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Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wyatt Jr.’

Abu Alaa and I left Asmida at one, exactly the time he had told me. I couldn’t believe I was going through the gate a last time in Ali Baba’s Mercury. I concentrated on surroundings I would never see again. Abu Alaa saw two women near the gate, waiting probably for the bus to Basra. He stopped, leered at them in his rearview mirror, winked at me, and backed up. He rolled down his window, “Come on, let’s go,” he said.

The women declined, acting disgusted by his offer.

I tuned him out for a while, focusing instead on the checkpoint and machine‑gun nest built up with sandbags, the railroad track, and the archway at the end of the driveway.  We turned onto the road to Zobair and passed the checkpoints, the power station, the slag heaps in the desert, the old cars, the blast furnaces, and the antennas.

Before the turn-off we passed the ruins of the ancient mud-brick structure. “Was that once a caravansary?” I asked.

“Caravansary? I don’t know,” he said, shrugging it off.

But I was really interested. “A khan?” I tried again, using a synonym that he might recognize.

“Khan! Yes, khan, I think,” he said, but showed not interest at all.

I suppose it was predictable. He was a secret police creature, not interested in an old, derelict market.

As we approached Basra, he offered a choice:  take the two-lane road following the Tigris, through Qurna and Amara;  or the highway along the Euphrates, through Nasiriyah and Babylon, actually Hilla. I told him Babylon. He remembered a conversation we’d had weeks earlier: I’d told him he had to take me to visit his home in Babylon.

He seemed pleased as he turned towards Babylon. The highway was excellent, like an interstate through wide open desert, even marked with large blue and white highway signs identical in design to those along American interstates. However, horrible wrecks haunted the road, obliterating a sense of efficient, trouble-free driving.  Soon after the on-ramp, we pass the remains of a black Mercedes 600 sedan, blood-covered broken windshields, partially covered with sand, demolished against an overpass abutment on a perfectly straight highway. Had the driver fallen asleep, was it suicide, was he forced off the road, had the driver crashed after being hit by strafing fire from an attack helicopter? Farther north a dump truck loaded with beer was overturned, and men dressed like Abu Mahmoud gathered unbroken bottles from the sand.

Abu Alaa drove between sixty and eighty miles per hour. “Go. Babylon before dark.” he explained. We chatted and smoked his cigarettes, my first since the Sumer cigarettes I had the days after being taken from the hotel in Kuwait City months before. I studied the civilian buses and convoys of military vehicles moving south. A military cargo plane took off from the desert a dozen or so miles southwest of the highway. Near Nasiriyah we passed a thirty-foot high berm that went on for miles. I watched the odometer from the corner of my eye: the fortification extended at least ten miles. I wondered if the designers intended it to stop enemy tanks or to prevent eyes like mine from seeing what lay beyond.

We chatted about the highway itself—one of the English words he’d wanted to learn at Asmida. “How old is the highway? How is the highway in Boston?” He still expected to be my houseguest someday. The rapport between us usually felt not unlike that between student and teacher, though it was not clear who was what. Maybe both of us assumed the two roles simultaneously.

Around 4 p.m. he’d turned on the radio to hear the news. After thirty seconds, his jaw dropped as he turned to me. In an astonished voice, “el raees now releases all of the hostages immediately. Al-hamdullilah.” We shook hands and smoked another cigarette.

We were more than half the way between Basra and Baghdad. I’d never see Asmida again. Yet I felt farther from freedom than ever: zawaj talaq was in Baghdad waiting for me. The thought of seeing her troubled me. Abu Alaa was smiling. “Al-hamdullilah,” he repeated. He knew of my confusion, but he also knew that I was headed home, as were all the guys he’d guarded for so long. He would soon be reassigned to other duty, maybe something more exciting, I imagined.

“You should be thankful. This is another Thanksgiving Day for you,” he said.

“Not yet, you know that, Abu Alaa,” I said.

