Authors: James Loney
They don’t know yet! I can tell them myself! I look over at the clock on the wall. It’s 10:10 a.m. That means it’s 2:10 a.m. back home.
I want to make the call, I tell him. His face is shining. He seems overcome with emotion. He hands me a cellphone. He has to clear his throat before he can speak. “You can keep this. You’ll probably want to make more than one call. Use it any time, as often as you like. I’ll get you the battery charger later.”
“I can call them right now?”
“Yes, of course.” He steps back. “I’ll give you some privacy.”
The cellphone is a Nokia. Just like the one I had when I was kidnapped. I dial my parents’ phone number. It’s ringing. My heart is pounding with excitement. I look over to where Gordon has been standing. He’s slipped away.
The phone only rings twice. “Hello?” the voice says. It’s my mother. “Hello …?”
“Yes? Hello?” she says. Anxious. Urgent.
“It’s … it’s me …” I open my mouth, but the word won’t come. Not without a flood of sobbing. “It’s …” Please don’t make me say it,
, the name you gave me.
I swallow hard and take a deep breath. I can say it now. “It’s James,” I say.
“James! Is that really you? Oh my God! It’s James! Pat, it’s James! Where are you? James! Thank God! You’re all right?”
“James!” Another voice on the phone. Worried and relieved. It’s my father. “Where are you?”
“I’m … I’m out. I’m free.”
“You’re out?” my dad says.
“I’m free! It’s over.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Baghdad. In the Green Zone. It’s over.”
“Oh, James! It’s really you! Thank God! I can’t believe it,” my mother says.
“And thank Allah,” my dad says.
“I’m sorry about all this, what you’ve had to go through,” I say.
“Oh no, James, you have nothing to be sorry for,” my father says.
“We’re just so happy you’re all right. You won’t believe everything that’s happened. We’ve learned so much,” my mother says.
They begin to tell me about the people who prayed for us, all the cards and letters they received, how people brought them food, sent money, how my brother Matthew cut his trip to Ecuador short, how Ed and Donna came from Vancouver, how they all went on television.
“It’ll take a whole day for us to tell you everything,” my mom says.
“We even have a cellphone and a computer,” my dad says.
“A cellphone and a computer!” I laugh. “The kidnapping has brought you into the modern age.” I’m relieved, astounded, amazed. They aren’t angry. Not even a little. They’re simply grateful.
Then I call Dan. This call is easier. I’m ready, ecstatic. “Hello?” he says, uncertain, nervous. Here it is, finally, the call he’s been waiting for—the call I’ve been waiting for.
“Dan, it’s me, it’s Jim, it’s over!”
“Jim! Where are you? Are you safe?”
“Yes, I’m fine, I’m okay.”
“Thank God!” he says. “Thank God!”
I’m standing in a hospital gown, I tell him, with an intravenous in my arm, getting a medical checkup. It’s over. It was a military rescue. No shots were fired, no one was hurt. Harmeet and Norman are safe, they’re both fine, everybody’s fine. He asks me if I know about Tom. The soldiers told us, I say. I ask if they found his body. I have to make sure. Yes, he says. I can hear him knocking on doors, calling to Michael and Jo and Lorraine, my housemates. It’s Jim, I’m talking to Jim, he’s safe, I hear, then cheers and laughing. I ask Dan to call Doug and let him know. Then
I see Gordon motioning me. I have to go, I say, though I don’t want to. I want to keep talking and talking. I feel I have a lifetime of stories to tell.
“I can’t believe it. It’s really over,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, “it’s really over.”
I am in an altered state, delirious with joy, awash in gratitude. A trembling, newborn human being in awe of everything. They tell me, again and again, if there’s anything you need or want, any time of the day or night, just let us know. This, truly, is the only thing I want—for everything around me to stop, and to just sit, and bask, in the glory of just-being-alive.
But things are moving fast. Too fast. There are things to do, people to speak to, decisions to make. After four months of nothing-ever-happening, I feel as if I’ve been strapped onto the wing of a supersonic jet. One of the first decisions I have to make is whether or not to take a call from the prime minister. I am stunned. The prime minister wants to speak to me? Yes, they say. I feel myself panicking, my tongue tying itself in knots. Why? I groan.
