Kidnapped in Iraq; attacked in Australia

Baghdad. Friday, 16 October 2004.

Almost as soon as my vehicle left the front gates of the compound, I realised something was wrong. There was a black car behind us that seemed to be following. As we turned the first corner, not more than 500 metres from the guarded hotel entrance, another black car that had been parked on the curb moved into the centre of the road to block our path. That car suddenly stopped and two men leapt out, pulling handguns from under their shirts and running towards us.

I screamed at the driver to reverse. My translator, Hussein, was in the front passenger seat, yelling. The car behind us had also stopped and there were more people getting out. My driver seemed to be in shock and didn’t react, and then the two men from the front car were at the door.

They were yelling and waving their pistols. I shouted at the driver to reverse, as the two men tried to wrench my door open from the outside while I held the armrest to keep it closed. The armrest broke off in my hand and the door flew open. The two men jumped into the back seat. With both hands, I grabbed the gun pointed at me by the first man and, with all my might, turned the barrel to face into his crotch. I tried to get my finger inside the trigger guard to shoot him.

Everybody working in Iraq was aware of what had been happening to hostages. We journalists had seen the beheading videos and we often discussed them. In September and October 2004, there had been a series of high-profile kidnappings that ended with the victims’ very violent and public death. Some of us, me included, had said it would be better to die as they tried to take you than allow them to film your grisly death later as a statement.

That was what I was thinking. This is it. I have to fight and maybe die right now or it will be too late.

But I lost my grip on the gun and it was over. They began driving towards the highway that leads to western Baghdad and Fallujah.

It was my third trip to Iraq that year. The space within which western journalists could work independently had shrunk dramatically each time I returned. At the start of the year, I had driven several times to Fallujah and through Ramadi, and also travelled by road to Karbala and north to Kirkuk, Sulaymaniyah and Arbil. I’d travelled south to Basra and back to Baghdad by rail.

By the time I returned in June and July, the situation had deteriorated immensely. Travel by road through the west to Jordan was out of the question, as the whole area from the western outskirts of Baghdad through Fallujah to Ramadi was outside the control of the occupying forces. On that trip, I remember driving out to Abu Ghraib jail to follow a story and film some interviews. I was greeted by an incredulous US army military reserve captain who couldn’t believe I had simply gone there in a local taxi. The soldiers were under attack every night and had begun receiving supplies by helicopter even though they were only thirty kilometres from Baghdad.

I returned for a third stint in September and October to find substantial parts of the capital itself no longer safe, including the sprawling Sadr City slum that had risen up in the Shia revolt led by Muqtada al-Sadr and was still firmly controlled by the militiamen of Muqtada’s Mahdi Army.

Journalists had been reduced to operating in fortified and guarded hotel complexes, the Green Zone, and wherever in the city our drivers and translators felt safe enough to take us on any given day.

The only other option was an embed with US military units. That meant that, as a reporter, you would never speak to an Iraqi who wasn’t getting a gun pointed at them or who wasn’t a direct employee of the US military.

It was a frustrating time because, as the general deterioration of security in Baghdad and across the country became the story, our ability to effectively report was diminished by the restrictions that we placed on ourselves, as well as those imposed by our organisations and the US military. The line between getting the story and getting killed was very fine.

We pulled up in a side street. They ordered us out of the car and walked, brazenly carrying their weapons, into a two-storey building that was being used as a soft drink bottle depot, with crates of empty bottles stacked everywhere. They took us to a small room upstairs. There were bars on the windows and a grubby mattress on the floor. I noticed immediately there was a length of chain on the floor but I tried not to think about that. A few moments later they pushed Saif, our driver, into the room. He looked pale and shaken. They told us all to sit on the mattress on one side of the room while they came and went from the other side, one of them remaining with a gun at all times.

