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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Christian Chesnot interview

The following is an edited transcript of Panorama's interview with former hostage Christian Chesnot.

Maybe I can start by asking you, what were you doing in Iraq, what was your job and what experience did you have of the country at that time?

At that time we have already with George made a book...written a book about Saddam, the regime of Saddam, and I was based in Amman as a freelance correspondent for the French Radio for some magazine, for a Swiss newspaper, and so I was covering the Middle East since 5 years from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and of course Iraq when the war start I went with George covering the event. So I was making, you know, a trip...small trip from Amman to Baghdad every month.

And you speak Arabic.

Yes, which was a good thing because when you are in jail with your hijacker, if you don't speak you are completely lost because they just speak Arabic, just one guy speak English, it was the chief of the Mukhabarat, the Intelligence Service.

But the guy came every three weeks one month, so on the very life, if you want to ask something when they are talking to you, if you don't understand, if you can't speak you are interview last and it's awful psychologically not to communicate.

Now what happened when you decided to go to Najaf. Tell us why you went that day and what happened.

On this day we were unlucky because five days before we went with our chauffeur, our driver, to Najaf to make some report because at this time remember, there was an offensive, a big attack from the American and the Iraqi army and so there was a seizure, and so we went there to make report...to make our job, and so we do it...you know.. without any problems, five days report, and so we decided to go back because the day before the Iraqi government announced the final offensive on Najaf, so we say we have to go but we have some hesitation of course because the situation at this time in Baghdad in Iraq was very tense and security was...was difficult and so we are not crazy to but we are journalists and we have to cover the news and we speak Arabic, we know the country, he's a very good driver and he know very well the country and so we went and we were at the wrong place at the wrong time. They say in Arabic it's 'maktoob' it's written.. you know.. this is your destiny.

And your destiny was to be caught.

Exactly...exactly. But thanks to God at the moment of the hijacking there was no violence. Immediately - I speak Arabic - I said we are French journalists, we are working for the French radio, for Le Figaro, in Arabic.

So immediately there was a human contact with the hijacker, we were down but I continued to speak in Arabic. I show my press card, it was in Arabic. I was acquainted in Amman, so they can see immediately we are journalists because the most important thing, this is the most delicate face or time when you are held hostage is the first hour because you can be killed at any moment.

You don't know if they are thief, if they are terrorist, if they are resistance, if they are...you don't know, and you could be killed immediately.

So it's very important to show immediately you are journalist and you can prove this. So with the press card in Arabic, I have a French press card with the French flag, speaking Arabic, you know.. the tensions go down a little. So, at this time you save your life for a moment, after you don't know but at this time you feel - phew.. okay, I'm not dead yet.

Where did they take you and what did you see when you got there?

After we went to a first place where we were interrogated, I was slapped in the face and with a gun. But they try, I think, to see who we are, you know, because you know American and also the British they are using journalist and NGOs to spy you know...it's a war zone, so there is a...so these guys, these people of the resistance, they are very afraid and very cautious, they fear infiltration.

So when they saw white faces in their land but they want to see who they are eh, and so they capture us and we can prove we are journalists.

Now you were taken immediately to a place and very quickly onto the second place...

Exactly.

...where you were going to spend two weeks. Now when you got to that second place what was it like and what were the conditions like that you were held in?

We called it the farm. It was...you know...in the countryside, in a kind of palmery (palm grove)...you know...with the palm trees, in a very poor area, very remote area from the road, and so we were in a kind of house, very small, dirty, but very simple, you know...like in a farm, agriculture, you know, it's very basic thing, with some...a tank of water, just some toilets, very dirty, and it was very hot at this time, remember it was in August, 50 degrees in the day, so...and so it was very ah...basic, you know...basic conditions, and the first day they came with the camera to film us.

And what did you think when you saw them with a camera?

At the same time we were afraid and we are home because if there is a camera it means they want to send a message to the French, and I was speaking Arabic a lot, because when you are afraid you try to have a kind of communication, and this why it's important to speak and also they were surprised I speak Arabic because they did not expect, you know...a white face speaking Arabic with them.

So it was also them a shock of civilisation you know, and so I speak, I said I have nothing...we are French, we are journalists, we were lost on the road to Najaf, we have nothing to do with the occupation. France has a very clear position on Iraq, we didn't participate to the war, we are not participating to the occupation, we have no troops, no company, so we neutral in a way.

And so I...and we have nothing against the resistance you know. Your country is occupied, we understand...you know...you are fighting, like us, the French, when we were occupied by the German we fight against the German, and when we occupied the French Algeria, the Algerian they fight against us.

So we are very okay about this, so I talk and George also in English and I think it was for us a kind of relaxation but when you talk it's very important.

When you saw the camera coming out what did you think because you knew by then there had been other hostages taken, you knew that there were videos of the killing of these hostages. What did you think?

Exactly, at the same time there was no what we call...mise en scene, I don't know in English...

Scene setting.

Scene setting. No, flag no people, you know...with gun or a knife on the throat, or you know with the... the... I don't remember, the closest of Guantanamo, you know, the orange...

The jumpsuit?

Exactly. So we didn't have anything of that. So it was not a context of fear or intimidation, you know. We just...he bring the camera, he put a black flag on the back and he said: "Christian, talk."

And so we talked. There was no...sort of context of fear, of threatening, you know...so this why...we were threatened...we are fear of course because you know the contacts we have with masked people with gun and so - you don't know.

But at the same time we are not mistreated or bad treated. And the condition was not tough you know. So we imagined the message we record on the tape was not...was for the French Embassy, for the French official, or maybe for Al-Jazeera. So we knew we will not be killed at this moment. We don't know tomorrow but for the first day we have some hope.

And then what happened, they sent somebody senior to you and what did he tell you?

