Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Narrow Escape From Insurgent's Bullet
On October 26, I left Baghdad with my driver and headed for a munitions dump near Latifiya, 30 kilometres south of the capital, to follow up on a report that 350 tonnes of high explosives had gone missing. That was the story I thought I was going to cover – but it wasn’t the one I got.
We were within 100 metres of the entrance gates of the Qaqa dump when two Opel cars, one black, the other grey, stopped on the road in front of us and the men inside got out.
They told us to halt and get out of our vehicle. As they were carrying guns, we obeyed.
They ordered us into their cars and we drove off, taking a left turn onto the dual carriageway leading away from Latifiya, west towards Fallujah. One of the group followed at the wheel of our own vehicle.
The three cars stopped near the Qaraghol bridge over the Euphrates, and the men, scruffily dressed but clean-shaven and unmasked, started searching us and asking us whether we were armed.
At first we assumed they belonged to the secret police or one of the other official security services. We soon realised they didn’t, although the professional way they questioned us made me think they probably used to work for Saddam’s security apparatus.
All this was going on at the side of a busy road, in full public view. A lot of cars drove past, but I suppose no one dared stop and intervene.
The gunmen didn’t seem nervous or afraid they might be stopped. They behaved as though they were in control of the area: they were extremely calm, searching us and our vehicle slowly – they really didn’t seem to care who saw them do it.
At that point, we still didn’t know what to make of what was happening. We thought they were just thieves looking for money, so I took all the cash I had out of my pockets and offered it to them. I realised we were dealing with something more serious when one of them shouted, “Put your money away, we’re not bandits!”
After they had searched the car without finding whatever it was they were looking for, they asked us to show them our ID cards.
My heart sank as I realised I could really be in trouble – one of my identity cards was issued by the Coalition Press Information Centre, CPIC. It’s the only card that gets you into official press conferences held at the convention centre in the Green Zone.
When they scrutinised my IWPR press card, I told them it was an Iraqi institute that had I gone to for journalism classes. “We don’t have Iraqi organisations that do that kind of work.You must be a spy,” said one of them. I said something about a lot of national non-government organisations being set up after the war, which seemed to convince him.
That didn’t buy us much time. After trying to read the English print on my CPIC card, one of the gunmen decided it was sufficient proof against us, and began shouting that they had caught us out.
We realised what the group was looking for when they accused us of being intelligence-gatherers for the Iraqi National Guard. “You’re either here to get information for the National Guard and the Americans, or to find out about the two [kidnapped] French journalists,” said one of the gunmen.
We were bundled back into the cars, the men holding their guns so close to our heads I could feel them pressing on my skull. They told us to admit we were spies, or we’d be killed. I had a horrible feeling we were about to become the latest in the growing line of victims kidnapped and beheaded by armed groups.
When the cars next stopped, we were made to get out again. One of our abductors was now shouting that he had found “incriminating evidence” proving that we were spies. In his hand he was holding an old letter my driver had been carrying, addressed to Ahmad Al-Sheibani, a top aide of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, requesting an interview during the Najaf crisis two months earlier.
The letter seemed to make the group really angry – it was all the evidence the seemed to need. One of the group, who called himself Abu Marwan, shouted at us, “We’ve got the proof, so now you’d better confess.”
We were forced back into the cars again, blindfolded and interrogated. Our heads were forced between our legs and I could feel the barrel of a gun being held to my neck while they questioned us over and over again.
Almost two hours later, the cars pulled up again and we were told to get out, our eyes still covered.
We walked along what felt like a dirt track for about ten minutes. When they took our blindfolds off, we were in a room built of bricks and mortar, with a palm frond ceiling.
Here, the man who seemed to be the group’s leader, Abu Fahed, took over the interrogation. He kept threatening to torture or kill us if we didn’t confess to gathering intelligence for the National Guard.
I tried my best to calm him down. Eventually, I gave up and told him I couldn’t see what we could say or do to convince him we weren’t spies if he was already totally convinced that we were. After that he went silent for a while, then left the room. Abu Marwan was left on guard, but didn’t say a word to us.
They left us there for about four hours, until it was completely dark outside. A man came into the room carrying lamps and ordered the blindfolds to be put back on us. He explained we were being moved to another location – somewhere it would be easier to extract confessions from us.
We were forced back into the cars and driven for a while, then made to get out.
As our blindfolds were taken off, we found we were in the middle of a pitch-black field. We heard them cocking their guns, and I hoped there was still a chance they were playing mind games with us - trying to scare us.
Then one of them asked, “What should we do with you now?” In the circumstances, we didn’t really seem to have much of a choice, so I said they could go ahead and kill us if they wanted, but that they would have to accept that we weren’t the people they were after.
I don’t know exactly what happened next, or why everything changed, but instead of executing us, they told us we could go. “You seem to be our brothers,” said one. I didn’t quite get what he meant by this, but I didn’t care. I was just glad they were letting us go.
The decision to free us seemed to change the dynamics of our relationship with them, and as they drove us back towards the bridge, I asked why they had decided we were spies.
“Listen,” said Abu Marwan, “The American army and the National Guard have been able to do us a lot of damage through the intelligence they’ve got from their spies. That’s why we conduct regular patrols, so we can find out who’s new in the area, and who might be working for them.
“We know everyone who lives around here. No one gets past us.”
When I suggested that they shouldn’t treat people like this without at least proving they were spies first, Abu Fahed told me the Americans had killed two of his brothers. This tit-for-tat strategy was his rationale for the group’s actions, although talking about it seemed to upset him. In a surreal scene, he hugged me and apologised for what had happened.
He asked me why I bothered working as a journalist, and when I countered by asking what else there was for me to do, he simply said “jihad”.
“What am I supposed to live off?” I asked.
“You can loot. Just like us. You see the Qaqa complex? We took everything that there was there, and sold it for ourselves,” he said.
“Including the explosives?”
He turned away from me, and after a long pause, said it was time to get out of the car. Our vehicle was waiting for us.
I asked whether I could stay to find out why they wanted to fight the Americans so badly, but none of them came up with a reason. The best I could get out of them was an invitation to visit every day and watch the attacks they were mounting on US forces and the National Guard.
“We don’t need to show the world what we do - God is the only one who knows what we do, and that’s what counts,” declared one of them.
I still don’t understand what made the gunmen change their minds once they had taken us.
So many other people, including two French journalists, have been kidnapped in that area and are still being held. Why, then, did they decide to let us go and call us “brothers”?
The only explanation I can give is that while they were searching through my notebook, they found the name and phone numbers of members of the Mujahedin Shura (council) in Fallujah. Ironically, those guys may have saved our lives.
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