There were a lot of Canadians concerned about you, they tell me. The prime minister just wants to welcome you back—on behalf of the Canadian people. I suddenly remember the news clip I saw of the House of Commons early in the captivity. “Who is it? Is it Paul Martin?”
Of course, you don’t know, there was an election. You won’t believe it, they say. It’s Stephen Harper.
“What! Stephen Harper!” I’m in shock. If he’d been in power at the time, Canada would have followed George W. Bush into Iraq. “Tell me he didn’t win a majority!”
Just a minority, they say.
I’m immediately suspicious. “Why does he want to speak to me?” I ask. He must have a political motive.
Don’t worry, they say, it’s strictly a personal call. There’ll be no media. He just wants to welcome you back. Think about it. It’s totally up to you. But remember, he’s really representing the Canadian people.
After the hospital, they bring us to the British embassy’s guest rooms—a series of metal shipping containers that have been converted into personal quarters. “Pretty ingenious, ah?” Gordon says. “They’re inexpensive, safe and surprisingly comfortable.” He points to one that was hit with mortar shrapnel.
I close the door. Finally, I am alone. What bliss. The room smells of soap. Everything is scrubbed and dusted and polished and glistening. There’s a meticulously made bed, a desk, a reading chair, a private bathroom with a shower—all mine to use! I feel as if I’m in heaven. On the desk are a basket of fruit and a handful of energy and granola bars. I eat one immediately. There’s a bag sitting on the chair full of wonders: disposable razors, shaving cream, packages of soap, deodorant, clean socks and underwear, a comb! And, most thrilling of all, the pants and shirt I’d left hanging on the clothesline the day we were kidnapped. Proof that I really did have a life before the kidnapping.
I strip off the clothes I was given at the hospital and jump into the shower. I want to live the rest of my life under that shower. I have to force myself to turn off the tap and swear an oath against taking any more long showers. I am in Baghdad, after all, where it is a sin to waste even a drop of water. I comb my hair for the first time in four months. I stare at my body for a long time, marvelling at the chariot God has given me to move in, the wondrous, incomprehensible fact that I am alive and safe and no longer have to be afraid.
I am just getting dressed when I hear a knock on the door. “Hey Jim, are you in there?” Gordon calls. He sounds impatient. I wonder how much time has passed.
“Be right there,” I say. I like it here. I don’t want to go anywhere else.
Gordon takes Harmeet and me to a big reception room in the British embassy, where we are joined by Stewart Henderson, Canada’s chargé d’affaires to Iraq, and his assistant Sonia Hooykaas. Harmeet looks like a university dude once again in his track pants and sweatshirt. Norman is already there, dressed in the slacks, dress shirt and
tie he travelled to Iraq in. He looks stricken, anxious, vulnerable. He’s on the phone with his wife, Pat. All he can manage is a stammer. Adrian, Gordon’s counterpart at Scotland Yard, has to finish the call for him.
Adrian pulls me aside. He is worried about Norman. Is there anything he should know, anything he can do to help? I think Norman will be okay, I say. He’s just overcome with emotion, needs time, and most of all, he needs to get home to Pat. Adrian nods.
They bring us to a groaning board buffet heaped with salads, cold cuts, rolls, vegetables, dips, sandwiches, soups, casseroles, fruit, pastries and desserts, and, unbelievably, somebody standing by in a white uniform waiting to cut us slabs of prime rib. Do we want to sit inside or out in the sun? they ask us. The sun! we say. We sit down with our plates on plastic chairs arranged around plastic tables next to the dazzling aquamarine of the British embassy swimming pool. This lunch is part of their plan, they tell us, to help restore our freedom, to let us know we have the power to make choices again.
Do we need anything? Sonia asks us. She is a fountain of warmth, laughter, exuberant grace. Shoes, we say at once. “Hmmm,” she says, looking at our feet. “I’m not sure what they’ll have at the commissary, but I’ll have a look. Anything else?” Norman needs a sweater, I need a belt.
She returns an hour later, out of breath, hands full of bags. “I hope this is okay,” she says. “It’s all they had.” She hands us each a pair of Nike Air running shoes. They fit perfectly. She hands me a sand-coloured belt made of webbing. It’s all they had, she says apologetically.
“That’s great, much better than this,” I say, showing her the green string I’ve been using to hold my pants up. “How do we pay you for these?” I ask, uneasy because we have no money.
