By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006
That can't be Jill, I whispered to myself, over and over, even as her picture hung on the TV screen.
No, it's not her, I said to myself in denial. Jill? Jill Carroll? Being kidnapped in Iraq, sitting cross-legged with black-hooded, gun-toting men behind you, was there any worse fate for an American reporter in Baghdad? I couldn't imagine it. This was my friend, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, who, like me, had fallen in love with Iraq.
The day I left to join The Post's Baghdad bureau in May 2004, my twin, Jenny, told me that if anything happened to me, she would never feel joy again. I went anyway, selfishly clinging to an ideal, a quest for truth, grasping for a sense of purpose that even my twin could not give me.
In our 34 years, Jenny and I had never been apart for more than a few months at a time. She was always my identity, the other half of the Spinner twins who grew up in a blue-collar town in the Midwest, chasing lightning bugs and a sense that the world extended beyond the corn and soybean fields surrounding us.
For 13 months in 2004 and 2005, my half was in Baghdad, dodging mortar rounds, roadside bombs and potential kidnappers, while Jenny worried from home that I would not be able to keep my promise to my nephew, her young son. "Aunt Jackie always comes back," I told him each time I returned to Baghdad, to a place that began to feel more like home the longer I stayed.
Although I had tucked Jenny's warning words deep inside of me when I left, I realize now that on this journey of a lifetime, I had gone alone. And I was alone that day outside Abu Ghraib prison, when a stranger grabbed my arm and began dragging me toward a car.
* * *
After the kidnapping and killing of Nicholas Berg in May 2004, journalists were more careful when gathering outside Abu Ghraib to cover the release of U.S. security detainees. These releases occurred outside the secure compound, on an open stretch of highway between Baghdad and volatile Fallujah. Post reporter Daniel Williams had been ambushed on that road, his car raked with bullets. We reporters had become targets, forced to send our Iraqi translators out to interview those being released from Abu Ghraib.
Frustrated with this awkward interview system, I devised a new plan -- to cover the release from inside the prison. No other reporter had done this. It would be a good exclusive. I persuaded the military officials on the ground to let me do it, then consulted with my more experienced colleagues about the best way to get there. We decided it would be safer if a driver dropped me off with Post photographer Andrea Bruce. I had an abaya for disguise and a bodyguard with an AK-47. We would go at dusk. Our overnight bags for prison would be dirty hotel pillowcases, because they looked like the flour sacks Iraqi women often used. Abu Saif, who was working for The Post as an interpreter, made sure I knew a few words in Arabic. "Say it like this," he instructed. " Ani Sahafiya ," I repeated after him. "I am a journalist."
On Sunday night, June 13, 2004, Andrea and I slipped out of the car and walked into Abu Ghraib under a pink sky.
We settled into a small, whitewashed cell in a large warehouse and plotted how to cover the next day's story. The Army had painted the cell's walls, but the stains were still there: sweat, dirt, blood. Saddam Hussein had crammed as many as 64 prisoners into the same space where Andrea and I had two single cots, separated by only an arm's length.
Jenny. Her name often came out of nowhere when I found myself in a nearly unimaginable place. I needed to describe this to her. I needed her to see the colorful murals of Hussein still painted above the cell blocks: Hussein in a white military uniform surrounded by white doves, with the snow-capped mountains of the Kurdish north over his left shoulder; Hussein in dark glasses and a white fedora against a splashy black and orange background; Hussein in a dark suit, his eyes scratched by vandals.
I took my satellite phone outside and pointed it southeast, spinning around to get a signal. Bats fluttered in the artificial lights as I talked to Jenny a half-world away. "You'll never guess where I am. Abu Ghraib! The prison. Yes, I'm inside. It's so creepy, Jenny. I have to sleep in a cell. And I'm looking up right now, and there are all these bats, which makes it even more creepy. But I had salad for dinner."
