|Hostage in Iraq: Five days in Hell|
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!”
The outburst was enough to distract them momentarily and they began to explain to her the necessity of killing a “Jewish spy”. Thankfully, I had no idea what was being said. The brief discussion was still taking place when our original captor returned. Harsh words were exchanged between the two groups of gunmen, and it seemed as though a prisoner’s fate was the proprietorship of those who made the capture: The would-be executioners left.
It was at this point that Zeynep was blindfolded and taken away for questioning. The remaining guards – their ages ranging from 15 to 50 – took alternating turns between watching me and crouching behind the second – floor parapet and looking in the sky for signs of the imminent U.S. attack.
About two hours later, it was my turn to be blindfolded and roughly manhandled into what felt to be an SUV or Land Rover. At the second house, I was rushed through several doorways and up several stairs. With my hands tied behind my back and unable to see, I stumbled and fell several times only to be pulled forcibly back to my feet and once again shoved forward. “Hurry, hurry, you bastard Jew,” whispered one of my guards as he slammed my head into a doorframe.
I was forced to lie face down on a mat, and two men carefully searched through all of my pockets. Finding my money inside my sock (about $700 U.S.) they laughed and said, “Your money is our money – you won’t need cash in heaven”.
It was difficult to gauge how long I laid there in the dark, but my shoulders were aching when they finally untied my hands and brought me to another room for interrogation. My blindfold was removed and they shone a bright flashlight directly in my eyes. “Which intelligence agency are you working for?” began the questioning. For about one hour I did my best to answer all their allegations and explain to them my intentions for going to Tal Afar was as a journalist. Two men were questioning me. In what seemed like a bad Hollywood comedy, someone started up a generator outside and, the lights came back on and the two interrogators clumsily tried to pull their ski-masks back on before I could recognize their faces.
With the tension broken, the one who had identified himself as “Emir” (leader) actually started to laugh and left his mask off. This man had been among the group that had taken us at the police checkpoint. “Sleep now and I will check your story. If you are telling the truth, we will release you – if not, you die,” he said.
* * * *
It was about 6 a.m. the following morning when I was kicked awake, rolled onto my stomach, blindfolded and bound. This time they transported Zeynep and I at the same time. Although the vehicle had roared through the deserted streets at top speed, you could hear the engines of U.S. unmanned aircraft flying overhead, watching every move made by the resistance. Knowing that these “Predators” have the capability to not only transmit video images but also launch guided missiles, I felt incredibly vulnerable during that short drive. At the third house, our blindfolds were removed and we were fed a generous breakfast of fried eggs and flatbread. After a cup of tea, I was escorted to a small room with barred windows. There were three guards at this facility which appeared to be a small house or workshop. Two were middle-aged men while the other was just a 15-year-old boy. They were obviously not frontline mujahedeen, but were still supportive of the resistance.
In the first hours, they had been very strict in enforcing the rules. I was to sit on a broken chair in the middle of my cell. However, as the temperature rose to a 45° Celsius and my sun-baked room turned into an oven, they had compassionately allowed me to venture outside. By nightfall everyone was so relaxed that Zeynep and I sat eating dinner and talking to our guards. The young boy stated that his only ambition in life was to “die a martyr.” Shortly past dark, the Emir returned and informed that he had confirmed that we were not spies. He gave a ‘Muslim promise’ to set us free in the morning. On this night Zeynep and I would remain his ‘guests’. We were also about to become front – row spectators to an intense battle between resistance and the U.S. forces.
* * * *
Just past midnight, the American Apache helicopters attacked. Their arrival over Tal Afar was greeted by a heavy barrage of RPG and cannon fire. We could hear the distinctive ‘crack’, ‘whump’ sounds of the Iraqi rocket grenades being launched and then deafening bursts of fire from the Apaches.
From inside the workshop’s courtyard, we could not see the battle’s progress, but from the sounds of the gunfire we could plot its course. On several occasions, the mujahedeen fighters all across the city would scream out “Allah akbar! Allah akbar!” (God is great!) I had first thought that these cries were in response to them downing a helicopter, but our young guard explained that they were cheering the deaths of their own, newly created martyrs.
