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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 June, 2005, 21:09 GMT 22:09 UK
Noriaki Imai interview
The following is an edited transcript of Panorama's interview with former hostage Noriaki Imai.

Perhaps I could start by asking you, before you went to Iraq, what did you think about the war in Iraq? What was your opinion of this war against Iraq and the invasion of Iraq by America, Britain and other troops, and indeed by the Japanese, who were involved there?

I would like to say what I have to say, without bringing into question the rights or wrongs of the war in

Iraq. In any case, my initial reason [for going to Iraq] was in order to find out about the depleted uranium there.

My initial reason [for going to Iraq] was to find out why it [uranium] was being used there and also about the fact that the people there were slowly being killed off.

I guess that there are many both good and bad aspects to war, but in the aftermath of war, people suffer, so first of all┐Weapons which should not have been used were being used and I felt disgusted by this. These were the kinds of things that I had in mind [when I went to Iraq], putting aside the rights or wrongs of the war there.

So you were interested in the depleted uranium. So is that what made you decide to go to Iraq? Why did you go to involve yourself in this issue, I mean, how did you make that decision? How did your trip go and how did you then start to go with other people to Iraq?

I had three reasons [for deciding to go there]. First of all, I wanted to see what things were like in Iraq with my own eyes, and also I thought that it was important for me to go there - given that I was a member of an NGO - so that I could check up on things and inform people about the depleted uranium situation there. And my third reason [for deciding to go there] was that because I am 18 years old, I don't want to sound pretentious, but in Japan my generation is not very interested in social issues and politics. I thought that if I went there, they [my generation in Japan] might begin to show some interest in these matters, and so I then decided to go to Iraq.

Were you aware how dangerous it was in Iraq, particularly near Fallujah? And did you know that your government had advised Japanese citizens not to go to Iraq?

Yes, of course I was aware of this, but the government officials had taken the same route that we were taking. Even during the period when I was being held captive, a journalist I know came back, yes, I think I can say that I knew [about the dangers of the area].

Can you describe your journey, how you entered Iraq, and what happened to you, all the details.

On the 7th of April, on the evening of the 6th of April actually, after leaving the Farah Hotel in Amman, we got into a taxi. Then we crossed the border. I think that we left Iraq at about 3am on the 7th of April. We stopped near the border.

We slept for about 3 hours and then we got back on the road again at dawn. From there we drove on to a highway. On the highway, we saw some US troops and we spoke with some Iraqi police and we encountered no problems at all as far as that was concerned. As we approached Fallujah, we could see a lot of American soldiers from our car, I don't remember [exactly how many of them there were], but there were probably between about 100 and 200 of them.

So we decided to get off the highway. Later on, we arrived at a petrol station. There were a lot of cars there, so we had to wait in the queue. When it was our turn to get petrol, a couple of insurgents stood in our way, one of them was holding an RPG and the other one had a Kalashnikov. That was when it all began.

So taking it from this point, what happened with these insurgents? And try to, if you can, give me all the details of what they looked like, what they said, explain everything that happened then.

After that, first of all they said, "Move, move!", in Arabic I think it probably was, because they weren't speaking in English of course. So we moved to the side of the road next to the petrol station. Then a crowd of between 40 and 50 people surrounded us. I think that about 10 to 20 of them were insurgents.

They naturally carried out a thorough check of our passports, luggage and camera bags. One of the people who checked me out was a boy soldier. During that time, there was nothing I could do, all I could do was stand there. Then someone in the crowd, who wasn't a soldier, shouted out something in Arabic.

I remember it clearly. "Kill the Japanese!", he shouted, making a gesture like this. Then after that, we were pushed into a car, a hand grenade was pressed in my face, [we were pushed] into the back of a car. Then they began driving.

I was with Nahoko. At the time I thought that it would end with a suicide bombing, which would be how we died. It was horrible. Then later on, we were joined by Soichiro Koriyama, I couldn't see anything because we were blindfolded and our faces were pushed towards the ground in this sort of position, and then the car drove on and took us home.