We were told we were to be interrogated by their leader, the ‘emir’. That word terrified me because I knew only the very religious groups used it for their leaders. His questions, directed to me through my translator Hussein, were in Arabic and began simply – who was I and why had I come to Iraq? I answered as straightforwardly as possible. Hussein stressed my role as an independent journalist who had nothing to do with the coalition. I tried to come up with anything I could think of to make them understand that.

The leader said that if I was lying I would be killed, that if I worked for the coalition I would be killed, as would my driver and translator, that if there were any evidence against me I would be killed.

They took us to another house. The next morning, they repeatedly said that we would be released any moment but then said that they were waiting for the camera, then the tapes. They wanted to make a video of my release for propaganda purposes. I agreed – and even offered them my own camera to hasten the process.

After some hours, the guys who made the videos arrived and then they told me to go into the next room. I thought I would vomit in fear and dread. On the wall was the same flag with the star that I had seen in a recent beheading video. The men were standing in line with their guns held across their chests and their faces covered. I was told to sit on a stool in front of them. The men directing me from behind the camera looked like they had not one ounce of humanity. I was thinking, ‘It has all been a lie, they are not releasing me, they just wanted to keep me calm before they kill me.’

The tape started and, with my press ID in front of me, I read the prepared script. ‘My name is John Martinkus. I am an Australian journalist for the SBS network and I came to Iraq to report on the occupation.’

Every moment I expected to feel the knife against my neck.

When I had watched beheading videos with other journalists at the hotel, I couldn’t help but avert my eyes at the final moment as the sword struck. The clips were horrible and sickening.

I tried to be strong, to not break down. The filming went on and they read out a statement in Arabic. I didn’t know what it said. Then I was ordered back to the other room where Hussein, who had watched, told me their statement had confirmed they were releasing us.

One of the first things I did as we stumbled into the Time magazine office in the Al Hamra complex was call my employers. I recounted the whole story to them. It was during the conversation with my immediate boss, Dateline executive producer Mike Carey, that I explained how the insurgents had done an internet search to verify my identity. Later his comments to Associated Press led to headlines all around the world that I had been ‘googled’ and that was the reason for my release.

I asked him if he had made my kidnapping public and was relieved when he said that he hadn’t. I had agreed with the insurgents that I would not talk to the press until I was out of Iraq. I was concerned for my translator and my driver, now that the insurgents knew who they were and where they lived.

I ran through the whole sequence of events to the journalists in the Time office. They watched me carefully. The adrenaline, the exhaustion, the elation at my release made me talk rapidly. A colleague recalls me crushing a beer can in my hand in anger as I spoke of my captors.

The Australian embassy called Michael Ware, Baghdad bureau chief for Time, while I was talking. I remember quite distinctly waving to Michael that I didn’t want to speak to the embassy. He told them that I was fine and that I was leaving Iraq the following morning. I told Michael to tell them what had happened and that they were not to release any information regarding my kidnapping or identity until I was out of the country.

I knew exactly why the insurgents had not wanted me to talk to the authorities before I left Iraq. They didn’t want to be identified and the fact they made it clear they knew where Hussein and my driver lived was a tacit threat. Regardless of any agreement I had with those who had kidnapped me, I did not have enough faith in the US forces or the integrity of the staff at the Australian embassy to immediately tell them about what had happened. The information could have been used to launch a misdirected or heavy-handed operation, of the type we had been continually reporting on that year, which would only further endanger my staff.

My management at SBS had told me not to give my story to any other journalists. They had ratings in mind, and wanted the story for themselves. But back in the Al Hamra hotel I felt obliged to let the other journalists know and I spoke to a few of them, asking them not to publish too many details until I had had a chance to get my story on air. The only in-depth interview I gave before I left Baghdad early the following morning was to an old friend and colleague, Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times of London, with whom I had shared many dangers in East Timor in 1999 and whom I knew I could trust. After a very nervous night at the Time house where I was mostly too wound up to sleep, I went to his rooftop suite at the Al Hamra where I think he simply asked me one question and recorded my account of the kidnapping. True to his word he delayed publication of that article until I was back in Australia.

