Jill Carroll's Story, Part 9: The Muj Brothers
Abu Qarrar was young, rotund, and seemed new to the mujahideen lifestyle. He hadn't memorized much of the Koran, unlike his more senior counterparts. He sometimes sneaked glances at the women on the music-video channels when he thought no one was looking.
To show off, he would run in place, then kick his right leg in the air and fling his arms forward in an awkward demonstration of kung fu.
Abu Hassan was older, athletic, and seething with devotion to jihad. He seemed a veteran fighter -- although, like Abu Qarrar, he loved the "Cat and Mouse" cartoons. Yes, they watched "Tom and Jerry."
When he was bored -- which was often -- he'd use his cellphone to record himself giving fake fiery sermons standing at the top of the stairs as if on a mosque pulpit. Then he'd play them back, to hear how he'd sound if he were a famous imam.
These two men were my most constant guards. They reported to Abu Ahmed, one of Abu Nour's lieutenants. Abu Ahmed was an Islamic scholar who had just finished an Arabic translation of a Henry Kissinger biography and was reading 'How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.
The two guards weren't at every house where I was held, and others came and went even when they were present. But during my captivity I spent more time with them than anyone else. They were my up-close-and-personal examples of the rank and file of the Iraqi mujahideen.
Abu Qarrar and Abu Hassan were also starkly different people, despite the fact that they called each other "brother." In this, they were symbolic of the contrasts I saw in the larger group of mujahideen.
Some members were clever; others, not so much. Some seemed dangerous; most were devout. A few were sympathetic. A few were educated. At least one of the women appeared bitter about her lot in life.
As far as I knew, all were native Iraqis.
As the weeks of my captivity turned into months, Abu Qarrar and Abu Hassan became tense and unhappy. They were bored with guard duty and tired of inaction. They became more petty and controlling toward me.
Meanwhile, I was increasingly desperate, fearful, and angry. I felt I was beginning to lose my self-control.
The result was conflict between me and the Muj Brothers which, if not for the context, might have seemed adolescent. We couldn't let little slights go. We were like animals in a cage, locked in all together.
* * *
The Feb. 26 deadline tied to the third video came and went. The kidnappers didn't call. They didn't write. They issued no new demands. But public interest in Jill Carroll's plight didn't flag. The Monitor's Team Jill had adopted a strategy early on to take a low-key U.S. media response. They followed the advice of experts who had analyzed The Wall Street Journal's efforts to free Daniel Pearl after he was kidnapped in Pakistan: ignore the Western media, focus on Iraqi media. The kidnappers and ordinary Iraqis who might generate tips won't be watching Larry King.
Still, Jill's abduction struck a remarkable global chord. There was a series of "Free Jill" rallies in Paris. A giant poster of her was hung from the city hall in Rome. Students at the University of Massachusetts (where Jill went to school) and at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (where Jill grew up) held rallies and candlelight vigils. Thousands sent donations to a fund set up to support the family of Alan, Jill's Iraqi interpreter. A jazz song was composed in her honor. Paintings and poems were sent to the Monitor offices. And prayers were said at hundreds of churches, mosques, and synagogues around the United States.
A 45-year-old man from Fremont, Calif., was one of half a dozen Americans who offered to take Jill's place. "I would like to emphasize the fact that I am definitely not suicidal nor would I relish having my life cut short....
"I'm offering myself as a replacement for her as a hostage or even as a potential martyr for her outstanding work as a balanced and compassionate journalist," he wrote.
* * *
Abu Qarrar claimed to have been part of the team that abducted me, but if he was, I didn't see him. I do remember that he was the guard who sat outside the door of my bedroom on the first night I was held.
After all, he was hard to miss, with a girth that advertised his eating habits and a tattoo of Arabic writing on his inner left arm.
He told me he was 26. At the beginning of my ordeal he was unmarried. Later, he left for a period of time for an arranged wedding to a 13-year-old bride.
He didn't know what e-mail was. He'd never seen a computer. He marveled at how a can opener worked. There were times when we got along well. But overall I thought he acted like a spoiled little boy who enjoyed his authority over another human being -- namely, me.
I learned this early on. During the first full day of my captivity, he kept peeking in the door, presumably to make sure I wasn't trying to escape. I'd heard that it was best for hostages to try to make captors see them as human beings, to elicit sympathy, so I tried talking to him. I asked him to help me with my Arabic.
I would point to things, and he would tell me their Arabic names. I was open, even friendly. That turned out to be a big mistake.
You can't be that way with men in such a conservative culture. They often take it the wrong way. He began to get demanding, even assertive. At one point, the pin on my hijab came loose, and I started to pin it back up.
Abu Qarrar demanded, "No, open."
I looked down and whispered, "No."
He repeated, "Open!" He looked at me with wide eyes, very serious.