You say it's terrifying, I can't imagine it, I mean, what went through your mind, your fear, how did you feel at that moment?

Well, at that moment. To begin with, for example, while we were still in the car, before we were blindfolded, I saw an insurgent who was wearing a balaclava and who had hand grenades round his waist. I was terrified because I thought he was a suicide bomber.

And I very clearly remember thinking to myself, 'I am going to die now'. I remember it very clearly. I am slowly beginning to remember more things now. The faces of my family flashed in front of me one by one. But after that, I wasn't sure [what was going on] because I was blindfolded. We were brought home, and then the interrogation began. With a Koran, yeah, he [the insurgent] had a Koran [attached to his waist along with the hand grenades].

Where did they take you and what did they say? Describe what happened next, on the journey.

I think that it was near Fallujah, but I am not really sure exactly where it was. I really don't know where we were for the next seven days. All I know is that it was probably near Fallujah. The first place we were taken to, I really don't know where it was.

But it was a small room, a tiny room, there must have been about 5 to 6 insurgents there and they made us sit down. The place looked like a storeroom. Yes, there were 5 to 6 insurgents there and then later on, an Arabic interpreter came in. He spoke English and he began the interrogation.

He asked us questions like, "Are you spies?" It is possible that from their point of view, the fact that the Japanese SDF troops had been sent to Iraq in December 2003 had aroused their suspicion, I think. Because of that, I think that they may have suspected us of being spies working for the US.

During the first two days, they kept asking us if we were spies. During the 9 days [that we were kept hostage], I remember eight or nine occasions, yes, I remember them asking us this eight or nine times. Nine days, yeah.

Did they talk about themselves? Did you notice they were very Islamic, for example? Did they speak about God, Allah? Did they speak about their insurgency? What did you understand about their reasons and who they were and why they were doing this?

On the first day, when the interrogation first began, when we were being videotaped in that room, I remember them repeating "Allah" a great deal. After they videotaped us, they moved us to another room from where we could hear the deafening sounds of bombardment, trench mortars, land mines etc. In that room, Nahoko began arguing with the interpreter.

I think that they began asking us, "What sort of religion do Japanese people believe in?" We could see how greatly they revered Allah. I remember very clearly how much they revered their own god, I clearly remember us having such a discussion with them.

So I'd like to ask you about the video now, Tell me about the video. Did they make it very soon, was it one of the first things that happened to you? Please describe everything that they said to you about the video beforehand and what they did.

With regard to the video, in Japan there was a popular belief that the video was a fake, which is completely untrue. When we were there, immediately after the interrogation, they brought us lunch, and then I think that Nahoko suddenly... When we had finished eating lunch, after our plates had been cleared away, someone brought in a video camera and I wondered what was going on. They were speaking in Arabic and Nohoko seemed to understand a little of it.

Immediately after that, how can I describe it? They started running the video camera, and at that moment, at the first take, an insurgent placed a knife on my neck. Then they stopped for a moment. Then three or four insurgents came towards me from in front of me and behind me, they pointed a knife at me again, but in a very violent manner this time.

At that point I was really terrified. Really, my, the knife was right here and it was really horrible when that was happening. It still horrifies me to think about it even now. I remember one thing. During that moment, there was just one thing which did reassure us a bit.

Although I hadn't noticed it myself, Soichiro whom I used to call "So-Ni" said to me, "Nori, the blade is facing outwards". He said that the blade of the knife was facing outwards. I thought this a little strange and then I slowly realised that I might survive.

Although I was still pretty terrified and although during those first two days I still felt tremendous fear, I clearly remember thinking to myself at that point that I might survive.

Before they came with a video camera, did they say anything to you?

[Noriaki Imai shakes his head] Hmmm.

For example, we heard that they said, "Don't be frightened, we are going to make a video, don't be frightened". Did they say anything to you?

