British Journalist Recounts Rescue in Iraq
LYNN NEARY, host:
The hostage that no one knew was missing. That's the headline the Times of London used in January to describe the strange and harrowing story of Phil Sands, a British journalist in Iraq off and on since 2003. On the day after Christmas, Sunni insurgents captured Sands and two Iraqis after the trio had mistakenly made a wrong turn on the streets of Baghdad.
Sands spent six days with his captors who threatened to behead him before American soldiers raided the insurgent's compound on New Year's Eve. Neither the soldiers nor anyone else in the world knew Sands was missing. Phil Sands recounted his story in this month's British edition of GQ Magazine. He joins us now from a studio at the BBC in London.
Thanks so much for being with us today.
Mr. PHIL SANDS (British Journalist): My pleasure.
NEARY: Phil, just tell us how this began? You took a wrong turn. How did it start?
Mr. SANDS: Yes. We were on the way to do a story about academics being killed by religious extremists. And on the way, in the car, basically, we got lost and found the street was blocked off and some, by two cars full of armed men probably about 10 guys in balaclavas(ph) with AK-47 rifles and they blocked off the road and forced us to the ground and tied me up and put me in a boot of one of the cars and drove me off to a safe house.
NEARY: Wow. And you wrote that even before that moment where they appeared, you knew as soon as you were lost that you were in trouble, that you can't get lost in Iraq.
SANDS: No, absolutely. It was a disaster. And one thing, you've got to make sure that you know where you're going and that everything is going right. It happened, it shouldn't have happened, and as soon as I spoke to my translator and asked him if he knew where we were, because I was disorientated, and he said no. My heart just sank. You know, it's a disaster. It's the one thing you don't want to happen, and from there obviously, it just got worse.
NEARY: So you're in the trunk of a car, you're speeding away, you don't know where you're going, what are you thinking? What's happening?
Mr. SANDS: The moment the boot closed, the trunk lid closed, I just wanted to panic. And I suppose I realized fairly quickly that I was dead and that actually is what struck me: that I was a dead man and from now on anything that happened, you know, was happening to a dead man. But I suppose fairly quickly you get over the panic because it just seems very unhelpful. So you try and calm yourself and from that moment on I was, I felt fairly calm. Again, you've got nothing to lose when you're in that kind of situation, you've lost it all already.
NEARY: Where did they bring you? Did you know where you were?
Mr. SANDS: No. I don't know exactly where I was. I mean I was taken to a farmhouse. I believe it was somewhere sort of Northeast of Baghdad, probably between Baghdad and Bakuba. But, to this day, I don't know exactly. The American authorities still haven't told me where I was being held, where they found me.
NEARY: Yes. Now, of course, by this time in Iraq, there had been a number of kidnappings, a number of people killed, beheaded, at times publicly, all of that you're aware of while this is going on.
Mr. SANDS: Yes, of course. I mean, as a journalist and as a journalist who has been working Iraq for, as you said, probably 12 months out of the last 3 years, you know this stuff is a possibility; and on previous occasions, I had not gone in because I had spoken to my translator and he'd said now isn't the time. And we kind of decided that probably it was manageable, that there was a lull in the danger level, which, of course, hindsight shows probably wasn't the case.
But yet, you know what happens. As a British journalist working in Baghdad you know what happens if you get kidnapped, and if you get kidnapped by, the general rule of thumb seems to be, if you get kidnapped by Shiites, you have a fairly decent chance of being freed, if you get kidnapped by Sunni insurgents your chances are much bleaker.
NEARY: And you were separated from your companions?
Mr. SANDS: Yes, on the first day, I was, when we were held captive, I was questioned. My translator was roughed up a little bit, not very badly, but I think he slapped around a little bit, and that was it. From that moment on, he was separated from me and I just spent the rest of the time isolated, but of course, with my captors.
NEARY: Very interesting the way you describe your relationship with your captors. At times you almost seem to become friendly with them, but then at times, you would not be sure what you're status was with them. Maybe you can, maybe you can talk a little bit about what happens in that situation with people who are holding you.
Mr. SANDS: Yes. It's very difficult. Fairly quickly your world shrinks to the room you're being held in and to the people who you're dealing with. And I think, on that basis, you can lose you're bearings fairly quickly as well. So although, you know, if you look at it in the cold, hard, light of day, you're saying well, these people are holding you against your will, they've threatened you with death and they're holding rifles or pistols and you have no freedom.
And on the flip side of it, you're sitting there thinking, well, they haven't beaten me up, and they're treating me with respect, and they're treating me well. They're not, you know, they apologize when they tie you up and they are very apologetic if there's any marks on you. They, you know, appear to show genuine concern about your welfare. They would ask-they seemed to be upset when I was sad, and they would ask me, why are you so sad? And I'd say, well, you know, you're holding me against my will. And they'd say, it's okay, it will be over soon.
