By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 31, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 30 -- Jill Carroll wondered from day to day whether she would grow old or die a hostage.
"It was like falling off a cliff for three months, waiting to hit the ground," the 28-year-old American reporter said Thursday after being released by her kidnappers.
A shuffle from car to street to the branch office of a Sunni Arab political party and then to its headquarters brought Carroll to freedom on a beautiful spring day in Baghdad.
When she walked into the Iraqi Islamic Party's branch, she was still wearing one of the head scarves and enveloping embroidered dresses given to her by her captors. The black gloves of a conservative Muslim woman, also given to her by her captors, hid her hands.
Shortly after Carroll's arrival, the head of the party telephoned The Washington Post's Baghdad bureau. Carroll, a freelance journalist who wrote for the Christian Science Monitor, said she wanted to see familiar faces and had had many friends on The Post's staff since the early days of the war. Devoted to mastering Arabic and Middle Eastern culture and to covering Iraq, she was particularly close to the paper's young Iraqi interpreters and reporters.
In the party leader's chair-lined offices, with Sunni politicians looking on, Carroll and her friends were reunited. They embraced and cried through her first conversations in English in more than 80 days.
Then, with a cellphone borrowed from one of the politicians, Carroll woke up her twin sister, father and mother in the United States, punching in their numbers one after another.
Katie, Dad, Mom. It's Jill. I'm fine. I'm free.
She borrowed another cellphone when the first one lost power. She begged her family's forgiveness.
Three months without exercise had made her face round. Her captors had treated her well, she said, and she never dared turn down their offers of meals or candy for fear of giving offense. I'm fat, she said.
She asked for news of the world. She was shocked to hear of the prayers on her behalf, of the media coverage, of the vigils and balloon releases at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Kidnapped Jan. 7, three weeks after Iraq's national elections, she was shocked as well to hear that Iraq had still not formed a new government.
"You know that shelf?" she asked. She meant a mirror-backed knickknack cabinet in the entry of the Post house in Baghdad. For one reason or another, it had become a place to put photos of close friends killed over the nearly three years of war in Iraq.
The cabinet had three shelves. Two of the shelves already held a photo, both of them, coincidentally, of young women.
"I kept thinking about that shelf," Carroll said. "I didn't want to be that third shelf."
Post staffers had had the same thought. They removed the shelf and hid it the day after she was kidnapped.
One of Carroll's hardest days had been Wednesday, the day before her release, she said, when she broke down and cried hard, muffling the sound with her abaya in the room where she was being held. She prayed.
Coincidentally, her twin sister, Katie, appeared that same day on al-Arabiya television, saying it had been nearly two months since the last news or video of her sister. "I also hope that those with Jill have come to know her -- that they recognize what a wonderful person she is and realize that they can show the world that they are merciful to an innocent woman by returning her safely home to us,'' Katie Carroll said.
Hours later, Carroll's captors dropped her off in a Baghdad neighborhood, outside an office of the Iraqi Islamic Party. The politicians inside gave her juice, candy, water and tissues.
Composed, Carroll negotiated her way through the first of many politically laden conversations she would have Thursday, trying to stick to what she wanted and didn't want to say.
The party officials asked her to write out and sign a statement saying she had not been harmed in her brief time at their offices. They had her record a question-and-answer session on camera that they said was for their records. It showed up on television shortly afterward.
Party leader Tariq al-Hashimi presented her with an embossed Koran in a plush box. The Koran was for the true followers of Islam, Hashimi said, and he mentioned the Iraqi people. Accepting it, Carroll said her suffering was nothing compared with theirs.