I don't think that they said anything at that point. They were speaking in Arabic. Nahoko must have understood some of it I think, but I didn't understand what they were saying. After they brought in the video camera, because it happened all of a sudden, I didn't know what was going on at the time.

So did they ever say to you, before the video, "You're safe, we won't kill you", did they give you some reassurances ever?

Hmmm.That we would survive, that our lives weren't at risk, right? To be honest with you, to begin with we weren't sure that we would survive. When did we realise that we were going to be all right? I think that it was from the third day onwards that we realised that we were going to be all right.

The reason for this was that on the third day┐, well, during the first two days, they moved us to 4 or 5 different locations. They repeated the interrogations, they drove us to different locations, they repeatedly blindfolded us and they made us stay in this sort of position, frankly I didn't feel alive.

Especially at the place where we spent the second night, which was very dark and musty, it was a very small room. I believed that at the time. On my way to the lavatory during the night - maybe, definitely, I think that it was near Fallujah - I saw lights near the bullets that were being fired from the direction of the town. I think that they were the town lights.

I could see lights coming from the bullets [being fired] from the area where I could see the town lights and I heard several times the sound of aerial bombing or some bombs or explosions, it felt like hell. But from the third day onwards, they kept us in the same place. We stayed there for 5 days.There was nothing else there.

When I went to the lavatory, I realised that it was in the middle of nowhere. Our room was by itself in the middle of a desert. From then onwards, I began to feel safer.

When they were taking the video, did you understand why they were doing it, how they would use it, did you understand what would happen to that video?

At that point, quite frankly I had no idea why they were videotaping us. But at the place where we were kept from the third day onwards, we used to joke about how crazy it would be if they broadcast that video. [We spoke about this] Jokingly, or rather we often used to wonder what would happen if the video was broadcast.

Did you ever see television while you were in captivity, did you ever see yourself on this video?

We didn't see it at all. But on the 8th day, on the 8th day [He trails off]... After we were moved from the place where we had stayed for 5 days, they shut us up in a very small room.

They brought a television there and we were able to watch it. It was a huge television too, surprisingly [large], and we were able to watch Al-Jazeera, for example. Of course I didn't understand it, because it was in Arabic. But then, I remember it clearly, I think that it was at about 2 or 3pm. I think that it was in the afternoon, we were watching Al-Jazeera and we saw my mother, our families, well, Nahoko's brother and my brother were on television.

We couldn't tell where they were. But I saw my mother and father speaking. And we realised that the whole thing had turned into a most uncomfortable and strange situation. And in addition to this, one of the armed insurgents told us... later on, on the 8th day, there was an interpreter with us and he told us that we were famous.

How did you feel when you saw your parents when you were still being held captive, when you saw your mother?

At that time, it definitely came as a shock to me. On the eighth day, I really didn't know what was going on to begin with. When I watched television, I couldn't understand why my parents were on it. And [I] especially [could not understand] why they were on Al-Jazeera, of all the networks, I really didn't know [what was going on] to begin with. But I did understand that something important was going on.

If they [my parents] were on Al-Jazeera, I figured that they must also have been on the BBC, CNN and other networks. So I remember very clearly that at that particular point I felt in a state of shock.

And how did you feel seeing your mother, emotionally, you yourself, personally?

At the time, I really didn't know what was going on, so I don't really remember now. I guess that I wasn't really in shock. The question that came into my mind was what was going to happen now? Not so much about what my parents were thinking, that wasn't such a big deal.

I think now that this was rather strange, but it was not a big deal, but [the question of] what was going to happen now was rather Well, yes, of course it came as a shock, it came as a shock to find out that I had caused my parents so much anxiety. It was rather, wondering what was going to happen now made me feel - how can I put it? - frustrated, not really frustrated. Annoyed.

What was it like being one of the three hostages? You were there with two other people, two other Japanese. Did you talk together, did you discuss your fear of death even? What happened between the three of you in those days?