To Westerners this may sound like an innocuous exchange, but in the context of the conservative Middle East, this was a totally inappropriate advance. I needed to shut him down completely. I put my head down, held my hands in my lap, and didn't move a muscle.
Finally he left and closed the door and locked it. He returned every hour or so, and I wouldn't even look at him. I'd just sit there.
Abu Hassan I met later. He was older -- about 32, I would guess -- and married with children. Where Abu Qarrar was unathletic, Abu Hassan was trim and fit. He told me he'd been a gym teacher. For some reason I got the impression he'd been in Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard.
At first I found him to be the more sympathetic of the Muj Brothers. His age made him seem more mature, or at least more responsible. Later I saw that by guarding me, he was being confined as well. Desperate as he was for action, he would get cabin fever in minutes. Then he'd pace, reciting the fatiha, the opening chapter of the Koran.
The relationship of the Muj Brothers to each other was not one of equals. At times, Abu Hassan treated Abu Qarrar as if he were an insurgent's apprentice.
For instance, the older man taught the younger how to clear the chamber of his handgun and remove its clip. This was good for my safety, as Abu Qarrar would often point his handgun at me and pretend to shoot, for fun.
Abu Hassan used to go out at night sometimes to plant IEDs. Then in daylight he'd go out again, to detonate them. One day, when we were at the insurgent's "clubhouse," as I called it, he decided he would have to wait before leaving to set off his explosives. There were too many American soldiers in the vicinity, he said.
So Abu Qarrar decided he would act the part of the mujahideen hero. He grabbed a black-and-white checked kaffiyeh, the common Arabic head covering favored by insurgents, threw it over his shoulders in a dramatic swoop, and declared that he would set off to fight the Americans, no matter what.
Like a teacher facing a rebellious student, Abu Hassan grabbed Abu Qarrar by the shoulders and snatched away the kaffiyeh over Abu Qarrar's loud objections. The younger man wasn't going to be allowed to pick his own battles. And Abu Hassan recognized the kaffiyeh for what it was, a giant flashing sign to any U.S. soldier that as much as said, "Shoot me! I'm a muj!"
* * *
As my time in captivity passed the two-month mark, my morale, already low, began to deteriorate sharply.
One of my biggest problems was that I had let myself have hope. Numerous times, the insurgent leader, the black-eyed Abu Nour, had said my release was only a matter of settling details. Inevitably, my mood would soar -- and then the release wouldn't happen, due to some unspecified "problem." Then I'd feel worse than if I hadn't been told anything at all.
Then there were the videos. They had been astounded when my first hostage video, in which I had been forced to plead for the release of women at Abu Ghraib, had coincided with the freeing of five female prisoners by the U.S.. After that, they seemed to be almost in a frenzy to see what else they could get in exchange for me.
They kept wanting to film different videos with different demands aimed at different audiences. Sometimes I was pleading with the American people in general for help. Once I asked the King of Jordan to free Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, a woman who tried to blow up a Jordanian hotel Nov. 9, 2005. Her explosive vest failed to detonate and she was caught. Another time I begged for aid from the leader of the United Arab Emirates. Later, I made one denouncing him.
While only four of my videos ever reached the outside world, I made nearly a dozen, including retakes done when I didn't cry enough to satisfy my mujahideen producers. And I dreaded making them, not so much because it's scary to plead for your life in front of a camera, but because I recognized that each one was a guarantee I would remain in captivity for some time longer.
Of course, there was an even worse alternative -- that the death threats and deadlines they mentioned would be real.
* * *
After the fury over the Feb. 22 Samarra bombing and the backlash over Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, it seemed wise to lower Jill's media profile until emotions calmed somewhat. From about mid-February no public service ads were broadcast.
On March 7, the two-month mark of Jill's abduction, the Monitor restarted the PSA campaign in Iraq. It distributed a video to Iraqi news outlets that included clips from an Al Sharqiya TV interview. The Baghdad-based network had interviewed an Iraqi family that Jill had written a story about in the spring of 2005. A toddler had been left paralyzed by a suicide bomber, and her family had been left homeless. Jill had profiled the family, and later brought money to them sent by readers.
The story illustrated her compassion for Iraqis. But it also highlighted how Jill's personal and professional history made it easy to generate public support for her in the region.
On March 10, the U.S. State Department announced that they had found the body of American Quaker activist Tom Fox. He had been taken hostage on Nov. 26, 2005, along with three other members of the Christian Peacemakers Team. To those working on Jill's behalf, it was an emotional blow; a harsh reminder that hostages held long enough to become icons with their own TV news logos often get killed.
Would PSAs be enough to protect her?
* * *
Meanwhile, my relationship with my guards Abu Qarrar and Abu Hassan got worse as well. Frustration and boredom had slowly eroded their once permissive and friendly attitudes toward me.
