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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Book Review: "Captivity" by James Loney

Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War. by James Loney. Knopf Canada. ISBN: 978-0-307-39927-4 (0-307-39927-3)

When the invasion of Iraq began in 2003, hardly anyone had heard of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an organization that believes that Christians should apply the same discipline and self sacrifice to peacemaking that armies devote to war. The group hit the front pages when James Loney and three other members of CPT were abducted in November 2005, and held in captivity for 118 days. This book is James' story of that time.

James had been to Iraq with CPT twice before, and this time he was leading a delegation. A CPT delegation consists of people who want first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground and how CPT's work is done. With James on the day of the kidnapping were Harmeet Singh Sooden, 33, a Canadian Sikh currently living in New Zealand, Norman Kember, 75, a retired British biophysisist, and Tom Fox, a 52 year old American Quaker, retired from the Marine Corps band. They were abducted after a meeting with a local organization, and were taken to a house where they were kept under guard by four Iraqi freedom fighters. For most of the 118 days that followed, they were handcuffed to each other, loosely blindfolded, hungry and filthy, and sometimes ill.

As soon as they learned of the captivity, CPT went into full non-violent response mode. The last thing they wanted was an armed rescue. There were prayer vigils around the world, appeals through the press and government. With several members of CPT living around London, there were vigils at Valleyview Mennonite Church, and in public.

While the main feature of the captivity for James was excruciating boredom, this book is anything but, as he describes the chronology of happenings and feelings over those 118 days. He felt a constant conflict between wanting to feel compassion and love for his captors, and needing to resist them in any way possible. Communication was very difficult, with only a few words of Arabic on the one hand, and a few of English on the other. One day a captor the CPTers referred to as Junior explained that he wanted to be a suicide bomber. James was appalled, and asked himself,

How do I tell him life is sacred, his body a wondrous chariot, that he must not do this, foreclose every possibility of good in an irrevocable act of hate? . . . Human touch. That's how to do it. My heart starts pounding. It's ridiculous, crazy, insane. I immediately sweep the idea out of my mind. One does not massage one's captor.

But Junior was in constant pain from tight muscles, and he did massage him, almost daily from then on.

Adding to the effect of the boredom, were the regular promises from the captors that release was imminent; that the governments of Canada and Great Britain were negotiating and promising large sums of money for the captives. The threat to Tom Fox was that the United States would not negotiate at all, and all were aware that he was in great danger, and that the Canadians were the most likely to be freed. In fact, Tom was taken away on Feb. 12 and eventually the men realized that he must be dead.

In the new year the captives finally established a daily routine. They were unshackled in the morning to use the filthy bathroom, and then to do an exercise routine. After that they were shackled and forced to sit in plastic chairs all day, They practiced a daily check-in with each other, sharing feelings and physical problems. Bible study had to be done by memory. Eventually they were given writing materials,a real blessing for James. He realized that the Psalms are for times of anguish and terror, and wrote a psalm for himself.

My God, my God,
where have you gone, where can you be?
I speak but you do not hear me,
I call but you do not see.

My heart breaks open with crying,
weeping and gnashing of teeth are its son.
My spirit rolls in ash,
anguish has broken my soul. .

Throughout James agonized over the conflict among the four men, very little of which was articulated between them; it's really hard to deal with conflict when you are chained together. He described the rages he felt, sometimes at the smallest personal habits of another and then the various ways he dealt with that rage.

Eventually, after 118 days, James and Norman and Harmeet were freed by a unit of crack soldiers with no shots fired. It is the method they, as peacemakers, did not want, but paradoxically, James is immensely grateful to the soldiers and to everyone else who worked so long and hard to find them and to free them.

Read this book. It will give you the opportunity to spend time with a wise man with a generous heart and a lovely way with words.

James Loney will read from his book on Wednesday September 21, 7 PM at the London Public Library, Wolf Performance Hall for the International Peace Day. Admission is free, signed copies of Captivity will be available for purchase.

Elizabeth (Beth) Guthrie is a member of People for Peace in London. Before moving to Toronto on retirement, she was a frequent contributor to the letter pages of the London Free Press.

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