Kidnapped in Iraq
For a peace worker, ‘love thy enemy’ is put to the test.
By Will Van Wagenen
As our car came to a stop along an isolated road in western Ninevah province, Iraq, I looked up from reading my Arabic dictionary to see a young Iraqi man holding an AK-47, with a red headscarf around his neck, getting into the front passenger seat of our car. “We’re the border police,” he said. “We have to do a brief investigation.” He instructed our driver to turn off the road and follow a small red Volkswagen full of gunmen into the desert.
I was working for a small human rights organization called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a program of the Brethren, Quaker, and Mennonite churches. Although I was living in Suleimania, in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq, that day last January I had been visiting a village named Khanasour, at the base of Sinjar mountain, and was on my way home when our car was stopped. Although its inhabitants are Kurds, the Sinjar area is under control of the central government in Baghdad. A journalist friend had invited us to see the difficult conditions for the people living there. Because it was unclear whether Sinjar would remain under control of the central government or be annexed through referendum by the Kurdish government, the area received little support from either entity. As opposed to Kirkuk, which is heavily disputed by Arab, Kurd, and Turkomen Iraqis, Sinjar is largely ignored, sparing its residents the violence that engulfs Kirkuk but, at the same time, causing an acute lack of basic services.
As we continued to drive into the desert, there was complete silence in the car, and a dark, empty feeling began to come over me. The gunman in the front seat peered back at me every few seconds, looking somewhat scared and nervous himself. I asked my translator in English, “Is everything OK?”—hoping that what was happening was somehow normal. My translator was so scared he could barely speak, but he somehow managed to mutter the same words the gunmen had upon entering our car, though in Arabic rather than English. His reluctance to respond in English confirmed what my stomach already felt. I could only stare out the window as we drove farther and farther into the desert, thinking of what the next few minutes would bring. I imagined that the armed men would stop in a remote location, pull us out of the cars, and without a word simply shoot each of us in the head.
I had heard many accounts of Iraqis who had died this way. A doctor from Fallujah once showed me a picture of the body of a young man from his neighborhood. According to the doctor, the Iraqi Army had stopped the young man at a checkpoint while he was returning to Fallujah from Baghdad. The young man called his family from his cell phone to say he would be delayed. The family heard nothing else from him that night. Two days later they found his body at the morgue. It bore signs of torture and a gunshot wound to the head. Someone had found the young man’s body dumped on the side of the road the day before. The Sunni name on his ID card was enough to seal his death. And in press reports, of course, I’d read of Sunni gunmen setting up checkpoints and doing the same to Shi’a travelers.
As these thoughts raced through my mind, I began to think back over my life, remembering some of the good, and bad, things I had done to others. I thought about whether I was ready to meet Jesus in the next few minutes, and whether the life I had lived would make me feel happy or ashamed in his presence. The minutes seemed like hours. All I could do was stare out the window, into the expanse of the desert, and think about dying.
The car ahead of us stopped in the middle of nowhere, and then so did ours. A large man, his face covered with a headscarf, got out of the lead car and approached us. He yelled at me in Arabic, “Who are you?”
“My name is William,” I responded. “I work for a human rights organization.”
“Get out of the car,” he continued yelling. We all got out of the car. “This is it, we’re all dead,” I thought.
The other gunmen in the lead car got out as well. Rather than raise their weapons, as I feared they would, they motioned us to get into the other vehicle. The large man got into the driver’s seat, told us to put our heads between our knees, and we began driving again. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,” he kept yelling, which was hardly comforting. Staring at the floor, I felt relieved that we had not been killed, but began to wonder again what would happen to us.
The car soon stopped again. I raised my head and saw we were in the courtyard of a simple mud-brick home. The large man hurried us into a room in the home, locked the door behind us, and then left. Finally what was happening became clear. We had been kidnapped.
