May 04, 2005

The Life of a Hostage in Iraq

This Australian article is sad, sad, sad. Do not read it if you have loved ones in Iraq who are being held hostage. It attempts to piece together what life is like for Australian hostage Douglas Wood based on what freed hostages have said of their experiences.

Needless to say, this excludes Giuliana Sgrena who's only complaint was that her captors served Sanka.

THE room is dark, his wrists are bound. He is moved, occasionally, hurriedly, between hide-outs. Young men, armed with AK-47s, unshaven, staring, stand guard beside him in the murk; they push him dirty glasses of water from time to time.

As he listens, his ears strain for clues to his location. He picks up the sounds of small-town Iraqi life as dust blows into his cell and the heat of the still air stifles. It is already the hot season in the flat plains around Baghdad and sweat and stench - his own - fill his nostrils.

Much of the detail about Douglas Wood's days as a hostage in the hidden depths of Iraq's terror underground can be sketched in with near-certainty from the testimony of past victims who are now free, or from the bleak discoveries of "hostage rooms" by US marines when they stormed the rebel stronghold of Fallujah last November.

Mr Wood, a 63-year-old engineer who is in poor health, with a heart condition and a failing eye, has much in common with the hostage whose painful fate was most closely followed by the watching world: Briton Ken Bigley, who was executed by his captors last year after an agonising ordeal. Mr Wood is almost certainly in the grip of a terror group similar to the one that held Bigley. His situation is parlous. He is almost certainly under extreme physical duress. What follows paints his probable experience, based on the hard evidence found at Fallujah, and from confidential sources.

On capture, Mr Wood was almost certainly transferred by car deep into a rebel stronghold, no longer Fallujah but some new base inside the Sunni triangle. Often, these safe houses are near to main roads. Former hostages have even reported hearing US military patrols pass close by, and have described their pain and disappointment when local villagers fail to pass on their location.

In the house, there is a guardroom. Here, the hostage sits, or crouches, or lies. His feet may be free. He will be subject to interrogations.

Beatings are routine - not to extract information but to show power and to instil obedience.....

Confidential autopsy reports on some bodies recovered are gruesome. Arab and Turkish hostages report physical pressure and emotional hardship as the constants of their captivity.

In his cell, Mr Wood will be interrogated intensively by Arab speakers relishing their capacity to deal with a foreigner who has no mastery of their tongue. Is he a Muslim? Is he a Christian? Is he a non-believer? Worst of all, could he be a Jew?

Fierce lectures will follow about the injustices of the foreign occupation of Iraq -- and Mr Wood, like others, will agree, and will give his consent to a first video appearance. How could he not? His captors have time on their hands, and passion in their hearts.

Within a day or so, he will even begin to see things their way, repent his presence in Iraq and wonder how he could have been so misguided.

The Arabs he used to gaze at through the darkened windows of his vehicle, shuttling between guarded residence and work-site, have become real. These young men, edgy and staring at him with their bitter energy, are his only hope: his judges and his new best friends.

He jokes with them, tries to ingratiate himself with them. Why on earth had Australia got mixed up in this American affair? What wouldn't he say to save himself?

The odd blow, the odd raised hand, the constantly present guns prey upon him. There's not much to eat. The concrete of the floor cuts into his bones. He trembles from time to time, he looks around and gauges his chances.

His guards don't show much heart: they've been in jails, they've lived with fear and they know how to induce it. They need, in fact, a frightened, humiliated man for their video shows. They need a dehumanised man so they can kill their victim, if need be, without a second thought. There are special rooms designed to make it easy.

In Fallujah, the safe houses had little interrogation centres where those held had scrawled graffiti on the walls. "No more," they said, in Arabic and in English, and, also, "Hope".

Then there are the pens, like the one where Bigley was kept: a fetid dog-cage, with thick bars up and across.

Mr Wood is experiencing what all Westerners inside Iraq fear in the back of their minds every second of their deployment. Some handle it well, some fall apart. The picture of veteran French foreign correspondent Florence Aubenas, captured on video, dragging her hair from her eyes and saying, "from the psychological point of view, I'm doing badly", hints at the effect of this experience.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 04:55 PM | Comments |