 

At dusk we followed a marriage procession into Hilla. It was strange to think of a wedding now, here, on a dusty shortcut between the highway and downtown Hilla. Cars decorated with streamers, drivers blowing car horns; a young woman in a white dress and her man in a black tuxedo together stood up through the sunroof of a Mercedes, waving. Dust kicked up by the cars painting the date palms brown. This dirt road changed into busy streets in the center of the city. Abu Alaa asked if it was all right to stop for five minutes to chat with friends. “Let’s stop for a few days,” I said. He laughed.

Abu Alaa parked alongside a curb where six or seven men were gathered.  They gathered by his door immediately, laughing, shaking hands, kissing his cheeks.  Abu Alaa introduced me simply as Mr. Will.   We all shook hands, a warm and matter-of-fact meeting. Maybe they’d heard from him about his assignment at Asmida. He may have similarly introduced Reiner and Jurgen a week and a half earlier, though I didn’t think so.

“You want tea,” he asked after a quarter hour that I’d stood on the street corner watching as he talked and laughed with his friends. As we walked across the street to a busy teahouse, I inhaled deeply the delicious smells of spices and meats roasting on fires.  Families crowded the sidewalks and laughed, raising their voices with a range of emotions.  Car horns sounded cheerful and songs from passing car radios brought me out of the robotic existence I’d too long endured.   The constant background roar of industry and its accompanying acrid smells were finally gone.

. “This . . . istikhan (teahouse) good,” Abu Alaa said. Dozens of white light bulbs hung on several wires strung along the ceiling, like Christmas decorations. We drank a glass of hot syrupy tea, standing, leaning against a blue and white-tiled wall that reflected the lights in this busy istikhan where a dozen men conversed in loud excited voices.  Spoons clinked inside tea glasses.  Dishes clattered onto the counters.  The sweaty face of the tea man standing in front of an aromatic wood fire built inside an earthen stove, the stained white skullcap, the coarse red hands holding a large brass kettle with its aroma of tea. . . all seemed as ancient as Babylon.

When we returned to the car, I heard someone call “Mr. Will.” I looked at Abu Alaa and turned around. One of Abu Alaa’s friends came over with a bunch of grapes.

“Please take,” he said to me.

I wished I’d had some token to return to him to reciprocate the welcome he gave me, with his simple gift that glimmered of common ground between us.

When we got into the car, another man entered and sat in the back seat. He sat in the middle, so Abu Alaa and I could both half turn to make eye contact with him as we talked. I wished it had been daylight. There was much to see, and both men seemed eager to explain the sights. At one point, Abu Alaa pointed to an area maybe half a mile off the road.  Dozens of mercury vapor lights illuminated dark boxy structures, but I couldn’t see them clearly.  “Babil,” he said, and his way of saying Nebuchadnezzar.

A road sign announced Baghdad  layless than 50 miles ahead. We may have passed farmland between the rivers, but it was too dark to tell.  The moon was waning again.  Abu Alaa turned on the radio, found some music. and turned the volume up;  he and his friend sang along. When the song was over, he said, “Iraqi rock. You like Iraqi rock?”

I wondered about the next hour, meeting Circelia. “Please, Abu Alaa. Drive me to the Jordan border. You know I don’t want to do this, to see her.” He laughed, but I couldn’t. Inside Baghdad, he seemed to drive the alleys more than avenues, but along the avenues I saw jewelry shops, windows with fashion displays, people standing in front of restaurants.

I was trying hard to imagine an evening on this town when we turned into the parking lot of the Al-Mansour Melia. I reflected on the eons that’d passed since we left this hotel in August, a lifetime that had brought deaths—real and imaginary—of friends and selves and relationships. Four months had spawned friendships with fellow hostages and Iraqis like Umm Kul and Mr. Ali. And a sense of victory.

