place I have lived, every group I’ve been part of. I try to remember every person I have ever known, those who were an integral part of my life and those whose path I crossed only briefly. I visualize each one, embrace and kiss them, thank them for whatever I have learned or received from them. Each person is a shining sun, a face of God, an indelible part of the man I’ve become. I begin to see that my life has been astonishingly rich, an ever-flowing fountain of friendship and love, a universe of goodness. The joy! So much joy! So much blessing! I thank God for each person, surround them with light, and let them go.
When I am done, a door closes. The desire to think about the people I love—my parents, my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephew, my friends, even Dan!—disappears. It’s not a choice. It simply happens. I have to set my face to the task at hand. Getting through the next five minutes. And the next five after that. That’s all there is. There’s nothing else.
Deep in the night, the TV is still on, bathing the room in electric blue light. Have I been awake all along? Where’s Junior? I hear English coming from the television, a news voice. I’m instantly awake. “Tom Fox of Clearbrook, Virginia,” the voice says, “age fifty-four, the father of two, formerly a musician.” I steal a glance at the television. I see a picture of Tom. He’s smiling. The channel changes. I fight against panic. Could this be the announcement of his death?
DECEMBER 10 DAY 15
In the morning, Junior unlocks us without saying a word. We gather up our bedding, carry it into the next room, sit in our chairs. Junior follows listlessly, face and body drained of all vitality. After he locks us up again, on his way out of the room, he releases a long sigh. “Mooshkilla,” he says, just under his breath.
Hours pass. Junior drifts in like a ghost and the room fills with a deathly gloom. “Okay?” he asks vacuously, his face puffy with sleep. The words Could we have something to eat? form briefly in my mind. Every cell in my body is trembling with hunger. He’s forgotten to feed us. “Okay,” we say.
I’m worried. Something’s wrong. My mind spirals helplessly. There’s been a rift amongst the captors. Somebody’s been given an order they don’t agree with. Tom and Norman have been sold or, worse, killed. What else could explain the news clip about Tom, Junior’s ominous despair?
I take a deep breath and try to bring myself back to what I know—I’m alive, I’m sitting next to Harmeet, I’m not in pain—but there is little consolation in it. I might as well be lying in an open grave. Something is terribly wrong.
Day wheels into evening. Number One returns and Junior revives. I hear his voice, now animated, coming from the kitchen, mixing with the sounds of utensils working in metal bowls and Number One’s rich laughter, like a young boy in eager conversation with a parent just home from work.
Junior brings each of us a diamond-shaped piece of flatbread called a samoon. He scoops up our water jug and leaves the room again. The spring has returned to his step. I pull the bread apart to see what’s inside. It’s the usual, a tiny, overcooked piece of hamburger, but the bread is actually fresh, and the meat garnished with a slice of salted tomato. “Wow, look at this,” I say. “We have fixings!” It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten.
“Killeators down,” Junior says from the doorway, the order strangely gentle. My hand goes automatically to my hat. Operant conditioning. I hear the soft padding sound of feet on the floor, the clinking of a belt buckle, clothes rustling. Junior moves away from us. I hear them say Norman and Tom, then the word mot—Arabic for death. My heart flares wildly. I have to try to find out.
“Excuse me, haji?” I say.
“Yes,” Number One says.
“May I ask a question?”
“Of course. Anything.” He stands behind me, his hand lying gently on my shoulder.
“What’s happened to Tom and Norman?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. They are fine.”
“I heard you say Tom and Norman’s names, and I heard you say mot.” I can’t keep the anguish out of my voice.
“Do you speak Arabic?”
“No, but I know this word.”
“Why do you ask me this? Have you heard something?” I don’t know how to answer. “Why you ask me this?” he insists. “Please, you must to tell me. What are you feeling?”
My mind reels with fear. I don’t know how honest I should be, what the consequences could be if I tell him what I’m really thinking.
“Please, you can tell me,” he says again.
