Hostage: The Jill Carroll Story – Part 7: False hopes

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

It was late January the next time we moved. Hot and tired of traveling, I threw up all over myself. They didn't know that I'd always been prone to car sickness.

"Do you need a doctor? Are you sick? We can bring you a doctor," said Abu Rasha, my No. 2 captor, who was driving. Again and again, I saw that their beliefs would allow them to deprive me of my freedom and kill Alan, yet also lead them to express sincere concern over my health and well-being as their hostage.

When we finally came to a stop I was led, stinking, into a new house – the sixth place I'd been, in the three weeks I'd been held. It wouldn't take much to prompt a move: a helicopter overhead, wild dogs barking at night, a US patrol in the vicinity. At the time, I thought the house was south of Baghdad. The US military now says it was near Abu Ghraib.

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Once inside, they steered me directly into the bathroom, and I stripped off my soiled clothes.

The house was so new that the mujahideen were still building it around me. No family lived here. This was a house built by Abu Nour, my lead captor, solely for the use of the mujahideen. It was a meeting house, a bomb factory, and, for me, a jail.

In my head, I called it "the clubhouse."

Here there were no women and children to serve as buffers between me and my captors – or to witness my eventual fate.

I'd felt some measure of safety in the presence of the mujahideen families. That might have been an illusion. In any case, now it was gone.

As the weeks of my captivity accumulated, I felt physical and mental stress begin to mount.

The inactivity was claustrophobic. The psychological poking and prodding of my captors – who knew so little about Americans that they were shocked I wasn't blond – sometimes made me feel like an animal in a zoo.

Constant adrenaline crashed up against chronic fatigue. I'd lie down at night, and my eyes would feel swollen. I'd close my eyelids and it would seem as if they weren't big enough to go around my eyeballs.

Sometimes I would think about people back home and I would feel a little better. My grandparents are Catholic and they go to Mass every day. I would figure what time it was in the US and would think, "I bet they're praying for me right now. I bet they're saying, 'Let's pray for our granddaughter, Jill Carroll.' "

If it was early morning in America, I would imagine my mom, dad, and twin sister, Katie, waking up. If it was a little later I would think, "They're having their morning meeting at the Monitor. Maybe they're talking about me."

That was my only escape.

• • •

At first in the clubhouse, I was happy to sit alone in my bedroom and not be bothered.

Between moments of terror, throughout my captivity were long hours doing nothing. Here, I didn't want to look around the room too much, because I wanted to save the newness, and the interest of looking at new things as long as I could. After fear, boredom was my tormentor, my constant enemy.

I'd think, "I'm going to spend today looking at the heater. And then tomorrow, I'll sit in a different part of the room, and it'll look different." I'd stare at flies for hours.

It sounds crazy now, but then it seemed normal. If you looked at everything all at once, it became familiar and boring really fast.

I sang camp songs to myself, and songs that Mom used to sing to me. I spun fantasies of US marines rescuing me. I ruminated over old boyfriends and choices I'd made. I deeply questioned my decision to come to Iraq. I had devoted a year in Jordan to studying Arabic and working at an English-language newspaper, slowly learning my craft. For what? To spend my last days under the thumb of the bleepin' muj? If I ever got out, I decided I'd never leave the US again.

At night, I would think hard about Katie, sending her mental messages: 'I'm OK. Don't worry. Can you feel me, Katie?' In my head, I'd write letters to Dad, in North Carolina, telling him about my days. I'd imagine him hugging me and hugging me in the doorway, telling me everything was OK.

I spent a lot of time staring at my toes, and wondering if I was slowly going around the bend.

After several days at the clubhouse, the guards asked me if I wanted to watch them make dinner. Then they let me watch a little TV. Eventually, they let me pace the length of the house, about 15 steps, and help wash dishes and prepare meals. I was overjoyed with these activities after so many hours spent doing nothing.

Access to sunlight became the most important new benefit, though. It poured into the sparse sitting room where my guards slept and where we all ate.

I was desperate for light after painful days in dim rooms in the Abu Ghraib house with my now-departed female minder, Um Ali. I had been handed off to a different cell under Abu Nour, to a different set of guards.

One of the guards at this new house, who had himself spent time in prison, seemed to understand the way I felt. One morning before breakfast, he tied back the thin curtains.

"Sun," he said smiling and gesturing at the bright streams pouring in through the etched glass windows.

I sat on the ground in the sunbeam and closed my eyes. It penetrated my eyelids and warmed my face.

• • •

By this point, I had learned much about the way the mujahideen operated. To me, at least, some of their tactics were surprisingly clever.

Take transportation. Men with beards, and cars with only one or two men, drew too much attention from patrols and at checkpoints. So they shaved their beards and drove around as families, kids and women included. They played Shiite music. As insurgents, they knew how to not look like an insurgent.

They have the home-field advantage. As Abu Nour, the leader, told me more than once: "I can go out, plant my bomb, and go back and have a homemade dinner with my wife. What are American soldiers going to do? They go back [to their base] and do not have good food or get to see their family."

Abu Nour ("Ink Eyes") began coming to see me almost every day. Clearly, he felt freer to visit the clubhouse than the other places I'd been held. It was during one of these visits that he'd mentioned Margaret Hassan, and I'd hysterically begged for the guards to use a gun to kill me, not a knife.

At the clubhouse, he also appeared eager to have me "interview" him. He seemed to have begun to view me as a messenger – an idea I had been pushing, hoping it would give them a reason to set me free.