An odd couple, Abu Alaa and I entered the hotel lobby. He led me to the reception desk, seeming unsure where to go.  As he talked with the clerk, I felt like an accompanied minor on an outing with my guardian, exercising no control of my goings and comings. At one point,  two men beside us approached another desk clerk. One of them held a large video camera with CNN printed on the side. I glanced at the face of the man holding the camera. As I studied him, thinking only that he looked like one of my college roommates, his eyes brightened. He straightened up, and mumbling something, poked his partner in the ribs with his elbow, and raised the camera to his left shoulder, squinting into the eyepiece. The man beside the camera operator became aggressive. He stepped toward me. “Are you an American?” I guess the T-shirt with the map of the coast of Maine and a whale offered a clue.

In the split second I hesitated before answering, Abu Alaa grabbed my arm and half dragging me to the elevator, said, “Run!” I did, leaving the TV crew without a word.

“Seventh floor,” he said to the operator. These were my last minutes with Abu Alaa. The car ride from Basra had felt like a celebration, a return from a campaign that’d turned out well for both of us, and the news report we’d heard halfway had capped my personal joy: everyone I’d left behind at Asmida was also to be released soon; the lives of the workers there—Abu Mahmoud, Ali, Umm Kul and all the others—were to be returned to normal soon, or at least relieved of caring for us captives.

The elevator opened to the same hallway on the seventh floor I’d left in August. Unfamiliar guards sat at an improvised desk, a low round table strewn with papers, coffee cups, telephone cord, and overflowing ashtrays. Beside these guards sat two American women.

“Which one are you?” one of them asked me. Just like that, “which one.” I felt myself choking. I wanted to be back in my cell or the mesbah or the car with Abu Alaa. Anywhere but here. I didn’t want to give her my name. She didn’t belong. She couldn’t possibly be the one I reported to. The past months had been my battle and the battles of the men I was with. She had no doubt had her own battles. And I could be happy she’d survived her ordeal, but that, I felt, gave her no right to be here sitting at this table with these guards asking me who I was. I interpreted her question as an attempt to assume control over me that the guards previously had held.  I could have killed some guards and had chosen not to.  Similarly, no guards had brutalized me or any of the others I knew.  We had negotiated a feigned mutual respect.   I hadn’t figured out all these feelings right then; all I knew at that moment her question and attitude felt all wrong.

This was like one of the nightmares I’d had weeks before where I went over the back fence at Asmida, running across the desert, evading detection by patrols, stealing a bellam, navigating by night past Umm Qasr and Bubiyan Island, getting into the Gulf, approaching what I knew to be safety in the form of a sailing dhow, and then getting targeted by that MiG 23 of so many months before carrying missiles. I’d awakened from my sleep as I dived into the Gulf while a glossy white missile streaked toward me.

“Will.  Will Van Dorp,” I mumbled. This was like surrender, like swimming into the net. The woman who’d stayed silent until then turned and yelled down a hallway behind her, “Quick, tell Circelia her husband is here.” I should have made up a name, or refused to answer at all and just found a way out now that el raees had decided we could go. But it was too late.

Abu Alaa, still standing beside me, saw my face and said, “Be good. You’re still in Iraq.” Then he turned and disappeared down the backstairs.

News chronology:

December 6:  What led to Iraq’s decision to release all hostages… read here.

 

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(This post concludes the account as it stands.  I’m still interested in getting a version of this story into print.  I’m open to all manner of revision to make that happen.)

While eating lunch the next day, I met Hendrik, whom I’d last seen at Thanksgiving. We spent the rest of the day sitting at a table talking. Circelia went off somewhere with other women. I slept on the balcony the next night and came in to shower only when Circelia went to breakfast. She returned with a rose and wanted to tell me about someone who had given it to her, but I said I had to go downstairs for breakfast and stayed there. In mid afternoon, sitting with Hendrik, I heard my name called. A man smoking a cigar and carrying a clipboard said something about my traveling back to the United States that night on a private jet with John Connally. This made as little sense as the other things happening to me now;  the only one I knew by that name was the politician, someone I’d ever met.

“Go upstairs and pack, now, and report to the blue conference room,” the cigar smoker said. I went upstairs to grab my bags and told Circelia to grab hers. Guards in the lobby ushered us into a conference room.

