Hostage: The Jill Carroll Story – Part 10: Freedom
The evening of March 29, Katie Carroll went to a party with some of her friends. Earlier that day, she had gone on the Arab satellite television network, Al Arabiya, to plead for her sister's life.
When she got home that night, Katie imagined – as she had before – how great it would be if the phone would ring, and she would answer it, and it would be Jill, and this would all be over.
Just like that.
Little Hajar toddled away from the sagging bookcase holding a chapter of the Koran in her hand. She was heading for the foot-pedaled sewing machine, where a shiny candy wrapper had caught her attention.
She grabbed the wrapper, then showed me her treasures. She wasn't yet 2 years old and was so small that our eyes were at the same level as I sat cross-legged on the floor of the house west of Fallujah. I'd been here almost two weeks and March was almost over.
"What's that? What's that? Oooh, wow," I said, admiringly.
Hajar was great to play with despite the fact that her dress-and-jacket outfits were often smeared with yogurt or other messy food. Sometimes she'd bang on the door of my room to be let in. She was my only friend, the one person in this mujahideen household not responsible for my captivity.
This time, as the candy wrapper sparkled in her hand, the door suddenly opened. I looked up, expecting to see Hajar's mother or father coming to bring me tea or food as usual.
Instead, I glimpsed Abu Nour's visage as he entered. As always, the leader of these mujahideen had come out of nowhere, like an apparition. I cast my eyes to the ground, afraid he'd think I knew too much about his face.
Hajar collapsed into the velveteen of my dishdasha tunic and buried her face in it, afraid of this stranger.
"I know how ya feel, kid," I thought as I stroked her fine hair and small, motionless back.
What did Ink Eyes want? I hadn't seen him for three weeks. He'd promised then that he would release me in three days – a promise that had been just as worthless as the many other times he'd vowed I was on the brink of freedom.
I had learned to stop believing the promises, to protect myself from that terrible tease called hope.
I used to cling to every word Abu Nour said, analyzing them for days afterward for any hint of my fate. Now, after almost three months of captivity, I just didn't have the mental energy to do that anymore.
Instead, all I wanted was to minimize pain and have good days. A few minutes of playing with a child or helping women in the kitchen was an attainable goal. Seeing my family again – that was impossibly far away, a dream.
I stroked Hajar's hair, only half-listening to Abu Nour drone on. I just wished he would go so Hajar and I could resume our game.
"Well, today is Monday, and tomorrow is Tuesday," Abu Nour was saying. "So maybe in three days we'll let you go."
Twenty-four hours before my release he would return and we could have a final conversation about the mujahideen, he added.
I'd heard all this a million times.
"Oh thank you, sir," I said, trying to smile as he left.
"Yeah, right," I thought. "Don't listen to him. Don't get your hopes up, Jill. Just don't do it."
This was my theory: They were worried about my mental state. Since my bitter blow-ups with the Muj Brothers, Abu Qarrar and Abu Hassan, the mujahideen seemed to think I was fragile. Abu Nour hadn't seen me in awhile, and he had just come to say hello. Maybe he thought a dose of false hope would keep me from doing something drastic.
It was late March. "Dad's birthday is May 6," I thought. "If they let me out before May 6, that will be OK. That's all I really want."
Abu Nour had come on Monday. Tuesday was OK: I got to play with Hajar. Then Wednesday came around. I can't remember why, but I lost it.
I sobbed the whole day. Quietly, so they wouldn't hear me. I was so tired, so worn out. I'd been fooling myself, thinking some days were happy. It had been three months and I was drifting further and further away from my family, from my life. Enough was enough. "Let me out!" I screamed to myself. "Let me out!"
That night, I was sitting in my room in the dark, all upset. And I heard Abu Nour's voice.
They brought me into the sitting room after dinner. As always, I smelled his distinctive cologne before I saw him. Abu Nour sat cross-legged on the floor, his head bent toward the ground.
He had told me he was going to come back 24 hours before I was released.
"Tomorrow morning, we're going to let you go," he said. "We're going to drive you to the Iraqi Islamic Party and you will call your newspaper and you will be free."
I had no reaction. He might as well have said, "Here, have some tea."
Then came the catch: I needed to make one more video. And I needed to forget much of what he had told me about himself and his group, as well as much of what I had seen.
I had to forget about the Majlis, or council, of mujahideen that he had claimed to lead. I had to say his group was medium-sized, not big, not small.
"You can't talk about the women and children," said Ink Eyes. "You have to say you were in one room the whole time and ... you were treated very well."
I was supposed to "interview" him one last time, and he would tell me what I was supposed to say to the world. He handed me a notebook in which I was to write down his words.
