A Hostage's Story: CBS Journalist Speaks

richard butler interview allen pizzey
CBS News video journalist Richard Butler was kidnapped from a hotel in Basra, Iraq, in February and was held by Shiite militants for two months, the entire time fearing he would be murdered. Now safely out of Iraq, he told his story to CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey.

Allen Pizzey: Let's start off at the beginning, Richard. Tell me why did you go to a place like Basra, why go there to shoot a story?

Richard Butler: Well, from August 2007 until December 2007 I was in Basra working on a story for 60 Minutes with Lara Logan. We had built relationships with people within the Mahdi Army that said that they could provide us with security and access to the areas that we wanted to get to and the stories that we wanted to report on.

Our experience of that project was that they could deliver, and from that story came the opportunity to travel to Najaf and meet with (inaudible), who is chief of staff to Moqtada al Sadr, and we wanted to be able to speak to Moqtada, find out exactly what his point of view was, and so we chose the route through Basra to travel to Najaf. That is the story I was on when the kidnapping happened.

Pizzey: What kind of security arrangements were in place when you were actually taken?

Butler: We had exactly the same Mahdi army general, if that is what you can call him, actually with us the whole time and he was in the room. The hotel room that we had had three mattresses in place. So there was myself, my Iraqi journalist and translator … and our - I keep going to say - we had our Mahdi Army general with us, actually in the room.

Pizzey: So there are three of you in a room in Basra, thinking that you are on track for what you want to do. Everything is fine. The security is like it was before, and the door burst opened.

Butler: I don't think it burst open. I was asleep when they came into the room. I was awaked by [the translator] saying, "We have people who want you to show your passport."

An hour or so earlier we had had Mahdi Army people come into the room, check us out, speak to our Mahdi Army minder, and talking away quite happy. So initially I just thought it was more of the same, and then as soon as I showed them my passport, everything changed.

Pizzey: Changed in what way?

Butler: Well, they were all wearing police fatigue uniforms and armed with AK-47s, two of them had a balaclava over theirs heads, with just the eyeholes and the mouthpiece. One of them grabbed me and frogmarched me down the stairs. We were on the second floor, quite quickly out into the street and into a waiting police 4x4.

Pizzey: What were you thinking at that stage? What was going through your mind?

Butler: This isn't good.

Pizzey: To say the least.

Butler: Yes, I knew it was not good. So then the focus for me was to try and not allow the situation to escalate, to keep it calm, not antagonize them in any way to be submissive without appearing to be completely petrified.

Pizzey: No small feat.

Butler: No. But from my experience it's best not to let them show that you are too scared because they lose respect for you.

Pizzey: How do you keep from - is your natural instinct to fight and how do you keep from doing that?

Butler: No, my natural instinct is not to fight because you are looking to buy extensions to your life in very small increments at the beginning, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, two minutes, an hour, a day, a week. So you build it up in increments. Obviously the initial moment is crucial.

If you can get past the first 10 seconds, it gives us a chance to build a relationship, makes a connection as a human being.

Pizzey: How did you try to do that?

Butler: I think initially you do it, as I say, by not antagonizing them. You don't raise the tone of your voice to them. You have to appear as if you want to help them. Then you build from there.

Pizzey: How did they react towards you? Were they brutal, physically harsh, or accept that they could build this with you as well?

Butler: The initial snatch was - it wasn't brutal. But it was forceful. Then that sort of melted away.

Pizzey: Melted away to the positive side or the negative side?

Butler: To the positive side, yes. They became far more friendly, the more time went on.

Pizzey: When you say friendly, I take it that is a relative term?

Butler: Relative to being kidnapped, yes. But they were concerned, because initially once we got to the first building, which was a police station in Basra, they then bound my hands behind my back with cord, and we left - once we left that building to the next house, the first house that took me to, I asked to use the toilet and be unbound to do it. When I came out of the toilet, I asked if they could bind it at the front because it is very painful to be bound at the back if it is in the wrong place because it pulls down your shoulder here and this was all numb. He was quite happy to bind it there and he bound it a lot looser.

It went from there to taking those away and using ordinary handcuffs and make sure the handcuffs were loose enough so that they did not pinch my wrists, but not so loose that I could slide them over my hands. So it is a progressive program of backing off the harshness that happened initially.

Pizzey: Did you instinctively do this? Did you feel, "If
I do this, I have made a little gain, now I will try something else"? Did you follow a process in your head?

Butler: Yes, because straight away you assess the situation. I am standing there, in front of these eight guys with AK-47s, and I am in a pair of underpants and a T-shirt.

The odds are not in my favor. So there is no point in trying to do anything heroic or stupid because it's not going to work.

Pizzey: Did they treat you differently from your translator? How did they allow you to enact with each other?