Once they had pretended I was a guest. Now they made mean jokes and comments about me in Arabic, thinking I didn't understand. They capriciously restricted my tiny freedoms, such as access to sun, fresh air, and even interior space for pacing.
Their logic was twisted. They were mad at me because they had to guard me, and wanted to punish me for it.
They picked at me in petty ways. One day we were having tea, and I took my glass and stirred it counterclockwise, as I always do.
"No, that's wrong!" said Abu Qarrar, only half-joking. "Stir your tea clockwise!"
I was tired of that kind of behavior. When we later moved to Abu Ahmed's house west of Fallujah, I went over their heads, in essence, to gain more freedoms. I took advantage of the situation to escape the Muj Brothers and hang out with the woman of the house.
They couldn't follow me. The woman's husband was gone during the day, and it would have been unthinkably improper for unrelated men to be around her in any way.
So I had one of the best days I had in captivity. The woman and I chopped vegetables, cooked, washed dishes, swept the floor, made tea, and played games with her little girl. I sensed a flicker of sympathy when the woman complimented my potato peeling ability, and when she asked what people in America ate for breakfast, as we set out the morning meal.
If I pretended hard enough, I could almost fool myself into thinking I really was a guest, living with an average Iraqi family for a story about daily life.
But I wasn't a guest. I was a prisoner. And my guards were determined to win our battle of wills.
A few days later we were back at the clubhouse, where there weren't any women, and they were little kings. After we arrived, they just locked me in my room.
All my hard-won privileges were gone. They let me out to eat, but wouldn't eat with me. In the Middle East, that's a major insult. They wouldn't speak, except for blunt orders.
After dinner, I was going back to my room when I turned and yelled, "This is injustice! This is thuloum!"
My strategy from the start had been to humanize myself. The only way to survive, I thought, was to get them to see me as a person, not a symbol or an object of hate. But by this point, I had put up with so much from so many people, I didn't care. All the questions:
"Why aren't you a Muslim?"
"Why don't you love Zarqawi?"
"Why don't you want to drive a car bomb?"
Plus the fact I'd been kidnapped and Alan murdered. It was all ridiculous.
They just locked me back in my room. And that night, as I lay there, I thought, "I can't do this. I'm not going to win this. It's stupid to try."
The next morning, I didn't knock on the door to come out. I waited for them to fetch me. When they did, I just kept my head down and walked to the bathroom. I was quiet and deferential -- as I had been in my ordeal's early days.
I had to keep my eye on the larger goal, which was survival. I had to give in.
The Muj Brothers had won the battle with me. That didn't mean they had won a war. In the following days, Abu Hassan slept less and less. He'd pull out his handgun and play with it.
"The American soldiers, they will never leave Iraq," he said one day. "It will be 300 years before they go away."
It was the first time I had every heard any of the mujahideen express anything less than complete optimism about the future.
* * *
As March slipped away, to some involved in the long effort to free Jill, it was as if they were now coasting -- like a car that was moving forward, but with the engine off.
So Team Jill did what they had agreed to do when things seemed too quiet. They'd kept one person in reserve, someone who might get lots of attention and elicit much emotion: Jill's twin sister, Katie. It was time to put her on TV.
The funny thing -- the ironic thing -- is that Katie and Jill were twins who didn't get along. Not when they were youngsters, anyway.
They fought and fought and fought all the way through high school. The points of contention between them were the usual sibling irritants, such as whose turn it was in the shower, and who'd been in whose room, and when, and for how long.
They were just different sorts of people, with different lives. Katie was a dancer and looked like a ballerina; Jill loved competitive swimming and had a muscular swimmer's build.
But their relationship changed when they went away to college (Tufts University for Katie; the University of Massachusetts for Jill). They spent hours on the phone with each other, and suddenly the person who had been so irritating when they lived in the same house seemed like an invaluable support.
After graduation, both ended up working in the same area: foreign affairs. Katie joined an international development firm, based in Washington. Jill pursued her dream of becoming a foreign correspondent.
Katie appeared on Al Arabiya on March 29. She talked about how Jill's kidnapping had affected her family and appealed for information that could lead to her release.
* * *
I got worse. I was losing it. I would curl up in the bed and cry so hard. But I couldn't be loud, so I would cry into the bed, into the plush blanket.
Through all the weeks and months I hadn't prayed. I thought it would be hypocritical. All of my extended family is Catholic, but I hadn't been to church in a long time. I hadn't grown up with much religion, in fact. But I needed to calm myself. I knew that my family and friends were doing all they could for me, but it just wasn't enough anymore. They were out there, and I was here alone. OK, I thought, I'll ask God for strength and patience.
"God, thank you for getting me through all these days so far," I began. "Please just give me the strength to keep going.
"Stay with my family right now and sit with them and give them strength.
"I know I never used to come to You before and it's bad of me to come to You now when I really need it.
"Please, just stay with me right now. Just stay with me right now and don't leave me."
Next part: Freedom