I wrote the original version of this story in 2003 or 2004, and it has since been edited and revised several times. This is the result of an email from a friend (who was working with an international relief group at the time) and a magazine article about Christian NGO's in Iraq in the early years of the war.
The Angel Medallion
As our jeep rattled and bounced its way over the roads filled with ruts and potholes, once again I wondered how I had ended up here and what I was doing here.
It was August of 2003, just five months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
I was in a jeep with another team of three men and one woman, listening to a CD of Christian praise music. We had left the warm and welcoming home of our hosts in Al-Bashiqa, a small village in the Kurdish territory of northern Iraq, at 5:30 that morning.
We were headed to the "Green Zone" in Baghdad, where we would be working alongside a squad of US Army medical personnel to bring food and aid to the Iraqi people.
Crates containing boxes of food and supplies had been packed into seemingly every empty space in our vehicles. There was almost no room to move, and my legs were stiff and aching. I longed for a chance to get out of the cramped car.
/ / / / /
After almost three hours of driving, we passed a sign marking our entrance into the small city of Al-Hillah, two hours south of our destination in Baghdad.
As we rounded a bend in the narrow road, a flash of white in the rearview mirror caught my eye. A nondescript, unmarked white van had suddenly pulled in behind our jeep, and was now following us closely.
"Hey, Khalid," I spoke up. Our guide and other translator, a friendly young Iraqi Christian man named Khalid Yussef, glanced at me in the rearview mirror as I continued, "That van wasn't behind us earlier. Could that be a group of our people... or do you think they're Fedayeen?"
Kaitlin glanced up. "Fedayeen?"
"Iraqi insurgents," Khalid and I said in unison.
"I cannot tell who they are from this distance," Khalid answered me, "but I do not want to take a chance."
Our jeep sped forward, rattling and bouncing over potholes and massive ruts in the road. I clung to my seat as the incessant jolting flung me up and down like a rag doll. My head slammed against the roof of the car, bringing tears to my eyes and making me yelp in pain, but I gritted my teeth and didn't complain.
The van pulled closer to us, and my heart skipped a beat. "They're following us," Jeff murmured.
This time, the van pulled alongside us. I glanced quickly at its occupants, and froze. Black ski masks, black-and-white khaffiyeh scarves, and AK-47 assault rifles... "Khalid," I gasped. "They're Fedayeen."
Khalid nodded tensely. "Yes, I see them."
Grimly, he made one last desperate attempt to outrun the Fedayeen van.
It was too late. The van swerved in front of us, blocking our escape route. A chorus of protests rose from all of us as our jeep swerved violently to avoid a collision, sending us all tumbling sideways.
We watched silently as the group of insurgents, most of them with their faces concealed behind black ski masks and wrapped khaffiyeh scarves, stepped from their van and surveyed our convoy.
One of the men motioned for the two other cars in our small convoy to move on, but held up his hand and ordered us to stay put. It was impossible to miss the reluctant and horrified expressions of my team members as they cautiously pulled out of line and slowly drove away.
"What?" Eric spoke up. "He's letting everybody else go; why not us?"
Khalid shrugged. There was no rhyme or reason to the thought process of insurgents.
I was trembling now. What did these men want? Sometimes, their goal was simply to plunder and steal anything and everything that they possibly could... but they also frequently took prisoners to use as bargaining chips and propaganda pawns. We had all seen the grisly videos of horrific torture and gruesome executions that Al-Jazeera TV displayed with pride.
I thought of our families: my husband, Kaitlin's fiancée, and Eric's wife waiting for us in Baghdad, and the rest of our loved ones at home in the United States. Soon, the rest of our team would deliver the news of what was happening to us.
Please, God... I couldn't think of anything else to pray.
Khalid's knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel. He was terrified. Instantly, with horrifying clarity, I understood why. He was an Iraqi working with Americans, a traitor in the insurgents' eyes. And traitors were usually brutally executed. I offered up a silent, fervent prayer for his safety—and ours.
Kaitlin eyed the group of insurgents. "What's Arabic for, 'Don't shoot'?"she asked nervously.
"Laa tapar," I replied quietly, with a harsh, mirthless laugh.
The Fedayeen leader reached for the door handle and yanked open the driver's door of our jeep. His face was hidden beneath a black-and-white khaffiyeh, and his eyes were all that we could see through a narrow opening in the wrapped cloth. His ink-black eyes glittered with malice as he stared coldly at all of us.