At about 3 a.m. there was a loud banging on the courtyard gate. Our guards let a mujahedeen fighter inside, and he spoke quickly with them in Turkish. Hurriedly a storeroom was opened and the fighter helped himself to three RPGs, which he tucked inside his belt. I could see inside the small room, which was literally packed with munitions, and I realized that we were being held captive in one of the resistance’s ammo depots. The fighter took a bowl of water, drank thirstily, then rushed back out onto the darkened streets. Minutes later he began firing from a rooftop about fifty metres away. He had only managed to launch two of his rockets before he disappeared in a burst of 25 mm cannon fire from an Apache which literally blew him into pieces. Following a brief silence came the chorus of “Allah Akbar!”
* * * *
In the morning, Tal Afar was strangely quiet except for the continuous buzzing of the unmanned Predators overhead. The Apaches were gone and the resistance was licking its wounds. It was reported that 50 mujahedeen had been killed and another 120 wounded. The worst news of all was that the Emir had been killed, the target of a Predator missile that had successfully destroyed his Land Rover. While his followers celebrated his martyrdom, the Emir’s death left a power vacuum among the mujahedeen.
Around mid-morning, a group of gunmen arrived at the workshop to take us away. Zeynep pleaded with them in Turkish that we were to go free, but it was to no avail. “We received no such instruction,” said the man who now appeared to be in charge. “You are spies.”
This time they were extremely rough in applying my blindfold. It was tied so tight I could sense losing blood circulation in my brain. They pushed and prodded me blindly towards a car and then deliberately bashed my head against the doorframe. “Jewish pig!” spat one of the guards.
At the fourth house, which smelled like some sort of farm complex, I was once again rushed through doorways and then down into a cellar. In addition to the blindfold they placed a hood over my head and I felt I was suffocating in the heat and dust. I could feel the fear well up inside me as one of the gunmen forced me onto a mat and placed the barrel of a Kalashnikov against my neck. “Don’t speak… Don’t move.”
Another group of men entered the cellar and began questioning Zeynep as to our identity. She told them of the Emir’s promise, and advised them that our papers, ID and passports were all at the first house. Finally, we were allowed to remove the hoods while the mujahedeen went to check out our story. At this point I realized that there was another prisoner in the room with us. He was an Iraqi from Mosul – also accused of spying. He was not allowed to remove his hood.
Throughout the rest of the morning, there was plenty of activity in the resistance bunker. About thirty or so fighters were busy transferring stockpiles of RPGs and explosives. In addition to the gruff male voices, we could hear an elderly woman shouting encouragement to the men. “They call her mother” whispered Zeynep. “She is encouraging her ‘sons’ to go out and become martyrs and die in battle. Can you believe it?”
Our previous interrogator returned to our makeshift cell to advise us that our bags, cameras, and identity papers were now buried in a heap of rubble: The first house had been destroyed by a precision – guided bomb. With no proof of our nationality or profession, a heated debate among the fighters soon erupted outside in the corridor.
Listening to their conversation, Zeynep suddenly gasped: “Oh my god – they’re going to shoot us!” I fought to suppress the panic that I felt. It was then the other prisoner spoke for the first time. In good English he said, “Are you sure?”
The door burst open and several men stepped inside. “Stand up,” one of them said to me. “You are the first to die, American pig”. My hands were still tied and I felt helpless as one of them approached me with another blindfold. I told them that I did not want a blindfold – not out of any bravado, but because I found that the sense of fear was magnified by the inability to see. I received a punch on the head for my protest and the blindfold was pulled snugly into place. This time they added a gag and a black hood.
Once again, I could feel the claustrophobia and fear beginning to panic me, and I struggled to maintain some composure. The cries of fear and alarm from Zeynep had caught the attention of the woman, who apparently had not realized that the men were detaining a female. She entered our cell and a heated discussion took place between her and the fighters. Several times I was struck during this conversation and I still believed I was about to die. Finally one of the mujahedeen came close to me and whispered, “I have a brother in Canada… I have just saved you my friend – at least for now”.
