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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 June, 2005, 21:36 GMT 22:36 UK
Iraqi aid worker #1 interview

The following is an edited transcript of "S"'s interview with Panorama during which he tells of his experience of being taken hostage.

If you could tell me "S" what was your job in Baghdad at that time?

I was an employee in a humanitarian organisation which began working in Iraq after the collapse of the old regime. The nature of our work was to provide food stuffs and humanitarian aid, and gifts to children.

And what was your work personally? To buy things and distribute them?

Yes exactly.

On a daily basis, for instance, what did you do?

I used to, to start with, go to the market to buy these things from the local market and wholesalers as the price is cheaper. We bought from local markets also to help the local economy and people who work in the market. We then took all these food stuff and children's gifts, we packaged them and and presented them to struggling and poor families. These gifts were especially for school children. We gave the gifts to them.

And were you happy in your work, what did you feel?

Of course I was very happy because I was doing something which was making poor families and children happy and this is a humanitarian thing, the nature of the work was humanitarian and this is something lovely, especially because I was giving something to my country and to my people.

Could you tell me what you and "W" were doing that day? Where were you going and what happened to you that day?

That day 6th of January we were in town, in the wholesalers market and we bought stuff from there then brought it back in the afternoon, about 4.30. We were heading back towards the office of the organisation. We had brought back the food stuffs and the children's presents. The car was packed with these things, you see, which we had bought in order to prepare it all the next day.

We would give the children's gifts at the beginning of the new week first of all. Then the second we'd check which poor families are in most need and then present the food stuffs to them. So while we were heading back to the organisation, we took that exact route. At the beginning of the road some cars came from behind us.

Then they were on our side and they stopped us. They were the same kind of cars which the government uses. So when we saw this we thought they must be intelligence or security forces, from the govt itself. So we didn't mind, we are employees of an organisation and I have a badge and I can show them my card. When they see it they will let us pass.

But then we were surprised that they came towards us with weapons and their faces were covered. One could only see their eyes. When they found out we were working for that organisation they pulled us out of the car immediately and they put us in the boot of one of the land cruiser cars which they use.

They put us down in the car inside the boot and they pointed the weapons at us and then covered out heads with paper bags. The same bags which the government use and even the tape they used to handcuff us with was the same plastic type the government and the Americans use.

So our expectation was, I in particular, that they would let us off. We argued with them, we said we are working for an organisation, these are food stuff that we have, the car is packed as you see. We asked them then why are you doing this to us? So they said don't talk, don't utter a word!

So we stayed quiet and we thought they'll take us to the police centre and for sure we will be released. We haven't done anything. Maybe we were just suspects. After about 1.5 hrs of driving on rough roads with many bumps we arrived to the place they were taking us to.

So when we arrived there, our thoughts were, I in particular were that they were security, government people, that they would take us to a police station for sure. We were bound to get out. So we were very surprised to discover that they were terrorists. Those they call al-Mujaheedeen. This is a very difficult matter.

And how is it possible that there was no one on the road? That there weren't any police or American forces? How is it possible that they drove all that way and reached the place where they are based without anyone topping them? So that was very hard. It was as if chaos reigned, as if there was upheaval in the country. I was thinking it's as if the old regime has not collapsed yet, it still remains. The country is lost, there is no government, no authority.

Do you remember the exact moment when you realised for sure that they were not police and what was your feeling?

After we reached the place they took us, the smells and the agricultural nature of the land, made me feel that we had fallen into the hands of the terrorists, not into the hands of the government. Maybe something terrible has taken place in the country. Maybe there was a coup, maybe the government was gone and everything was gone, there was nothing, no army no police.

How did you feel when you realised that they were terrorists?

I felt that's it, it's a certain death. That they had taken control of the whole country.

And what happened afterwards? You arrived to that place and what did they do with you that first day? How did the first day end? They brought you there and then what did they do?

The first day, they put us in separate rooms and they began to interrogate us and beat us: "Who's with you, where are the Americans? what and what?" There were all these questions with beatings, and we didn't know what to do. Whether to talk. I talked and said that I was an employee with an organisation and we want to help. We are doing the right thing. We're doing nothing wrong.

And these are food stuffs we wanted to give. And especially before the kidnapping happened we were giving food to people from Falluja, especially those who had come as refugees from the time of the attack on Falluja, after the takeover of Falluja.

We had gathered them in their club and we gave them food. And we were happy to be able to help them, especially as they were from our people, our brothers, who had been harmed especially during the takeover of Falluja. So we gave them the food stuffs. This was something nice. So I told them that we had been giving to the people of Falluja and so on. I expected that this would in our favour. But no, they kept on saying that we were on the Americans' side that we were helping the occupiers, that we were this and that. So I couldn't answer. I didn't know what to say. There was nothing more I could say. They'll either beat me or they'll kill me, so I said what I said.