"You," he barked in Arabic, indicating Khalid. "Get up. Come here." Khalid obeyed without a word. The man nodded to the other Fedayeen. They surrounded us and began to pull us from the jeep.
I was unable to stifle a yelp as my arm was wrenched painfully. My captor immediately responded by slamming the butt of his rifle into my stomach. "Shut up!" he snarled in English. The air rushed from my lungs with a whoosh as I doubled over, gasping for breath. Blinking back pained tears, I stumbled after the man who clutched my arm in an iron grip.
Numb with shock and fear, we stood silently before our captors.
The man who appeared to be their leader pointed to himself. "I am Nasir." He gestured to us. "What you name?" He was speaking the heavily accented, broken English that was common among the Iraqi people. None of us met his gaze as we gave our names one by one. He nodded curtly, satisfied.
The insurgent who held my arm motioned curtly towards the pockets of my traditional long skirt. "Empty pockets," he ordered.
I pulled out a photograph of my family, my satellite phone, a tiny traveler's angel medallion, and a mint. "That's all I have," I said in Arabic. "No money. Nothing else."
Nasir showed no reaction to what I had said, or that I had said it in Arabic. He grabbed the picture of my family and examined it closely. Watching my face closely for a reaction, he slowly and deliberately tore the photo into several pieces. I gasped slightly and bit my lip, but Nasir's only answer was a harsh laugh. He thrust the pieces of the torn picture into my hand, pocketed my phone and the angel medallion, and moved on to Jeff.
Silently, I watched the men search everyone else. "What do they want?" Kaitlin whispered out of the corner of her mouth to Khalid.
"Money and valuables," he answered. "Jewelry, watches, phones...anything that can be sold or traded; anything of any value at all. It will likely be sold on the black market and traded for weapons."
We all grimaced at the thought.
One of the men motioned for us to climb into their van. I tried to ignore the stone-faced man that had the barrel of his rifle pressed firmly into my back. It hurt, but I didn't dare protest. Silently, we climbed into the back of the van one by one and took seats on the hard floor.
Nasir reached for the volume knob on the radio and turned it up. The music was blaring, and he had made his statement clear: We were at the mercy of his men, completely helpless. We could only sit silently as the van turned and began driving back the way that it had come.
One of the men addressed Jeff, asking him a question that I couldn't hear. "I-I don't understand..." Jeff stammered.
The man slapped him across the face.
"Huwa laa ata'kallum al-Arabiyya, wa laa aref anta. He doesn't speak Arabic. He can't understand you," I said hastily.
Nasir smirked. "Ana ma'lesh," he answered scornfully. He craned his neck to look Jeff in the eye, and spoke directly to him in English. "I...don't...care."
Jeff grimaced. "Thanks for trying, Rachel." I nodded silently.
The drums from the blaring Arabic music pounded in my ears, and I gritted my teeth. The heat and noise were making me nauseous, and I was quickly developing a splitting headache. I longed for the Advil that I had left behind in our jeep. With a ragged sigh, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
/ / / / /
We were far into the desert now. "Where are they taking us?" Kaitlin spoke up. "We're in the middle of nowhere."
I sat up just quickly enough to catch a split-second glance of a small sign as we passed it. "We're in northern Iraq, near Kirkuk. There are checkpoints here, but we're probably going to avoid them." I sighed. "We're going to reach Mosul in a few hours. There are coalition troops there, and a few checkpoints, but Mosul is still mostly insurgent territory."
Everyone grew silent and somber as realization dawned. Next to me, I heard Eric whispering, " 'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...He makes me lie down in green pastures...' "
Grimly, I acknowledged the thought that had been at the back of my mind since the Fedayeen van first stopped us: Our lives were in their hands, and it was their decision whether we lived or died.
No... It was a silent but desperate cry. I don't want to die like this! Please, God, help us!
The fast-paced upbeat rhythms of the Arabic music were all that could be heard. We hostages were silent; praying and hoping desperately as we grimly watched the vast desert flash by outside the van windows.
"What's that?" Eric spoke up suddenly, squinting at something on the horizon. "It looks like some sort of building."
We all peered intently at the mysterious structure as our van drew closer to it.
Khalid smiled. "It is an American military checkpoint."
Incredible relief flooded through me, and I whispered a fervent prayer of thanks. The faces of my fellow hostages lit up with new hope, and I heard several quiet exclamations of praise and thanks.