My hands always shook when I did these "interviews." Like all interactions with my captors, they felt like mine fields, or chess games.

Among other things, Abu Nour said that some people joined the mujahideen because they were angry about the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison or raids on their homes at night. Many enlisted following a battle they considered a great victory – the April 2004 fight for Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad in the Anbar Province.

Abu Nour added that too many of these new recruits had impure motives. That, he said, is why they lost Fallujah to US forces in November 2004.

"A good mujahid enters the war so [that] if he dies he goes to heaven," Abu Nour insisted.

Secular insurgents were useful allies, but wouldn't be allowed to take part in the Iraqi government after the mujahideen's final victory, he said. Sunni politicians participating in the current US-backed government were traitors to Islam and should be killed.

My captors would laugh, for example, when Adnan al-Dulaimi would appear on TV – either when he was pleading for my release or as part of a group of politicians trying to form a new government. I had gone to interview Mr. Dulaimi when they seized me in front of his political headquarters in Baghdad.

[In a press conference on Jan. 20, Dulaimi said: "By kidnapping her, you are insulting me. You're insulting the work that I've been doing for Iraq.... release her...." Nine days later he issued another tearful public appeal for Jill's release, which was featured in the Monitor's Iraqi media campaign in February and March.]

"Look, Jill. Ha, ha. There's your 'friend' Dulaimi," they scoffed each time he appeared. "Oh, please, please free Jill! Ha, ha, ha, ha." They mocked him.

Within minutes of my capture, I had suspected Dulaimi, the head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni political party. The kidnappers were waiting for us when we left his office. They must have known about my appointment ahead of time.

During one of these talks at the "clubhouse," Abu Nour said that Dulaimi had been to see him that week. Dulaimi had begged Ink Eyes to let me go. Later, the guards told me that Dulaimi had been back again. Dulaimi said, "Please, please let her go. The [US] soldiers are threatening to arrest my sons. Tell me where Jill is. Let her go."

My captors were angry about being labeled "terrorists." But the deaths of innocent people caused by their activities – such as the murder of my interpreter, Alan Enwiya – didn't taint the purity of their jihad.

"Sometimes when we try to hit the American soldier or Iraqi soldier, sometimes we kill women and children in this operation," said Abu Nour at one point. "We don't want to ..., but this is war."

Periodically, Abu Nour would tell me people were calling for my release. He would never say whether this was good or bad.

Throughout my ordeal, my captors would make oblique references to what I later discovered were organized appeals on my behalf. For example, Abu Nour wanted to know if I knew the leader of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group. I thought it was another test of my character. Later, I learned Hamas had issued a statement condemning the kidnapping of civilians.

When my father and mother made their first televised statements, Abu Rasha said, "Your father and mother say, 'Hello' to you."

"Very good man, good man, your father," he said.

It was clear that whatever my parents had said on TV had made a good impression.

One day Abu Nour arrived, and said that five women detainees had been released. This was important, and good news, he said.

"This is Step 1," he said. "Now we have to go to Step 2."

He wanted me to make another video, and ask for the release of all Iraqi women prisoners.

I was crushed. Another video meant days or weeks of waiting for it to air, then waiting for a reply. The black-eyed leader – someone who I thought never saw me as a person, despite the chocolates he brought from Baghdad – now thought he had something really valuable. The last thing they were going to do was let me go.

It wasn't until later that I figured the release of the five women had helped by making it harder to justify killing me.

***

Five Iraqi female detainees were released on Jan. 26, along with some 450 male prisoners. While US officials denied this was in response to Jill's captors' demands, her family saw it as a hopeful sign.

But four days later, Jill's twin sister, Katie, got a disturbing call from Amelia Newcomb, deputy foreign editor, who served as the Monitor's liaison to the family. The kidnappers had released another video, said Newcomb; and on this one Jill was crying.

Immediately Katie assumed the worst – that this was evidence her sister was being mistreated. She snapped on her television, and, indeed, saw a picture of a sobbing Jill. And in an instant, she felt much better.

Jill was faking, Katie thought.

She knew her sister. She knew that when Jill really cried it was like the Nile at the crest of a flood. The tears would come so hard, Jill wouldn't even be able to see, if she didn't wipe them away.

But this was different. This was ... restrained. Maybe the kidnappers were coaching Jill. Maybe she wasn't being physically mistreated.

Katie wasn't the only family member to take heart from the ostensibly disturbing video. Mary Beth Carroll didn't think her daughter was crying, either. Clearly, Jill was being fed – her cheeks weren't sunken – and she was dressed in a neat hijab, which seemed in some manner a token of respect.

Nine days later, a third video of Jill appeared on a Kuwaiti television station. This time, for the first time, her voice could be heard. "I am with the mujahideen," she said. "I sent you a letter written by my hand, but you wanted more evidence, so we are sending you this letter now to prove I am with the mujahideen."

On Feb. 10, a day later, the owner of the Kuwaiti television station said that sources close to the kidnappers had told him there was a Feb. 26 deadline. Two whole weeks! The US had that long to release all Iraqi women from its prisons, or else. To Mary Beth, that meant Jill's safety was guaranteed for the next 16 days.

The day after the video came out, Mary Beth woke up in a good mood. After the daily worries she and the rest of the family had experienced, this was almost like being on vacation, she thought.

P.G.

Next part: The new enemy

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