This is the last article in the series of how I came to be captured in Baghdad while on a business trip. Seventy of us, mostly European and American, were taken from our office building to an abandoned airplane hangar. Whenever we moved from location to location, we were shackled and chained. Among our number was a sniveling coward who was a staffer for a US politician. His demand for special treatment earned him a beating, and I'm sad to say the rest of us took pleasure in his comeuppance. Finally, I developed a kind of friendship with one of our guards, Tariq, an Andre Agassi look-a-like. I gave him that nickname, which he enjoyed, and the other guards referred to him as Agassi as well. None of us had any idea why we were incarcerated. I decided I'd somehow try to find out from Tariq. That about brings you up-to-date... |
The bureaucrat, the US congressman's (I think senator's) staffer, was frightened witless, and we all took some pleasure in his discomfort, smiling slightly and winking at each other; our form of gallows (literally!) humor. The guy never stopped trying to set himself apart from the rest of us (as being ashamed of America and on the side of Saddam); a typical self-serving bureaucrat who valued politics without principles. His efforts only distanced him further from us and our captors; but being totally clueless, he continued sounding off like an anti-American ugly American. How's that for a paradox?
The oppresive heat took no holiday in the early morning as we bumped along, stopping at various check points. An hour later, the buses stopped in front of our office building; a modern, seven-story, cubical, granite structure with ample windows.
On the first day, the guards loudly ordered us into the street, punching those who were slow, and taking rifle butts to those who fell. We were taken into the building and told to remain in our offices for the rest of the day until they came once again to collect us. Naturally, they left armed guards at all points of egress. Guards were also stationed in the hallways to make sure we stayed in our offices. Visiting with others was not permitted and punishable by death.
We all welcomed the thought of vegging out and trying to make sense of what happened in air-conditioned comfort, but the air-handling system had been turned off, and the telephones and computers removed as well. We still had not been told why we were being held. Any question was met swiftly with a fist or a boot. I figured if I could get Tariq to warm up a bit he might tell me something in a private moment, but any kind of private moment did not seem probable. Still...
Ernie returned from the toilet with darting eyes and swiveling head. He looked at me, and spoke quietly and furtively.
"They forgot about the fax machine."
"You're kidding?" What a stupid comment under the circumstances, but one I seemed programmed to make. Bottom line: a ray of hope.
"No, I'm not kidding." Ernie looked at me as if I was daft, him not understanding American inane responses. "The machine is indeed still here, and operating too."
"Who should we contact? Head office?"
"I think we should fax Bologna," said Ernie, "because they're only one time zone away. They can get word out to everyone else."
Made sense, so we did, Ernie using Italian because he said our captors only understood Arabic, French, and English. I figured Ernie should know, being a veteran of practically everywhere and fluent in nine languages.
"Hell, Ernie I don't think it matters what language you use. If we're caught they won't give a rat. Probably hang up up by your thumbs until you tell them what it says."
"I'm a good story-teller," he said cheerfully, certainly more upbeat than the situation warranted, but that was Ernie's nature.
For the rest of that day and those following, we faxed back-and-forth, not speaking into the handset in case someone was listening. We shredded all outgoing messages and incoming replies. Today, I wish I had them, but we couldn't afford to get caught. It felt better that people knew what happened to us if not why.
In late afternoon the guards came back, put us in irons, and loaded us back on the buses. After a week of this routine, one particular day was different in that the drivers aimed into the afternoon sun, the opposite direction from our hangar. Any attempt at conversation with each other or a guard was swiftly met with brutality. The heat was incredible; we were all perspiring freely, some close to being dangerously ill. Two-hours later, many of us, including the bureaucrat, needed a bathroom break. We hoped the guards did as well. Turns out they did, but they simply whizzed in their empty water bottles--we were given no water--and threw the urine-filled containers out the windows into the desert.
"Gentlemen, please, I need to go to the bathroom," pleaded the bureaucrat. For once we sympathized with him, and gave him a mental "attaboy" for being clueless enough to speak up, especially when the rest of us lacked the courage.
"Shut up or die!" yelled the nearest guard whom I later learned was Rashsid.
