February 12, 2006, Iraq: Quaker Hostage Tom Fox Disappears
February 12, 2006, was a big day. Except I didn’t know it til later.
I was working at Quaker House, in Fayetteville NC. It was cold, near freezing, and rained all afternoon. That night, I was warm in bed with The Fair Wendy; her calico cat was somewhere on her side.
But I probably lay awake for awhile, maybe a long while, thinking about Tom Fox.
I did that a lot on those nights. Tom and three of his colleagues in the Christian Peacemakers Team Iraq delegation had been taken hostage in Baghdad on November 26th, 2005, 79 days earlier.
Tom was a friend of mine; we had both been members of Langley Hill Friends Meeting in Virginia. I knew his two kids. I was afraid for him and the other three, but especially for Tom. Many such hostages had been killed, several execution videos had been released.
Shortly after their kidnaping, another of Tom’s friends, John Stephens, set up a website, called freethecaptivesnow.org. The tension was highest until December 8. That was a deadline set for their execution unless some exorbitant and impossible demands were met.
But it passed with no news of harm to them; then a video came out, showing them alive and unshaven, still prisoners. After that we settled into a nightly vigil: tracking news reports about the Iraq war on numerous websites, looking for any hints of news related to the four.
We updated the site every night. It was checked by any others around the world who were concerned about Tom and the others.
I don’t know that February 12 marked any change in this routine. My records show I was preoccupied with plans for our big annual peace rally coming in mid- March, on the anniversary of the Iraq invasion.
We now know that it was on February 12, 2006 that the kidnapers took Tom Fox away from the house where the four had been held. They were chained together all day, and then moved into another room, and then chained again, for the night.
The captors told the other three that Tom had been moved in order to make final arrangements for his release. But the three did not believe this; there had been many similar statements about imminent release before. And they knew, from Tom himself, what other, more ominous possibilities there were.
Canadian hostage James Loney:
“[Tom] had learned a lot about Iraq’s kidnapping industry: how the field was played by both criminals and insurgents; how they were organized in a hierarchical network of power and influence; how hostages were put up for auction and sold up the ladder until the highest bidder secured the rights to extort princely ransoms–or murder their ideological prey in executions recorded on grainy videos.”
It seemed as if their captors were more interested in ransom money than any claimed religious or ideological goals. But neither CPT nor any of the governments were offering ransom. For the gruesome “auction” market, Tom was perhaps the most “salable” hostage, since he had an ID card that proved he was a U.S. military veteran. (His “military career” had been as a member of the Marines’ ceremonial band, playing the clarinet, often at White House events.)
The three were worried about more than just whether Tom was alive. His condition had deteriorated during the later weeks of captivity.
At first, Loney says,
“Tom Fox was our anchor, our stalwart. . . . During those first days of relentless, terrifying, excruciating uncertainty, Tom dove into prayer the way a warrior might charge into battle. He turned his captivity into a sustained, unbroken meditation. The chain that bound his wrist became a kind of rosary, or sebha (the beads Muslims use to count the names of God). He would picture someone: a member of his family, a member of the Iraq team or the CPT office, one of the captors–whoever he felt needed a prayer.
Holding a link of the chain, he would breathe in and out, slowly, so that you could hear the air gushing in and out of his lungs, praying for the person he was holding in his mind. With the completion of each breath, he would pass a chain link through his thumb and index finger.
During his first breath he would say to himself, with the warmth of my heart. In the second, with the stillness of my mind. In the third, with the fluidity of my body. And in the fourth, with the light of my soul. At the end of each series of four breaths, he would pause and simply rest in the light with the person he was praying for.
Tom’s vigilance in prayer was astounding. . . .”
But as the weeks wore on, Tom seemed more adversely affected by the winter weather and the emptiness of the days:
“Between Christmas and New Year’s, something shifted in Tom. Perhaps it was the lack of protein his body craved, the absolute lack of solitude or the relentless cold. Perhaps it was his inability to sleep, the burden of fear that came with his U.S. citizenship, or the extreme boredom. The intransigent strength and unflagging leadership of those first weeks evaporated. He asked for a sedative to help him sleep, and the captors obliged.
Tom took one, then two pills each day and still complained of being unable to sleep. His mind lost its suppleness. He seemed to be more fixed on his own ideas, less able to incorporate new information, his perceptions more rigid. We would frequently have to repeat things. He was either stone-silent or helplessly garrulous.”
Now he was gone. Without Tom, Loney says, “A great hole opened in our lives.”
“I remember going into the bathroom and seeing only three toothbrushes. I had always enjoyed looking at them when there were four. There was something complete about them standing together in their square, grungy Tupperware container, each a different color (chosen purposely by [the captor they nicknamed] Medicine Man so we wouldn’t confuse our toothbrushes–red, green, blue and purple–there was so little color in our lives!). They somehow represented our individuality. But now the purple one, Tom’s, was gone. For just a moment, grief broke through. That little forest of toothbrushes I loved had been decimated.”
On March 7, “Medicine Man” visited them again. They asked if Tom was okay. “Medicine Man” said he was, but then rambled into some double-talk about how they might hear that he had been killed, but they would not kill him, and they would all be released together. The three did not believe any of this. Loney:
“I said nothing. I looked at Medicine Man, nodded, received his news with a blank face. A poker face.”
The hostages had more days of waiting to get through.
Long afterward, Loney still wondered what it all amounted to.
“Why are we here? It’s the ultimate question, really. Whether we’re cleaning up after dinner or facing a captor’s gun, the earth turns, the sun rises and sets, the seasons come and go. We all have to find our way through, to somehow make sense of the turning, the rising and the setting, the coming and going of our lives, whatever the here is that we’ve been given to live. It’s the task that God has breathed into us.”
What happened to Tom in the days before he disappeared? Loney wonders about that too:
“It’s my hunch that Tom was haunted by a dread fear that the stresses and privations of captivity would irrevocably sever his connection to the divine, that he would eventually succumb to the temptation to hate and dehumanize his captors, and thus everything he worked for in the spiritual life would be lost. In our desperate circumstances, his answer was to strive harder, to hold fast with every last ounce of strength lest he fall helpless into the abyss of negativity.”
Did he? Did Tom sense what awaited him when they took him away?
As I lay awake on February 12, more than 6000 miles away, I didn’t know what had happened to him on February 12, but I was imagining the worst. Not that my anxiety was any comfort to him; or to me either.
But it did bring that awful war home. So much did then. Recollections like this still do.
NOTE: The quotes from James Loney are from an article in The Christian Century from July 2007. The full text is here.