Authors: James Loney
It’s difficult for me to assess just how successful CPT has been in this approach to peacemaking. More often than not, success for us is better measured in terms of what is avoided or prevented from happening. Nevertheless, we have enjoyed a spectacular success now and then. I think of Sara Reschly, her image flashed around the world standing with her arms outstretched in front of an Israeli soldier, preventing him from shooting a group of Palestinians who were non-violently protesting a week-long, 24-hour curfew. I think of Lisa Martens and Cliff Kindy taking around-the-clock media calls during the 2003 bombing of Baghdad, telling the world the truth about war. I think of Lena
Siegers, who videotaped officers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers ramming the boats of Mi’kmaq fishers and then clubbing them while they floated helpless in the water. This videotape was broadcast around the world and embarrassed the Canadian government into a change of policy. I think of Chris Brown and Kim Lamberty, who were attacked by masked settler youth with bats and chains while accompanying Palestinian shepherd children to school. Their cuts, bruises and broken bones captured international headlines and forced the Israeli government to protect the very same children they once said they couldn’t.
CPT’s budget in 2010 was $1.1 million.
Humanity is in trouble. We have entered the eleventh hour. Half of the world’s coral reef species, a third of its amphibians and a quarter of its mammals are at risk of disappearing. The UN issued a report in 2007 that said a major extinction of life caused by human activity is under way. Global warming, peak oil, the loss of arable farmland, growing food and water shortages, alone and in combination, are a clear and present danger to the social and economic systems that undergird human civilization. Meanwhile, unknown thousands are dying every day and unknown millions more are suffering in refugee camps, shantytowns and destitute villages from the violence of poverty. The future is precarious, the present an outrage, and yet the world spent a staggering $1.5 trillion on the institution of war in 2009. It is estimated that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will cost U.S. taxpayers $3 trillion.
The prevailing wisdom says we have no choice. We must do what it takes, always be ready. War is inevitable, forever looming. War for defence, security, reconstruction, democracy. War to end war. War necessary, right and just.
I too believe that we have no choice. “Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace,” Martin Luther King Jr. said on the eve of his assassination in 1968. “But now … it is no longer a choice
between violence and nonviolence in this world. It’s nonviolence or non-existence.”
The choice facing us is as simple as it is stark. A major extinction of life is under way. We can’t afford to waste another minute or another penny building and maintaining the war machine. If our children, and their children, are to have any hope of a future, we must make a turn, take a different road, mobilize everything, do all we can—and do it today. But we have been taken captive by an idea. The handcuffs and chains that bind us have been forged in the false confidence that violence will save us. It cannot. Inevitably and irresistibly, it will lead to an abyss of mutually assured doom and catastrophe.
Irony and paradox. Here we are in the eleventh hour. The eleventh day of the eleventh month is when we honour the memory of those who have fought and died in war. It is the day we remember a pacifist saint whose cloak is used to mantle the very thing he walked away from. It is the day that I happened to begin writing this book, the story of a pacifist who was taken hostage in the course of opposing a war and was freed by the very institution he condemned.
This book is the story of this paradox. It is the story of my captivity and what I saw there—of the human spirit and freedom, of violence and the way to find our liberation from it. As with any paradox, there is no answer to it; it can only be lived. I tell this story in the hope that we might yet find another way.
NOVEMBER 26, 2005
We present ourselves to the guards at the main entrance. They’re cold, cheerless, brusque. “Passport, passport,” they demand. I hesitate. I have never before been asked by an Iraqi security guard to show my passport. I look at Tom. He nods to me and hands them his passport. It must be okay then, I think.
“Camera, camera,” they say, pointing to me and Norman and Harmeet. A guard sitting at a desk inspects our cameras with scrupulous care. We empty our pockets and lift our arms. Their hands are rude, gruff, intrusively thorough. I am taken aback. My experience of Iraqi security guards is that they are unfailingly courteous, even gentle, when conducting body searches. “No picture, no picture,” they chastise as they hand back our cameras.
“That means you,” I say to Harmeet under my breath. He flashes me an innocent smile.
