Authors: James Loney
“Do you recognize him?” Tom asks.
There it is again, that irresistible desire to please. I don’t know, I say, I can’t tell. It sure looks like him, I think, but I can’t be sure. I look at Harmeet. He shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he says.
I look at André and Tom. “What’s his name?” I ask.
“I think they call him Abu Luay,” André says, looking over at Tom. Tom nods.
Abu Luay. The father of Luay. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a nickname.
“When was he picked up?” I ask.
Around midnight, they say.
“And he voluntarily gave the information about where we were?”
Not exactly, they say, but they never touched him. They asked him to tell them where you were. When he wouldn’t, they said all right, take him outside. That was all they said, take him outside, and then he spilled the beans. This was all the Americans, of course. We’ve never had any contact with him.
Later, I will read a book written by Mark Urban called
Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq
. According to Urban, the operation to secure our release was called Operation Lightwater. The British special forces detachment was under “constant pressure from London” to find us. The search involved monitoring cellphone traffic, raiding houses and using seized cellphones to generate network maps to target more suspects. As the kidnapping wore on and Tom was killed, the pace became relentless. In the final two weeks, Squadron B was out every night. Urban says fifty buildings were raided during the course of the operation and forty-seven people were detained. “Tactical questioning”—utilizing the shock of capture by interrogating detainees on the scene—was crucial. He quotes one veteran as saying, “Individuals were exploited to get to him [Kember]—both by putting them under duress and not.” They hit the jackpot in the early morning hours of March 23. The target, apparently, was a house in Mishahda, an area about thirty-two kilometres northwest of Baghdad. They found two men they were looking for. “One of them, Abu Laith,
clearly knew something about the kidnapping. Under pressure—people who know about the operation reject the use of such words as ‘beating’ or ‘torture’—Abu Laith began to talk.” Presumably using “Abu Laith’s” cellphone, the SAS called the captors to tell them they were on the way. “How about you disappear and we won’t come after you,” they were warned.
I read Urban’s book with a grain of salt. Among other inaccuracies, he calls me “Tom Loney” and reports the location of the
kidnapping as the “university area of Baghdad.” We were nowhere near the university.
Tom and André want to know if they can ask us a few questions. It’s just for their own information; it’s important for them to learn as much as they can from each case so they can do their job better in the future. Hearing from us helps them to complete the picture.
I say okay. It is almost a compulsion—I want,
to tell the story—and it seems to be the least I can do, a way to express my gratitude, giving them the other half of the story. We don’t know much anyway, I tell myself. Beyond providing them with a complete physical description, whatever we tell them will be of little practical use apart from satisfying their curiosity. They listen carefully, without interrupting. Harmeet listens while I do most of the talking.
At one o’clock in the morning Tom and André say they’ve kept us far too long, we look tired, they should let us get some sleep. But it is they who need the sleep. I am wired. Neither of us sleep at all that night.
Our departure time is set for 10:30 a.m. The guest book the ambassador told us to sign is on a little table just inside the front door, where his assistant has his office. It feels momentous, to take the pen into my hand, to write my name, to say
I was here, on this day, March 25, 2006
, to officially declare it: my being here matters. My eyes fill with tears. There are no words to say how grateful I am. I write my name under Harmeet’s, who has written his under Norman’s. Beside my name there is a space to identify myself. “A free human being,” I write.
“You’ll need to put one of these on,” Gordon says, helping me into a flak jacket. “They take some getting used to. How does it feel?” he asks, stepping back.
I take a few steps. It is astonishingly heavy. I feel as if I’m moving through chest-high water on rubber legs. I rap my knuckle against the body of the jacket. “It’s like a steel life jacket,” I say. I think of the soldiers who rescued us, the full-body armour and all the equipment they wore, how effortlessly they seemed to move, how strong they must’ve been.
We pile into an armoured SUV. A Gurkha drives us to a staging area. Gordon gets out first. He opens the door for me and holds out his arm. “You want a hand?”
“I’ll be okay,” I say, declining his help. I slide off the seat and step onto the ground. My knees buckle and I catapult forward. Gordon, standing ready, catches me before I fall flat on my face. “Thanks,” I say, sheepish.
