Couple Recalls Iraq Hostage Days

Hostage American reporter Jill Carroll appears in a silent 20-second video aired Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2006 by Al-Jazeera television, which said her abductors gave the United States 72 hours to free female prisoners in Iraq or she would be killed. Al-Jazeera would not tell The Associated Press how it received the tape, but the station issued its own statement calling for Carroll's release.
AP Photo/Al-Jazeera

"To live the noblest tenets of his or her profession."

Those are Jill Carroll's words, written a year ago, reprinted in a London newspaper last week, and her explanation for why a journalist, particularly a freelance journalist, would go to Iraq knowing the risks

"It really just brings it all back and it's very difficult for me personally and as well for my family to see this happening again," says Micah Garen.

For documentary film makers Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carlton, there is a chilling deja-vu quality to their friend Jill Carroll's story. A year and a half ago, Micah was kidnapped in Iraq. Marie-Helene worked to free him. Their story had a happy ending, but no one knew at the time that it would.

In 2004, the couple traveled to southern Iraq to document the archeological looting taking place there.

"This was the birthplace of history," says Micah. "This is where writing was invented. What comes from these sites is just phenomenal--incredible works of literature, poetry, art, historical documents."

Like Carroll and other freelancers, they did not confine themselves to the relative safety of Baghdad's heavily guarded green zone hotels.

"The more dangerous it gets, the less news coverage there is or the harder it is to get news out, and therefore the more important the news becomes," says Marie-Helene.

"It's all passion, really," says Micah. "It's about really wanting to report something accurately, and maybe that's something that's not being reported."

Disguised as Iraqis, they were able to get disturbing pictures no one else had. The failure of the United States or any other coalition country to stop the systematic theft and destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage was a story few journalists would touch, because getting at it was so dangerous.

"You have to decide if the story is important enough for you to go over there and risk your life," says Micah. "I can't think of one that was more important."

In southern Iraq during the summer of 2004, a Shiite militia called the Mahdi Army, loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was fighting American soldiers. A critical fact, it turns out, when Micah and his translator, Amir Doshi, were kidnapped. It was Friday, August 13th.

"A car drove up very quickly and there was one man in the car in the front who was just screaming at me in Arabic, and he had a pistol and he was waving it and then pointing in my face," recall Micah. "I actually managed to hang on to the blindfold they used during the ten days, and you can see here in the blue paint was a message written out to praise Muqtada al-Sadr."

Blindfolded and tied up, after hours in a van, Micah and his translator Amir were led into a small clearing hidden by trees.

"Immediately when I got there, I saw there was another blindfold on the ground. "You don't have time to be terrified, but you go into survival mode. You're pumped full of adrenaline and you're desperately trying to figure some way to kind of get out of this. So the fear is there, but foremost in your mind, is "how am I going to survive this?"

"Frankly, I thought he was probably a goner," recall John Burns, a New York Times correspondent who also had survived being kidnapped. "At that time the odds against anybody who was kidnapped were very heavily against."

And nothing's changed. According to the Time just four days ago, "more than 400 foreigners have been kidnapped since 2003, and at least 36 journalists. Most foreigners have been released, but dozens have been killed."

"It is, after all, a country so volatile," says Burns. "Every hostage is teetering on the edge of the abyss from the moment he is seized."

"I didn't find out for 3 days that Micah had been kidnapped," recalls Marie-Helene.

She had left Iraq a few days before.

"I remember vividly getting on the plane and turning around to see Micah, and he waited and waited, and the last time I turned around, he wasn't there. He and Amir had left, and when I look back, that seems very prophetic."

Micah still has the packet of cigarettes in which he carved a message to Marie-Helene telling her he loved her,

"I said to Amir, if we get out of this the first thing I'm going to do is take a shower. The second thing is ask Marie-Helene to marry me."

"When you're stripped of everything, and you really are facing your mortality, you can clearly kind of reassess the situation and say this is what's important."