MOSUL, Iraq-Odisho Yousif's job every two weeks or so was to take money raised on behalf of church families, people victimized by violence, kidnapping, or persecution mostly in Baghdad, and deliver it to them or their church. Almost since the war began, Iraqis living in the United States and elsewhere in the diaspora, as well as Iraqis with secure livelihoods in the north, became a kind of life support system. When a family lost its grocery store due to a bombing, or a relative had to raise ransom after a kidnapping, the support system kicked in. Yousif, 61, a lay leader in the Assyrian Church of the East and an active member in the central committee of Iraq's minority Assyrian Patriotic Party (APP), developed a networking talent for raising money and finding need during the worst years of terrorist fighting-when Iraqi deaths easily averaged 500-1,000 a month. That is, until he himself became the victim.
En route to Baghdad on July 2, 2006, with $4,000 to deliver, his car broke down. The driver, a distant relative and a Christian also, went for help. But he didn't get far before a black Opal drove up and stopped. Four men stepped out wearing masks. They ordered Yousif and later the driver face down into the car. When Yousif hesitated, one of the men shot him in the leg, grazing the skin. He tumbled into the car, frightened. "The first thing I knew I had to figure out was where we were going."
As the Opal headed into the desert, Yousif calculated that it was headed toward Baquba, a town 40 miles north of Baghdad and riddled with violence. That same day a series of bombs exploded there. Iraqi authorities buried al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in "a secret but marked grave," officials said, after U.S. forces killed him in a raid just five miles outside Baquba. The area seethed with high crimes: On the day that Yousif was captured, terrorists killed an Iraqi army colonel and kidnapped several prominent Sunni politicians. In Baghdad approximately 10 bombs went off with lethal force. Overall Iraqi civilian casualties in July 2006 would eventually stand at nearly 1,100, only to be surpassed by August, when nearly 3,000 Iraqi civilians died at the hands of terrorists. (In contrast, U.S. military casualties for the month reached 43; in August they rose to 65.)
Aware of the growing number of threats against Christians, Yousif nonetheless was shocked by his capture, he said, and fearful of what might happen next. He was the most prominent member of his party ever to be kidnapped. Soon he would also be its most expensive.
By nightfall the group arrived at what looked like a deserted military depot with old equipment and some shelter. In the distance Yousif could see Hamrin Mountain, a range extending from Diyala province in the east to Kirkuk in the north. Soon a bearded and masked man described as "the commander" arrived and questioned Yousif. Upon examining his Iraqi identity card, he declared, "You are an agent with the Jews of Israel." When Yousif protested that he was a Christian from Iraq, the commander again called him a Jew and kicked him in the chest.
Initially, Yousif said, he did not believe these men were well-connected terrorists: "They behaved more like gang members searching for money." But with the questioning and accusations, he told WORLD, he began to doubt his instincts along with his ability to withstand the kidnapping and what might be ahead of him. He was overcome with despair about whether he would see his family again. "I felt too sad to remember my sons," then 6 and 12 years old, he recounted, his voice breaking with the memory of that moment even now, two years later.
The commander told Yousif that the ransom demanded to free him had been set-at $300,000. It was nearly 10 times usual ransom demands Yousif had encountered as a free man. "Kill me; it is better," Yousif told the commander.
But the kidnappers relayed the demand to a clergyman in Kirkuk who for security purposes goes by the name of Albert. When he heard the ransom demand, he said simply, "We don't have that amount of money."
It was then that the network Yousif for so many months had used to help others went to work for him. Albert, working with a party official named Wilson, contacted APP members, families who had benefited from Yousif's help, and Yousif's relatives. Albert and Wilson tapped into a network of Assyrian-affiliated émigrés living in Chicago, Detroit, and Canada. "I was very much involved with this situation and started making phone calls to raise money," said Elias Shamuel, an APP member who fled Iraq during the first Gulf War and is now an accountant and a U.S. citizen living in Chicago. Shamuel is from the same village in northern Iraq as Yousif and knew him from childhood. "Our priority was the release of Mr. Yousif unharmed. We did not care whether the ransom money would be used to fund terrorist groups or not."
With the rise since early October of violence in Mosul and surrounding areas, including targeted killings of Christians, comes the revived threat of kidnappings and renewed debate about whether ransom payments actually fuel more terrorist activity.
