By March, the violence had escalated. At about 2 p.m. on March 6, a gay man in his forties named Sami was sitting in the small Baghdad cell-phone store he had recently opened, when five men entered the store at the same time, handcuffed him, blindfolded him, and abducted him. The men drove him to a building where they tortured and questioned him in much the same manner as Nuri’s captors had. Sami was beaten with sticks and cables, and whipped on the soles of his feet (falaka, as it’s called in Arabic). He was sexually assaulted with a squeegee. “We’re going to make you regret you ever had sex with a man,” one of the men said. “We’re going to kill you,” another said.
The men took Sami’s cell phone from his pocket and began going through the names in his contacts list, asking Sami who they were. Many were the numbers of gay friends and lovers, but Sami lied and said they were relatives and friends. Sami asked the men how they had found out about him. Another gay man they had abducted, his captors said, had given up names of gay men he knew. Sami’s was the first name he had given them. The man and Sami had had sex a decade earlier, and Sami had introduced the man to several other gay men. (The man has not been seen since his disappearance, according to Sami.) Sami realized the kidnappers were building a database of gay men’s names.
Sami asked the men why they were targeting gays. “They are wrong. They are sinners,” one man said. “They work with the Zionists, with the Americans. They are spies. We need to get rid of them. God sent us from heaven to make everything good, to reform society. We’re killing gays, getting rid of them to make society clean from bad things.”
Several times Sami heard the Shia call to prayer nearby. He concluded he was in a mosque or a hussainiyah, or close to one. His torturers took breaks from the beatings so that they could pray. Sami tried to reason with the men. “If we were created as we are, then what crime have I committed?” he asked. “If you are religious men, and you say my gayness is an illness, then shouldn’t you find a treatment for it? If it’s not an illness, then it’s natural.”
On the fourth day, the kidnappers were paid a ransom of $25,000 and drove Sami to the edge of the city, where he, like Nuri, was left on the side of the road.
Since the deaths of Mazen and Namir, Fadi had tried to stay in the house as much as possible. On the morning of April 7, Fadi’s mother asked him to go to the local grocery store with her. While she was locking the door, Fadi walked ahead. Underneath the gate, he saw an envelope with no name or address written on it. He scooped it up and slid it into the pocket of his jeans.
“What’s that?” his mother asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
When they returned home, Fadi went to the bathroom, locked the door, and opened the envelope. Inside was a sheet of white paper with a message handwritten in rust-colored dried blood: “You’re lucky we are warning you and not killing you immediately. Beware of what you are doing and have done. This is the last warning for you.”
He called Ahmed and told him about the letter. “I didn’t want to tell you,” Ahmed said. “I got a text and a call. Same words.”
In New York, Scott Long began to receive disturbing reports. Long is the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit group with headquarters in the Empire State Building. Since February, Long had been hearing from foreign rights groups about a wave of anti-gay violence in Iraq, but so far the accounts were unsubstantiated. On April 1, one of Long’s colleagues, Rasha Moumneh, was the first person from the organization to be put in touch with a gay Iraqi. It was Nuri. He related what had happened to him and said that he had heard rumors of similar attacks on other gay men. He said the situation was dire. HRW typically investigates human-rights abuses and publishes reports intended to spotlight problems, but the group rarely intervenes directly in a situation. In this case, however, Long decided that if Nuri were left in Iraq, he, and probably many more men like him, could be killed.
Long and Moumneh formulated a plan. They would build an underground railroad of sorts, reaching out to gay men in Iraq through the Internet and their existing contacts in Iraq, then advising and supporting gay Iraqis until they could ferry them to a safe city somewhere in Iraq, then to a haven elsewhere in the region, and eventually perhaps to the West.