Butler: Because I do not speak Arabic, I can't tell you exactly. In terms of physical treatment, there was no difference. In terms of the way the questions were asked of him, I couldn't really tell you because, as I say, I don't speak Arabic. But I was aware that the tempo of their voices and the harshness of their voices both ways was different because I did say to [the translator], "don't argue with them, don't antagonize them" because I felt he was escalating the situation a couple of times.

Pizzey: Did he listen?

Butler: Yes, he did.

Pizzey: So you ended up at what you thought was a police station?

Butler: It was a police station. I am sure in my mind, because I have been there before in daylight as a guest of the Iraqi army because there is an army facility behind the police station.

Pizzey: So do you think these guys were policemen?

Butler: They were policemen.

Pizzey: Acting on whose orders? Could you tell?

Butler: You have to understand that the situation in Basra is that all the police are recruited from the different Shi'a parties' militias. The British army went to these people and asked for volunteers. So every policeman in Basra is probably also with one of the militia, be it Mahdi Army, Fadila, Hezbollah of Iraq, Badr Corps, they are all represented.

Pizzey: So you couldn't tell who had you or what they were doing?

Butler: No. I mean, I have some idea. I mean, I have no way to verify. While I was being held, especially initially, I heard an awful lot of Hezbollah propaganda video being played, and a lot of Hezbollah ringtones on their mobile phones, but the complexity of the way the militias and the parties are in Basra, it doesn't actually mean they were Hezbollah. They could have sympathies towards Hezbollah or reasons to have that, without being Hezbollah. Hezbollah seems the shining torch, if you like, amongst the Arab fightings.

Pizzey: So they could have sympathies or admiration for them but not necessarily be part?

Butler: They could. So I couldn't say definitely. I do not have the intelligence or the intellect to say that.

Pizzey: At what point did they put the hood over your head?

Butler: As soon as they got me in the police car. I believe the militia guy that took me took his off and put it on me back to front.

Pizzey: How do you breathe through something like that? It is wool.

Pizzey: Itchy then?

Butler: Itchy, especially as my hair grew. But they kindly gave me a haircut with some shears, if you'll excuse the pun.

Pizzey: Thankful for small mercies and all that. So there you were with a hood over your head. You are hearing things around. What kind of sense can you make of it? My impression is that you would be totally disorientated and panicky almost.

Butler: Well, you build a picture from what you can hear, and you then obviously develop more reliance on your hearing because that is all you have got. So you use it to your advantage. You need to occupy your mind with something. So you occupy it with things like how long does it take for them to answer a phone, do you hear them walking to answer their phone? If they are walking to it, they have not got it in their pockets. How many different ringtones are you hearing? How many different footsteps are you hearing. How many steps from the bathroom to where they are holding you? Can you hear them playing with their AK-47s, making them ready? Can you hear them stripping a pistol or loading a pistol? You listen to those things because … you need that information if you are going to be a part of your own rescue, and also it helps occupy your mind.

Pizzey: Did you think that you could rescue yourself, as it were?

Butler: All the time you are looking for the ingredients that you would need to be able to do that. You work out what you need, how you could work an opportunity to do that. But it's always one of last resort, and at no time in the whole time that I was held were all the ingredients in place that I would need to do that.

Pizzey: So you had a hood on your head, you are manacled. Were you attached to anything? Were your feet tied up?

Butler: I have had times where my - one leg was handcuffed to a chain which was attached to something else, but that was to help me out. That wasn't punishment because it is difficult to sleep when you are handcuffed and - actually the house I was rescued from, I had been there earlier in the kidnapping. One day they decided to move me from my room at night to this hidden room in a wall which they accessed through a little door in the wall, and they actually plastered the door up once I was inside, and I didn't like that at all. They did that three nights running.

Pizzey: They actually sealed you into a wall?

Butler: They sealed me into it and I couldn't see any way that air was getting into it. It was quite a large space. It was long enough for me to stretch out and touch the walls at both ends. So that makes it 6 foot 3 long. It was three and a half feet wide and high enough for me to stand up without hitting my head on anything. So that makes it above 6 foot 3 high. But I didn't know how long you could breathe on the oxygen in there. So I didn't like that experience at all. The reason they gave for putting me in there I didn't like either, which is that, "Bad people may come to this house, so it is for your protection". That had me thinking, if bad people come to the house and take you guys, who is going to know I am in here?

Pizzey: If these guys were sealing you into a wall, claiming bad people are coming, how bad are these guys going to be?

Butler: Exactly. So the first time they put me in there, they became back to get me out early the next morning. So although I didn't like it, it wasn't that distressful. But the second night it was as though they had forgotten me, and (a) I needed the toilet desperately, (b) I was concerned about the oxygen. So when they let me out, I made a play of being short of breath and dizzy and not being able to walk. The third morning, which was again late, I made a big play of not being able to get out without sticking my head out through the door and sucking air for about ten minutes, and I feinted vomiting as well and they never put me back in there.

Pizzey: Did you force yourself to vomit?