He explained that we were.. it was two days after the hijack.. the hijacking, so their boss, what they call the Chief of the Intelligence of the Islamic Army in Iraq came to us, he was a fat man, maybe he was working with Saddam at the same place, and he explained us was friendly huh: "Guys you are with us, we are the Iraqi Islamic Iraqi Army in Iraq, we are not thieves, we are the resistance, the Iraqi Islamic Resistance.

"We are between 15 and 17 thousand soldier and we are fighting four fronts, America and English and British troops occupation. All the people were collaborating with them, even if they are civilian, we are against the spy and also the Iraqi police" and he said to us: "We have infiltrated also the police, so we are Sunni" and it was a kind of presentation..

So this told you who you were being held by.

Exactly. So immediately... well rapidly we knew we were with a political group. We are not with Zarqawi, we were with a group and so for us it was important because you are not with people, they have the political views, a political agenda, so they are not crazy you know.

So they have the logic, even if it's cruel and very awful, but they have a sense of either you are with them or against them, like Bush - with him or against him, it's the same.

So we feel as a French that we are not on a bad side. We feel more maybe if we are British or American journalists we didn't know what could happen. I asked the question to a guy that if I was a British or an American journalist would you trade me like this? He say: "No, the journalist they are representing their country, so if you are English you are representing the policy of your country and eh...and we will kill you."

And I ask him, for example at this time there are two American guy and one British, but not this group. I say: "Why didn't you don't you exchange these two British or this American soldier against..." and he says 1000 of prisoner in Abu Ghraib. The people of Abu Ghraib they can wait. We prefer to kill the British and the American to make a debt and we will have the maximum effect in New York or London.

You mean to create terror, to create propaganda.

Exactly. Exactly, to provoke a shock, you know, because you have to know that this group... these people, they knew exactly how to use the media, how to use the internet.

I think it was a new things on the hijacking offer, because in Lebanon for instance the hijacker...to prove the life of the people you take a newspaper, the date now with internet, if it's a figure, you can send sound, you can send image and for them they are...you know.. watching everything, you know...every declaration in France. So it's a new things in the hijacking affair.

So to go back to where you're at. You're visited by the Islamic Army, intelligence chief. When you knew that you weren't held by al-Zarqawi's group, but you understood the group holding you was Islamic, did you not fear the terror element?

Yes, of course.

You knew you weren't being held by al-Zarqawi, the extremist, the terrorist, but you knew you were being held by an Islamic group.

Exactly.

This must have created fear in you.

Of course

Terror was a motive for them.

Of course, but at the same time, at the beginning they say to us: "Well so we are Islamic army, you said you are French journalist, we will check everything. So we will check your identity because you have to know you are in a war zone so we are spies coming from the Americans so we have to check."

So the first week we feel they are checking, there was no torture, no bad treatment. So well it was roughly okay. But of course we are fear because we don't know, because some prisoner were coming also in the same house because the farm where we have been held was also the place where all the prisoner were coming when they were caught on the road, they were bring there, and sometimes they were injured, you know, with bullet in the mouth or in the hands or...so they came here.

And we knew some of them has been killed, for instance when you saw...when we saw coming in the house a bodyguard of Chalabi we knew he will be executed, and he has been executed. So you are with people who don't hesitate to execute the prisoner.

But there is a logic. They said to us: "We have to make the investigation" the chief of the intelligence said: "We have to make investigation, I will make a report to an Islamic tribunal and this tribunal will judge you and say if you are guilty or if we have nothing against you, you will be released. So it's black or white, and sometimes you are in the middle and it was our case, we will negotiate your release.

So you waited a week, it must have been...well you waited a week for them to come back.

Exactly and we have some kind of optimism because we said it's a question of time. They said no, no, you are friends, you are a good man, it was okay.

But after a time was passing, you know, days, weeks, months. So after you don't understand why you are here, especially the resistance has nothing against France.

So this why they take the critics of the hijab, the Islamic veil, to...to approach...to blame something against France, because France is not part of the scene in Iraq.

But it was a political act to use the veil as a reason to hold you to try to win concessions from France?

No, but maybe from our point of view, when they talk about the veil we are surprised because we aren't in a war, we are with the resistance, and they are talking of the veil in France.

We didn't understand. And so this why at the first time we didn't take it very seriously. We said maybe it's a kind of a wall screen, wall of smoke?

Other reasons.

So maybe we say because they have nothing against France, they need something to say to justify we are held in jail, so they will ask something over the veil, it is not serious and behind the scene they will ask maybe money, weapons, maybe visa, maybe France has good hospitals so maybe France has to accept some injured people from the Islamic resistance to be treated in Paris, but you can imagine anything. This why at the beginning it was very strange for us. We didn't understand it all what was going on.

So they then made another video, didn't they, in which you spoke about the veil. Now tell us about that.

Exactly. So this why we were surprised because the first week they said we are checking your identity and ten days after the same guy, the fat guy, the chief of the intelligence: "Your case is frozen because we have problems in Falluja, Americans are preparing a big offensive, a big attack on Falluja, so all our troops are going there so your case is frozen but by the way, what do you think about the Islamic veil in France?"

We asked: "What?" Because we didn't expect this kind of question you know. I say...yes, because France we say you are.. you know.. the model of democracy, you respect human rights and why you are banning the woman, the young woman to wear the hijab at school?

So we make an answer. We said we are against this. It's against the human rights and we don't understand the policy of governments. And he said: "Christian, by the way, imagine we are threatening you, we want to kill you, but what will you say to your government to do something for you."

And at this time...he say no, no, cool, cool, imagine. It was not a real threat but it was very disturbing you know. So he said: "Try to convince your government and say I appeal to Jacques Chirac, my president to cancel the law and I appeal to all the French to demonstrate in the street because we are in a very bad situation, we can be killed at any moment, so we urge you to do something.

So that's the message you put out for them on the video.

Exactly.

Again, their use of the video was clever.

Exactly. And at this time we don't...we didn't know which part of the video they will take. Maybe the soft part, the first part was or position about the veil or the second, the tough...you know, we are urging the government to do something, urging the French people to go on the street.