Nasir and the other Fedayeen were arguing loudly in Arabic, and Khalid and I laughed slightly as we listened. Apparently, they had no recollection of this checkpoint being here. According to Nasir's vehement protests, it hadn't been here three days ago. I smiled, knowing that it didn't matter whether the checkpoint had been here previously or not. It was too late to turn back. We would have to keep going.
My smile faded, and my heart skipped a beat as I scanned the interior of the van. I had a sickening feeling about what would likely happen next. "Everybody take cover. Protect as much of your body as you can. There's probably going to be a gunfight before this is over."
We were rapidly approaching the checkpoint, and I braced myself and prepared to dive for cover.
The US Marine guard standing outside of the checkpoint booth waved to attract attention.
Nasir ignored him.
The soldier held up his rifle in warning. "Checkpoint! Stop!" he shouted in broken Arabic.
Nasir ignored him. I closed my eyes briefly. Please, God...
Empty shell casings bounced across the windshield of the van as the Marines fired a volley of warning shots into the air.
I pitched forward in my seat as our van stopped abruptly. Before I had time to process what was happening, the enraged Fedayeen shouldered their rifles and returned fire.
Heavy gunfire from both sides was now echoing around us. Time slowed down; each second seemed like several minutes as we cowered helplessly on the floor in the back of the van, covering our heads and necks as best we could. Spent bullet casings and shards of broken glass rained down around us.
The window above me exploded in a shower of glass fragments. A sudden sharp pain tore through my shoulder, and I yelped in surprise. What was that? Had I been hit by a stray shot, or a shard of glass? Trembling, I curled into a tighter ball and huddled closer to the floor.
After what felt like an eternity, the gunfire ceased. My ears rang in the sudden silence as I cautiously lifted my head.
The remaining Fedayeen were quickly and unceremoniously hauled out of the van at gunpoint. I tried not to look at the lifeless bodies that were pulled out of the van along with them.
The Marines had clearly not expected to find five terrified hostages along with the insurgents, and they scrambled to help us out of the van.
I was trembling so violently that my teeth were chattering, and I could barely hold myself upright. Several pairs of hands eased me down into a folding chair.
A team of military medics offered granola bars and water bottles as they treated the cuts and bruises that nearly all of us had received.
A blond ponytailed female medic knelt down next to my chair with a first-aid kit and carefully brushed a few stray glass fragments off of my shoulder. "Do they hurt?" she asked as she carefully examined the small cuts that dotted my face and arms. I felt all of them, and they were beginning to throb and sting. I nodded. "We can fix that," the young woman said calmly, gently smoothing ointment onto the worst of the cuts. I smiled gratefully.
Noticing the crimson stain that was spreading rapidly across the shoulder of my shirt, she carefully rolled up my sleeve. "You've got a nasty-looking gash here on your shoulder. It's not a gunshot wound," she assured me with a slight smile. "Looks like you got hit with some of that flying glass. It's deep, but I think I can close it with adhesive instead of suturing it." I gritted my teeth as she gently cleaned the bleeding wound and deftly bandaged it in gauze and tape. "There. Let me get you a cold pack for those bruises. Can I get you anything else?"
I shook my head. "I'm fine. Thank you." She smiled at me, collected her supplies, and stepped away.
Satisfied that we were in somewhat decent condition after our ordeal, the Marines turned their attention to helping us into a Humvee. We would be handed over to another unit, and would decide later whether to continue on to Baghdad or return to Al-Bashiqa.
In the pocket of my skirt was a small Bible verse card that I had kept from Nasir. As I settled into the backseat of the Humvee, I pulled the crumpled card out of my pocket and looked at it.
What in the world...?
My head jerked up, and I stared at the medic that had treated me.
She looked exactly like the angel on the front of the card.
Stunned, I looked back and forth between the angel card and the woman standing before me.
She gave me a small, mysterious smile as she stepped into the walled checkpoint booth.
"Wait!" I called out desperately, but she was out of earshot.
Before I could say anything else, our Humvee was pulling away from the checkpoint and into the streets of Kirkuk.
I never did find out that Marine medic's true identity. Later, we were told that there were no Marines stationed in that area, and that our descriptions of the soldiers did not match those in any military unit.
Whatever the explanation, I know without a doubt that someone was watching out for us that day.
As for exactly who that female Marine was, I'll let you decide for yourself...