In 2003, when it finally became clear that the United States government was determined to invade Iraq, there were many consequences to anticipate. Most obvious was the likelihood of mass civilian casualties from the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign, meant to achieve “the non-nuclear equivalent of the impact that the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese,” according to the strategy’s author.1
Also predictable was a humanitarian crisis, because the bombing would disrupt and damage Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, already weakened by more than a decade of sanctions which were once described proudly by President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, as “unprecedented for [their] severity in the whole of world history.” And it was clear that armed resistance to the subsequent foreign occupation would arise, as it had years ago in most Arab countries under colonial rule, such as in Iraq itself in 1920. Such resistance would ensure a long American counterinsurgency campaign.
But the plague of kidnapping that would engulf Iraq is something that few, if any, thought to predict explicitly. Although each kidnapping of a Westerner is covered extensively in the Western, and even Arab, press, the vast majority of kidnapping victims in Iraq are in fact Iraqi, and these Iraqis disappear largely unnoticed, save by their families and friends—some 3,500 in 2006 alone.2 Kidnapping casts a shadow of fear over Iraqi society in much the way that suicide bombs and house raids do.
While working in Baghdad for Christian Peacemaker Teams in 2005, I became acquainted with a number of Palestinians who were living in the Baladiyat refugee camp. From them, I and my co-workers heard many accounts of Palestinians being abducted, tortured, and at times murdered by Iraqi security forces, and we tried to obtain as much information as possible about these abductions and killings. What information we acquired we passed on to a researcher at Human Rights Watch, who was writing a report on extrajudicial killings in Iraq.
They found Ahmed’s body the next day at the morgue, with signs of torture and a gunshot wound in the head, according to the usual pattern.
As a result of this work, I was invited to attend the funeral of a Palestinian man named Ahmed who had been kidnapped by armed men dressed as Iraqi policemen. Ahmed’s family received a call demanding they pay $20,000 for his release. After several frantic days of selling all the meager possessions the family had, as well as borrowing money from neighbors in their refugee camp, the family was able to pay most of the ransom. The kidnappers told the family they could pick up Ahmed the next day in a certain place on the outskirts of Baghdad. When the family arrived, no one was there. They found Ahmed’s body the next day at the morgue, with signs of torture and a gunshot wound in the head, according to the usual pattern.
Because of this experience and others, I had thought about the possibility that I would be kidnapped during the time I worked in Baghdad. Living outside the Green Zone, in a regular Baghdad neighborhood, exposed me to the same dangers faced by average Iraqi civilians. We traveled in a regular car, had no security, and never carried weapons. Each night, lying in bed, I would wonder if tomorrow would be the day when someone would come for me. Every time a bomb would shake our apartment in the Karrada district, I would wonder if today would be the day when I would find myself walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. But even though the dangers were obvious, and so many Iraqis were dying every day, I could never believe that something bad could actually happen to me.
An Iraqi friend commented to me once that by invading Iraq, George W. Bush had turned my friend’s country into a “magnet for terrorists,” namely, al-Qaeda; allowing Iraqis to die for the freedom of Americans seemed to be a pillar of the Iraq war policy, he said, and as long as this part of the War on Terror continued, Iraqis shopping in Baghdad markets, rather than office workers in New York, would die in scores from suicide bombs. Reflecting back, I realize that my own mentality was similar to that which my friend was ascribing to the invading United States. I didn’t think my future was to be kidnapped or to die, like the Iraqis around me, or even to live out my life in the nightmare that Iraq had become. I had an American passport. If at any time the misery and despair of life in Baghdad became too great, I could simply leave. Within days I could be back in suburban Salt Lake City. Even though I lived as Iraqi civilians did, in fact I didn’t really know much about what it meant to be an average Iraqi. They had nowhere to go.
My refusal to believe I could be killed or kidnapped back in 2005 seems even more ridiculous to me now, as I think back on what I witnessed in 2003 when I was studying Arabic in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The second intifada was in full swing. Israeli military incursions into Palestinian cities and towns were common, particularly in Nablus and Gaza, and several Palestinian suicide bombers carried out attacks within Israel during the time I was there.