From the third day onwards, we were able to talk with each other a great deal because we were by ourselves. We were not able to talk with each other at all during the first two days or on the 8th and 9th days, because there was always an insurgent or an interpreter in the room with us.

But from the third day onwards, for those 5 days [the 3rd to the 7th day inclusive], we were by ourselves, so I remember those days [literally: "that time"] really clearly. We talked about a lot of things during those 3 days, 9 days Anyway, well, our time, since we had received no indication whatsoever about when we could return home, since we had no idea when we would be able to return home, we talked about the past, about girlfriends, about music..., we sang too. What else? Well, a great deal happened during those 9 days, at times I got very depressed, upset, felt sick and wanted to go home, often I simply couldn't stand it. Anyway, we talked a great deal then. One thing kept me going [literally: "reassured me"]. During the first few days, I often thought that I would end up dying there. But from the third day onwards, even though I didn't know when I would be able to go home, there was one thing that kept me going [literally: "reassured me"]. . It was something that Soichiro Koriyama said to me. He told me that I must make the best of it [literally: "enjoy the time"] however terrible the situation was, that I had to make the best of the situation [literally: "enjoy the time"]. He said, "You must make the best of it [literally: "enjoy the time"] as best you can, however terrible the situation is". Maybe not actually "enjoy" it, that would have been a bit difficult to do [in the circumstances], but I clearly remember him telling me that even when one is in such a terrible situation, one must not forget that there is always hope.

Did you talk to the kidnappers? Did you eat meals with them? What kind of meals did you eat? Did you have discussions with them about their strategy, their ideas, their reasons [for kidnapping you]?

Of course, we spoke [with them]. Well, let me see... When we spoke with them on the second day... Ah,the insurgent who took care of us from the first day, he spoke a lot. [He talked] about an American plane dropping a bomb. Because he spoke in Arabic, I didn't really understand what he was saying, but he gesticulated a lot when he spoke, so I got a rough idea [of the gist of it]. But there weren't really any discussions with them, well, Nahoko had some discussions [with them] on the 9th day. There were no discussions [with them] on the second day. The insurgents often gesticulated when they spoke to us, for example... When I told them that my name was Nori, they told me that Nori was also an Arabic name, I remember that very clearly, and I still use Nori as my English name, yes. On the 9th day, Nahoko and the interpreter kept having fierce discussions, which were quite something. Nahoko kept crying and repeatedly asking him, "Without weapons?", well.. "Without weapons, without killing people?", well, if there was another way, if there was another way of fighting, without weapons┐, the nuance in Japanese might be a bit different here, she was saying things like that, I remember that the interpreter ended up finding himself lost for words and that he said that he would like to try to seek another way [of fighting without weapons, without killing people].

And did they say anything back, what was their argument, what were they saying to her? Did they? What? I'm interested in what they were saying to you or to Nahoko about their philosophy, their ideas.

I don't remember too clearly. But I do remember them stressing that there was no other way [of fighting] other than being armed. I don't remember much about that.

:OK, so what happened then? You talked about the 9th day, that things were changing, things felt better. Describe what happened, how you sensed that things were changing and that things were getting better for you as time went on.

To be honest, although from the third day onwards I slowly but surely began to realise that I would survive [literally: "that my life was assured"], I still had no idea when we would be able to go home. To be honest, I wasn't sure when we would be able to go home, and Am I answering [the questions] properly? Because I still had no idea when we would be able to go home, we really didn't think or feel anything more about it

So what happened at the end? Did somebody come to you and say, "You can go"? Describe to me the end of your experience, and exactly who said what to you, and what you understood to be happening, and what your physical movements were.