So for us it was very confusing, but the threat was very.. it was not a clear threat, it was not... and we were three at this time, we were with the driver, so we can talk, we were talking about the situation, what they want, why they are asking these questions. So we were mentally functioning.

Now in those first few weeks you were moved several times, you were transferred. Tell us in general what that was like. It must have been very frightening, the conditions under which you were moved, the fear, the fear of discovery, just describe for us those journeys.

All the those stages we'll tell you when you are moved from a place to another is the most frightening because when you arrive in a place you try to make a kind of routine, a kind of security.

So when you are displaced your security you lose everything because it means you have to change the place, change the people...the guards, and you lost...you know...your kind of security, and especially you are blindfolded, handcuffed and put in a coffin.

For us it was a kind of coffin in a big GMC and you don't know where you are going, what will be the end of the travel, of the trip, so maybe you can be killed at the end. You don't know. So... and the trip can last one hour, two hours, 15 minutes. So...and after go in a place and you discover a new place, new men and you don't know why you are here, and so this is very, very difficult situation to...to be in, to support, it's frightening.

Now after a couple of weeks a new person entered your consciousness. You'd met the intelligence chief but then you met someone else who was very important. Now tell us about that person.

It was just after the two weeks of the farm, we are transferred near Baghdad, and the chief of the intelligence told us I will introduce you my boss. We don't know if it's the boss of the Islamic army but he said my boss. I said okay.

So a young man, maybe 35-40 years old came very...you know...very cool, bare foot, always a shirt, "What do you know about Islam?" We were not expecting to talk about religion, we were expecting to talk about politics, you know, American, the French policy in the Middle East - but: "what do you know about Islam?"

So I answer: " I'm living in Amman, you know.. I have no problem with Islam, it's religion of peace and so... " And during one hour it was a kind of speech or a lesson about Islam and the superiority of Islam above all the religion. And it was very argumentative, and at the end and the conclusion of the speech I pass already there but he said Islam will respect the Christian, we are all "Ahl Al-Kitab" it means "the people of the Book" and so we have nothing to fear from us, but you are...you know...in the wrong way because Mohamed is the last prophet and at the end of the age, everybody will be Muslim in fact because we are the last religion.

So he asked me, why are you Christian? I said to him I am born Christian, my mother is a Christian, my father is Christian, my grandfather, you know, from old generation we are... He said: "But if your father, your grandfather are wrong...are going in the wrong way, will you continue to go in the wrong way?" And he said to us: "Guys, if you become Muslim your release will be easier. Think about it." And he left.

I thought...so it was a surprising because we didn't expect this kind of...we don't know if it was a bluff, if it was serious, you know, but it was disturbing, you know, so when you are on stage you are...you know...on line...you know...tightrope, you know, and you don't know if it's serious or not.

So psychologically your brain is.. and you're not working, you know, very, very hard. And so we.. with George, we imagine an answer to this because if one day after or two day after the guy is coming back, so you have to think about it. You want to become Muslim.

So we have imagine an answer and we said we should...we would have said to him, as we told you, we are not against Islam, but if you want to convert us, we are to be honest, we have to know the Koran in French, so bring us a French Koran and we have to discuss with our parents, with some people in Paris too because it's difficult.

But at the end, if it's....you put a gun - you convert, eh? But we were afraid, if we convert, maybe we become part of them. If they put for instance some explosive as a Christian we are one, you know, we are brothers, so come with us, we make the jihad against the American. Put a bag and we make...she said action and you will go to Paradise, we are Muslim now, and if you say well I did not understand everything.

And of course they should have make a tape of the conversations or... so we prefer to say, and we knew...when you know the mentality of the Iraqis and the Muslims we know that they respect the Christians, so they don't like the people, they don't like the non-believers, the people who don't believe, it's a.. it's awful for them.

For them you could be Jewish, you could be Hindu or Christian but if you don't believe it's...you know...the devil. So we know they respect us as a Christian so.. well and finally they didn't come back to say: "Have you think about it?"

So you were spared the necessity to convert?

Exactly. But we have...you know...think about an answer because we didn't know if it was serious or not, huh, and with this guy with the gun.

Now in late September you were transferred again into another cell,

Yes.

Please tell me about that, I mean who were these people, were they different and what kind of people were they?

It was completely different. We are not in a jail. We are in jail but we were in a house. In this house we are living five mujahideen , five fighter, real fighter, and making operation against the American.

And we were...you know...not in bed with the American army but imbedded in the resistance in a way, you know, we are not in a room but.. so we have lots of discussion with them and especially one, we call him the Jihadist, you know, he was very close to Bin Laden, he was trained in Afghanistan with Bin Laden.

He didn't say Bin Laden, he said: "Sheikh Osama", it was a respectful word. He said: "I have been fighting in Bosnia" and we saw he has a kind of charisma comparing to the other.

And so we have discussion about Islam, about their political struggle and at this time it was also very confusing for us because we were on stage, but at some point we have some joy, it could be...you know.. an interview, you know because one night... "let's talk together, you can ask me all the questions." "Okay" and he say: "Yes, because I have my kuffia, if I let my kuf...

He has a kuffia covering his face.

Every time, they have a mask or kuffia and he said to me: "Until I have my kuffia on my face you are safe. If I put off my kuffia, you will be dead tonight."

I said keep your kuffia. He asked me...and he said to me, because they are very clever, he said: "You are journalist, we know you will be released in one month, two months, one time, and what we are talking now you will talk after, you will talking about this after, so I will tell you not all the secrets but something interesting."

And so we talk about politics and I said all struggle is very clear, we are the Umma, it means the Muslim community in the world. We are aggressed by the Christian West, so we are in the self defence, so we have the right to fight back and now the strategy for us is very clear, we have to make a division in the West, especially with the United States and New York, we have to fight not to make many operation but we have to target strategic target in the West."