With Jenny, I could be wide-eyed, excited, sad, scared, elated, real. In the bureau and with my editors, I had expectations to meet. The other correspondents were so hardened. They had seen war many times, had faced down dictators, guerrilla leaders and warlords in exotic, far-off places. This -- Iraq -- was all I had. I could not pretend to be more experienced than I was. But I could hide how green I was. I didn't need to act like a clown who had just joined the circus. No, I saved that for Jenny.
My words gushed out, as usual. I tried to call her at least once a day, never talking long, to check in, to bring her with me, when I just needed to hear her voice, when I was full of new sights and sounds and had to empty some of it. I could tell Jenny the part of the story that could not go in the news articles. I could tell her my story.
Back on my cot in the cell, I could not sleep. I kept imagining the ghosts of the detainees who had died in that room, kept hearing their screams, their voices finally growing hoarse, then fading into the nothingness that had already consumed them.
Andrea and I got up early the next morning to watch the release of about 500 detainees. The prisoners lined up according to the direction they were headed, Tikrit here, Baghdad there. They clutched homemade bags sewn from brown plastic MRE packages. Most professed their innocence to me.
From a guard tower, Andrea and I watched for hours as the buses with released prisoners rolled out, the crowd of nearly 600 waiting family members slowly thinning as the morning went on. Ghazwan and Bassam, our driver and interpreter for this trip, were outside the prison watching for us to come out. I wanted to wait until most of the onlookers had left so we would not attract as much attention.
Andrea decided to follow a bus of released detainees and jumped into a car with an Associated Press photographer and reporter. I called Bassam to let him know I was on my way and asked the Marines in the tower to make sure I made it to my car. I said it with such breeze, as if I were leaving a movie theater in the United States and getting ready to walk across a dark parking lot.
I followed a narrow path through barbed wire that led from the prison to a small parking lot near the front. Several cars idled in the noon heat. No one seemed to pay much attention to me. I walked along the perimeter of the parking lot and headed for the highway. I could not see Bassam or Ghazwan, but based on our telephone contact, I knew they were waiting in Ghazwan's yellow sedan.
Suddenly, a man ran toward me, grabbed me by the wrist and began pulling me toward an orange and white car. At first I said in Arabic, " La. La. Rajan. " No. No. Please. I pointed to the highway, where Bassam and Ghazwan were hidden from view. But he kept pulling me by the wrist. Another man came up behind me and grabbed me around the waist. Someone else grabbed the pillowcase that held my belongings and threw it aside. At first I couldn't fathom what was going on. What was happening to me? Were they trying to kidnap me? They were trying to kidnap me! My heart pounded.
I had avoided watching the video footage of Berg's beheading that played repeatedly on Arab satellite television. I imagined it now anyway. I could not let these men put me in that vehicle.
I was trying to remember how to say "I am a journalist" in Arabic as Abu Saif had instructed. I couldn't find the words. Instead, in a panic, I told them that I was a vegetarian. Ani Nabatiya! Ani Nabatiya! I fell to the ground and started kicking them. It did not stop them. They just dragged me on the ground, still trying to pull me by my hand. Someone yanked me up, and the man who first grabbed me ripped off my abaya. They saw the blue bulletproof flak jacket that foreigners wore in Iraq. He said, "No Iraqi, no Iraqi." I realized instantly: They think I'm CIA. So I screamed back, Washington Post! Washington Post! Until then, I had tried not to raise my voice. I did not want to attract the relatives still waiting for the detainees, but our tussle finally drew their attention, and a crowd formed around me. Where was Bassam? Where were the Marines I had asked to watch me as I walked to my car?
I looked over at the faces in the crowd, and I didn't see a single person who saw me as a human. I tried to plead with a woman standing there, plead with my eyes, and she looked like she wanted to spit on me. I was an American woman, no better than the American soldier in the photographs of the abused detainees who dragged one of their bloodied sons or husbands naked on a leash.