On the 8th day, an interpreter told us that we could go home. Although we were told this on the 8th day, we then realised that we had to stay there for another day. On the 9th day, they brought the car to us. They brought the car to us. Then we were blindfolded in the usual way and we couldn't see anything. But when we got into the car, we knew that it was an ambulance. We - Nahoko, So-Ni and I - all knew this [that it was an ambulance] because the blindfold was very thin so we could see [through it]. What would you call it? [We could see] An operating table, something like that, and some intravenous equipment or something, so we knew [that it was an ambulance], also it was a large vehicle, so we knew for sure that it was an ambulance. At that point, we didn't know where we were going, but we were released in Baghdad, at a mosque in Baghdad. ...

Did you say anything to your kidnappers? "Goodbye" [for example]? Did you have any discussions [with them]? What was the last thing you remember?

Mmm, at the end they were saying that they would like to seek another way [of fighting], they said this before we parted, that's all I can remember.

I also understand that you had this exchange of business cards. Can you tell me about this as well.

Ah, at the end, they were saying that they would like to seek another way [of fighting] and I gave them my business card and that was it. They didn't email me or anything afterwards, but yes, we did have such an exchange [of business cards]. No, not an exchange, I only gave mine to them.

And did they apologise, did they say "Sorry", did they express any regret about what they'd done to you, particularly the threatening with the knives?

I think they apologised. Also I definitely think that they regretted it, because Although they thought that we were spies when they first kidnapped us, they then discovered that Nahoko was an aid worker, I'm sure that as they spoke with us they realised that she looked after Iraqi people, and the other two of us turned out to be a couple of journalists, well, sort of. For those 9 days I'm not completely certain, but I think that they regretted it.

So you were released at the mosque, you are back in Baghdad. Then what happened? I understand that you saw yourselves on television and you understood then what was happening. Tell me what happened from the moment you were released at the mosque.

At that point, well, at the mosque I didn't understand what was going on to begin with. I didn't know that it was a mosque at first. The room was very cool, it was air-conditioned, I think. They removed our blindfolds, but I really didn't know what was going on to be honest, at first┐[HE TRAILS OFF]... Oh, wait, I remember now, there was this Arab person called "Key-dai-lu de-ah" who spoke Japanese. I didn't know why, but suddenly, well, as soon as we were let out of the vehicle, I heard some Japanese coming out of nowhere, it was Japanese [being spoken] with a foreign accent, and I wondered to myself what on earth was going on. Then we were taken to a room, a cool air-conditioned room and they removed our blindfolds, and at that point I heard "You're OK now" said in Japanese with a thick foreign accent, and it was rather strange. At that point I had no idea what was going on and I couldn't believe that I had been released. After that, Kubaissi, who subsequently appeared on television, showed up, and "Key-dai-lu de-ah" who spoke Arabic, I mean Japanese, told us that it was he [Kubaissi] who had brought about our release. We still couldn't believe it. But then some reporters from Al-Jazeera and so on came into the room, and then we realised [that we had been released]. People from the Japanese Embassy also came and then we knew that we were OK.

And then what happened, did you see anything on television? Because obviously things were happening back home that you weren't aware of. When did you become aware of what was happening in Japan? When we went to the embassy, we gave a toast and we saw ourselves doing this [giving a toast] on NHK, although the three of us had not planned to give a toast. We had no idea what was going on in Japan while we were in Iraq. Er, when we got to Dubai, my brother and some other people met us there and they told us what a big deal this whole thing [us having been taken hostage] had been in Japan. I gradually began to have this feeling of dread while I was still in that rather confused state. Then when we arrived back in Japan, we were surrounded by hordes of media. And we became aware of the vast amount of criticism [that there was about what had happened]. I felt completely lost.

Do you remember arriving at the airport in Japan? What happened and how did you understand the way you were being spoken about? Describe it to me.