“It’ll be a while before you get your strength back,” he says.
“Don’t worry, the same thing happened to me,” Stewart says. “The first time I got out of a vehicle wearing one of these things, I just about went head over heels, and it wasn’t from love.”
A helicopter takes us to the Baghdad airport. As we vault over the city, I remember how at the first house the helicopters would roar overhead in a constant procession and how we always assumed they were travelling between the Green Zone and the airport. Now we are the ones roaring overhead, and somewhere down below us is a house with a picture of the Sacred Heart hanging on the wall where, for a time, we lived in the shadow of death.
We take shelter from the sun under a wood-frame pavilion on the edge of an airfield. It seems to be taking forever. Harmeet nudges me. “See that?” he asks under his breath, pointing his chin towards a concrete separation barrier, the words scrawled in black spray paint.
. Yes, I nod.
Gordon gives us the sign and it’s time to go. It’s a long walk across the tarmac. I’m glad he insisted on carrying my backpack. My legs are trembling under the weight of my flak jacket and I am growing short of breath.
“That’s it over there,” Gordon says, pointing to the dark, hulking outline of the plane that will take us to Dubai.
Gordon had never said, and I never asked. I don’t know until I see it, the Canadian flag, the Government of Canada logo under the cockpit. My eyes fill with tears. I can’t believe it. They sent a Hercules! Here,
to Baghdad, to bring us home! We were Canadians in trouble and they came.
They came for us!
I don’t know how or when, but I vow to give something back.
“Would you like to go up to the flight deck?” they ask us. Sure, we say, astonished. We follow a crew member up a ladder into the brilliant light of the cockpit. There are four men working in a tight space crammed with instruments, everything metal and glass. I am nervous, ready for a disapproving lecture about our having diverted them from more urgent tasks, wasting government resources. There is none of that. They welcome us warmly and give us headsets so we can communicate with them. Somebody points to the brown world below us and explains that we are following the Shatt al Arab to the Arabian Gulf and that Iran is to our left.
They ask us questions. What’s life like in Iraq? How are the people being affected by the war? Why did we go in the first place? I explain about Rick Yuskiw, how he had gone to school with my brother and lived two blocks from where I grew up. He joined the Canadian military and was sent to Afghanistan. His best friend was one of the first Canadians to be killed there. It really challenged me, I say. If Rick was prepared to risk his life serving his country, then I who believed in non-violence should be prepared to take some of the same risks too. Harmeet explains about joining the CPT delegation and wanting to learn first-hand about the realities of Iraqi life under American and British occupation.
What’s CPT? they ask. We explain. That takes real bravery, they say.
Someone pulls out a little black book. He opens his flight book to a page where somebody has written, Thanks
for the lift, guys!
Underneath, it is signed,
. “Do you know who this is?” he asks me, grinning ear to ear.
“No,” I say.
“We brought him into Afghanistan just last week. His first big trip out of the country.”
“That’s right,” they say, laughing.
We just talked to him, we say. He called us just after we were rescued.
“Here,” he says shyly, handing me his book and a pen, “would you mind?”
“You want me to sign your book?” I say, shocked.
“Yes, if you don’t mind. It would be an honour.”
There are three more books for us to sign. Then somebody presents each of us with a khaki shoulder patch.
436 Tactical Airlift
, it reads,
On Target–On Time
. In the middle of the patch is a picture of an elephant with a Canadian flag hanging off each tusk. That’s us, he says. We go wherever we have to, do whatever’s needed. We’re the pachyderm of the Canadian Forces.
Thank you, we say.
Hey, can you do us a favour? they ask. There are two flight crews—A Team and B Team. We’re the A Team. We’re always joking with each other about who’s the best. We are, of course, because we’re the A Team. So if you’re talking to the media, and you happen to talk about your trip home, if you could just mention sometime that A Team is the best, that’ll really burn their asses.
We laugh. We’ll do our best, we say.
The original plan was to land in Dubai. That’s where Harmeet’s father and his brother-in-law have gone to meet Harmeet, where the New Zealand media outlet that paid for their flight is waiting to film their reunion. But Gordon does an end run around the media by changing the itinerary at the last minute. They take us to Abu Dhabi instead, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
We say goodbye to the flight crew and barely have time to walk the fifty metres from the plane to the airport terminal before the big C-130 is turning back towards the runway. We wave one last time and watch with pride as they mount the sky once again. They weren’t on the ground more than five minutes.