For instance he said: "Christian, if I shoot you in the hand, you will not die. If I shoot you in the head you will be dead immediately." So we have to choose very specific action which is very painful for the West. And he said we are...we sense a lot George Bush the President because thanks to him we are now exporting the revolution all over the world, and I said to him because it was at the time just before the election, between John Kerry and George Bush, I said do you prefer Kerry because Kerry said maybe if I am elected we will withdraw from America, from Iraq.

He said no, no, no, on the contrary, we vote for Bush because with Bush in one year, two years we will be more strong, we will be stronger because there will be confrontation, there will be occupation, and a radicalisation of the Iraqi people. So we are completely in the shock of civilisation, Bin Laden and Bush, but it was a part of them, this part of the jihadis is not all the resistance. It was, I think, a minority. They also have the big part and the majority of the group of the resistance are, roughly speaking, from the ex-Baathist ex people that Iraqi army, people of the intelligence of Saddam.

We'll just...

So for the first time we saw it in real, we saw the amalgam...the combination of the Islamist and Baathist in the same group we saw the...ah...

The fusion?

The fusion, exactly, the fusion. So this was very dangerous because you have...because the Baathists they have the weapons, they have the money, they have the experience, and the Islamists they are ready to die.

They said we are ready to die thousands. We don't know how many years it will take, we know for sure the American will left one day. It will take one year, two years, ten years. We have millions people to sacrifice. So it's a kind of a bomb, you know, nuclear bomb in Iraq.

Now you had a word for it which was planet Bin Laden. What did you call this extraordinary Islamic cell that you found yourself in? It was just before...you know...regarding this talk with this guy, you know, 30 year old, fighting in Bosnia, fighting in Afghanistan. So he explained the sense and the meaning of the fighting, that's why we discovered there is a kind of double agenda, the Iraqi agenda to liberate Iraq, to fight against the American, and another agenda, an international one, the Islamic revolution, that came because the border was open when the American enter Iraq, so all the Islamic...some foreigners but also local Islamic went in Iraq, and so there is a mix of the two, and now there is a debate inside the resistance what will be the stronger.

Because Zarqawi is of Bin Laden, there is also you know discussion and problems inside the resistance because the Iraqi people did not want to make the Islam from China to Spain, huh? They want to liberate their country.So at this moment there is also thinking about the cost of making...of bombing...car bombing, you know...special attack and...because what is the political reason, because we feel also and we knew because we are journalists, we know Iraq, all this Baathist, from the old regime, they want also a political existence, so resistance is good but what after?

They don't care, they want to...you know...to burn Iraq, and after to go everywhere. And they said to us: "Target are specifically in the Middle East, Egypt and Syria." And I say: "What about France?" "No, no, France you are.. you are not on the top of the list. Top of the list is written about England, Italy and of course America."

So you call it planet Bin Laden.

So this why we call it Planet Bin Laden but we have to say most of them are from Saddam regime, you know, especially this guy of the...Mudir al Istikhbarat - Istikhbarat in Arabic means intelligence service but from the army, you know, it's not Ministry of Interior. So we know now that the bones...the...

Structure.

...the structure are mainly controlled by the Baathist. Of course, they can't say we are fighting for Saddam, we are fighting for the Baath; we are fighting for Islam, for the liberation of Iraq, so they can recruit many young people and to say no, we are Islamists, we are fighting for Islam, so it's small, you know.

Federation.

Federation. It's easy to attract young people saying we are fighting for Islam for your identity than saying we are fighting for Saddam, we are fighting for the Baath, we are fighting for the old regime, so there is a kind of cover-up of the resistance, a kind of.. ideologically and religiously of Islam, but inside the core of the resistance I think is from the ex-Baathist.

Now did you know that...did you know what was happening in France, did you know there were massive demonstrations that your fate was discussed here on a daily basis, were you aware how central you had become?

No, frankly no. We had some pieces of information because we are talking to them, they said to us you are famous, you are more famous than Chirac.There is some demonstration in France, you know, your Prime Minister is coming to Cairo and also because we have no newspaper, no radio, no TV, nothing.

But we are hearing from the other room the guy watching on Al-Jazeera in Arabia the TV, the Arabic channel, and so sometime we were hearing some news, they are talking about two journalists or...we have some piece of news, but most important one day they said: "The Muslims in France are very strong, they want you, they are making demonstration" - I said okay - and they were surprised.

They were surprised: "Why this our brother in France they are defending two kuffar (it means infidel) two Christians" and they said "explain us because I don't understand because we are Muslim, we are from the Ummah, you know, we are brothers and we want to help them and they are defending you, the Christians" so for them there was a kind of contradiction.

I said but it's normal, the Muslims in France they are French, and Islam is not kidnapping people, especially journalists, and so for them in France it's not possible. So you are giving a very bad image of Islam and for them it's normal, we are French, they are citizen, and say oh, yes, oh possible. (laugh)

Now you had some very dangerous and difficult times in October because the fighting got very close to you. Now...

It was the beginning of November, end of October.

End of October. But tell us about those times. I understand you were so close you could hear the fighting, the bullets were coming in.

Exactly.

Describe the situation then.

We were in a house very near from Baghdad, and maybe 50 metres from the house there was a motorway, a big motorway, and every time we were hearing...you know...convoy, US convoys with tanks, with all the big trucks and one day suddenly we hear an explosion and maybe there was a mine or a bomb attack on the road, and we imagined the tank.. American tank, you know, move their gun and shoot on the middle, and we were the house in the middle.

And the resistance, the Iraqi were fighting back, so there was exchange of fire from the road, from the tanks, heavy machine gun, and the resistance near the house shooting RPG, shooting Kalashnikov and so we jump under the pew because it was very...we were hearing the bullet.

You were stuck in the middle.