So what happened on the second day?

The second day I saw "W". They brought me to "W" and opened my eyes. That was when they filmed us. And afterwards they took "W" to one room and I to another.

Did their filming you, make you feel more secure, that it might help you? Or did you become more scared?

According to the demands they made, which I heard, I thought maybe this will help us. They wanted the withdrawal of the organisation and the closure of its offices. So we thought maybe if these terms are fulfilled they'll release us afterwards or pardon us. Thoughts were: we might get killed, they might release us. It was something very difficult. Is it possible for them to release us for something like this? It was difficult to imagine especially in this place, there were smells of blood and the place had a bad smell. It was difficult to imagine someone surviving in such a place.

Do you remember anything in that room? What did it look like, what kind of sounds, smells, light, anything you might be able to remember?

The room was dark. It was not always easy to tell the difference between night and day, and the door was closed. I could smell and hear animals. I also heard the sounds of broadcasts, radio or something, the sound of a TV or something. I heard basically the sound of news always, news. I also heard the sound of mobiles.

What was the worst moment in those 7 days you were held?

The worst moment was, the day after they filmed me, the killing of that police officer who they beheaded. Maybe I was waiting for death but I didn't want to die the way that police officer died. It was something very difficult. I just didn't want to die the way he died. By beheading. But "W" was with me. I saw that he was there. But afterwards they took him and that scared me because I thought maybe "W" was done for now. Maybe they killed him. Maybe I will not see him. It was something hard. He was my friend. And I was thinking we did nothing wrong. Why was this happening to us? Is this the reward for someone who helps and gives something to his country? Especially, I am an Iraqi. I should be treated differently. I am Iraqi and I am giving something to my country and they know perhaps and everyone there knows that I have done the right thing. I have been giving food stuff and presents to children. I used to see joy on their faces. People were happy. So why is this happening? Why is this now the result of what I had done, death. Then I started to regret that I worked in that organisation, that I have brought big problems to my family and to myself. I have wasted my future.

Did they tell you why they wanted to show you the beheading of the police officer?

Of course. They were saying look, this is the fate of everyone who has dealings with the Americans. The fate of any person who gives evidence where the mujaheedin are, and every person who cooperates with the occupiers, this is his fate and what will happen to him and this will be the way his life will end.They said that they had sent him a warning letter six months before to leave his job, but he didn't do that. So they brought him here and this is the result of his behaviour.

And they forced you to watch?

Of course, we must see this. This is why they brought us here to see this killing. They brought me and "W" together in one room and then showed us this. So that we see this and learn a lesson, that this would be the end of every person [who colaborates]

And after this what happened? You still had another four days to go in captivity, what did you feel and what were you thinking?

I was waiting and I thought that "W" had gone and that they had killed him and I thought that this was going to be my fate, the same as the police officer. I was just waiting for death. It was very very difficult to wait for the moment when they would come and take me and especially that my death would be by cutting my head off. It's a terrible thing. Maybe I had seen animals being beheaded, maybe I saw something like that and I found it very upsetting, but to see a human being who God has created in his image, being maimed like this by being beheaded this is very difficult and terrible. That image would not leave my imagination until now.

What was your wish during those 4 days then?

I was hoping I would die in a different way to the police officer. I was saying please God let me die without going through such a terrible thing. I also wished I could see "W" for the last time, to see my friend. I was missing him.

During those few days was there even a moment when you had some hope that they might release you? Or wasn't there any hope at all?

Maybe towards the last few days, I started thinking if they had wanted to kill me why didn't they kill me from the start? What's the reason for all this waiting, what do they want? Why the waiting. I then thought maybe they are busy with other stuff and other killings. That's what I felt.

When you thought you might die, did you regret anything about your life, for instance things you could've done but hadn't. Did you think of things like that?

The regret was that I hadn't thought about my future, or my parents, that I had done something wrong. I was regretting to be in that place, that my life would end like this, that I hadn't given anything to my parents, hadn't helped them, and that I hadn't worked and thought about my future. So I felt that I had made a mistake in the beginning.

What helped you endure those few days and cope with them? "W" for instance told us that he used to pray. So was there any routine you used to have which helped you to cope with those few days?

I was almost dead, only moments stood between me and death. Life like that is very difficult, waiting for death. So I used to ask God why is this happening to me? Why should my life end like this? I was constantly asking, praying to God, asking him to help me, asking him to help my parents and give them patience to cope with my certain death. It was a 100% certain that I would die. It's impossible for someone to enter a place like this and leave in one piece.

From that week you spent with that group, were you able to get an idea of who they might be?