“Hostages sit in front of the room, separate from their relatives and loved ones.” one guard said. I took a seat in the front of a roped-off area. I looked back. Circelia stood in the rear with the TV crews.  I saw the CNN crew that met Abu Alaa and me the other day at the desk. Some officials came in and sat on a low stage. One wore a green military outfit like Saddam often did, like Syphr’s. Another man up there wore a striped suit and spoke perfect Arabic and American English as he read off names from the passports in front of him. He checked my face against the picture in the passport before handing it to me.

After we remained there another half hour holding our passports, the man in the striped suit told us all to board a bus for the airport.  Following Circelia, I was the last person to squeeze in.  The bus seemed to carry double its capacity. I rode standing in the door well, watching the city go by: the markets, book sellers, the Tomb of’ the Unknown Soldier, the huge and grotesque Arch of the Swords. The driver, speaking English quite well, said, “You are very lucky to return on Mr. Wyatt’s aircraft.”

I wondered who Mr. Wyatt was, but said, “Yes, I know.  How long has Mr. Wyatt been in Baghdad?”

At the Saddam International Airport, security officials waved us through the customs inspection area: the diary and cash in the money belt stayed with me. We had to present our passports to be stamped before moving into the transit lounge. The cigar-smoker and a woman,  who said they were from the Embassy, counted us, disagreed about numbers in our party, saying something about another busload trying to leave the hotel in time to catch Mr. Wyatt’s plane.

Circelia and I sat in the transit lounge, silent and far enough apart that we could pass ourselves off as unrelated. After a time,  two distinguished looking men emerged at one end of the lounge. One I recognized immediately as John Connally, unmistakable in his white cowboy hat, the former Texas governor and Cabinet Secretary.  The other, I learned, was my benefactor, Oscar Wyatt, president of an oil company. The two walked through the lounge, introducing themselves and wishing us some happy holidays. “I’m sure you folks have a lot of catching up to do,” he said.

When the word came to board the aircraft, we moved quickly and almost immediately took off. We applauded as the plane left the left the ground. When the intercom announced we were out of Iraqi airspace, the applause and hooting was louder although neither time had I clapped with much enthusiasm.

Circelia slept in the aisle seat of the Coastal Boeing 707 while I looked out the window.  My old friends Aldebaran and Betelgeuse seemed distanced, more boreal than at the refinery.  After a fuel stop in Ireland, we entered Canadian airspace after midnight. The waning moon did little to illuminate what lay below.  Were those cumulous clouds against a black abyss, or snowy land with many dark patches of water, and was one of those the lake near where Diana waited?  It pained me that she had to wait, but Circelia had agreed to sign the divorce papers if I escorted her back to the Midwest and past the gauntlet of reporters who “knew” hers to be a story of a brave woman who traveled to Baghdad to rescue her loving husband.  The plane would land at Coastal Petroleum’s airport of choice anyhow, and that meant Houston, Texas.

A few weeks later, a divorce decree finally freed me, although that liberation came with the pain of leaving my children. As I flew into Boston to Diana, the sound of air rushing past the airplane recalled the noise of Asmida, which I’d left less than a month before.  At the arrivals gate, we hugged and wept;  she looked simultaneously haggard and radiant.  I wasn’t sure where to start, but we walked to her car and drove north, beginning an effort to repair our fractured life.

On New Year’s Day she accompanied me to a frigid ocean beach in New Hampshire because I wanted to show her how the mesbah had helped me focus on returning to her, but the January water so chilled me that she saw my swim as evidence of my imbalance, and I felt foolish as I shivered.  I call it my “swim,” but I had waded in only to my knees before turning back, not only cold but also inarticulate.

The “air war” began on January 16, 1991 as I drove home alone from a lay-off meeting with my employer.  When the radio announcer spoke of bombs falling on that moonless night, I felt faint and parked on the shoulder of the road, and sat there until the winter air convinced me to get home.