Instead of being shot, they had decided to take us with them. They had learned that the Americans were about to bomb their complex so they were going to leave Tal Afar until the air strikes were over. The hood and mask remained in place, and the man who said he’d saved me warned me not to make any noise. “If my people hear someone speak English they will beat you to death before I can stop them – now move!”
Once again I was roughly manhandled through the passageways and pushed into the backseat of a car. I was shaking uncontrollably as I realized that I was not going to die – at least not that moment.
* * * *
Although the Americans had claimed they had ‘sealed off’ Tal Afar prior to launching their offensive, I soon learned it was nothing more than wishful thinking. We had left the bunker in a six car convoy and made our way northward into the open desert. It had taken some time before the mujahedeen in our car had relented and allowed us to remove our hoods and blindfolds. Our hands were still tied, but I had sweat so much in the 45° heat that the moisture had loosened the straps. I was able to free my hands easily – and in an effort to gain their trust, I had shown them that my bonds needed to be retied. The man next to me had simply laughed and instructed me to “forget about it”…. After all where can you go in the desert?
As we began chatting, this short grey – haired man with a close – cropped beard informed me that his brother was the now – deceased Emir. “I’m sorry about his death,” I said to which he replied, “Why be sorry? We celebrate his entry into Heaven.”
What was reassuring to me was that, as the brother of the former leader, this man appeared to have filled the immediate leadership void in the group. I was especially relieved to learn that his brother had told him of the decision to set us free. We were also told that we had only to have our identities confirmed – via a Google search on the internet – and he would keep the promise of the martyred Emir. In the meantime, we would remain with the mujahedeen.
Around 2 p.m. we had stopped near a remote desert house. The nearly 30 fighters had assembled around our car and began to conduct a mass prayer. Zeynep and I were instructed to remain in the car. It was as they were engrossed in their prayer that I spotted the two American helicopters coming out of the south – low and fast and headed straight towards our parked convoy. I cried out in alarm. At first the mujahedeen were angry at the interruption until they too spotted the approaching threat. Caught out in the open, they were sitting ducks. Nobody could move; they simply watched the helicopters steadily bear down on us.
At about 800 metres distance, the gunships inexplicably banked away to the east without so much as a reconnaissance overpass of our mysterious group of vehicles in the middle of the desert. We had to have been in plain view, but the Americans turned away. “They always fly the same patrol routes” explained one of the fighters, “They see nothing.”
Shortly after the helicopters had departed two additional cars joined us and the mujahedeen began hastily transferring the huge stockpiles of explosives and rockets into them. “We are making them into suicide bombs,” said Mubashir, the Emir’s brother, of the cars being loaded and wired. “These men will head back into Tal Afar and use the vehicles to destroy the American armoured vehicles.” A total of four mujahedeen climbed into the suicide cars and as they drove back into the battle, their comrades shouted a final encouragement.
We proceeded on through the desert towards the northern outskirts of Mosul. Along the way we stopped at several farmhouses where the residents eagerly offered the fighters food and water. When we actually entered the Mosul checkpoint, the Iraqi police appeared to take no notice of the dusty column of cars packed with bearded men armed with Kalashnikov’s and RPG’s. A gauntlet of young boys lined the route to cheer our convoy and offer water and cigarettes. Instead of entering the city however, we headed further north to a deserted house that was still under construction. We were ordered inside the building, and it was at this point I realized that the other hostage, a driver for UNICEF, had spent the entire 3 hour desert transit in the trunk of one of the cars. He emerged from the vehicle, still blindfolded, covered in dust and sweat, and without his shoes. He was in terrible condition, but he made no sound of complaint as they hurried us into the empty house.
