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Field Guide to Surviving a Terrorist Checkpoint

 

“You’re not going to believe what happened to us the other day.”

It was a rare night off from the hospital, and Kadhim was spending it with the guys. He, his brothers Ali and Salih, and Ali’s two closest friends Omar and Yuhanna, were enjoying a tray of nuts, a collection of hookahs, and the relative cool of the night air. It was Omar who addressed them now, his voice low and hoarse, as if telling them his deepest secret. He was Sunni, Yuhanna was Christian, and Ali was Shiite, but it mattered not. The three had been inseparable since boyhood, and whatever dark story Omar was about to share, he felt that it was safe here.

“A few days ago, Yuhanna and I had to make a trip to Samarra to get some supplies for the Americans.” Omar took a deep pull on the hookah and slowly exhaled the flavored smoke, preparing himself for the retelling of the event. “We took the main road and were about an hour outside of Baghdad when we hit a fake checkpoint.”

The mere mention of the checkpoint caused goose bumps to form on the men’s skin. Everyone knew that very few made it safely through these traps, established by armed terrorists in fake uniforms to kidnap and kill as many and as quickly as possible. They were becoming increasingly common in late 2005, popping up around the country like weeds, only to disappear hours later.

Sakkaka or allasa?” Salih asked. “Trappers or Chewers?”

“That’s one of the first things we wondered too,” Omar answered. “To be honest, we hoped they were sakkaka, because we might be able to convince a Shiite militia member to let us pay a ransom and get away with our lives. They’re easier to bargain with, even if we are Sunni and Christian. But then we saw the cars—Opels—and we knew we were screwed.”

Sunni terrorists had begun buying German-made Opels by the hundreds or even thousands, perhaps because they were fast and well made, or perhaps for reasons that those present could not fathom. In fact, as the years passed, it became so common to find Sunni terrorists (the allasa) driving Opels that the Iraqi army began to stop all Opels for questioning. Civilians unlucky enough to own an Opel quickly sold it, not wishing to be associated with terrorism. The terrorists, on the other hand, did nothing to hide their identity. They drove their Opels, wore their dishdashas a few inches shorter, and grew unkempt beards with a fierce and ugly pride that instantly reflected their identity.

Not to be outdone, the Shiite terrorists also adopted a car, the official mascot of their own style of kidnap and murder. Theirs was the Toyota Mark II: fast, luxurious, and with an enormous trunk that eased the difficult task of stuffing people fighting and kicking down into it. Practical, really, but still a ride with style. In fact, that’s how the Shiite militias’ nickname had developed. Sakkak came from the Baghdad slang word for shutting something closed, and it was well known that a favorite pastime of a run-of-the-mill Shiite terrorist was trapping people in trunks in order to torture them and later extract a ransom for their release. “Rah asukkak; I’ll trap you,” was their favorite threat.

In turn, the Sunni terrorists frightened people with: “Rah a’alsak; I’ll chew you up.” At times, they made it frighteningly obvious which side they worked for, if one had the distinct displeasure of meeting them up close.

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stands guard at checkpoint near the city of Biji

“So what did you do?” Kadhim prompted. “Did you turn tail and get out of there?”

“Trust me, there’s nothing I would have liked more,” Omar replied. “But as we pulled up, an Opel full of armed men came up behind us and waived at us to stop. We were trapped. So we got stuck in a line of cars creeping through the check point, and as we got closer I saw a man sitting there holding a huge, bloody sword, as entire families were dragged out of their cars and pulled to the side.”

He took another deep drag on the hookah, and his voice shook. “They were Shiite families, God rest their souls. Women and children too. I hate to think of the fear they must have experienced.”

They sat in reverent silence for a while, the room filling with hookah smoke and thoughts of slaughtered families.

“We pulled closer, third in line, second in line, and I kept looking at this old, masked man holding a sword. We couldn’t see more than his eyes behind the mask, but he had wrinkles and age spots on his hands. He was sitting on a plastic chair, his hands resting on the sword hilt, just waiting to cut heads. He was all I could look at, him and his blood-crusted sword.”

“God help us,” Ali breathed.

“Yeah, I was about ready to piss myself at this point.” Omar laughed shakily. “My heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to burst through my throat. Poor Yuhanna was sitting there in dead silence, green faced, just dripping sweat and shaking.

“You should have seen us, an unlucky pair of contractors about ready to shit ourselves with fear. I swear to God, I was positive that we were about to lose our heads like the rest of them. If they knew that we were contracting with their mortal enemy, the U.S. Army, or if they even figured out that Yuhanna was Christian, that would be it for us.”