The Umm al-Qura mosque is nothing if not impressive. At the centre of the gleaming complex is a purple and gold dome ringed by four towering minarets made to look like Scud missiles. Surrounding the dome is a reflecting pool enclosed within a rectangular quadrant. The corners of the quadrant are adorned with a second set of four towers, built to look like Kalashnikov rifles. Two big signs stand at either side of the main gate. “This mosque was built according to the orders of President Saddam Hussein. The cornerstone was laid on April 28, 1998, and the mosque was finished on April 28, 2001”—Saddam’s birthday. He called it Umm al Marik: the Mother of All Battles. The mosque, with a new name, became the headquarters of the Muslim Scholars Association in 2003, a few weeks after Saddam fell.
Outside the security office, we are met by the human rights officer for the Muslim Scholars Association, a heavy-set man with an abundant brown beard and a parsimonious smile. He leads us through the splendiferous precinct of the mosque compound into a gloomy, bunker-like office. He sits behind a barren desk, sullen and remote, and we sit along a wall in plastic lawn chairs, our notebooks open and pens ready.
Norman introduces us as members of a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation who have come to Iraq to learn about the realities of life under American occupation. The human rights officer speaks at length about the suffering caused by the thirteen years of economic sanctions that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the difficulties of life under occupation; the lack of security, electricity and employment; the failure of the United States to initiate a meaningful program of reconstruction; the plight of security detainees. Things were better under Saddam Hussein, he tells us, and he is not hopeful about the prospects for a political solution. He folds his hands on his desk and looks down at the floor. We ask a question. He looks at his watch. Our appointment is over.
We thank him for taking the time to meet with us. He escorts us back to the security office. Harmeet manages somehow to charm a picture out of him. We say goodbye to the grim-faced security guards and trek across the desolate expanse of the Umm al-Qura parking lot to where our driver is waiting. I check my watch. It is 3:10 p.m.
“Did you notice that they didn’t bring us tea?” I say to Tom. “In all of the meetings I’ve had in Iraq, I don’t think that’s ever happened.”
Tom points to the public washroom located outside the mosque entrance. “When I went to the restroom before we went through security, there was somebody in a car watching us. I caught his eyes for just a moment. It was really unusual. I never have these feelings about people, but there was something about him that gave me the creeps. It was like … it was like he didn’t mean us well.”
I wish now that I could remember that walk across the parking lot, the exact number of footsteps it took us to reach the van, how I
held my notebook, the things we said to each other as we climbed into the van and took our seats. How I wish I could remember everything about those last, unremarkable motions, this last handful of things we did as free men before being disappeared into the world of the gun for 118 days.
The van door closes. Issam, our driver, takes us through the mosque checkpoint and turns left onto a lonely arterial road bordering the south side of the mosque. I am sitting with my back to Issam, on a bench seat facing Tom and Harmeet, our knees almost touching. Norman is in the seat behind them, at the back of the van by himself. I turn for one last look at the mosque when the driver slams on the brakes. We all lurch forward. “Hey, what’s going on?” I say.
A white sedan has stopped in front of us. Three doors pop open and four men with guns pour out, surround us, pull our driver and translator out of the van. There are gestures, urgent voices I can’t understand. One of the men gets behind the wheel of our van. Another slides back the panel door and points an AK-47 at us. Two others climb in. Their movements are smooth, quick, precise. They’ve done this before.
“Get down,” one of them says to me. “On the floor.” I look at him. He waves his gun and pushes me. “Move,” he says. I move. Another gunman sits beside him.
Our translator, Adib, is standing alone, ten feet away from the vehicle. We reach for each other through our eyes. That look on his face—I’ve never forgotten it. Terror, helplessness, anguish. One human being bearing witness to the last seconds of another.
The last abductor, training his gun at Tom’s head, slides in next to him and slams the door. The van pulls away, leaving Issam and Adib standing helplessly by the road. Thank God they didn’t hurt them, I think.
I am calm. There is no room, no space for emotion, only observation and response. I look into the eyes of the gunman who has pushed me off the seat. Something tells me he is the boss. He is dark-bearded, twenty-something, impeccably groomed, a steel beam in a
navy blue suit jacket. His eyes are hard, cold with murder. He sits ready, AK-47 on his lap, his finger around the trigger. The one next to him is rounder, wipes sweat off his brow, shifts uneasily. The one next to Harmeet slowly chews a piece of gum, his face acne-scarred and villainous.
