Journalists in Peril


By Frank Smyth

Three weeks after the Gulf War ended, we entered northern Iraq with Kurdish guerrillas who were fighting Saddam Hussein and traveled 150 miles south to Kirkuk on the front line between rebel and government forces. Though writers working for dailies and network crews had already come to Kirkuk and left, I and two photographers working for weeklies, Alain Buu and Gad Gross, along with our armed Kurdish guide, Bakhtiar Muhammed Abd-al-rahman Askari, elected to stay. We all naively thought Saddam would soon be overthrown.

Everything changed on March 28, just after dawn. Thousands of Kurds—guerrillas and civilians—were still in the city. Incoming artillery and tank shells shook the ground, first claiming the life of a young girl on her bicycle. “This is Saddam Hussein!” yelled one man who knew her. “Mr. Bush must know.” Soon several small helicopters broke the sky. They opened up with machine guns, as the guerrillas returned fire with antiaircraft guns. I saw Kurdish guerrillas carrying two surface-to-air missiles. The incoming shells were becoming more accurate, and tanks were closing in on the town. By about noon, the smaller helicopters were joined by four or five helicopter gunships. Glistening like angry hornets, they fired machine guns and unloaded seemingly endless volleys of exploding rockets. The gunships provided crucial air cover for dozens of advancing tanks. Several multiple-rocket launchers dropped a blanket of fire on fleeing guerrillas and civilians.

The four of us took shelter behind a wall of bulldozed earth. My bravado began crumbling like dirt. A tank appeared over a hill. Gad and Bakhtiar ran toward some small houses. Alain and I dove into a ditch. We were separated through the night while Iraqi soldiers camped around us. We heard them talking, walking, peeing—even opening cans of food. I turned off the alarm on my watch and tried to control my breathing. When I get nervous, I take quick, short breaths. But Alain’s blood pressure dropped from the stress, and he soon began sleeping. I woke him to stop his snoring. The temperature, too, dropped in the night. We couldn’t allow our teeth to chatter, either.

Embracing each other like lovers to stay warm, we stayed in the ditch for over eighteen hours. I watched an ant colony at work below, and envied each bird passing above. Shortly after sunrise, Alain and I heard a commotion coming from the houses. It sounded like some people had been captured. Within minutes, we heard one short automatic rifle burst. It was followed by a scream, and then broken by another burst that ended in silence. A blanket of terror descended upon us. We both feared that it had been Gad screaming.

I began to silently panic, as my imagination went back in time. I felt like a small boy who had agreed to play a deadly game of hide-and-seek with some of the bigger kids in the neighborhood. But they had severe rules, which I had foolishly agreed to in advance: “If we catch you, we kill you.” I never thought I’d get caught. Now… I imagined myself, still as a kid, trying to talk my way out of it, and, according to my own reasoning, failing every time.

From within the ditch, Alain and I looked out in opposite directions, hoping that if we were seen, we might have a chance to surrender. An hour later, Alain jumped up with his hands held high and yelled “Sahafi” (journalist). “What are you doing?” I said, though it was already too late. Alain said that a soldier had seen him. I forced myself up and followed him. Soldiers with raised rifles threatened to kill us. One drew his finger sardonically across his neck. But a military intelligence officer, who seemed to be newly arrived on the scene, intervened. He reassured us that we would not be killed, even as he ripped a pendant of the Virgin Mary off Alain’s neck.

He brought us to some other military officers with different uniforms who were army special forces commanders. They told us about Gad. He had “killed himself,” said one, because “he had a gun.” Another officer showed us Gad’s camera bag and press tags, which were stained with blood. We were certain then that Gad and probably Bakhtiar had been summarily executed after being captured. The army commanders said in both English and Arabic that they wanted to kill us, too. But the military intelligence officer insisted that we be transferred to a military intelligence unit for interrogation. He saved us.

We underwent many blindfolded interrogations, and were later brought to Baghdad and imprisoned. During one particularly severe interrogation, I was accused of being a CIA agent, while Alain was later accused of being a French intelligence agent. Though treating us as prisoners of war, Iraq failed to report our captures to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nevertheless, after eighteen days, on the last night of the Muslim holy period of Ramadan, Saddam released us. But Iraqi authorities kept Gad’s camera bag. His remains have yet to be recovered.

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