Exactly. So we were ah.. afraid and suddenly the door opened and one of the hijacker: "Are you okay? It's okay for you?" He said "Keep well." And he's gone back and he left. So for us it was a very tense moments and so we imagine maybe we will be killed by the American.

So Christian you thought you would be killed by the Americans, now what was it like, how close was the fire, what did it feel like?

Oh we were here in the we heard in the windows some shooting in the bathroom ...you know, and so at this moment we feel we will be transferred to another place. So we will for sure, and ah...but it was very stressful because you are like...you know...a bag of potatoes, you know you are completely vulnerable, you know, you are here, you are inside and you can do nothing. You can't shoot, so you...we are together.

Now this brings us to the beginning of November and things changed then. What happened and why?

Exactly, at the same moment, just two days before there's fighting around the house, we recorded a type of threat. For the first time, it was the 8th of November, it was a Monday, the chief of the intelligence service, but for us from the beginning he was in charge of making the video, we make 9 video on all the four months, and he was very angry, very bad mood, and he said: "Christian come to me" there was no light so we had to go in the bathroom because there was a window with some light, no electricity because there was many cut of electricity, and we were speaking Arabic, he said: "Christian now you have to know your situation is very critical."

I say: "What's going on?" "Your President is very tough, he don't want to talk. He's very bad. Also we have doubt about you, I think you are a spy because Bush wants to...wants you released." "No, I am just a journalist" "And the negotiation are not going well, on the hijab, the Islamic veil no progress. And the other question - we don't know what the other question but - no progress. Everything is black. So you have to know now that we can kill you at any moment."

And he said to me: "It's Haram" it means it's forbidden to our religion to kill an innocent but we will not hesitate one second to kill you and George. So now you have a chance to talk to your government to Chirac and to urge them to do something, to find a solution. If not - phsst! (makes gesture across his throat)

And it was a real shock because before all this failure he said there were negotiation, they said take time, be patient. Well I thought we were afraid but we were right, and there was no direct threat, at this time it was the first time it was direct and so you know...

So what did you do?

I was completely...you know...losing my energy but I urged Mr Chirac do something because now the situation is very critical for us, find a solution, we know there is negotiation but do something because now it's very serious. If you don't do nothing we will be killed.

And he was filming you as you were saying this?

Exactly. And with a guy with a Kalashnikov behind, and George do the same in English, and after we were all wondering what happened, and two days after there was the bombing and the fighting around the house, we were moved, it was the 3rd was the Monday, the Thursday we were moved, and when we go somewhere handcuffed, blindcuff...

Blindfold.

Blindfold, and we are seated, we are waiting the car, the GMC coming and I was seated like this, and a guy came and say in my ear: "Christian the French didn't believe the threat, they don't take it seriously in army." So I said to George, there's a big problem the French...(laugh) so for us it was a disaster because if the French didn't take it seriously it means that for us ah...(laugh) the situation is very bad.

We went...we were transferred in the car, we arrived at the new house, and when the chief of the intelligence opened the door of the back of the car we were inside, he said: "Who is dead, who is alive?" in English.

So at this time we say safe. They will kill one of us to show the French they are serious. So we had the worst period of the fourth month, it was one week between the 8th November until the 14th of November where we thought we could be killed at any moment because it was logic, you know.

The French there is no negotiation, there is a crisis. The Iraqis want something, the French don't want to give up. So the Iraqi make a type of threat and the French they said no we don't care. And so Iraqi they kill me or George, they make a picture or a tape and they say to the French if you want the other alive negotiate.

So what did you and George do, how did you cope?

At this time we pray a lot. I'm a Christian and a believer, George a little less, and so but you use all your energy, you know, you are in another...the worst of the fear.

I don't know if there is a scale on the fear, you know, but you are up there because you know you will die. So you are thinking of your family, you are praying, you are talking the end of your friend, you are praying and we say together if I survive the other, give the money... my money to my brother, to my sister.

You are waiting the end, and psychologically it's very hard. All your sense you are in a kind of...you know, confusion but it's boiling, and each now is noise, you fear something, when they open the door they are coming to take us, maybe, and there were some noise around the house so maybe they are preparing the execution.

So it's what...you don't sleep of course, your stomach is completely dead, very...very painful, So it's over and it last one...practically one week.

And then what happened?

Thanks to God it was a kind of miracle, I don't know because on the Sunday one of the hijacker he enter the house...the room to bring the breakfast and he said 'Shlonkum?' "How are you?" I said to him, very bad, we are completely desperate you want to keep us, you make threats so for us it's a...

"No guys, negotiation are continuing you are not in threat." and he left and then pheww...But until the end the release we are always...you know...in a mode of...you know...not the same mood, very tense. It was very difficult. Even if we know maybe our life it's okay, we will not be killed, but we don't know. It was a kind of relaxation... pheww

Did it help that there were two of you together and that you were friends?

Of course. If you are alone it's terrible, it's awful, because when you are two you can talk, you can...you have a human feeling you know, you have something...communication, something is very deep, you know.

And it's not theatre, it's life, it's death or life, so you don't cheat, so you are...and but if you are alone, so imagine for other stage, if they don't speak Arabic, if they are alone, it's a nightmare.

And all this time you knew that others were being killed, other groups had different western hostages and they were being killed, you had that information, they told you.

Yes, we have the information about Enzo Baldoni the Italian guy, because after mid September we were on the verge to be released and a guy came and the chief of the prison...of the jail, and you can ask me all the question and we said we don't understand, why are we here, you know, we are French, we are journalists, we have nothing against the resistance. That's okay.

And he said "but you are lucky." We said why? "Because when you were at the farm at the beginning there was also an Italian...Italian journalist, but in fact it was a spy and the interrogation was very tough. And I said to him that frankly "you torture him?" and behind the mask he was smiling and said: "It was tough, it was not like you."

And you know, peculiar. So...but we did not...he didn't say a word, the name, Enzo Baldoni, he said an Italiano and we have full evidence he's a spy. And he said, at this time, the French were very worried because they thought you were dead. So psychologically it was very tough, up and down, you know.