Omar shivered despite the sweat on his forehead. Yuhanna was resting his head back on the chair, staring straight up at the ceiling and chain smoking, a potent glass of ‘araq nestled in his other hand.

“Our turn came,” Omar continued, “and we were approached by this young allas who couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old, because his voice kept cracking. And I was still scared shitless of him. He asked for my name and I.D. I told him I was Sunni and pulled out my wallet to get my I.D. I was so fucking scared and shaky that of all the I.D.’s in my wallet it was my dumb luck that I pulled out the American one.”

The men gasped out loud.

“That’s right,” Omar laughed wryly. “I’d already handed it to him when I realized what it was, and that’s when I knew we were fucked. The whole damn card is printed in English! It says “military contractor” and has “United States of America” written across it in bold letters! I may as well have committed suicide on the spot! So the kid looked at the card, and he looked at me sitting there trying not to vomit, and he looked at the card again and said, ‘What the hell is this?’

“‘It’s my I.D.’ I said. What do you say in a situation like that?

“‘It’s in English,’ he said, and he looked at it kind of funny. Then he looked at me again, and I suddenly realized that he couldn’t read a word of it.

“‘It’s the new Baghdad I.D.’ I lied out of my ass. ‘This is how they make them these days.’

“‘That can’t be right. I’ve never seen one of these,’ he said. ‘Who do you work for?’”

Omar laughed, taking a swig of ‘araq. “He suspected that I worked for the Americans, but I was starting to think that he might be stupid enough to be convinced otherwise despite the American I.D., so I told him that I worked for an electrical company.

“He wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing, so I told him that I was going to visit family in Fallujah. ‘Who?’ he asked.

“And maybe he couldn’t read English, but I guarantee he had studied names and faces and knew just about everyone there was to know in Sunni areas, and if I lied he’d see right through it, and that would be our heads. Thank God I have an abundance of Sunni relatives in Fallujah.

“I started listing names like there was no tomorrow, and eventually the kid turned to the old head cutter behind him and asked, ‘What do you think, should we let them through?’

“After what felt like a year, the old guy nodded. I was so relieved that I immediately pushed the gas pedal.

“Then suddenly the kid shouted, ‘Wait!’ He grabbed my shoulder, and I was sure he was going to ask about poor sweaty Yuhanna in my passenger seat, just ask a name, ask for any of his I.D.’s, and the kid would know that he’s Christian. Or he’d pull out that huge cross that Yuhanna always wears around his neck under his shirt and then we’d both lose our heads. Yuhanna was thinking the exact same thing—that’s it. It’s over. We’re about to die.”

Yuhanna laughed wryly.

“So what happened?” Salih prodded.

“The kid shouted at us to stop, grabbed my arm through the window and peered in at us…” Omar paused. “And then he politely handed me my United States military contractor identification card and said, ‘Don’t forget your new Baghdad I.D.’”

The men burst out laughing. “Thank God you guys are safe,” Ali said, and Kadhim and Salih echoed the sentiment. “Unbelievable.”

“It doesn’t quite end there.” Omar turned to Kadhim. “I wanted to ask you something, doctor.”

“What is it?”

“Well, a couple miles after we got away from the fake checkpoint, I couldn’t hold it in anymore and I pulled over and vomited on the side of the road. My nerves were shot. Yuhanna was just as bad. The poor guy didn’t utter a single word for about two hours. He just sat there, shaking. That night and the next couple of days I continued to feel pretty sick, so eventually I went to the doctor, and do you know what he told me?”

“What’s that?”

“He saw that my blood sugar level had spiked, and he told me that I had diabetes! Can you believe that? I got diabetes just from the fright of running into a terrorist checkpoint!”

“Wow. They can do that?” Ali asked, eyes wide.

Kadhim laughed. “It’s not that simple. Most likely, you already had a light form of diabetes, known as glucose intolerance. The symptoms typically don’t appear in someone who’s healthy, but when you go through a physical illness or mental shock like the one you just experienced, the corticosteroids spike, and the imbalance in hormones exaggerates the glucose intolerance, which then basically becomes a form of diabetes.”

“So you’re saying the problem was already there,” Omar said, slowly.

“That’s right.”

“Even though I had never experienced any symptoms.”

“Exactly.”

“Then it just appeared suddenly, literally within two miles of meeting a terrorist?” His voice was dripping with skepticism.

“Well, as I said, the condition was already present, but it was exacerbated by the experience. I’m sure the vomiting didn’t help either.”

Omar regarded him suspiciously for a while, then shrugged. “You’re the doctor,” he said at last. But Kadhim knew what he and all the other guys in the smoke-filled room were thinking.

Terrorists, when they didn’t chop off your head or throw you in trunks, brought on a bad case of diabetes.

 

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