And so you kind of fluctuate. Sometimes, you think it's okay, I'm in trouble, but I'll get out of it. I've managed to talk to these people and show them that I'm not involved in this military, I'm not involved in the war in Iraq, I'm just a reporter and they're going to let me go. And then other occasions, probably maybe a little bit more accurately, you sit there and feel pretty bleak about it and say, well hold on, if they wanted to let me go, they could do that now. And I'm not going to be a free man and they're not going to let me go.
NEARY: We are talking with journalist Phil Sands about his experience being kidnapped in Iraq. If you'd like to, if you have any question for him, the number is 800-989-8255, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
There was one person who you describe who came in and was, it sounds like he was almost very charming with you, actually.
Mr. SANDS: Yes, absolutely. There were probably five or six different kidnappers that I got to know by their voices and by the things they would say, and obviously, when at times I could see them, although they were generally had their faces covered with shemaghs, Arab scarves. But some of them, you know, you get to know different personalities and some of them seemed sort of like foot soldiers and fairly simple people and would say things like, you know, they wanted to kill Shiites and Americans and British soldiers deserved to be chopped into little pieces and that kind of thing.
And others would, were different. You sort of saw the human side of it, the ambiguity of it. One of them, I think the guy you are referring to is Alowi(ph) and he seemed, he struck me as being genuinely a nice guy. I mean, I think he was one of the leaders. And I think, again, he was probably involved in trying to kill American soldiers and he might even successfully done that.
But he said, you know, to me one night, I don't think all American soldiers nor British soldiers are bad. I know that they're doing their job and their like you and me. But again, his bottom line was that they should not be in the country, very much that the feeling among the mujahideen was that they were fighting as a consequence of American and British forces being in Iraq. They had no quarrel with America or Britain in terms of, you know, attacking us in our own countries, but they just felt it was completely wrong for foreign soldiers to be on their soil.
NEARY: And tell us about how you were finally freed from this situation.
SANDS: Yes. It was late at night on, it had just gone into New Year's Eve, and I'd been unable to sleep. I could hear the dogs barking outside and I could hear helicopters and I'd heard these on previous occasions, but they'd always flown over me and just passed on. And I assumed that happened this night because the sound faded. But the atmosphere did feel a bit different and I heard some sort of fuss outside, which I assumed was the mujahideen waking up and kind of going about their business, perhaps on the basis that the Americans were coming and that they were going to move us or be prepared to fight, or whatever it should prove to be.
Then there was a loud bang on the door and my guard, who was in the room with me, was asleep and I could hear him snoring, and he suddenly work up and said who's there in Arabic and sounded terrified. And obviously then it began to dawn on me that this was different.
And another bang on the door, and then another one, and then two American soldiers were in the room with their rifles and their flashlights and they seemed to be a surprised as I was to see them as they would see me, basically. They, one of the soldiers shined his flashlight in my face and said, what the hell is this? And I obviously told him I'm a British journalist and I was kidnapped.
NEARY: You almost seemed ambivalent in the way you wrote about it in the article that you had a certain ambivalence towards the American soldiers who were coming in at that point.
SANDS: Yes. It was, again, it was strange because, of course, I was extremely disorientated and I'd been worried all along that the Americans were going to come and I was going to get caught up in some kind of firefight. And, of course, I'm handcuffed and essentially, completely powerless and I was very worried about that. But, yes, you do, you spend the time with these people and it's, as I say, you're world shrinks to that.
And all of a sudden with those soldiers coming through the door, the world opened up again and you're suddenly exposed to it and it's just a bit, it's just disorientating. I mean, there was no ambivalence in terms of, you know, they saved my life. I think that's 99 percent certain, especially according to some British anti-terrorism police that I've been dealing with.
They found an orange jumpsuit and a sword, or a saw, in the building with me and it looked as though my circumstance was about to take a turn for the worse. But yeah, you know, when you spend, I suppose, six days with people and you've started to see some human side to something that we're told everyday in the press does not have a human side, it's just the enemy, it's terrorism, it's all those things. It's confusing.
NEARY: Would you go back to Iraq now?
SANDS: Now? No. If you asked me to go on a flight tomorrow I wouldn't want to do that and I hope to go back and I hope to go back before the end of the year. It depends very much on specific circumstances. I'm very fond of Iraq and, as I said, I've spent probably 12 months there in the last three years and as you see the story unraveling and all these tragedies taking place, it becomes extremely difficult to just say, okay, well I'm going to turn away and walk away from that. It becomes part of you and you feel and obligation to try and explain what's going on and for good or ill.
NEARY: All right. Well thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Phil.
Mr. SANDS: Thanks for having me.
NEARY: Phil Sands is a freelance journalist who was held hostage in Iraq for six days by insurgents. He wrote an article about his experience for the British edition of GQ. Mr. Sands joined us from a studio at BBC in London. This is TALK OF THE NATION. From NPR News, I'm Lynn Neary.
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