There was some confusion among the fighters at this point. They were eager to return to Tal Afar – not sit out the battle in a safe house. All but one of their cars soon departed, leaving only two armed guards with us. The possibility of escape certainly crossed my mind. It was the hottest part of the day and the sentries were exhausted. Although it was open ground, the Mosul highway was clearly, visible about 2 kilometres away. With all the passing traffic it would be possible to flag down a ride – if I could only survive the run.
Before I could give much thought to such a plan, another car pulled up at our hideout. Four new mujahedeen strode into our building and immediately began berating the two guards for being lenient with us. The leader of this group was a short, stocky, little man who strutted about with his ski-mask on. He wasted no time in making his thoughts known. “The Turkish girl will live… you two will die” he said pointing at me and the UNICEF driver. “I will cut off your heads at dusk and you will be buried there,” pointing to a freshly dug grave-sized ditch about twenty metres from the house.
Zeynep was removed to another room and we were told to prepare ourselves to die. Although forbidden to talk whenever the guard was distracted, the driver and I took the opportunity to encourage each other and try to provide support. “At least we will not die alone” he said.
As dusk approached we were offered a final meal of flatbread, roast chicken and tomatoes. The maniacal little leader came to watch us eat, all the while aiming his gun at us. “Eat, eat… Why do you have no appetite, are you afraid American pig?” he said and then laughed at his own joke. Although I was certainly not hungry, I did my best to choke down a few difficult mouthfuls. Inside, I had to stifle a trembling fear from overcoming my composure. My fellow prisoner began to sob, and I reached over to take his hand.
“How long do you think the pain will last?” he asked. It was something which I had been giving careful consideration and I replied, “About three seconds”. As the sun started to set on the horizon, Mubashir drove up and entered into a heated argument with the newcomer. Reassured at the sound of his voice, I had risked a glance out of the window – just in time to see the ceremonial dagger being returned to the trunk of the car. We had been spared once again.
* * * *
When it had proved impossible to enter Mosul safely, we had circled back into the desert and spent the night at another farmhouse. The scorching heat of the day was replaced by a cool breeze, and after a meal of lamb and rice we had spent a relatively relaxing evening under the stars. It was the first good sleep that I’d had in days and I began to believe that with Mubashir to protect us, we would survive this ordeal.
It was during some candid conversations at this farm that I finally learned the identity of my captors. As we talked about the various ethnic factions and politics at play in northern Iraq, I had mentioned the group Ansar al-Islam. Mubashir had looked surprised at my comment and said, “Don’t you know? We are Ansar al-Islam?” My heart sank when I heard this because I knew that this group of fundamentalist extremists had links to al-Qaeda. “Yes,” confided Mubashir, “Osama is our brother in Afghanistan, and al- Zaqarwi is our brother in Jordan.”
This group had never before released a foreigner and this revelation explained why they had never mentioned ransoming us off as hostages. The Ansar al-Islam fought for their religious beliefs – not money. Although I expressed my fears to Mubashir, he once again stressed the fact that his brother’s wish would be granted – provided we were telling the truth.
We spent Friday morning at the farm awaiting word that we could enter Mosul and be granted an audience with the new Emir. Again, everything seemed to be relaxed, and although the notion of having someone pronounce a ‘live-or-die’ sentence upon me was still very frightening, Mubashir assured us that his brother’s promise would be kept. We got the word around 2 p.m. that the Emir would see us. We climbed into one car – the UNICEF driver in the trunk, Zeynep and I along with Mubashir and two guards in the front. Our hands were not tied and we wore no blindfolds – everything seemed to be going well. However, once inside Mosul, it became apparent that something had gone wrong with the plan.
We had stopped at several homes and picked up different guides at various locations. Eventually we were taken to a large house in a northern suburb, and led into an empty room. The UNICEF driver was released from the trunk and taken into a small anteroom beneath a staircase. Mubashir had complained of being ill, and he now seemed disinterested in our fate. There were about a dozen young men inside this house and they were extremely hostile towards us. Blankets were placed across all the windows despite the soaring temperature.
Zeynep whispered that these new men were not Turkmen but Arabs, as she no longer understood their conversation. Mubashir made some sort of statement to them on our behalf and then bade us farewell. He and his men were heading back into Tal Afar to join the fight.
