BAGHDAD -- My best friend in Iraq has been a big bear of a guy named Hassem. He is an Iraqi in his early thirties who is married and has two young sons. By training he is an electrical engineer and, for that reason, he speaks pretty good English. He is one of those people who has a perpetual smile on his face and nothing ever seems to make it disappear.
During Saddam's time, Hassem was drafted into the Army as was everyone else his age. Not long after his basic training was over, he decided that Army life was not for him, so he just up and went home. A few months later the Army came calling and took him back to his base. He was locked up for only a week or so, which absolutely amazed him.
When he was released from the stockade, he was told by his commanding officer that henceforth he would be the Company's chief electrical engineer. Hassem told the man he appreciated the promotion, but also told him he would not promise that he wouldn't run away again. The officer shrugged and said more or less: "You do what you think you have to do...but don't do it for at least three months. That's when I get out of the Army."
Hassem stayed three months and led an easy life under his CO. The officer appreciated his electrical talent a great deal, and rewarded him with a lot of time off and a special food allotment. Hassem stayed the three months and when his CO was discharged, he left again. This time he went home and hid in an underground bomb-shelter-like contraption his father had buried in the back yard. There he hid off and on for a couple of years. When the war started he set up permanent headquarters in his box in the ground, and there he stayed until the end of the war a couple of years ago.
Not long after the war, Hassem was hired as head of field operations by a U.S. company that was building electrical facilities. His company and ours often worked together on projects that had been contracted out by agencies of the U.S. government. The two of us seemed to hit it off right away and very soon we would speak with each other almost every day.
About a month ago Hassem called one morning and told me his father had been kidnapped and was probably going to be killed. Strangely (or incredibly), this was the second time his father had been kidnapped during my five months in Baghdad. The first time it was "by mistake" by Iraqi Army troops on the lookout for Al Zawahari followers. That time he was held for about a week and then released, very frightened, but in relatively good condition.
Hassem said that on this occasion a group of about 10 Iraqi soldiers came to his father's very well-guarded small factory and introduced themselves to the security detachment: "Brothers put away your weapons..." they said. They then asked for the owner and when Hassem's father walked in, they jumped him, beat him savagely, tied him up, and threw him in the back of their pick-up truck. On their way out, they collected a safe containing $40,000 and put that in the truck too.
Obviously the "Iraqi soldiers" were not Iraqi soldiers. It was subsequently learned that they were actually some elite gunmen from Al Zarqawi's very well run organization of kidnappers. They run an extremely lucrative kidnap business and, from the ransoms they collect, are able to fund much of the terrorist activity in Iraq.
Hassem spent the next three weeks chasing down phony ransom calls. He spent most nights making fruitless trips to pick up false ransom notes. What Hassem did learn, however, was that the kidnappers and the police were working hand in glove with one another. When the real kidnappers started calling almost every day, they warned Hassem that the police would be watching his every move, and sure enough, the following day a police SUV would be parked in front of his house.
About ten days into the ordeal, the real kidnappers made phone contact with Hassem and told him that unless he came up with $500,000, his two young sons would also be kidnapped and killed. Hassem was beside himself and didn't know where to turn next, primarily because in this Kafkaesque world he had no idea whom he could trust.
I RARELY SPOKE TO HASSEM during his ordeal. He asked me not to call him and told me he'd call me when he felt it was safe to do so. That turned out to be very rarely. Hassem was terrified that his U.S. company connection might be established and that he himself might be killed as a result. I also thought, but did not mention to him, that if the kidnappers gained that knowledge they might also increase their ransom demand.
At the start of the third week, the kidnappers who were now in daily contact with Hassem put his father on the phone. His father was barely coherent and pleaded with Hassem to get him released.
As the days wore on the ransom calls continued and Hassem made the decision that the time had come for him to get his family out of Iraq and into another Middle Eastern country. He begged me never to tell anyone where he is.
One night ten days ago, Hassem delivered a ransom of $140,000 to a kidnapper's representative in a small town north of Baghdad. His father had been able to gather together his life's savings and got them to Hassem. His father was at the drop point and seemed barely alive. When the father returned home he gradually revealed that the kidnappers are extremely well organized and financed. They made no bones about their Al Qaeda and Al Zarqawi connections. On two occasions they dragged in other kidnap victims and cut their heads off right in front of Hassem's father. The point of this gratuitous savagery was to persuade the father that gaining access to his money was starting to become a matter of some urgency. Presumably, the atrocity inflicted on the other two victims meant that they did not represent a lucrative enough ransom. Extinguishing their lives was a useful way to make a point with Hassem's father.
Three days after the release, another phone call made it clear that Hassem's children were now in peril of being kidnapped and killed. Hassem decided immediately to gather his family together -- his parents, his wife and children and flee the country.
Two nights ago at three in the morning, Hassem came by the house to see me. It was the first time since the kidnapping that I had seen him. I was shocked by the impact the ordeal has had on him. He appears to have lost 30 pounds in six weeks and his face is drawn and shriveled.
He tried to smile but it didn't work. He stayed less than 5 minutes. He said very little as we sat at the same kitchen table where we had often had tea as he educated me on the ways of Iraq. This time we had only water. Finally he said: "John, I don't know what is happening in my country. Promise me you won't leave." Then he pushed himself away from the table. On his way out the door he grabbed my hand and said: "I'm not saying goodbye, John. I'm sure we will see each other again." I replied: "I hope so, Hassem. I really do hope so."
And with that he rushed out the door and drove away. I doubt very much I shall ever see him again.
John Connly Walsh, a frequent contributor, works for an American company in Baghdad.
copyright 2005 John Connly Walsh