How do you cope with that, the roller coaster of emotion up and down?

You survive, you know, and you know nearly all the hostage will tell you, when you are hostage, you are a kind of instinct of line, instinct of survival, you know. All your energy is focused onto survival. Every hour is passing, every day you are alive so there is hope. And so you have to keep...if you don't keep you are falling and it's true, when you are two it's better.

Now after November we stretched into December and there was a long period when you thought you might be released and then it dragged out. But eventually, you got more hopeful signs. Tell us about those signs at the end. Now what happened and what did it indicate to you?

Because when you are a hostage you try...you have no news, you are completely cut off from the outside world, so the only communication is...you know, when your hijacker are coming to you to make a tape or bringing food for instance, and when for instance the food is better you think lovely meal, it's good for us.

When they bring us some tea, ah it's marvellous because there are...and some time at the end they bring us magazine. So you are...you know, you want to see everything...

Sign and everything.

...every sign, in everything you know you try to...because you want to survive, you want hope, so...and when the food is bad you think what's going on, why they don't...one day they don't bring us anything. Why? They want to kill us tonight? The food is better, they bring us shampoo, someone said okay, we'll come back to Paris. Whew!

So it was up and down, and so you have to be strong, you try to cope with him. Everybody will react on his own way, you know. It's not normal to be on stage you know, and if someone has stumbled before you on your stage I say how can I survive, you know, and finally you survive. Because it's the instinct of life. It's a kind of...you know...a physical principle you know.

How did you know about the passage of time, how did you know how many days went by, what the date was, how long you'd been held, how did you keep a record of the time?

Every morning we say to the...this is Saturday, 18 of September. Every day with George we are saying the date because we have no watch.

We're just in T-shirt and shorts and barefoot. No food, no books, no nothing. And spare room without anything. So every morning we say this is Wednesday five of September or whatever, so we can keep it because you lost all your reference.

And did you try to keep fit? Did you try to make sure that you were physically well if you could?

Exactly and especially because we didn't know, but the hijacker, one of the boss, you know, the chief of the jail said make some gymnastic, it's good for you. So at the beginning we are surprised, so every morning we make one hour of exercise, you know, so it was a way of also decontraction eh...you know...to...

Relaxing.

Relaxing. But well, so the time is going very slow and they are passing, now it's very strange because you think a lot about your life, what you are talking with your friend George and there was a king of routine going on and you pray, you hope, you try to think to some positive thing, to your friend, your family, music, everything, every human things that are better than the under prison.

So at the end how did you know that you were going to be released? What signs did you see, what happened?

It was clearly three days before. It was the 18 of December, Saturday, and chief of the intelligence came and said: "The news are good for you. You are close to your freedom. And he came to make the tape, the last tape, what we call the tape of release, so he recover...we were together with George, he filmed us, like in a prison, the head, back, and the profile, walking, because the French they said they want to know that you are in good shape, good health, so you are working, you are not injured, and your freedom is close, wait.

And three day after...but they came in the morning and the guy said with brush...a hair brush and a mirror because we had no mirror, so we didn't saw our face all the time. For the first time they bring us a mirror, so they said you have to be beautiful because you will be filmed today, there will be a tape.

So we washed the face and suddenly the door opened and two guys bring a sofa in the room and the big boss came, and he said "this is the last action" and in fact they want to make the last tape, it was the day of the release, maybe 2 or 3 hours before the release, it was a kind of insurance for them, and it was a kind of social interview.

They ask during one hour question: "How do you feel now? Have you been well treated? Have you some complaint? What memories will you get from this?"

What memories will you have?

Exactly. And after political things... "What do you think of Palestine resistance? What do you think about the hijab in France, the veil? Occupation in Iraq? And also um...can you help us to get some weapons?"

We are trying, because the question was very tricky. You don't know, you know. I said we are journalist, at least we can send a message to the French authority but not more ah?

So and he left. And 2 hours after door open and two guys enter the room without saying any word, and before that, the chief of the intelligence give us a souvenir, it was a CD Rom. He said this is a souvenir for you, on the last Operation from the Islamic Army in Iraq.

A CD Rom.

Voila. You keep it, show it in Paris. And they give us back the passport and everything, so without any words they didn't go out and they handcuff us, it was not with a rope but with a computer cable, put a mask and just before jumping in the back car they take out the mask and we were very afraid because we were very hopeful, say maybe this is the end.

And between 15 minutes we were very afraid because we were driving on very chaotic road, you know, so maybe we imagined they would kill just then, maybe the negotiation are over and after we hear the noise of the town, the noise of the cars, of the trucks, so we were on the motorway, so phew, relax a little, and after 20-25 minutes, the car stopped on a motorway, it was 4 o'clock and 30 in the afternoon. The door opened and we saw.. I saw.. I was the first to go out.

I saw the blue sky, I saw the hijackers, the French cars of the Embassy, and the guy it was the chief of the French Intelligence Service. "Christian, it's over, come here." I pass and on the way I look, it was like in a film you know, I turned my head and I saw in the eyes my hijacker, he has a kuffia and he just.. we didn't say anything but it was like in a film, we look at each other and I jump in the car and George was following, and after two minutes we left.

And it was in the middle of the day, 4 o'clock and 30, so cars was passing on the road so there was witnesses everywhere, you know, and people had their guns, so it could happen anything, like Giuliana Sgrena, so this why after we were very afraid when we discovered the killing of the chief of the intelligence...Italian Service because it could happen, it's in the day.

Imagine an American convoy bus, they saw gun and Kalashnikov and if there is anything they could...it could have been a disaster. So it was a very, very sensitive moment and we didn't expected this kind of release. We expected like in Lebanon, you could have been released in you know...foreign embassy or in a mosque or in...a kind of neutral place, you know, but not like this...

And then what happened, what did the French Ambassador say to you?

