There’s a creeping caginess to this lockdown that’s becoming reminiscent past confinements.
One is those being three weeks held in a room in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad guarded by the nastiest of Iraq’s security people while they sorted out charging us with infiltration, sabotage, and spying – each with a consequence worse than the one before. There were three of us but being the only Arabic speaker was adding complexity to my own experience.
For one, I picked up on tasallul, takhreeb, wa tajasus – respectively, that’s Arabic for the aforementioned charges our administrators were planning for us. I also think they wanted me to pick up on a other words like mou’abbad and e’dam – life sentence and execution, also respectively.
Adding to the worry was that they wanted information from us, so nothing was promising to be painless.
One dilemma was if I should share what I heard with my companions or best not add to the tension. I would later be told by Peter in no uncertain that I am to share everything I hear. I was to share the terror.
We would later learn that their own prison in Baghdad had been bombed. That’s where they were taking us initially, a dark basement under a grey building with a courtyard. I would visit it many times later as I investigated and reported on arrests, disappearances, and other ugliness of the old regime. Stories that would eventually saturate me without my noticing.
There would be tens of not hundreds of people coming to it every day from all over Iraq searching for a father, brother, or son who had had been picked up, sometimes as far back as fifteen or twenty years prior, and reportedly brought to that prison for processing never to be heard of again.
Peter Wilson and I shortly after the fall of Baghdad and our freedom as our guards disappeared. Photo by John Federer
That was a few months prior to a particularly grim job of compiling death counts in Baghdad by doing rounds of morgues and mass graves.
In any case, that prison had been targeted and all the many of the nasties had moved into the Palestine hotel where the international media was based. The thinking was that the building would not be bombed because it housed the international media. That, for the most part, was correct.
You could see them huddled in every second or third room, interspersed with rooms occupied by journalist and other foreign functionaries of a war.
That incarceration, in a way, was a double edged terror. One from our captors, the other from bunker busting munitions falling across the river from us.
Ironically, the shock and awe campaign– the big bombs – was focused on the Iraqi government compound (what would later became the so called green zone) right across the river from the Palestine Hotel, thereby affording us an immersive experience of the biggest bombing campaign since WW2 (I think). We could hear, feel, and smell every explosion, and I remember craning my neck to look at the top of the fireballs.
See targeted bombs err at an undisclosed rate, but once the number of bombs falling outside approached many, it started to seem more and more likely that our own number for a deadly error was coming up.
We had ended up in the Palestine Hotel after a long drive, as in A Long Drive Through a Short War by Peter Wilson from Basra to Baghdad. Peter is the good looking fella with me in the photo, the journalist who had hired me to translate a war that I was desperate to see.
Once in Iraq, we’d crossed the front lines (UK) from the south and entered Basra while it was still in regime hands. There we were picked us by regime security who wanted us taken to Baghdad in a drive that included tanks by the side of the road blowing up and nearly blowing us off the road.
The tail end of that drive was a four or six hour stint driving around Baghdad with our guards while they tried to figure out what to do with us. Their own HQ had just been bombed and there was nowhere to take us.
Needless to say in was a mean six hours with occasional stops for calls and to take cover from the bombing. I look back at the futility of standing under a bus shelter at one point for whatever cover that would give. But I figured if it was good enough for the traumatised Iraqi civilians standing there it would have to do for us.
Our guards were getting anxious and testy driving us around in these conditions. They didn’t know what to do with us and would rather be back south with their families. One of them put it something like ‘ana agoul nikhlas minhoum winrid’ –
I say we get rid of them and go back.
About thirty minutes later we would find ourselves parked in a deserted squalid dismal scrub behind a large electricity facility being offered cake by our captors.
I didn’t eat. I think I told the guards khallisna, maybe in a word telling them just do it. They laughed nervously and said nothing was going to happen.
I was reduced to two thoughts: what a shitty place to die what have I done to my mother.