In this period I met numerous Europeans and Americans who had come to the West Bank to work for peace amid open conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Many of these Europeans and Americans were affiliated with religious and political groups that have often been accused by the Israeli government, and by Jewish advocacy groups in the United States and elsewhere, of interference, duplicitous motivation, and even the harboring of suicide bombers. As I got to know some of these people, in late-night discussions and on occasions when I accompanied them in the streets, I heard from them only words consistent with traditional nonviolent protest and confrontation, and saw—and, indeed, took part in—only actions consistent with the same.
I was deeply affected by much that I witnessed during my time in the West Bank, which coincided with the American invasion of Iraq, but as I write here I especially think back to a trip I made to an Israeli military hospital in Haifa. I was visiting an American acquaintance who had been taken there by the Israeli Army from Jenin, where he had been wounded by Israeli bullets. The irony of seeing him in the same hospital room as an injured Israeli soldier made me think for the first time truly about what it meant to love one’s enemy. I recall wondering what feelings this man had for the soldier in his hospital room, or for Israeli soldiers in general. He had almost been killed, perhaps intentionally, and had been maimed for life. By virtually any definition, Israeli soldiers were his enemies.
Although I didn’t dare ask him such a question, I felt that if I were in this man’s situation, Jesus would want me to love the Israeli soldiers rather than hate them. And although I myself was feeling an obligation to resist the Israeli Army’s activities when I could, I knew that having feelings of hate and resorting to violence wasn’t the right response. It was the first time in my life that I had been forced seriously to think about this most basic tenet of my Mormon faith—the command to love one’s enemies—even though I had attended church pretty much every week since I was a small boy.
After returning home from the occupied territories, I began a theology degree at Harvard Divinity School. During my two years in Cambridge, I followed events in Iraq closely. Because of what I had witnessed in the West Bank, I felt sympathy for the thousands of Iraqis who were detained by American forces; the Iraqis’ situation often seemed to mimic that of many Palestinians who were held in Israeli detention for long periods without a fair trial. After my graduation from HDS in spring 2005, I decided to go to Iraq with CPT, and was excited to have the chance to help Iraqis find the whereabouts of detained family members (this was CPT’s primary work at the time). My hope was to help bring some relief to these families, who often didn’t know whether sons or fathers were alive or dead.
Once I reached Iraq, events should have quickly brought home to me just how much danger I was in. In December 2005, Tom Fox, a Quaker who was my colleague and roommate in Baghdad, was kidnapped by a group claiming to be Sunni insurgents, along with three others, including Jim Loney, with whom I had also become acquainted. These four men were held for some four months. Tom was finally murdered; the other three were rescued by the British Army soon thereafter. In addition, several colleagues and I had had dinner in Baghdad with Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll, just a few months before Sunni insurgents kidnapped her and murdered her Iraqi driver.
Despite all that had happened to people I knew, I had remained in denial until, here I was myself, sitting on the floor, kidnapped somewhere in the desert near the Syrian border. I was in shock. Maybe I had something in common with Iraqis after all.
Even worse than wondering about my own uncertain future was the guilt I felt for getting my translator, Abed, into such a mess. He was a young man, just a year or so out of college, and because we were somewhat close in age, he seemed more like a friend than an employee. He was terrified from the beginning, knowing that in any kidnapping, Iraqis translating or working for Americans would often simply be killed while their American counterparts would continue to be held to extract political concessions.
Abed was the oldest son in his family, and was responsible for providing financially for all of them, because his father had been murdered by Kurdish guerillas from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the early 1990s. These guerillas had thought Abed’s father, a Kurd who had simply taken a job as an engineer in Baghdad, was spying for Saddam Hussein’s regime. The PUK later apologized, realizing its error. Thinking that Abed’s mother might also lose her oldest son because of me was the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced. I felt a huge sense of relief when our kidnappers released Abed just two days after our capture, though I then continued to feel deeply guilty for all of the worry and misery I was still certainly putting my parents, family, and friends through.