Well after we were moved to a French house, not in the French Embassy, and first of all in the car, with the guy of the French intelligence there. "Can we called our families?" "No, you can call them when you are safe. Not in Iraq because the American or the Iraqi, they come and intercept communication and we don't want any problem at this stage at all. We will say you are safe to your family, we have different ways to communicate."

And so we are brought to a house in Baghdad and the French Ambassador Bernard Bajolet was here with a bottle of champagne. So we drink a little and yes, for the first time he has...he bring...a file, a little file about the mobilisation, the French effort to release us, and we discovered that Chirac was very helpful to us, there was many.. you know.. people the Islamic world asking for the release, Arafat, Gaddafi, the Pope, so we start to discover something happened when we were in jail, and after we make what we call the debriefing by the intelligence service to the French authority.

And you found out afterwards a little more about the operation, What did you discover afterwards about how the negotiations had proceeded?

In fact it was a confirmation. Why we are well treated, we had food every day, because in fact it was a kind of political dialogue between the hijackers and the French government, and especially by email. I think it's a premier.. I don't know, it's a...

A first time.

It's a first time in history of the hijacking that the hijacker and the authority are dialoguing by email, because it's September and they ask a question, the first answer to the question and through different way, and there was political question and they want some insurance that the French will not change it's policy in Iraq and the French say yeah, there is no problem, we will not change our policy in Iraq, look Barnier (French Foreign Minister) was at the UN station and said France will not participate to the occupation, so it was a new dimension of hijacking.

And was the internet used? Were they well informed? Do you believe they understood what was going on in the political arena by using the internet?

Some guys, the French government said to us they were surprised that the hijacker knew everything. The single decoration for small responsible in France they knew immediately.

It means they know how to use internet. Of course all the television and the media they read the press, they watch TV and also maybe they have some correspondent, so called correspondent in France and Europe, so they can inform them this minister said this, there is a big mobilisation, the...So then they know everything.

So for the government it was a discovery, you know, that's why he's very sensitive when you talk about mobilisation because the impact is direct now. You know it's not like 20 years ago in Lebanon now.

So then you came home, you came back to France and you were received here and you saw your family. Now tell us about that moment.

At first it was crazy because of course we didn't expect it. All the solidarity, all the demonstration because it was so huge in France and Europe and in the Arab world. So when you come back, it's a shock, it's so huge, the emotion is so huge, so you are very confused.

Of course you are happy and at the same time you're...is it me? You know, I have an expression with George we are...before...you know, journalists, we are not..we are specialists, we have written book.

We are not stars, you know, and suddenly we understand that all France is watching you and so it's a strange feeling because you are not a hero, I don't think we are heroes because we have just done our job.

I think the heroes are people like Terry Waite or other stages in Lebanon who spend...you know...3, 4, 5 years in jail, we are not heroes. But at the same time it's very disturbing you know and very...but we are pleased at the same time because we feel that your country was behind you, your country didn't left you. So in a way you are proud to be French.

And you felt that your country was behind you all the way, your government was actively negotiating. Was this the thing to do, the right thing to do, because some would say if you negotiate for hostages you encourage the hostage takers to take more people?

There is some...of course you know nothing is perfect but what is the cost of the life, you know. Ah...for France all the time the French government the hostage came back, there was no...except one a French researcher in Beirut. But there is different policy. The British say we don't negotiate, we don't pay, we don't have contact with the hijacker, they can kill the hostage. They don't care.

They Americans say roughly the same but under the table they negotiate. They give money like in the 80s with Reagan, you know within Lebanon...

But not in Iraq.

Voila...Well in Iraq, but the time you are occupying, you know, British and America, you find England.. you are paying, so ah...

But if you're an occupying power, as Britain and America are in Iraq, do you have any option? Surely the only thing to do is not to negotiate?

But in politics everything is possible. Even the impossible. And even now we know, with the George, and the journalists who know Iraq there is contact with the resistance, there is no channel of communication.

It's...you know...so it's for, you know the public opinion, it's for the...you know...the vitrine (shop window) you know, but every time under the table there is talks, contacts, or...so it's a question of moral law, of politics, but I think you have the choice, you have the way to do it because Americans they have way to make pressure on the hijacker.

They will destroy the town completely if you don't release this guy, because you have to remember for all groups there was inside pressure for other Islamic group of the resistance, you know for instance Abdullah Janabi he is now in clandestinity he is underground, now he's the chief of the resistance in Fallujah. He said to the hijacker, don't touch one single hair of the French.

If you kill them you will be destroyed. So you know every time you have means to interfere to...after it's a question, I don't know if it's political, it's moral you know, I was telling you, you know, we are French, we are Latin, British and American you are protestants so maybe the moral and the conception of life, of morality, the good, the bad thing, you know the God...the lines aren't the same and for example the Italian they pay immediately.

Like the French.

Exactly. Even the Filipino they are....you know...catholic and they pay. But some, this is another civilisation, another culture, this is not...it's no...it's up to you, you know. If you prefer to...that your guy are killed or...

Do you think the French government paid money to get you out?

But with George we don't know for sure there was money for the intermediaries, you know...between the hijacker and the French government. You have to pay some people you know.

After, a ransom we don't know because when we are released on the road we don't see any bag...you know...with money or...but of course everything is possible.

There are other ways of doing it.

Exactly. And...but we don't know, and maybe we'll never know. But it's not necessary money. I think it's not important but you can have political cost, you can have different way to pay ransom you know, It's not just money.

You know because we say in the book for instance...our books, that some big chief of the Salafist they ask some French guy what should we ask from the French Government?

For instance, can we ask the freedom for our guy in France to operate? Well you can ask me this kind of things, you can ask you know...facilities for travelling, facilities for anything.

So what at the end of the day did the hostage takers get from the French for holding you? What did they win, what concessions?

