My Friend, the Kidnap Victim
My friend, John Martinkus, was the one kidnapped Saturday and held for 24 hours. He was very lucky to be freed. I had to be circumspect yesterday because of security concerns, but John is now out of the country and the embargo has been lifted. Here’s the story as he related it to us:
Saturday around 2 p.m or so, John was picked up about 500m from our hotel compound. He turned out of the front gate, took the first right — as most of us do — and a car stopped in front of him and a tailing car pulled in behind him. Four men with pistols jumped out and three of them managed to force their way into the car, putting guns to the heads of John, his driver and his translator. They then took him to western Baghdad, held him overnight and interrogated him.
We’re not sure what all happened during his captivity, but he was able to persuade his captors that he was an Australian and a friend to the resistance and not to the Americans. It appears, by the kidnappers’ statements and questions, that they were nationalists and not jihadis, lucky for John. Also, he was lucky for not being American, because the kidnappers said if he had been, they’d have killed him quickly. They had tracked him for three days, they said, and proved it by asking him why he had gone to the Green Zone and to the Palestine on two separate days. This was how they were able to pick him up so easily.
At one point, one man disappeared, saying he would check out John’s story. He came back after about 15 minutes, John said, convinced John was who he said he was. We suspect they Googled John, because they referenced previous stories he had covered.
After some hours, his captors relaxed and said that he would be released in the morning. But before he was released, a sheikh from a village near Fallujah arrived. He again interrogated John, but this time it was much more aggressive questioning, John said. Finally, the sheikh said that while they were convinced he was a man of good heart and a journalist, he would not be freed Sunday as promised because Australia was a member of the Coalition and thus, a “warring nation” as Zarqawi has said. Instead, the sheikh would consult with his supervisors in Fallujah on what to do.
Now, this was serious. There’s no doubt the sheikh would return to fetch John and turn him over to al-Tahwid w’al-Jihad. So, in a fit of humanity, after the sheikh left, the nationalist captors took John and released him. We’re unsure of the ramifications of this act at this point and if there will be any retaliation within the Sunni resistance or against us. It’s possible.
As frightening as John’s experience was for him, it shows that journalists’ plans for “security through obscurity” has been blown out the window. John’s captors said they received a phone call that he was on the move and that the time for taking him was now. This fits in with our intelligence that there are kidnap teams up and down Jadirya Street looking for us. His captors said they had penetrated the staff at the Hamra Hotel, where many of us live. They have people in the compound watching us. They know who we are and they’re looking for “soft targets” — reporters moving around with little security or few precautions.
John was lucky — very lucky. He was picked up by nationalists who, we hear, are getting out of the kidnapping and beheading business. He wasn’t an American. He had a pedigree of lefty, anti-war reporter. And he fell in with a (more or less) kind-hearted bunch who were just doing their job as national resistance fighters. (He said they expressed concern that he wasn’t married and that his living arrangements in the Hamra weren’t safe. Bizarrely, they offered to let him stay with them the next time he came to Iraq — I’m sure.)
John’s story is indicative of the situation facing reporters — and other Westerners — in Iraq. They told him they were really looking for security contractor or CIA staffer. I haven’t left the compound since I returned from Beirut; I haven’t had a specific reason to. And now, without a specific reason, I won’t be going out. This is why you won’t be seeing any “Iraqi on the street” stories here. They’re too hostile; the population has turned against Westerners and the press. While they may not be actively assisting the resistance, I fear they would stand by idly if I were dragged into a car and taken away. The police won’t be much help either. Once, when John was being transported from one house to another, his kidnappers let him take off his blindfold. A cop car was cruising by just as he did so, making no move to stop a car carrying a blindfolded Westerner.
My options are limited but they seem to be go north to Kurdistan for a while. I’m warming to this idea as it’s been an under-covered region, as usual, and it would allow me to keep working. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do, but I have to be careful with what I say. I can’t assume any potential kidnappers don’t know about this blog.