During the weeks that followed, the order had left my life.  I nearly collided head-on with another car while I drove on the left side of the road, seeing it speed toward me but not registering danger.  Diana took my keys for a few days.  I managed little more work than mucking a stable where Diana kept a horse.  I earned no pay and made no promise from one day to the next that I’d be back.  I bought a TV, which Diana and I never had owned, and watched the news of the war. Whenever I saw footage of a “smart bomb” pulverizing a target, I strained my eyes, wondering if I’d recognize the target as the refinery.  I ignored her requests that I not watch so much.

Several times a week I went to a college library and read accounts in all the magazines I could.  One article included this sentence:  “Heavy bombing left the Khor al-Zubair Industrial area devastated.” This could mean Asmida as well as PC1, the power station, the LNG tanks.  Those emotionless terms veiled thudding concussions that might have killed Ali, Abu Mahmoud, and Umm Kul.  And when I wasn’t gathering news or mucking horses, I wanted to celebrate, while she tried to catch up on work projects that had languished during my detention.

I took the train to New York to see Tom in spring 1991, just after General Norman Schwarzkopf and an Iraqi Lieutenant General signed the truce in Safwan, near the border just south of PC1.  Tom looked older than I remembered.  His story of three months at the Saddam Dam north of Mosul differed from mine in details  but paralleled my emotions.  I told him about my telephone call with Ted and their ordeal camping at the border for a day in August before the Saudis let them cross over.

I thanked Tom for the attitude he gave me, but as we shared stories, he was surprised when I described an incident at the hotel in Kuwait, when I had thought him brave.

“I was terrified. My knees were shaking; that’s why I straightened up in front of that officer.” he said, his right eye twitching.

“What would you really like to do now?” I asked.

“I’d like to go back to Iraq,” he said, without hesitation. “Things I saw along the highway, especially in Kurdish country where I was held, make me even more curious. I’ll bet there are carpets and kilims there better than any I’ve seen.”

Diana and I eventually gave up.  I moved to a trailer in the woods not far from her.  Tensions crackled so much whenever we met that we spoke only on the telephone for a while until that too became unpleasant.  Then we would see each other only when driving—we’d meet on the road, moving in opposite directions, wave, but continue.  I watched her in the rear view mirror, hoping to see her brake lights come on, but they never did.  I moved to another state, leaving information with our common friends in New Hampshire so that she could call or write.  When I finally called her number more than ten years later, it had been reassigned.  She moved on, and so did I.  Drop by drop, hope of our meeting again spilled completely away.  The wound has healed.  To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau’s sentiments upon leaving his retreat in the woods, I accept that I have several other lives yet to live and can spare no more time on that one.

Before the current war started in Iraq in 2003, TV and the Internet carried footage of beheadings.  Many of us saw them, maybe more of us chose not to see . . . a dozen hostages in Southwest Asia, mostly in Iraq, their lives ending in front of a camera, blindfolded and hands behind the back. I tried to imagine the bound wrists stressing against the lower back as the victim strains painfully at shoulder sockets and torso.  I heard the scream at the very instant metal touches the neck. In those days, I would catch myself putting my fingers to my neck, massaging the soft tissue and tougher muscles and ligaments there.  Wondering how quickly a blade could work through, I probed the vertebrae at the back of my neck, feeling for the gap between any two convenient ones. “Struggle!  Bite!  Head-butt the ogre with the knife! I thought.  I imagined I’d not sit idly at that instant.

Yet, when would I begin the struggle?  Soon enough to survive, or . . . ?  In June 2006 I listened to a National Public Radio reporter reading emails sent to the NPR website in response to a story about two US soldiers captured alive—outgunned and outnumbered, surrounded, cut off from any way to escape—and then beheaded.  One of the emails, paraphrased, went like this:

“Of course I am horrified by this execution, but if it had been me, the videotaped killing would never have happened because I would have gone down fighting.  After all, if my choices are to go down fighting to avoid capture or to be butchered in front of a video camera, I’ll choose the former.”