I don't know concessions but for sure they win you know celebrity everything because before our case who knows the Islamic Army in Iraq? Practically nobody. Now they are famous. Now everybody knows the Islamic Army and they are playing on that because we feel they were you know they were talking to a nuclear power you know, a member of the Security Council, you know..a small group talking, you know, have a dialogue with a big power.

So for them it's important and there is a competition between the different groups. So now the Islamic army is one of the top. You have Zarqawi and the Islamic army. So for them they gain on the media side ah...not also on celebrity but for recruiting people.

If you'd been held by Abu Musa'ab Al- Zarqawi like Ken Bigley the Briton was, would things have been different for you, although you were French?

I don't know. It's difficult. One of the guys said: "you are lucky you are not with Zarqawi." Okay, thank you guys. But I think...but this guy Zarqawi's group they are terrorist, but they have also some mind, they know also to negotiate.

This is why it's not black or white, and for exactly in our case, the Islamic Army, for instance we were held with the Iranian consul, and the Iranian...you know...the Shiite who are not friends with the Sunni, you know, and they obtain again their was a negotiation and he was released the guy, the Iran consulate, and the hijacker said yes we obtain some facility for Al-Qaeda in Iran, some release of prisoner. So they can executed the prisoner but at the same time we don't know why and on which basis they can also negotiate and find a solution. In fact they just want their interest.

What is the best things to do for their interest. If it's to kill someone, to make a video and to make the maximum of impact in London or New York they will do it. If it is to have the release of people for Al-Qaeda, to have money or something else, they can do it. It's not right so it's difficult to say ah...because for instance they kill the Italian Enzo Badoni and they release two the girls Italian and this is the same country. So they can be pragmatic and flexible, but it's very cruel of course.

What about those videos. At the end of the day do you think it's right for the media to show these hostage videos because of what it does to the families and also the way it manipulates public opinion?

I think the media has to be very cautious because of course the hijacker are playing on this, they are using this as a tool, and from my point of view and the point of view of my family it was a shock to see the video. So of course there is the right of information but you can put a photo, you can put black things.. you know.. on the eyes of the ...,you can...you know...soften a little the way to present it.

At the end of the day those demands were in the video. That's how those demands were made to your government by you.

Exactly. Yes. But for the family it was a shock, but it was at the same time it was useful because the mobilisation, the demonstration was so strong for us.. So now what is important in our case, the mobilisation was very important.

The public mobilisation.

Was...you know...something great and very useful...Why? Because for the French government, for France in fact, it was a way to put the hijacker in a stalemate, in an impasse, to prevent that we are killed, because it was so huge...not so huge in France but also in Arabic world, you know all the Islamic ah...authorities demand are released from Sheikh Qaradawi, Hamas, Jihad...

So for the hijacker it was so huge pressure on them so they come to kill us. After they negotiate. So the mobilisation and so the tape was useful in a way because it put the hijacker in a corner and it was impossible to execute us.

Now when you came back and you got off that plane and you saw your mother, what did you feel?

It was a very emotional and it's...you are in a film, and at this time it was raining, it was cold, w were waiting for the flights, you know, from Baghdad to Paphos in Cyprus after we take a plane with the minister. So it was confusion...confusing, we drink some champagne, some good wine with the ministers and you arrive in Paris, you have hundreds of journalists, you have the President, your family, you are coming from Mars.

You are an extra terrestrial you know that. And so it's emotional and this is why it takes time to reconnect even with your family. The first time it's a shock you know, it's a kind of explosion you know. So you have many vibration many...and after about the most important thing is to reconnect to your family and to your friend and to you colleague but it takes time.

And what did President Chirac say to you, what was he saying?

By the way, I don't remember...that's why I was maybe in another world, it was so brief and I said I am in good shape. And he said we are pleased but I don't remember exactly the word which is very interesting because the memory is strange, huh, and I remember with my mother and my father I said it's finished and I know it's finished and I'm happy and all that. But wish you luck. I don't remember look, maybe it was not important.

Do you think you'll ever be the same again, can you ever be the same person after an experience like this?

I will never be the same, it's impossible. You can't restart your life just as before, it's impossible, because it was a very strong experience, you saw your death in front. It's something you know there is a before and an after, and after of course you change ah...you are the same but at the same time you see the life differently with different eyes.

You know you are more spiritually, you are more maybe you know, not aware but you have some feeling about the life, it doesn't taste the same, you know. You enjoy everything, you know, even drinking the tea, it's a dream you know or something.

When you are in a cell it's cold and you have no tea one week, when the tea is coming, thanks to God, voila. And this is the life. The real life. So after when you rediscover and you re-enjoy all the basic things in life, having a drink with some friend, even being trapped in a traffic jam, you discover the people, voila...so you rediscover the music, the reading, everything, the food, and you are alive, so you say Al hamdullilah - thanks to God.

Do you remember when the chief of intelligence came the first time to meet you and then he understood your computers and money had been taken, explain to us what happened that day?

It was crazy. It was just some days after the kidnapping so we were in the the farm, and the big boss he came to us, he said: "Well we have taken your car we don't know where it is.

Christian, what do you have? "I have a wallet with 100 dollars." And so he take from his pocket a big...maybe 10,000 dollars, he says "100 dollars for you. Okay. And what you have?" I say "no, no, it's okay, it's okay." "What you have?" "I have a phone," 100 dollars "What else?" 'a thuraya phone' 300 dollars, and he give money to George for the computer, for the car and so... and he said look, we are not thieves, we are the resistance. We respect you, and at the end another guy say we give you the money and after we execute you. (laugh) We execute you...we kill you. So it was not.. you know.. a fun laugh, sense of humour, very ah...

A bad joke.

Bad joke, yes. So it was very disturbing you know, but at the end they take back the money when we were released.

So you never got your money back?

No, But no, it's not important but it was very funny. It was...but all the press card, even my SIM card of the phone was.. everything was okay, but except the money.

Okay Christian, thank you.

END OF INTERVIEW

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