Within minutes of his departure, the Arabs burst into the room and roughly blindfolded me. As I tried to protest, I was kicked in the ribs, knocking the wind out of me. “Shut up American spy!” shouted my assailant.
For the next hour, I was interrogated – beginning again with their presumption that I was either a CIA or Mossad spy. I gave all the possible details of my identity and when asked how I could confirm these “lies” I told them to research my writings on the Internet. In particular, they could not believe that I had written features for al-Jazeera’s website. Although intense, I was relieved when the questioning had ended without any physical force being used. I was premature in my assumption.
I had barely removed the blindfold and taken a sip of water when five men rushed back into the room. I could see the batons and ropes, but I had no time to react before I was pulled to my feet. When I attempted to resist, my feet were knocked out from under me, and I was savagely kicked. They blindfolded me and gagged me with a headscarf. My hands were tied behind my back and I was rolled over with my feet up in the air – tied to a pole. Two men held the pole up when two others began beating my feet with straps and batons.
At first I could not see the blows coming. In his pent up fury, one of my attackers struck my face several times with his fist knocking my blindfold aside. I mentally promised myself not to give them the satisfaction of hearing me scream until after the 20th blow. I bit down hard on the cloth and focussed on counting rather than the pain. I kept my promise, but on the 21st strike I screamed out, “F - - k!” the cloth muffling the sound somewhat. With each successive blow I uttered the same expletive. They deliberately hit the same spot on my thigh repeatedly. For the first four or five blows the pain would increase incrementally and then the final strike would force an involuntary convulsion. I could feel the pain explode in my head and my body jack-knifed upwards reflexively.
In these instances I found myself blurting out “Jeeesus Christ!” through my gritted teeth. I lost all track of time – I could have been tortured for 5 minutes or 25 – I have no real conception of the actual duration. I do remember that despite the excruciating pain in my legs, I kept fearing that the next blow would be to my genitals. With my legs splayed apart and upended I felt incredibly vulnerable. When the beating finally stopped, I felt a tremendous sense of relief that they had not used the batons on my crotch.
After my feet were cut loose, I was roughly pulled upright and the interrogator handed me a pen and paper. “You will write down all the websites you think might help to confirm that you are in fact a Canadian journalist”, he said. I made some remark that I would have gladly done so without the beating, but my attempt at black humour was wasted.
I had been badly beaten and as I walked out of the anteroom back into the main parlour, most of the Arab ‘pupils’ had gathered to see my reaction. I tried my best not to let them see any weakness by pressing the pen hard against the paper so that they could not see my hands shaking. Taking the list of websites from me, the interrogator told me, “If this checks out, you’ll live… if you lied – you die.”
A few minutes later, I was ushered into an adjacent room, told to lie face down on the floor and a gun barrel was placed against the back of my neck. It was Zeynep’s turn to be beaten, and as she cried out in pain, the guard behind me kept repeating, “You can spare her the pain – simply confess that you are a spy.” As I kept uttering denials, he spat on my head and said, “Only a dog would let a woman suffer like that!” I thought to myself, “And what kind of animal would torture a woman?”
For several hours after the beating, I was kept alone in that room. My legs were aching and would occasionally seize up on me. I tried to stand, but the guards insisted that I remain seated on a mat. When the interrogator finally re-entered my holding cell he said, “You failed the test on the internet. Prepare yourself to die – tonight”. As the door banged shut behind him, I once again had an all-consuming sense of dread. The next time the door opened it was an armed guard and one of the ‘pupils’ carrying a platter of food. Once again I was being encouraged to eat my final meal.
I did not know it at the time, Zeynep and the UNICEF driver had been set free, while both of them were told that I had been beheaded.
After I picked away at my food, the dishes were cleared away and a heavy set young Arab entered the room. He was grinning from ear to ear and I recognized him as one of my torturers. “I am the lucky one who has been chosen to kill you, American dog,” he said.