In February of this year, unknown terrorists kidnapped the prominent Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, and held him for two weeks before friends found his body in a shallow grave near Mosul. Only later did they discover that the terrorists had extorted protection money from Rahho, which was paid out of the tithes given to the Chaldean Catholic church. When Rahho stopped the payments, the terrorists presumably nabbed him and demanded $3 million for his release. Rahho asked that the ransom not be paid, and church colleagues later said, "He believed that this money would not be paid for good works and would be used for killing and more evil actions."
But paying ransom has become almost commonplace, and upfront protection money, while less noted, is also not uncommon. One father from Mosul, now living in Syria, told WORLD he paid protection money for months to prevent two sons from being kidnapped. When the money ran out, the family fled.
U.S. military commanders now say that the Za'ab triangle-the area between Mosul/Nineveh Plain, Kirkuk, and Salahuddin-is perhaps the last worst area of violence in Iraq. It's a transit area for up to 12 insurgent groups with ties to al-Qaeda or former Baathists. U.S. forces believe it will take more cooperation from locals, as happened in Baghdad and Anbar province, to defeat them. So last month Brig. Gen. Tony Thomas, U.S. commander in Nineveh province, met with church leaders and up to 60 families who have taken refuge in a monastery north of Mosul. He promised, "I will give you a guarantee: I will crush them. I will crush whoever it is."
But the church leaders were reluctant to tell him who they think is behind attacks and instead blamed the authorities for failing to provide enough security. Shamuel agrees. In 1975 his father received a threatening letter, saying his children would be orphaned if he did not stop selling alcohol. "All he did was to bring the letter to the police station, action was taken, and he died 21 years later of old age."
Shamuel added, "Although we did not agree with the policies of the prior regime there was a rule of law that controlled the fundamentalists. The absence of rule of law following 2003 created a security vacuum and gave fundamentalists, terrorists, and criminals the upper hand to do what they please."
In the absence of security, Christians say they are in effect forced to pay jizya, the historic tax required under Islamic law for non-Muslims living under the "protection" of Muslims. Shamuel said he believes many businesses, as well as clergy, even now may be paying. "Do I think it is right? Well, of course not. But if I am a church leader and my obligation and duty is to protect my congregation, and it is the only way to do that, I think I am obligated to pay money."
In captivity Yousif and his driver were moved from location to location in the desert. Albert and Wilson, working by cell phones, negotiated day and night for three days in a bid to raise the ransom money while lowering the kidnappers' demands. "The first day we raised $6,000, by the end of the second day it was $10,000, so on the third day we told them that's all we had," said Wilson. He was tough, and eventually the kidnappers agreed to a $25,000 ransom. Locals agreed to float a loan until all the cash arrived. Then the kidnappers agreed to meet Wilson with the cash.
"My faith weakened but I prayed," Yousif said. He worried about how the money would eventually be delivered, and who would put his life at risk to rescue him. At one point he told his guards, "You can kill me but don't ask such a huge amount from the church."
Then a man showed up on a motorcycle, and assuming the men to be vagrants, offered to help them. The guards shot him dead. Then the guards fled, only to return later. He began to believe his guards not only were not methodical, but were erratic and perhaps uncertain about their mission.
The guards disappeared again the next day, and Yousif decided to turn his thought to action. Kept in a makeshift shelter but not bound as long as the guards were around, he decided to move out of the shelter "five meters at a time." If the guards could see Yousif, "they would shoot me. If no one shot me, then I knew they were not around." Slowly Yousif and his driver managed to get far enough away from the shelter to see a shepherd coming up a dirt track in a tractor. "When we reached the tractor, we knew we were safe. We were free."
Wilson by then was on his way to a rendezvous near Hamrin Mountain where he was to deposit the ransom money inside an abandoned tank. Once the money was retrieved, Yousif would be freed, the kidnappers told Wilson. But along the way a U.S. convoy blocked the road, forcing him to wait. Then Wilson received a call on his cell phone from a shepherd. Soon he heard Yousif's voice, telling Wilson he no longer had to make a ransom payment.
Yousif returned to a village outside Mosul where he was reunited with his family. Under better circumstances, that would be the happy ending to his story. But in the reality that is Iraq, Yousif remains in as much if not more danger. He now has round-the-clock bodyguards and is secretive about his whereabouts, even though he has made two trips to Baghdad. When I asked him if he has or would pay protection money to stay alive, he said, "You have to pay money. It is life or money, so you pay money."
A tax insurgent groups sometimes impose on Iraqi Christians, mandated by the Quran, Surah 9, verse 29: "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold forbidden that which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."