I take a breath. “Last night I saw on the TV for just a second—Haji was changing the channel—there was a picture of Tom on the news.” I point to Junior. “Haji is very sad. Now I hear you say Tom and Norman and the word ‘dead.’ ”
“You must to believe me,” Number One says. “They are okay. They not harm in anything. I love the Doctor. I love the peaceful man. They are just in some separate place, for the safety. We are not terrorists. We are different.” I nod. “We have some news,” he continues. “We kill some man. He is American. He is a contractor. He works as some engineer for the occupation. We take him and we kill him. But we not kill Norman and Tom. We kill only the soldiers. And the collaborator. We not kill Norman and Tom. Would you like to see them?”
The thought of being moved terrifies me. “Well, yes. I’d like to know that they’re okay.”
“Tomorrow I bring you to them. I promise. Tomorrow you see them,” Number One says, patting my shoulder.
DECEMBER 11 DAY 16
Medicine Man enters the room on a wave of cologne. “Sabha il hare,” he says in the middle of a stride, his voice bright and happy.
“Sabha il noor,” we say.
Medicine Man stands in the corner facing us, his paunchy body bursting out of his suit jacket, hand on his hip. “How are you? Everything okay?” We are about to answer when we hear an electronicized baby cry. “It is my girlfriend,” he giggles, pulling out his cellphone. “She cannot leave me alone.”
Their conversation is short. When he is done, Junior asks to see Medicine Man’s cellphone. Junior examines it reverently, his eyes full of wonder. Medicine Man pushes a button. The cellphone plays a circus ring tone. The men burst into laughter. “Good!” Junior says.
“It is new,” Medicine Man says. “We call this phone a hummer.” He pushes another button. We hear “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Junior laughs delightedly each time he plays a different tune.
“That is enough,” Medicine Man says, suddenly pocketing the phone, smile vanishing.
“How are Tom and Norman?” I ask. “Are they okay?”
Medicine Man frowns. “You see this on TV?” We shake our heads. “We kill a man. He is American. I think he is some contractor with the Ministry of Education. We hold him for two days and we kill him. He have some work with the Americans. But you, I release you all together. All four together.”
I will learn later that the man was Ronald Schulz. He was kidnapped on November 25 while doing electrical work for a private security organization. On December 6 the Islamic Army of Iraq released a video threatening to kill him unless the United States released all of its prisoners in Iraq and compensation was paid to Iraqis killed by U.S. forces in Anbar province. The group claimed to have killed him two days later. A video of his execution was released on December 19.
“So Tom and Norman are okay?” I ask again.
“Yes, they are fine. Would you like to see them?”
“We’d like to know that they’re okay,” I say.
“Very well. I take you there.” He looks at his watch. “I bring you today.”
Medicine Man and Junior sweep into the room. “This is for you,” Medicine Man says to Harmeet, handing him a bottle of water and a package of cookies. He steps back. “All right, I take you now. In the boot.”
Junior unlocks my handcuffs, pulls me out of my chair and turns me so I’m facing Medicine Man. Junior’s wearing a turtleneck, a navy blue suit jacket, pressed slacks and carefully polished black shoes. He locks my hands behind my back.
Medicine Man grips my shoulders. “Now I am taking you. No talking. No crying, no shouting. Nothing!” His voice is hard. I nod. “Must I to tape you?”
“No,” I say.
“If you make any sound—any sound!—I torture and kill you. Do you understand?”
Medicine Man turns to Harmeet. “I back for you in one hour. Not more. You not to make any sound. You not to move. I have the guard who watch the gate for you. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Harmeet says. Junior double-checks the locks on Harmeet’s chains.
“Okay, we go,” Medicine Man says to me.
Junior takes me through the living room and stops me in the kitchen doorway. The house is dark. Junior is tense, his body coiled. He pulls my hat down over my eyes. A car engine starts. There’s a shout from Medicine Man. Junior pushes me down into a squatting position.
“No talk,” he orders. I nod. There’s a sudden push—the signal to move. I squat-run through the kitchen, turn left through a doorway and step out into air, outside sounds. Through the bottom of my hat I can see the gritty surface of pavement. The breezes on my chin feel like fresh-air kisses. The yearning for freedom flares madly. He takes me to the back of the vehicle. They lift me into the trunk like a helpless puppet. The trunk is empty and clean.