Because I simply sat in a room all day, I had plenty of time to think. I thought a lot about Tom Fox, now that I was experiencing at least part of what he experienced. I thought about what might have gone through his mind during his captivity, particularly in the moments before his death. Perhaps his captors came for him, dragging him out of the room, away from the other hostages. Perhaps they had him kneeling, with the cold steel of a gun pressing against his head. What had Tom thought then? Was he able to feel love for the man who was poised to pull the trigger? During the time we had worked together, I had seen that Tom was a selfless person who always felt a lot of sadness knowing that others around him were suffering, whether it was the people of Fallujah under siege by the United States, the Palestinian refugee community in Baghdad subjected to an endless string of murders, detentions, and threats by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior commandos, or the many Iraqis of all sects languishing in prisons such as Abu Ghraib. I knew Tom was committed to the principle of loving not only his friends but also his enemies. And so I wondered if Tom had passed the greatest of all tests for a Christian: to love and forgive those who were about to kill him. Maybe there was no time to feel love or hate in those last moments; maybe he felt just fear and terror.
Maybe there was no time to feel love or hate in those last moments; maybe Tom felt just fear and terror.
Tom’s example and my experiences during my time in the Palestinian territories helped guide my attitudes toward my captor, who told us to call him Abu Jasm. He had been the ringleader of those who directly participated in abducting us, and stayed in the room with us most of the time, especially throughout the nights. At first, Abed and I were quite scared of him. He would sit at the opposite end of the room, near the door, in silence. We could see little except his eyes, as the room was lit with only a small kerosene lamp, and his face was always concealed with a headscarf. We didn’t dare talk to him except to ask to go to the bathroom. He gave me a Bedouin-style overcoat and a red headscarf to disguise me as I made the short walk, under his watch, to an outhouse.
I tried not to have bad feelings toward Abu Jasm, despite what he was doing to us. I eventually felt comfortable enough to begin asking him questions, about his family, and especially about politics, as that was what was easiest for me to discuss in Arabic. I also told him about the work CPT had been doing in Iraq. He seemed to enjoy these discussions and I tried to be as friendly with him as possible, both to simply try and rid myself of any hateful feelings toward him, and because doing so might come in handy later on. If I could befriend Abu Jasm somewhat, it might prevent him from actually pulling the trigger if he were eventually told to kill me.
Abu Jasm gradually seemed to like me, and always said that if it were up to him, he would let me go. He was just taking orders from his boss, he would say, and there was nothing he could do to help me, though he wished he could. I took Abu Jasm at his word, but never did see his “boss,” so in retrospect I imagine it was really Abu Jasm who was running the show. Our conversations were interesting, however, and helped to pass the time. Occasionally he would ask what I wanted to eat, and did what he could to provide decent food. He was particularly proud one day when he furnished a bottle of cheap cola and a few candy bars. He would lecture me that I wasn’t eating enough, and would get mad at me for biting my fingernails. Even though Abu Jasm wasn’t particularly religious, he was proud of Islam, and was impressed by what I told him about my religion, particularly because, like Muslims, Mormons don’t drink alcohol and often have large families. I especially liked all the Arabic practice I was getting, and spent a lot of time looking up words in my pocket dictionary to make conversation easier. I knew that Tom and Jim had been held for several months, and, trying to look on the bright side, figured this might give me the chance to learn, finally, to speak decent Arabic.
Abu Jasm and I even joked around some. He liked to tell me I had the smallest prostate of anyone he ever knew, because I had to go to the bathroom so often. “How good can the hospitals in America be,” he asked, “if you can’t even get your urination problem taken care of?”
In the end it was easy to like Abu Jasm and see him as a regular guy like myself, because he treated me pretty well even though he was holding me captive. How much harder would it have been if he had threatened to behead me, as some insurgent groups have done with prisoners, or stripped me naked and sodomized me with a stick—or made me feel as if I were about to drown, as some Americans have done to their captives? As scared and hopeless as I felt, it had been, I knew, much worse for others in similar situations, including many of those held by the United States and its allies, at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or any secret CIA-run prisons. The news media in the United States, and other Americans, are rightly quick to condemn nonstate Muslim armed groups who kidnap Westerners, but most have been too slow to condemn the United States government or its allies for what in some cases has amounted to the same thing.
