Last Saturday, at 11am Baghdad time, the door of an underground cell was opened and “number 5 and number 6” were ordered to go the toilet – the same ritual they had been following since January 5. But only a few seconds later a guard muttered what they must have interpreted as a magic spell: “Today, Paris”. Florence Aubenas, a seasoned correspondent for the French daily Liberation, and her fixer Hussein Hanoun, a Shi’ite from the Saadi tribe and former fighter pilot in Saddam Hussein’s air force, were taken to an adjacent room. He was told to put on a white tunic, she was told to put on a black robe with a chador (veil) and was offered “two rings and a bottle of perfume”. They drank tea and ate chicken kebab. A few hours later, after 157 days of captivity, they were both free.
In a stunning press conference this Tuesday in Paris, Aubenas, with precision and occasional flashes of her trademark stainless-steel sense of humor, re-enacted her five-month hostage ordeal in a dark, 8-meter by 2-meter cell, totally silent, blindfolded, hands and feet tied, “counting the minutes, the seconds, the words. A cell, it’s 24 steps and 80 words”. It was also “two toilet trips a day, one shower a month, a boiled egg in the morning, rice at noon”, the heat progressively hitting 50 degrees, the lack of oxygen, torpor, a sense of “time that is endless”.
Aubenas and her fixer Hanoun were kidnapped at gunpoint on January 5 at the University of Baghdad while she was trying to do a story on Fallujah refugees – a taboo theme for both the occupiers and Sunni Arabs. She was branded as a spy – the standard accusation against Western journalists in dodgy situations in the Middle East and Central Asia. During the ordeal, Aubenas was only 90 centimeters away from Hanoun, locked in the same cell. She was “number 5”, he was “number 6”. But they only learned about it when they were released.
Smile, you’re on TV
Unlike the tragic Giuliana Sgrena affair – which resulted in the killing of Italian agent Nicola Calipari – the French government took unlimited precautions to extract Aubenas from Iraq. (See They shoot journalists, don’t they?, April 28.) The last instructions were personally phoned by French President Jacques Chirac. The French Embassy had even prepared a new passport so Aubenas could leave Iraq legally. Influential Muslim clerics like the Saudi sheikh Abdullah Ben Biyeha served as mediators. The strategy to dribble the American and Iraqi checkpoints was the stuff of Hollywood thrillers. Aubenas’ role changed continuously – in the end she was “the driver’s wife, if someone talks to you, you start crying”. When she was finally transferred to a car bearing French diplomatic plates, the car had to weave around 80 kilometers of hardcore streets that Baghdad police wouldn’t dream of cruising.
On Sunday morning, they still had to go to the airport, taking the most dangerous stretch of highway on the planet (not the one where Calipari was killed, which was a privileged American military road). The French ambassador had decided to do it in daytime – unlike Calipari – and provided the American Embassy with extensive details of his journey. But with a crucial omission (the Italians had done the same thing) … he didn’t tell the Americans he was carrying former hostage Aubenas. “They might get shot at,” said a French diplomat.
Amid all her startling revelations, Aubenas was careful to highlight the geopolitical role of television, and how unprecedented French public opinion and media mobilization had a powerful effect on the kidnappers: “Every time there was something they would come to the cell, very excited, saying, ‘It’s working, they talked about you on TV’. That was the ultimate criteria. It didn’t matter what was said.” Once again this proves two things: first, hostages’ spirits are always lifted when they see they are not left to rot and their plight is mobilizing a whole nation; second, their own price inevitably goes up in this post-modern form of the slave market.
Which raises the inevitable question: how much is a hostage in Iraq worth?
Who are these people?
According to French diplomats and counter-terrorism officials in Brussels, Florence and Hanoun were kidnapped most probably by a shadowy Sunni Arab guerrilla group composed of former Ba’ath officers. Hanoun – who as a member of a Shi’ite tribe that also includes Sunnis – told Le Monde’s Patrice Claude he thought the kidnappers were “Sunni and Salafi, but rather moderate”. He described them as “Islamic Iraqi patriots” fighting the occupation.
Not much is known about the group’s structure. They had no “signature” – not even a symbolic name (the Romanians, for instance, were kidnapped by the “Brigade of Muad Ibn Jabal”). No website, no production of ideological texts. Just a video on March 1, delivered to the Reuters office in Baghdad, which happens to be on the same street as the French Embassy.
Kidnapping of foreigners – wherever they come from – is a lucrative business in “liberated” Iraq. An important point is that the Aubenas affair generated very few reactions and commentaries in Islamist websites. This would imply that hardcore jihadis – who make a lot of Internet noise – were not directly involved. And since there were no political demands, what is left is just a financial operation to generate easy cash. The French government, for obvious reasons, is not giving any leads on the “follow the money” front.
The kidnapping business in Iraq even reaches surrealist heights – when one knows that Sunni Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk have been kidnapped by Kurdish police and kept in Kurdish prisons with full support of Kurdish political parties and possibly even the American military. But this does not prevent Washington from saying, with a straight face, it is “concerned” with “exacerbated tensions”.
There’s wide speculation in France about a role in the Aubenas case played by Syrian secret services. French experts sustain that the strong, former Saddam security services factor in the Sunni Arab resistance favors a close link with Syrian secret services. This would explain why the kidnappers were not in a hurry.
A series of “messages” to France is also constantly invoked – after Paris aligned itself with Washington in forcing Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon. Former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated, was a close personal friend of Jacques Chirac. Lebanese journalist Samir el-Qassir, killed on June 2 by a car bomb, was close to France and carried a French passport. And Syria was involved – however laterally – in the spectacular affair of the three Romanian TV hostages kidnapped on March 28 and liberated on May 22. According to Romanian President Traian Basecu, the brains behind the operation was a Syrian-Romanian businessman, Omar Haysam, now in jail in Bucharest.
Aubenas is now free, 12 kilograms slimmer, still in love with Iraq, even though she knows – as any other independent-minded journalist – it’s now absolutely impossible to work like one has to, not embedded but “going to talk to people in the streets”. And just like the Italians in the Sgrena case, just like the Romanians with their three TV reporters, the French government in the Aubenas case is bent on respecting an implacable law of silence. For the George W Bush administration, any hostage is a dead hostage. As far as Europe is concerned, one may never know how much is a hostage worth.