Bombs were going off almost daily. Iraqis were dying. They blamed the Americans. This is not what they had imagined when they imagined democracy. There was no distinction made between the American press and U.S. soldiers and contractors who had promised electricity and had not delivered it. They felt occupied, and I was part of that occupation.
I saw the helicopters blaze in the sky coming out of the prison, while the Marines followed on foot, pointing their weapons and shouting at the crowd. I didn't hear anything at first but the sound of my own voice, which had grown hoarse from my mantra: Washington Post! Washington Post!
Once the men who grabbed me saw the Marines, they let go, and everyone scattered. Bassam came running as the crowd parted. He had been trying to get a better look at what had drawn the people. But he had not seen me. Please, my bag, I mimed to Bassam, as the Marines led us back inside Abu Ghraib.
I balled up my head scarf and threw it on the dirt. "It didn't even work!" I yelled. I was furious that something about me -- my walk, my body, the way I carried myself -- had tipped them off that I was a foreigner. I leaned against a concrete barricade inside the prison, folding my hands in my lap to stop them from shaking. My entire body convulsed. I looked over at Bassam. "When we get back to the office, you tell them I didn't cry. Tell them," I insisted until he agreed. I needed them to know. I had not buckled. I had not broken down. I was intact.
When I called Jenny later, my voice shook. "These guys tried to kidnap me!" I exclaimed. I had already talked to my editor back in Washington, had heard myself begging: "Please, do not make me come home. I want to stay. Please, do not call me home."
Although I could tell Jenny the truth that I could not tell my editor -- that I was rattled but also resigned -- I did not tell her that I had pleaded to stay in Iraq. I did not want her to know that I had gotten so close to terror, so far from her, and yet I could not bring myself to come back, so that I could take away her own fears.
* * *
In the book, Jenny Spinner, an English professor, writes about getting Jackie's call about the attempted kidnapping.
I always knew it was her before she said anything, my "hello" met by a long pause, then the "click click" of the satellite phone as it attempted to shrink the miles between us. Sometimes I waited for her to speak; other times, I shouted eagerly into the phone, "Jackie? Is that you, Jackie? Can you hear me?" When she left for Iraq, she promised to call me as often as she could. We usually talked every few days, taking advantage of her journalist's access to the world outside Iraq. When she couldn't call, we e-mailed, often several times a day. As far away as she felt to me, it helped that I rarely went half a day without communicating with her, and we both understood what a privilege that was. But it also made her journey to Iraq seem closer, easier, than it truly was -- at least for me. As long as I could reach her, she was within my grasp.
This phone call, though, was different -- the pause longer, heavier, before I heard her voice. "Jenny," she whispered.
"What's wrong?" I asked, leaning into the kitchen counter where I had been cleaning breakfast dishes, steadying myself for whatever dark and unimaginable news she was about to share. I recognized that tone, the way she wrapped the letters of my name around a barely contained gasp. "Somebody tried to kidnap me," she said.
My world heaved. "Say that again," I said, even though I heard her the first time. Say it again and again and again. Say it until I begin to reconcile the bright Connecticut morning, happy and oblivious, with your world in Iraq. "I fought like a dog," she said, the narrative steadying her shaky voice. "I kicked and screamed until the Marines finally rescued me."
I tried to picture it: my thin sister, on the ground, her hands digging into someone else's dirt, scrambling for freedom.
"I don't understand," I stammered.
"I'll be okay," she said, shifting into protective mode. "We left the prison and are -- " She stopped, interrupted by a loud voice. "Oh, no," she said, before the phone clicked and went silent.
I stood at the sink, unsure what to do, how to go about the morning, the day, the rest of my life.
It would be hours before she would call again, and by then she was a new self, resolved, distant, yes, farther away than ever before.
Adapted from "Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq" by Jackie Spinner. Copyright 2006 by Jackie Spinner. Printed by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., N.Y.