"Anything outside the notebook is forbidden," he said.
Abu Nour wanted to make the video that night, but the power went out. So we made it in the morning. I didn't know then that within a day it would be on the Internet.
After the filming, they put me back in my little room. The night before, they'd told me that they would pay me for my computer, which they would keep, and that they would bring me a gift.
Abu Rasha, the large man who served as the head of the mujahideen cell I spent most of my time with, once had told me that when they let me go, they would give me a gold necklace, just as they had done for Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist who'd been kidnapped in Baghdad in early 2005 and held for a month.
I still wasn't excited. Money and gold, that was my ticket to freedom. I figured that if they did give me those things, then the end might truly be at hand.
Abu Nour said goodbye. I stammered out some kind of reply. Then I waited, and waited. Finally, the woman of the house rushed in with new clothes for me to wear. There weren't proper shoes, so she gave me her own black high-heeled patent leather sandals. They fit perfectly.
They rushed me into a car waiting outside. I still didn't have gold. I still didn't have money. I began to panic.
Abu Rasha was next to me in the back seat. He leaned over me, or so it felt, as I panted, blind, beneath three black scarves.
"Jill, we asked the Americans for the women prisoners and there were none," he said. Normally his voice was slow and quiet; now it was loud.
"Oh," I said, crouched in darkness, blind, hot, and breathless.
"And then we asked the government for money, and they gave us none," he said.
"Oh yes, I know," I said.
"Now we're going to kill you," he said, agitated and close to my head.
I thought they were going to do it. I imagined the gun. All they'd told me that day had been lies.
I knew I couldn't be afraid. I had to make them think they were good people who weren't capable of killing me.
I forced a laugh.
"No, Abu Rasha, you're my brother, you wouldn't do that!" I said, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.
He laughed, more convincingly than me. "No, we're not going to kill you," he said. "We're going to take you to the Iraqi Islamic Party and drop you off."
I went limp. Tired, frozen, spent, I didn't know what was going on anymore. I couldn't make sense, couldn't analyze. I had nothing left.
We drove and drove and drove. They kept calling on cellphones to the car ahead, to make sure the way was clear. Finally, Abu Rasha told me to lift my scarves and keep my eyes straight down. He started placing $100 bills in my hand. For my computer, I got $400, and then another $400 for my trouble.
Then he said, "Oh yes, we got you this," and shoved a box into my narrow field of vision. He opened it and pulled out a gold necklace, with a pendant attached.
The money. The gold. Maybe they were really going to let me go.
We switched cars. I was in the front seat, with Abu Rasha driving. He began a monologue, angrier than anything I had ever heard from him. He spewed venom and expletives in English at the American military and government. He railed against the occupation, the war, and the Abu Ghraib prison.
I assured him that I wouldn't tell the US military or American government that I was free, and I meant it. I would only call my journalist friends to come get me and have them drive me to the airport.
I had spent nearly three months feverishly trying to convince my captors that I wasn't a CIA agent. If I was dropped off and immediately sought help from US officials, the mujahideen would assume that I really was a spy, I thought.
And I was afraid of what they then might do. The mujahideen had done everything they could to drill this message into my head over the past three months: They were omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. There was no escape from them, even in the Green Zone. Maybe not even in the US.
Abu Nour had once told me they had eyes everywhere, and that they'd be watching me after I was released. I'd long imagined a car bomb crashing into a military Humvee sent to collect me.
Then Abu Rasha pulled the car up to a curb. He handed me a note written in Arabic explaining who I was and told me to get out, lift my scarves, and walk a few hundred meters back.
The car door opened. It was Abu Qarrar, one of my Muj Brothers guards who'd appeared from nowhere. He handed me my gifts and a big bag full of all the clothes I'd accumulated over the last three months.
So my least favorite captor was the last one I saw. I said, "OK, Abu Qarrar, OK, goodbye, goodbye." Then I hauled away, tottering down the road in an insurgent's wife's high-heeled sandals, grappling with my stuff, scarves flapping in my face, an ex-hostage bag lady returning to the world.
I found the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) office and handed the man behind the desk the note. I was panicky, terrified, starting to shake. I just wanted to use the phone, I mumbled in Arabic.
Instead, the man ran to notify the manager of this IIP branch office. "The same journalist?!" the manager said incredulously after reading the note. Debate over what to do with me followed. I felt weak, lost. All I knew was that I wanted to call my hotel.
Things moved quickly after that. They tried to hustle me into a white car for a drive to IIP headquarters. I resisted; I just wanted the hotel. I asked again to use the office phone, but was told that none of them worked.