“No talking,” Medicine Man says one last time. “It not long. Ten, fifteen minutes and we are there.” The trunk lid slams shut. I breathe in. There’s a vague smell of vinyl. I lift my head as high as I can but I can’t touch anything. I stretch my legs. Six inches is all I can move them. I can just touch the back of the trunk with my handcuffed hands. My heart is beating like a jackhammer, my mind reeling into panic. What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to be shot? Are they going to abandon the car with me in it? Am I going to slowly asphyxiate, starve, die horribly in this steel coffin? What happens if there’s a flat tire, or the vehicle breaks down en route? What if the car is searched at a checkpoint? You have to stay calm, a voice says.
Doors slam. Laughter, voices. Medicine Man and a woman. His girlfriend? It’s a perfect cover. Who would suspect a “husband and wife” of transporting a hostage in the trunk of their car? I hear the slide-roll-clang of a gate opening. The clutch engages, the car eases forward, turns left, stops. The gate slides closed. A car door clicks open and slams shut. Junior in the back seat, jabbering excitedly. We’re moving again. I feel the turning of wheels, the hum-throb of engine and transmission. First gear, second gear, third, roll to a stop, a turn to the left. Another eruption of laughter led by Medicine Man. Somebody turns the radio on. The speaker is just above my shoulder. It’s an American army radio station. They’re playing something hard and metal.
The car slows to a crawl, bounces through a rough patch of road, turns right onto smooth pavement, accelerates to highway speed and joins the honking stream of Baghdad traffic. I rub my head against the rug floor of the trunk and push my hat above my eyes. I lift my head and look around. It’s pitch-black except for a pinhole of light near what I think must be the key lock. I attempt to slide my hat back down over my eyes but I can’t get it to return to the same position. I eventually give up and hope they won’t notice.
The car is in stop-and-go traffic. We must be approaching a checkpoint. I ready myself to pound and scream if I hear an official-sounding voice. I don’t get the chance. We’re accelerating again. How long has it been? Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes? Half an hour? I’ve lost all sense of time. On a far horizon within me, I see a gathering storm of desperation. Stay calm, you have to stay calm, a voice within me says. I concentrate on the music.
The car stops again. Cars rush past. Have we stopped on the shoulder of the road? A door on the passenger side opens and closes. There are two voices right outside. What’s happening? I go to full-body alert. My mind starts racing. I force myself to breathe. Is this the time? Should I kick and yell and scream for dear life? What if it’s an accomplice? They’ll ignore me and punish me later. What if it’s an innocent bystander? I’ll put his life, and mine, at risk. What if it’s a police officer? I might provoke a firefight. The decision is wrenching. I remain still.
The door slams and we’re moving again. The storm is closer now, moving in, a furious, air-shattering maelstrom. No, the voice says, breathe, stay calm. I focus on the radio. The DJ is a woman. Her voice is throaty, tough, slightly nasal. She’s dedicating a song to a group of soldiers who collected teddy bears and toys for a Baghdad orphanage.
The car stops again and a door slams. The air is suddenly close. I can’t breathe. Panic washes over me. My heart feels as if it’s going to explode out of my chest. I use my head to push my hat above my eyes again. My whole body is trembling. The car turns and stops abruptly. The engine goes off. Doors open and close. I’m a wild animal on the brink of rampage. The trunk clicks open. Suddenly there’s light and air. I’m immediately calm.
Two hands reach in, lift, swing me out of the trunk. It’s Great Big Man. My legs find ground and stand. He pushes me down and puts his index finger across his lips—the sign to be quiet. He’s giggling. I take a quick look around. We’re outside a house with white plaster and big windows, in a yard with a palm tree, bushes, grass. Medicine Man shouts to him from a door at the top of the driveway. We’re suddenly running, hunched low, Great Big Man’s hand on my shoulder. He’s laughing. We enter the house and turn right. He signals me to stand. We pass through a kitchen into a grand hallway. There’s a room directly in front of me with an open door. Is that where I’m being taken? No. He turns me to the left, directs me up a flight of stairs into a spacious central landing and aims me towards the one open door.