Sam Kiley

‘I let go of life’

am Kiley describes the terrifying experience of being captured by Baathists bent on revenge

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A purple-coloured Korean saloon was gaining on us fast as we zigzagged the wrong way up the motorway. My toes ached as I forced the accelerator into the floor. The jeep gamely shuddered and rattled as the exhaust dropped off, the whine of the engine turning into a desperate roar.

When I was growing up, my mother had always insisted that passengers in her car clench their buttocks to squeeze a few extra miles out of the tank. It often seemed to work. Now I was cramping my backside for dear life – literally. Groaning with fear, I couldn't get more than 90mph out of the coughing jeep. The purple car swept past, swerved in front, then three guns popped out of its windows.

After two months in Iraq, we were just a few hours' drive from sanity at the Jordanian border. Giddy with a sense of freedom from the war against Saddam, we were breaking for the border on the busy road from Baghdad to Amman, Iraq's western artery. After two months of war we had hoped to be leaving the violent anarchy unleashed by the American and British invasion behind us. Instead we found ourselves standing in the fast lane of a freeway outside Ramadi, with our hands in the air, smiling emptily at a pair of Iraqis. Dressed in black dish-dash, they were shoving their AK47s in our guts and screaming.

Hundreds of Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad when the Americans took Saddam's capital. Looters tore the city apart, and what was left of the Iraqi middle class rushed into the markets to buy guns to protect themselves. A coalition victory was easy to come by, but the Americans are rapidly losing the peace.

The Shia majority are close to outright revolt. No one seems to have noticed that the Kurds are quietly seceding (even offering oil contracts to Western companies). Their 'capital', Kirkuk, has been the scene of bitter ethnic fighting with the Arabs. Pretty soon the Kurds will give up on the whole American enterprise altogether, and put barricades between themselves and the rest of the country. Tens of thousands of Baathists have blended into the population on a nihilistic mission to wreck Iraq by spreading anarchy and crime.

It was just my luck to run into some. I had the team's money – about $20,000 in cash – hidden in a money belt under my shirt. One of the younger bandits head-butted me and whipped the belt away as I staggered back. Once they had got the money, I hoped they would leave us. But two older, grey-haired men presided over the robbery from the front seats of their car. One twiddled a bayonet. The other rested his pistol on his wing mirror, pointing at my crotch. Nick Hughes, our cameraman, and I were forced into their car. Sayf, our driver, and Qais, the translator, were joined by the young gunmen in the jeep.

'What's it about? What's it about?' muttered Nick, until the driver silenced him by slashing at me with the knife. We knew what was going on. These men had already robbed us and now they were taking us out of sight. They were Baathists out for revenge, and we must have been among their first victims. We knew they were going to kill us.

The drive into the rocky wasteland that is western Iraq took about 20 minutes. At one point, Nick, a martial-arts expert, considered killing our abductors; but to do so would have jeopardised the lives of our Iraqi colleagues in the other car. So I settled for catching the eye of the driver in his mirror and making the sign of an apology – head bowed, right palm on heart. I knew it was useless.

In the argot of the American prison system, I was a 'dead man walking', a condemned prisoner being led to the gurney. In my case, the execution site was between two 20ft-high earth berms. We were pulled out of the car and forced to our knees. At some stage I was head-butted again, but I didn't feel a thing. Faced with what I believed was the certainty of death at the hands of these men, I was concentrating on saying goodbye to my son, my daughter and my wife.

I breathed deeply and slowly through my nose. I found a sort of blank space in my head. Not quite peace, but some kind of calm. My head was forced into the dirt at my knees and I felt the cool barrel of a pistol at the base of my skull.

Then I let go of life. The mundane system that was my body was still functioning, but, perhaps to deny the executioner the pleasure of killing the me that still resided in this shell, I abandoned any attempt to cling to this world. In my own mind, I was already dead.

Nick, who was on his knees in the dirt to my left, told me later that he watched the leader of the gang walk up to me and put his 9mm into the back of my head, almost casually. Nick saw the gunman's trigger finger close and squeeze the lever back. At that moment, Nick ran. He's got enormous feet, which kicked sand up into my eyes as he lolloped by.

I looked up at him. With scientific detachment I wondered how far he would get, whether he would fall at the first shot or blunder on while bullets ripped into his body. I didn't resent his charging off, but it seemed an awful waste of energy. A gunman chased after Nick, firing wildly at about a five-yard range. Bullets seemed to go between Nick's legs; others must have been within microns of his ears. Just as suddenly as he had run, Nick stopped, turned, shrugged and smiled apologetically.

It must have been the right thing to do. The gang bundled us back into our car and told us to get lost. Perhaps they feared they had given their position away to American patrols. I don't know.

Winston Churchill once wrote that there was nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at and missed. He is right. After an earlier incident in Africa, I can add that there is also a thrill in being shot at and hit but not badly hurt. Cheating death is fun. But once you've accepted its cold embrace, being cheated of it leaves you feeling a little flat.

Sam Kiley is a reporter for Channel 4's Dispatches. His film on Iraq, Blood and Revenge, will be shown on 1 June.