We are met by cameras, an official delegation from the United Arab Emirates, and the Canadian ambassador. The latter, a genial, down-to-earth man, drives me, Harmeet and Stewart to Le Royal Méridien Hotel. He tells us all about the UAE as he drives through the gleaming-skyscraper city. Only 20 percent of the population has citizenship, he says. The remaining 80 percent are guest workers from all over the world, most notably India and the Philippines.
We are astonished yet again to learn that we are the official guests of Sheik Khalifa, current president of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Abu Dhabi. We are each given a suite in which to rest before our next flight. Harmeet’s flight is at ten p.m., mine at eleven-thirty.
Our final adventure together is a shopping trip with Sonia to a nearby mall. Harmeet needs clothes and I need a belt. It is a bewildering world of consumer opulence and pampering. I walk around, staring at everything like a wide-eyed infant, surrounded by an infinity of choices. After much wandering and hopeless indecision about where to go, Sonia finally takes charge and directs us to a chain store called Giordano. I have to keep reminding myself that I am in Abu Dhabi, not Toronto or Buffalo.
I am glad I only have to decide on a belt. It is a very complex decision. I don’t want to waste taxpayers’ money, so it can’t cost too much, but it has to be of reasonable quality so it will last awhile, and I don’t want it to come from a sweatshop, and it has to be something that I am going to wear in the future, so it can’t be too thick or too thin, or too small, since I expect to return to my normal weight. And then of course there’s the colour, and the style of buckle … It takes me half an hour. I feel sorry for Harmeet, who has to choose a shirt and a pair of pants. He agonizes for an hour before Sonia, unable to stand it any longer, orders Harmeet to “Just pick something! Anything!”
Then Harmeet and I walk back to the hotel together. He is distraught. His father is taking a taxi from Dubai to meet him at the hotel. He worries that his father won’t understand why he doesn’t want to be bought and sold and packaged for some sensationalist media exclusive. He worries that his father will feel slighted, perhaps even
dishonoured, and that this will overshadow their reunion. None of this is what he wants.
I leave Harmeet to prepare for his father’s visit. He expects his father in an hour. I will come to meet them in the lobby. In the meantime, I decide to go for a walk. I’m desperate to be alone. I exit the lobby and step outside. I am delirious with joy. Finally, for the first time in 120 days, I am really and truly alone. No one to be responsible for, no one to please, no one to fear. I can go left, or right, or stay right where I am, for as long as I care to! I can do anything, go anywhere! I turn towards the ocean. I skip, twirl, dance. I would cartwheel if I felt strong enough. I don’t care what
thinks. I am free!
I walk down a sidewalk through a garden onto the beach. Every step is bliss. Everything is incredible, amazing, astounding, miraculous. I cry with joy for every blade of grass and flower petal and grain of sand and washed-up piece of plastic. I raise my hands to the blue sky above me and send kisses riding on the ocean breeze. I greet all the glass buildings rising around me, the industrial docks reaching into the water, the rusty ships that sit anchored to them. I take my shoes off and run splashing along the water’s edge, exulting in the bone-chilling cold. I sit and pour sand through my fingers and say thank you a thousand times.
I sit for a long time. Maybe too long, I start to think. I don’t want to miss meeting Harmeet’s father. I turn to go back to the hotel. There is an outdoor pool between the beach and the hotel. There are all kinds of people, just lying around, sitting on towels, reading books, smoking cigarettes, chatting! All marvellously, obliviously, gloriously free! And no one afraid! I stop to watch. There are children, splashing, kicking, swimming, jumping in the water, calling out to parents, arguing over a floating toy! A father wraps a towel around his shivering daughter. A mother bends down to her son as he asks a question. A young couple talk animatedly, their legs touching under a table. I am surrounded by ordinary, everyday human love. I can hardly see for my tears. If I wanted to, I think, I could just disappear, right here and now, in a single, joyous burst of light. But I don’t want to. I want to go home.