I came to know an Iraqi family whose son Muhammad had been detained by the notorious Wolf Brigade, a commando unit of the American-backed Iraqi Ministry of Interior. The day after he was detained, Muhammad appeared on Iraqi television, in a program called “Terror in the Grip of Justice,” in which terror suspects who had never been given a trial would confess to a variety of heinous crimes. According to the family, Muhammad, looking badly beaten, confessed on the show to having orchestrated a terrorist bombing. At the family’s request, we at CPT visited the Iraqi Ministry of Interior many times in an attempt to learn Muhammad’s whereabouts, and passed his name along to officials at the United Nations human rights office, who also made inquiries. After weeks of our discovering nothing, a man who had been in prison with Muhammad contacted his family and told them where he was being held. The family hired a lawyer, who managed to see Muhammad in prison after paying the guards a bribe.
According to the lawyer, Muhammad described how Wolf Brigade commandos had raided his home and taken him to a prison located at the Ministry of Interior headquarters in Baghdad. On the first day of his detention, he was beaten with cords, hung from the ceiling by his ankles, and subjected to electric shocks to his genitals. He confessed to the bombing so that the torture would stop. After his Iraqi interrogators were done with him, he said, he was interrogated further by Americans. After several weeks in Ministry of Interior custody, Muhammad was transferred to the custody of the Ministry of Justice, to stand trial. The judge decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute him. Rather than release him, the judge placed Muhammad back in Ministry of Interior custody. Months later, after I had returned to the United States from my first stint in Iraq, I heard Muhammad had finally been released. Hearing stories like these, I can’t help but think that our refusal to “love thy neighbor as thyself” leads to a political truism: when we do nasty things to people, some of them are likely to do nasty things to us in response, religion aside.
Early on Sunday morning Abu Jasm gave me word I would be released within a matter of hours. Obviously, I was excited. But I also felt suspicious: I had been held captive for only nine days. It had seemed like an eternity, and the prospect of ever returning home had seemed bleak. But was my nightmare really over? It seemed too good to be true. I began to get worried as the hours passed, and the sun began to set. Maybe it really wasn’t going to happen.
Finally, just after sunset, Abu Jasm returned with another young man, who was carrying an AK-47. They told me to get up and get dressed. The young man began tying my hands behind my back, and then tied a blindfold around my eyes. He led me out of the house; I could hear the sound of a running engine. They opened the trunk of the car and told me to climb in. For a moment I wondered if Abu Jasm was really keeping his word that I would be released. I thought of the good treatment he had given me, so this fear soon left me. I felt confident I would finally be free.
After driving for some time, the car stopped. Abu Jasm and the young man let me out of the trunk, undid my blindfold, and untied my wrists. We were in the middle of the desert, but I could see the lights of a village in the distance. Abu Jasm had arranged for a car to take me to that village, and from there to Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. As I got in the car, and we began to drive toward the lights, I felt a deep sense of relief. Although the next days were filled with depression and some paranoia, after nine days of captivity, my nightmare, and the nightmare of my family and friends, had come to an end. But the nightmares of thousands of others continue, in too many parts of the world, with no end in sight.
Experiencing a kidnapping made me realize that there is little space for Westerners like myself to improve the human rights situation in Iraq from inside the country (though the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross is a noticeable exception). The violence has reached such brutal levels that it is difficult to accomplish much, and attempting to work there puts Iraqis working with Westerners at undue risk. There is much, however, to be done right here at home to advocate for the human rights of all, especially the most vulnerable. This is the kind of advocacy that squares with the injunction to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
- Harlan K. Ullman, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (National Defense University, 1996); www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1996/shock-n-awe_index.html.
- “Iraq 2007 Crime and Safety Report,” Overseas Security Advisory Council, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, United States Department of State; baghdad.osac.gov/Reports/report.cfm?contentID=60625.
Will Van Wagenen returned earlier this year from Iraq, where he was volunteering with Christian Peacemaker Teams doing human rights work. He has served a two-year mission to Germany for the Church of Latter-day Saints, and holds a bachelor’s degree in German from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in theological studies from HDS. He has also studied in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.