Iraqi Kidnapping Hits Home at NPR

Abdulla Mizead, an NPR reporter in Baghdad, is still waiting for news of his kidnapped father after negotiating for his release and paying a ransom. Stories of abduction are common in the chaotic Iraqi capital.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Scores of people were killed today in Baghdad after two nearly simultaneous bombs hit a predominantly Shiite commercial district. We tell you stories like that almost everyday and the victims of that daily violence, the civilians, are usually anonymous to us. But in this case, if you're a regular listener to this program, it's not true.

Abdullah Mizead, a reporter at NPR's Baghdad bureau, is a familiar voice to our listeners. He's read many reports and commentaries on life in Iraq and he's contributed to many more. And now, he's experienced the tragedy of Iraq first hand, with the kidnapping of his father.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports.

JAMIE TARABAY: Abdullah's father, Arez(ph), was driving his brother to work in Baghdad several weeks ago, as he did every morning. They had barely left their neighborhood when Abdullah says a car with four men drove into their path, forcing Arez to screech to a halt.

ABDULLAH MIZEAD: All the four came out. They put their pistols on my father's head and my brother's head and asked them to leave the car. They took my father and then they put him in the other car.

TARABAY: They left Abdullah's brother in the street. Don't turn around, they told him until the road was clear. When they had sped off, his brother called Abdullah who told him to go back home and meet him there.

MIZEAD: I didn't know what to do. I just - I came here and I sat. And you know, this is what you hear on the news everyday, but only this time, it happened to me. I sat and, you know, started crying and didn't know what to do.

TARABAY: Abdullah's father, Arez Mizead, retired in 1994. He'd worked for the Iraqi government in Europe, Africa and the U.S. He spent his later years taking care of his family - he'd run errands for his children, fix their cars, buy last-minute groceries. He wasn't particularly religious and wasn't politically active. Upon reaching his parents' house, Abdullah found his mother on the bedroom floor, crying. All the family's relatives telephoned after hearing word of the kidnapping.

Abdullah told them to stop calling until they had more information. Then his mobile phone rang. The caller id said it was his father. Abdullah recorded the call.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

MIZEAD: I picked up the phone and there was a man talking. And, you know, out of shock I thought it was my father. And I was calling him, you know, father, is that you? It turned out to be the guy who's negotiating from the kidnappers' side. And it was a kind of strong voice. He talks slowly, but he feels he's very, you know, he's controlling the whole situation.

TARABAY: The caller asked Abdullah if he was related to the man they were holding. Abdullah said that it was his father, that he was sick, a diabetic, and old.

MIZEAD: And I start begging them almost in tears, you know, please don't hurt him, he's my father, he's an old man. He hasn't done anything.

TARABAY: The kidnapper responded: we know. Then he asked Abdullah if his father was precious to him. Abdullah said yes. The kidnapper said: I want money. He asked for 10 notebooks. A notebook, as it's called on the street, is 10,000 American dollars. In other words, a $100,000 for Abdullah's father. The United Nations says kidnappings have become a way for armed groups in Iraq to finance their activities. Abdullah told the man on the phone he didn't have that kind of money.

MIZEAD: They said: well, you know, you need to decide, it's your father, and your father told us that my boys love me, and they will do anything.

TARABAY: The kidnapper said he would call again later that day, and hanged up. Abdullah telephoned his family, relatives, and tribe for help raising the money.

MIZEAD: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man: Hi, Abdullah.

TARABAY: The kidnapper called back at 3:00 in the afternoon. He said he wanted the money that same day. Abdullah told him that was impossible.

MIZEAD: And he starts threatening me that, you know, if you don't cooperate with us and do as we told you, you know what would happen to your father. We will torture him, said I'll crush his head and I'll send it to you as a gift.

TARABAY: Abdullah pleaded with the kidnapper until that let him speak with his father. After more threats, there was silence, and then Arez' voice came over the line.

Mr. AREZ MIZEAD (Father of Abdullah Mizead): (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: Arez told Abdullah he was being treated well, but he sounded weak. Then his kidnappers were back on the line demanding money. They negotiated and the ransom came down a bit. Abdullah felt he needed to be strong. His whole family was depending on him.

MIZEAD: I had to do it because nobody wanted to do it. My uncle said, after he heard the conversations, you know, it's my brother, but I would have broken down. I couldn't deal with these people.

TARABAY: Abdullah managed through his family and loans to raise enough money to satisfy the kidnappers. The man called the next day, told Abdullah to wear a long Arab tunic, wrap a kafir(ph) around his head, and bring the money to a drop-off point. Against the objections of his family, Abdullah agreed. He forbade anyone to follow him.

It was raining when the man called Abdullah again and gave him directions. Abdullah followed his instructions to a large traffic circle.

MIZEAD: And then I waited there and he's told me to cross the street on the other side, and to put the money between some blocks that set up there. There's a space for two, three inches where you just drop it. And I asked when is it now, drop it and then go home. And then what - while I was talking to him that, phone just died.

TARABAY: In all the panic and worry, Abdullah had forgotten to do a simple thing, recharge his mobile phone. It was the last time Abdullah would hear from the kidnapper and he's heard nothing from his father. Abdullah dials his father's cell everyday, and every time he gets the same message - the cell phone is switched off. Everyday people go missing in Baghdad, and everyday their relatives are forced to accept the possibility those missing are lost forever.

Some people now tattoo telephone numbers on their arms, so if they are killed their families can be contacted. If there's no way of knowing, worried relatives often have no choice, but to go to the central morgue. There, they stare at large screens displaying photos of the corpses inside, hoping to find their loved ones. Abdullah unwillingly joined them.

MIZEAD: Every time I go there, it's like hell. Families looking for their loved ones for the past three or four months. And there's a crowd of people, mostly women, who come to check for their family members. And every 10 or 15 minutes, somebody jumps and says that's my son, or that's my father, or that's my husband. And they start crying. And everyone is saying God is great, may God's mercy be on him.

TARABAY: It's been weeks since Arez Mizead was taken at that Baghdad intersection. His relatives refuse to give up hope, but Abdullah's entire family has now moved out of Baghdad. It was especially hard on his mother, who didn't want to leave in case there was news about Arez. But their neighborhood is no longer safe. Other elderly people in their street have also been kidnapped. Most of the families have paid the ransoms, none of the victims has returned home.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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