Maybe from what I heard them say they were the Tathir Group [Purification Group], the troops of Islamic Jihad and Purification. They were probably an Islamic group, also for sure also linked to the Zarqawi organisations and also maybe Osama bin Laden. Because they are always in the country. And as I found out later from the police what they said to my parents, that they were Zarqawi's group.

So they themselves didn't tell you who they were?

No they didn't. But from the letters they read to the police officer and then the letter they read while they were filming us, from those I gleaned this thing about the Purification and the Islamist thing.

Could you give us an idea how you felt about the madness that was sweeping the country?

If even on the road no one saw us, no one stopped or searched us and no one asked about us, no one even reached us, not the American army nor the government so for sure, as you know that kind of chaos occurs when a country has collapsed because it was chaos, chaos indeed.

What happened afterwards? How they did release you, what happened exactly on that day?

They took us at dawn, before sunrise, they drove us about half an hour...

In the morning they took me and I felt that "W" might still be alive because they were talking to us in the plural, saying things like walk! Get up! So I knew there was someone else with me and perhaps it was "W". It could have been someone else, but I felt it was "W". Because I expected us to have the same fate, we were both supposed to get killed. So they drove us somewhere. It took about half an hour.

Then they dropped us from the car, and I felt that "W" was with me. They made us lie face down on the ground and told us not to speak and then they told us to leave within 72 hours. "Don't stay here! We don't ever want to see you again. If we hear of you or see you again we will kill you and your family. We will blow up your parents' houses!"

Did they leave then?

Yes they left, then "W" and I started asking one another should we lift our heads now? Should we raise our faces? Because it was difficult. We were afraid. Maybe they hadn't left, maybe they brought us here to kill us. We waited until we couldn't hear anymore sounds and then we stood up and we walked for a bit until we reached a road. Then we stopped a car who gave us a lift and we found out that we were in the Yusfiya district. This was where we were.

And then each one went to their own house?

We went. I went to my house and "W" went to his house.

How were your parents? Were they surprised?

When my family saw me it was an incredible moment. When they saw me they had not expected to ever see me again. But then at the same time they had some hope because they had tried to get a message through some contacts to the Islamists to release us.

So one minute they were relaxed and other times they were sure I was dead. So when they saw me it was something incredible for them to see me again. I looked in a terrible state. It was a terrible situation. When they touched me I didn't feel anything. I couldn't believe I was alive. It couldn't be possible.

When was the moment you became sure that "W" was alive? You told me it was the moment they left you on the ground when you spoke to one another...

We spoke to one another! Each was talking to the other. We were saying should we lift our heads? I felt and knew it was "W", because their talk earlier was directed to both of us, they told us the same thing, if you speak, if this or that we will blow up your parents. So I thought it must be "W" and I was very happy!

Especially that "W" was near me again, that I saw him again. But there was still sadness inside me. I didn't know whether to believe myself or not. Is it possible that we have been released? That they have let us go?

How do you feel now, four months on? Do you feel you have changed? And how?

Maybe I changed in terms of slowly feeling that I am really alive, that I still exist. Sometimes I have a feeling that I just can't believe that I am really alive. And with time I don't regret that I have given something to my country and I wish I could live again those lovely days when I used to see the children and the families whom I helped. I was contributing to the building of my country.

Do you think you will forget this after a while?

Little by little. Maybe sometimes and particularly at night sometimes I get up and say to myself is it really possible that I am alive, and away from those, people and that I have got out? I sometimes feel at night that I am still in that place and that I wasn't released.

And as a person you have you changed? Has your way of thinking changed? For instance do you now focus on things which you didn't before. Did that experience change you?

Something new is starting now, especially at the moment I feel like I want to start my activities as a human being, like going to the club, seeing people. I had been isolating myself from people for a while. I wanted to escape from the reality I was living.

What do you think will be the impact of such kidnapping operations of you and others, on Iraq as a country?

Of course this will effect and will have more effect on humanitarian organisations and on building and developing our country. From the news and so on we can see that we are living almost a civil war situation and there is chaos in the country. This will not allow our country to develop, in fact it might become more backwards than it was.

Have you noticed that they are focusing on kidnapping the kind of people who might be helping the country, in order to make them leave?

They're not just kidnapping people from humanitarian organisations. They kidnap any body, even a simple employee in the city council or a medical assistant. And not only kidnappings are taking place but also assassinations, even against our intelligensia. So now even more are emigrating than even before.

And mostly Christian and families. Many people have left. Even people are leaving who have qualifications, they leave and will not return. All this will not help the country but will destroy it. This will delay building our country and will not help establish stability. It's a very difficult thing and makes people think that the future will be worse than the present.

Do you think of going back any day, or never?

In these circumstances I can't go back. But in the future I would love to. My dream is to return to Iraq and continue the same activity and to give something to my country, to keep on contributing and helping my country.

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