|Hostage in Iraq: Five days in Hell|
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7:16 p.m., 7 September, Tal Afar Iraq. It was nearly dusk when we arrived at the city outskirts of Tal Afar. On the main highway to Mosul, about a dozen Iraqi policemen at a checkpoint were supervising a frightened exodus of civilian refugees. For the past week there had been media reports of escalating violence between resistance fighters and U.S. troops in Tal Afar, and already the many of the residents had fled the embattled city. From American services in the Mosul Airfield, I had learned earlier that day that a major U.S. offensive was about to begin. The Americans had reinforced their local garrison with an additional battalion of armour and infantry and I was advised that within days, the U.S. military was going to ‘clean house’ in Tal Afar.
It was my intention to enter the city before it was shut down, and then send reports about the civilian casualties and possible humanitarian crisis that would result from a major battle.
Admittedly, it had not been easy to find a taxi driver willing to take me to Tal Afar. All the drivers in Mosul had been warned that the mujahedeen were in control of the city – and that it was ‘too dangerous’. One Kurdish fellow disagreed with his colleagues and said that their fears were unfounded. With daylight fading, we quickly made a bargain on the fare and set off.
Tal Afar is an almost entirely Turkmen enclave in northwestern Iraq. I had just finished writing a book about the history of these Turkish – speaking indigenous Iraqis. As part of my research, I had visited Tal Afar in June and felt that if I could just reach my known contacts, I would be safe among friends. I knew there would be some risk involved – particularly once the Americans attacked – but I planned to observe the fighting from a safe house, well away from any actual combat.
The sight of U.S. paid Iraqi police forces monitoring traffic had seemed like a good sign that things were still under control, despite the recent fighting. As I did not have an exact address for my previous contact, I approached a police checkpoint to ask for assistance. When I asked them to be taken “to Dr. Yashar”, they recognized his name as a prominent local Turkmen official and eagerly nodded in the affirmative. A senior policeman was summoned and he instructed me and Zeynep Tugrul, a Turkish journalist filing her own reports for Sabah, a daily national newspaper, to climb into a nearby car containing four masked gunman. As we clambered into the backseat, one of the gunmen said in excellent English, “We will take you to Doctor Yashar – please do not be afraid”.
I had presumed that these men were some sort of special police force – our own Canadian counter – terrorists teams often wear ski-masks – so I had no immediate cause for concern. However, as soon as we entered Tal Afar, I saw that the streets were full of similarly masked resistance fighters armed with Kalashnikov rifles and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). I suddenly realized we were in the hands of the resistance. Still believing that they were taking me to my friend’s house, instead we were ushered into a small courtyard outside a walled two – story building. There were about a half dozen armed men inside – none of them smiling.
As soon as the metal door clanged shut behind us, the English – speaking leader said, “You are spies… and now you are prisoners”. All of our cameras, equipment and identification were taken from us and we were told to sit on a mat with our backs to the wall. “The Americans will attack soon and I have to see to my men,” said our captor. “I will deal with you when I return”.
Shortly after nightfall, they brought a platter of food into the compound, and in what would soon become a routine pattern, they served us first before eating dinner themselves. Admittedly I did not have much of an appetite.
The plates had just been cleared away when another car pulled up outside and four more gunmen came quickly through the door. Before I could even react, I was pulled to my feet and pressed against the wall with my hands on top of my head. Almost immediately I heard the distinct sound of a Kalashnikov being cocked about a metre behind me. In fear and shock at the realization that they were about to execute me, Zeynep screamed at them in Turkish: “Don’t shoot him… he has a son!”