They laugh, wave their hands. Don’t worry about it, they say.
The call comes at two p.m.—six a.m. in Ottawa. I swallow hard as Gordon hands me his cellphone. What does one say to a prime minister whose policies you totally disagree with? “Hello?” I say.
“Hello? James? It’s Stephen Harper,” the voice says. “Congratulations! Welcome back. This sure is some good news. There were an awful lot of Canadians praying for you. How are you doing? It must’ve been quite an ordeal. I can’t imagine …”
“I’m quite fine … now … that it’s over. I’m … it’s … it’s great to be alive.”
“We’re all so relieved that you made it. Though, of course, not all of you. I’m sorry about your friend, Tom Fox.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Well, I imagine it’s going to take some time to get over something like this,” he says.
“Thank you. For everything … I mean … the government did so much …”
“Don’t you worry about that. We’re just glad you and Harmeet are okay. Be gentle with yourself. Just take things one day at a time. And your parents? Have you talked with your parents? They must be thrilled …”
“Yes, they were the first ones I called. That was the best phone call I’ve ever made.”
“I’ll bet,” he says.
When the call is over, I wonder why I’d been so stressed. He was remarkably easy to talk to—like talking to an ordinary person.
“Do you want to see our operations room?” Gordon asks the three of us. “There are some people there who worked on your release. They’d just like to say hello. We only have to go for a minute.”
Sure, we say. We leave one walled and guarded compound, cross a road and enter another, what was once a girls’ school. We walk through a courtyard where two mortars landed on the day of Gordon’s arrival. “I had just crossed through. If they’d hit a minute sooner, I’d be dead,” he tells us, shuddering at the memory.
We follow Gordon into a windowless room. I am nervous, remembering the reprimand the officer gave us before we got on the helicopter; I wonder if these people will be resentful too. We are greeted with cheers, people standing, clapping, wiping tears from their eyes. They shake our hands as if we are returning heroes. I am stunned. The room is divided into about ten workstations. There are phones, computers, piles of paper. There’s a map of Baghdad on the wall, specific places marked with coloured pins. This is where the joint-release effort was coordinated. People worked here twenty-four hours a day, manning phones, following up on leads, talking to Ottawa. I can’t believe it.
He shows us our pictures, surrounded with printed reports, Post-its, various handwritten notes. “We put these up so we’d have a picture of who we were working for—to help us feel connected to the four of you. It’s strange, isn’t it,” he says. “We’ve just met you today, but I feel like I’ve known you forever. It amazes me how you can feel so … how much you can feel for a person you’ve never even met. And now to … to have the three of you standing in this very room … right beside me … I can’t express how … to have it work out … We didn’t know what was going to happen, but it worked out, except of course for Tom. In that I failed. I wanted to bring all of you home. But we’re not. We’re leaving one of you behind.
“You know, I predicted it, a week before it happened, that they were going to kill him. That’s part of my job, to try and anticipate what the kidnappers are going to do next. And that forms the basis for what we decide to do next. You can get to know them. If you can get inside their skin, then they can be very predictable. I wish that I’d been wrong, but sadly I was right. It’s sort of a grim consolation. It tells me I was on the right track, doing my job properly. In my last report, I came to the conclusion that you had about two weeks. It wasn’t imminent, but it was coming. It was becoming clear that we had to act, we couldn’t wait any longer. But we weren’t going to do anything to jeopardize your safety. That was the goal from the very start, to get all of you out safely. And we wanted to respect your values as much as possible. We didn’t want any violence. And there wasn’t. We got you out without anyone
getting hurt, without a shot being fired. We were successful there. The tragedy is that we weren’t fast enough to get Tom.” Gordon pats each of us on the shoulder. “But we have you guys.”
I look at him and smile, then look down at the floor. I don’t know what to say. I could never have imagined that a total stranger—and an RCMP officer at that!—could care so much about my welfare.
Gordon wants to take Harmeet and me to meet some RCMP officers. “They just want to shake your hands,” he says. “Do you mind? It’ll just be a minute. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but they’ve asked just to see you. It’s hard to explain … they’ve worked so hard.” I’m not sure, but I think he might be fighting back tears.
Sure, we say. We want to thank anyone and everyone.