A cellphone appeared, with a call for me. It was Tariq al-Hashemi, the IIP leader, later to become the new government's vice president. I told Mr. Hashemi that I wanted him to call my hotel, and if no one from the Monitor was there, to call the Washington Post office and have them come get me. He said he would also call the US Embassy. I begged him not to, but he insisted.
After a few minutes, a convoy of white SUVs and trucks with flashing lights and gunmen roared into the driveway and streets around the office. The IIP officials brought me downstairs and hurried me into a bulletproof luxury vehicle, complete with leather seats. I realized it was Hashemi's personal security detail. The lights and guns and militarylike atmosphere terrified me.
I wanted to shout, "I don't want this!" as we zoomed away.
Things were going horribly wrong. The mujahideen were going to see me; they were going to kill us. They would think I lied, that I hadn't called my colleagues to come get me in a low-profile way. I doubled over in the seat, hiding below the ledge of the tinted windows.
A man sitting next to me laughed and said, "Why are you doing this?"
"I don't want them to see me," I said. Didn't he understand?! I wanted to shout at them to let me out, to stop, to make the cars with the flashing lights go away. We tore down Baghdad's streets, a giant screaming convoy with guns sticking out everywhere. I was terrified that every ordinary car we passed was a car bomb sent by the mujahideen to kill me for breaking my promise.
"Be careful of car bombs, be careful," I told the man driving in Arabic. I checked the location of the door lock and handle in case the vehicle went up in flames and I needed to get out in a hurry.
The guards looked bemused, as if I was crazy, and said not to worry.
For me, my release is one of the hardest memories of my captivity. I don't know why. Suddenly, my structure was gone. There was no one to tell me what to do.
My body was free, but my mind was not. I was conditioned to be whatever anyone around me wanted me to be. I had no opinions, no self-will. I didn't know how to make decisions.
The IIP headquarters was a blur. They wanted to make a video of me, and they had me write a letter of thanks and make an audio recording. This was strictly to ensure that no one would accuse them of being my kidnappers, they said. The video was then widely broadcast.
Two close friends from the Washington Post, including Ellen Knickmeyer, the Iraq bureau chief, showed up. Someone gave me a phone, and I called my twin sister, Katie.
At 5:45 A.M. on March 30, Katie was awakened by a ringing phone. She rolled over, looked at the caller ID, and saw that someone in Iraq was trying to reach her. In an instant, she knew.
They say that dreams come true, but seldom in life is it given to any of us to have such a perfect moment.
She grabbed the phone. "Katie, it's me," said the voice on the other end of the line. "I'm free." Jill and Katie both started to cry.
As the Carroll family's chief communicator, Katie immediately launched into contact mode, calling people on a predetermined list, working from the East Coast toward the West as the sun rose.
She didn't have to call her parents. Jim and Mary Beth Carroll got their own wake-up calls from Jill.
At the Monitor's headquarters in Boston, the news spread quickly. Editors began looking through the happiest of their premade plans, "Carroll Release Logistics."
In Cairo, staff writer Dan Murphy was having lunch with a journalist colleague. He and Scott Peterson had begun rotating in and out of Baghdad every few weeks. A friend from Reuters sent him an instant message: "Congratulations on Jill being free."
Mr. Murphy didn't believe it. After all, over the course of the past months he'd had nine or so false reports of Jill's freedom. He called back and told his friend nothing had happened. "No, man," his friend insisted, "we're just snapping it out of the States. 'The Christian Science Monitor confirms...' "
I made the video for the IIP. My state of mind was reflected in the fact that I felt guilty for delaying the start of filming so I could call members of my family.
I learned that Scott Peterson was still in Baghdad. I was sure he would have fled. I called him on Ellen's cellphone. He was at the CNN offices where he was working on a new set of public service videos about me.
I was still on the phone with Scott when the US military arrived. I was so afraid of the soldiers. "What should I do, Scott?" He told me if they were there, they were the surest way to safety. I hung onto my friend Ellen from the Post as we went downstairs.
We got into an armored vehicle. I still had my big bag of stuff. I figured the mujahideen were watching. They were watching everything.
The hatches closed. We were driving along, and I finally started to relax.
One of the soldiers pulled out a picture of me that he had been carrying with him. "I don't need this anymore," he said, and gave it to me.
Another pulled off a flag that was attached with Velcro to his uniform, and gave that to me, too.
A third, sitting to my left, said "We've been looking for you for a long time."
How did these men know who I was? I didn't understand why they had a picture of me. I had no idea how much coverage my kidnapping had received.
I sat and talked with Ellen. After a few minutes, she said, "You can take off your hijab now."
"No, no," I said.
I waited a minute. Then I said, "Well, actually ... I guess I can."