The bravado in that email did not convince me.  The writer’s choice to fight at the point he described would surely have resulted in his death, and that is why I think his answer is wrong.  My life was at stake during the four months that began on August 2, 1990, but I made other choices than to fight, and through these there was the possibility of survival.  If I had attacked and gone down fighting, clearly, it would have been suicide.

My nightmares still happen.  In one, I sit in the front seat of an Iraqi army truck driven by Colonel Syphr along the Shatt-al-Arab where Saddam had placed huge statues of soldiers pointing toward Iran. As we drive past, these statues come to life and point to Syphr. Gunfire erupts from every side. One bullet’s impact throws Syphr, his bloody head, his blood, onto my lap. Before I reach over and grab the wheel, the truck careens into the Shatt.  I swim to safety. Climbing up the bank, I turn and look behind me. Glossy blanched bodies float down the waterway, having spilled from the back of the truck.

In another nightmare, I am back at the mesbah with fellow “guests” from that time in 1990, sitting at one end of the pool, comfortable; my fellows express no bitterness and the flies aren’t hungry.  The world seems harmonious.  At one point, I walk to the wall where I would shower and bask in the sunshine while looking over to see if the guards were coming.  Mr. Mohammed walks towards the pool, and I wonder if he will ask for a list of needs.  Then I notice an unfamiliar group of about ten armed guards trailing him, about thirty feet back.  As he turns the corner, he speaks in a loud voice.

“I have news for all of you.  Please come over here by the wall.”  He says, smiling.

“Good news or bad news?” I ask, walking away from the wall, suddenly very afraid.

He disregards my question and repeats with more enthusiasm than before, “Over by the wall, everyone.  I have news.”

The guards turn the corner and draw their pistols.  I know the time has come.  I rush toward them, wondering how many I can take down.

What might have happened to the guards like Colonel Syphr, Kamal, Abu Alaa, and the others . . . perhaps they died in the Shiite revolt in March 1991.

As for Saddam Hussein, when his end came in late December 2006, I sat transfixed at a computer.  He stood flanked by two men, wearing dark sweaters and ski masks, cutouts for eyes and a tip of nose, crowded into a space with a low ceiling.  Supposedly this was a place his regime used for torture and execution.  His face was like blank paper, unforgiving light leaching most of his color. What was he thinking, I wondered.  Was he frightened?  Was his mind vacant?  His unnatural black hair and matching eyebrows suggested youth, but the eyes downcast, maybe closed, belied any sense of vigor.  The trimmed beard looked gray, the color of cement, cold wet cement.  For a shroud he wore a red scarf and heavy wool overcoat, his frame erect, arms at his sides, hands no doubt bound behind him.  The masked men adjusted a rope attached somewhere above them.

Did he study this noose as he scaled the steps, or avert his eyes?  Did one of the masked men tie the noose, or someone else?

The masked man on the right held the loop against the prisoner’s scarf while his partner rammed the noose against the condemned’s left ear.  Was he worried when that noose tightened?  What thoughts raced in his mind in these last minutes?  Of an afterlife?  His nation?  Did he feel remorse?  Or terror about the humiliation of hanging, with its involuntary out-gushing of bladder and bowels after death slackens all muscles?  Or fear of pain?  Was he listening for a moving trapdoor latch?   Was he praying for an angel with a scimitar to slash the rope?  Was he telling himself that a heroic leader follows this path to martyrdom?

Did 1990 matter to him anymore?  It does for me.  Maybe I was just lucky, but I made my choices.  A group of Iraqis and I had our battle.  We all won because no blood spilled, no life expired.  I swam in the waters of Babylon, and survived.  Some day I’ll return.

News chronology:

December 9:  Coastal role in my flight out of Iraq

December 12: NYTimes article that mentions me.  The article gets some things wrong.

This ends the account as it stands.  I am open to dialogue in the comments section.  If you wish to discuss in a different forum, send on email:  parrotlect (at)  gmail.com  and put babylonia in the subject line.

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