Later in the day, one of our number addressed him as Rajeeb, which earned a severe beating. In Islam and Arab cultures, it is a mark of great disrespect to mispronounce or use the wrong name in addressing a male. I've seen Americans get in trouble all over the Middle East for this faux pas, our culture thinking it's no big deal; most traveling Yankees having little respect for other cultures, expecting everyone else to adapt to us. Sorry, but it's true. During the beating, Rashid made his victim say his name over and over again until he passed out. "Mr. Rashid, Mr. Rashid, Mr. Rashid..."
"But I really have to go! I can't hold it anymore!" pleaded the bureaucrat.
"You piss in pants, you piss on bus, you die!"
A bit later, the guards relented somewhat, and supplied us with their empty water bottles to use and jettison out the windows.
Hours later, the buses stopped and we were pushed into the hot desert and told to relieve ourselves again. The guards continued to greedily drink water, but we were given none. They kept looking to the west as if expecting something. After another hour of waiting (for what?) under the blazing sun, they put us back on the buses and returned to the hangar four hours in the opposite direction. By then, even the guards and drivers were totally spent. At the hangar we were given water and pita bread then collapsed on our cots. Heat and all, I slept fitfully.
As usual, the muezzin's call woke me the following morning. Again, as I sat up, I noticed Tariq.
"Agassi," I nodded and gave a little salute.
"Yes. Come. Do Ablutions."
Once again I followed him to the bathroom, thankful for his kindness. As we returned, he stepped in stride with me and whispered, "You sponsor me to America?"
"You know I'm not Swiss?"
"I look at passport." He gave me a brief aha-I-caught-you grin.
"Sure. I'll be your sponsor." What else could I say? Thing was I meant it.
"You have card for number I contact?"
"At the office."
"Alhamdalela (Thank God for everything). Good. We go again today." He swiftly stepped off before I could ask him why we were being held. No matter. I'd try later.
Well, I never heard from Tariq or saw him again after that day, though he did receive my business card. I suspect he was killed in later military action. Insha-allah (God's will).
Once again at the office, Ernie and I were busy with the fax machine. Turned out none of our government officials; American, Italian, and Swiss intended to do a damned thing. Our Bologna office said the only advice they offered was to endure, hang-in-there, bullshit, bullshit, nondisclaimer, nondisclaimer... International tensions being what they were, etc., etc., bullshit, bullshit...
"Well, that's hopeful," I said dripping sarcasm.
"At least they know we're here and being held captive. Things change you know. Stay patient and positive, my friend."
I discovered a real strength in Ernie. Never during our captivity did he outwardly seem discouraged. He was the first to offer comfort and an encouraging word to any of us who needed bucking up. The guards even showed some deference to him.
We spent the morning writing Bologna letters to pass on to our families and co-workers, but only in case of the worst. Tried to make out like we were some kind of heroes, but truth to tell, we were no better than that weasel from DC. Not really.
The guards, Tariq absent, returned at noon with a liter of water for each of us, loaded us on the buses, and once again set out to the west. We anticipated another steam bath-like, four-hour journey and were not disappointed. When we were unloaded in the desert, I think most of us expected to be shot and left. When we looked into each other's vacant faces it was like we knew we were looking at dead men.
Our manacles were removed, and we were forced to sit in a circle (facing out) on our hands. The desert floor blistered my fingers. The guards were at our backs. The bureaucrat was sobbing loudly.
"For God's sakes, be a man!" said someone.
"No talking!" yelled a guard.
What was there to say? What was there to do? It was a helpless and hopeless situation. All I could think of was to make peace with God, but try as I might, I could not focus on a prayer. I felt an overwhelming sadness.
After some indetermiate time, without a word, our guards boarded the buses hastily and left in a cloud of dust. An hour or so later, The Syrian Army arrived and escorted us over the border. We were safe. We were going home.
I discovered later that it was Saddam Hussein himself who arranged and ordered our release, not any of the western governments. Apparently, once he decided to take us prisoner, he didn't know what to do with us. Guy must've been bi-polar. Go figure.
As a final word, I'm sad to report Ernie passed away several years ago.
Copyright by Gene Myers Author of "After Hours: Adventures of an International Businessman" web site: www.strategicpublishinggroup,com/title/AfterHours.html Also available from www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com and www.borders.com
Coming August 23, 2010 from Gene Myers and PublishAmerica: "Songs from Lattys Grove"
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