To be honest, we couldn't understand it at all, because, to begin with, after we were released, we were surrounded by 300 to 400 reporters and you can probably imagine how confusing this was for us. We couldn't understand what was going on at all. We were surrounded by all these people, lots of flashlights and people looking [literally: "people's eyes"]. For example, all the passengers looking at me [literally: "the eyes of all the passengers"] when I boarded the plane made me feel terribly pressurised. And that was very painful. Also, later on, we were confined to a hotel room and had no freedom. Well, honestly, red spots began appearing on my face, most of them have gone now, there are just a few still left on my foot. I think that this [the spots] happened after I returned to Japan. The spots were caused from the stress I was under and they lasted [literally: "didn't go away"] for at least 4 months.

Do you think that you were irresponsible going to Iraq when it was dangerous and that this was why you were taken hostage? When you look back on it now, how do you feel about your actions?

That is a very difficult question. I don't regret it and I don't regret it and of course I think that it was my responsibility to... but by "responsibility", I mean, for example, [that it was my responsibility] to protect myself [when I was] on my own [It is] Your own responsibility [to protect yourself] when you go somewhere where there is a war, for example, if you can... your own death.. And I believe that I did do that. I too... the utmost... I discussed it with Nahoko at the beginning, I thought about the best way to remain safe, but things like that can happen somewhere like that where there is a war going on. With regard to that┐, well, even though I know that I was helped and saved by the [Japanese] government and by other people┐, how can I explain it? I can't really explain it and I think that it would take too long, well, we were subjected to a lot of criticism in Japan because the [Japanese] government had helped us and had spent tax payers' money [in order to do so].

Um, looking back on it now, on your experience, what was the worst moment for you?

After I returned to Japan. After I returned to Japan, that was the worst part. We had no freedom at all until the press conference on July 30th. It was awful. We were only allowed to go out 4 times. When I returned to Sapporo on April 21st, I genuinely wanted to commit suicide. When I think back on it now, it seems rather strange, but When I think back on it now, it seems strange really, what made me feel like that, it's really strange, but I really do think that I wanted to die then. After April 30th, I don't think that I really understood the reality of it then, well, it actually went on for a bit longer 53 When I went into the town of Sapporo on May 3rd, I became very aware that I had become famous. Up until then, I hadn't realised how famous I was. Everyone there knew my face.

What do you think about the war now?

I don't want to think about that now, I used to think about it until last October. My experience, what I have done so far, what I have been thinking about, I don't understand it myself, I can't say much now. It's because of what happened to Mr Koda. Ever since Mr Koda's death in Iraq at the end of October, I have felt as if I have lost something, although I don't really understand this myself. To be honest, I am not sure what I should think about it and what opinions I should express, a little, not a little, but very much so, I thought differently until the incident with Mr Koda.

Are you able to look at the video now? Have you seen the video of yourself, are you able to look at it, what do you think?

Well, in April and while I was in Japan, I watched it many times, so I don't really want to see it now, but I can [am strong enough to] watch it [if I have to].

And your parents of course saw this video. Of course my family don't like seeing it.

Do you think you'll recover fully from your experience as a hostage?

Mmm, To be honest, I haven't recovered yet, although I may have recovered physically, my emotions haven't caught up with my body yet, how can I explain it? I became so famous all of a sudden. Everybody knows me, even in Cambridge, all the Japanese people know about me and know my face, Leaving aside whether that is a good or a bad thing, sometimes. Some Japanese people, even in the street, they complain to me. And others talk behind my back. I honestly don't know what I'm supposed to do now, that is what I honestly feel.

How do you think you'll build your life again? What are the hardest things to learn to do, the most difficult things to cope with now in your life?

There are many things that I want to do now, but I just don't seem to be able to go forward, I'm not sure... I guess I'll find out when I return to Japan. For now though, I would like to be a journalist, I would like to earn some money and I want to go to university. What else? I have many concerns, I have lots of interests, I would like to take them up and produce something. I haven't been able to assimilate this whole experience yet, I haven't managed to become completely myself again yet. I am still very confused. I really have no idea how I'm going to be able to recover. It will probably happen gradually.

OK, thank you, Nori.

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