Tom, Harmeet and Norman are alert, composed, self-possessed. I search out their eyes. Harmeet sees me. We exchange a quick smile that seems to say, “Can this really be happening?”
Harmeet Singh Sooden is a 32-year-old Canadian Sikh, former computer engineer, student of English literature in Auckland, New Zealand. He’s casual and sporty in loose-fitting trousers and a golf shirt; his hair is jet black, shoulder-length, his right arm hard and sculpted from years of competitive squash play. Norman Kember is a 75-year-old Briton from a London suburb, husband, father and grandfather, retired professor of nuclear biophysics. He’s white-haired, ruddy, robust, bemused and professorial in his tweed jacket, beige vest, brown cotton tie, woollen pants and scruffy oxford shoes. Tom Fox is a 52-year-old American, divorced father of two young adults, retired member of the Marine Corps Band, from Clearbrook, Virginia. He’s tall, lean, severe; clean-cut and military in khakis and a moss green button-down shirt.
The van proceeds east five hundred metres and merges onto a divided highway. I watch, try to absorb and remember everything, strain with every neuron to lay down a mental map of where we are being taken. I say to the one in charge, “My name is Jim.” His eyes don’t even flicker. I keep on trying. “This is Tom”—I point—“and Harmeet, and—”
“No talk,” he says.
Tom reaches slowly into his back pocket to get his wallet. The captor with the AK-47 points his gun at him. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I just want to show you something.” Tom takes out his wallet and pulls out a folded-up copy of our “magic sheet.” “This says who we are. We are men of peace.
. See? Arabi.” The gunman curls his lip and drops the paper on the floor.
The van turns off the divided highway into a neighbourhood of sand-coloured houses hidden behind sand-coloured walls. We turn right, then right, then right again, as if making a circle. The driver honks as he drives through a gaggle of boys playing soccer in the road. We stop in front of a house where two men are holding a gate open. We turn into the driveway and the gate closes behind us. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes have passed.
Our captivity has begun.
The evening before I left for Iraq, Dan showed me some things he’d found on the Internet: photos of men whose tortured bodies had been found in Fallujah; night-time video footage of U.S. soldiers gunning down an unarmed Iraqi man escaping from a burning truck. I could barely look. “This is why you have to go,” he said.
The house filled with friends who came to say goodbye. Joseph and David, a married couple who are friends of ours, took a picture of Dan and me sitting together. I had no way of knowing, but in a few days that picture would be beamed around the world, Dan’s smiling face cropped out of it so the kidnappers would not learn about my sexual identity.
As we lay in bed that night, I asked Dan a question. “If we
this was our last night together, what would we do? Would we fall asleep as usual, or would we do something different?” I was so exhausted I could hardly keep my eyes open.
“I don’t know,” Dan said. The question floated around us in the darkness. Dan put his arm over me and held me close. I fell asleep.
The next day, Dan went to work and I spent the day in a frenzy of packing and last-minute errands. I borrowed a friend’s car and met Dan at his workplace so we could go together to the airport. I pulled out a bar of fair trade chocolate for us to share and slid a disc into the CD player. The Proclaimers began to sing about walking five hundred miles. “It’s too bad we’re in the car,” Dan said. “We could be dancing.”
The traffic was a nightmare. In half an hour we moved one kilometre. “You’re going to miss your flight,” Dan said.
He hates the stress of being late; I love the thrill of arriving just on time. We got to the airport with less than an hour before the flight. We hugged, said goodbye and I dashed off. “Call me if you don’t make it,” Dan yelled. “Okay,” I yelled back.
I arrived in Amman, the capital of Jordan, the next evening at eleven o’clock. I caught a bus to Abdali Square, Amman’s chaotic transit hub, fended off the taxi drivers and carried my luggage to the Al Monzer Hotel, CPT’s home away from home in the Middle East, where delegations assemble before going into Iraq and CPTers stay before travelling to Israel.