I had just walked out of Amman’s Queen Alia airport and lit a cigarette when a car pulled up in front of me. I heard someone say, ‘There he is!’ A group of wire service reporters ran over and started taking photos and asking me questions. Another car pulled up with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation correspondent, Mark Willacy. I headed towards him, a familiar face, to get away from the others.

I had briefly met Willacy before in Baghdad and I just wanted a ride to the airport hotel, but he wasn’t going to let me go without a quick interview to camera. His first question alarmed me.

‘What do you think about the comments of foreign minister Downer?’

I asked him to read back exactly what Downer had said. The quote ran as follows:

In this particular case, the journalist went out to investigate a story, I understand, and went to a part of Baghdad that he was advised not to go to, but he went there anyway, and journalists do do that sort of thing, but he was detained, but just for twenty-four hours and subsequently has been released.

I was furious. The Australian foreign minister was either misinformed or was lying about the circumstances of my kidnapping in Baghdad and had chosen to make a public statement that amounted to a pre-emptive strike upon my credibility, when he knew I was in the air somewhere between Baghdad and Amman. I could only surmise that Downer – a staunch defender of president Bush, who had strenuously denied the situation in Baghdad was deteriorating – sought to discredit me because he knew my story would reflect the precariousness of the security situation in Baghdad. I asked Mark to turn the camera on and repeat the questions.

He said: ‘Alexander Downer tells us you were in a place you were not supposed to be and that’s why you were taken.’

I replied:

Well, that’s ridiculous, because I was in the street outside the only hotel in Baghdad occupied by journalists, which is directly across the road from the Australian embassy. I was nowhere dangerous, I was doing nothing dangerous, I was not putting myself at risk. I was grabbed by insurgents, who are very well organised and know exactly what they’re doing.

These comments were interpreted in Australia over the next news cycle as a criticism of Downer. He had said one thing, I had said he was wrong, and then that became the basis for discussions over a number of programs over the next day or so, with anyone from opposition leader Kevin Rudd, officials from the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance and my own management at SBS who were forced to defend my reporting and my conduct in Iraq.

Downer’s strategy worked. By calling my story into question before I had even told it, he had put me in a defensive position from which I had to firstly explain the circumstances of my kidnapping and then explain its significance in terms of how bad the situation had become in Baghdad. It was a political move to shore up his position on the Iraq conflict, and it illustrated how the government treated sections of the press as political opponents to be ridiculed and discredited, and not as sources of information. As a journalist whose job, as far as I was concerned, was to report fairly and accurately on what was going on in Iraq, I was totally unprepared for what followed.

Flying back to Australia, I was oblivious of how much media attention my kidnapping and my rebuttal of Downer’s dismissive remarks had generated. When I arrived in Sydney, my only thought was to get out of the terminal as soon as possible to have a cigarette. As I walked out of customs, I was overwhelmed by photographers, television cameras and journalists. My boss, Mike Carey, was there along with my girlfriend, my brother, my colleague Mark Davis from SBS and a large group of reporters. I walked the short distance outside so I could smoke and then stopped to answer rapid-fire questions. I was asked what I thought about those who had taken me hostage. I tried to be fair.

‘They’re fighting a war but they’re not savages. They’re not actually just killing people willy-nilly. They talk to you, they think about things.’

I was asked why I was not killed and other hostages were. I replied, ‘From their perspective there was a reason to kill [British hostage Kenneth] Bigley, there was a reason to kill the Americans; there was not a reason to kill me [and] luckily I managed to convince them of that.’

In response to Downer’s comments about where I was when I was kidnapped, I replied angrily, ‘Alexander Downer doesn’t know his geography very well … I was actually across the road from the Australian embassy when I was kidnapped. He should apologise to me, actually – personally.’

I started to walk away when a reporter asked me a question that I thought revealed just how far removed the rhetoric about the Iraq war in Australia was from the reality that I had just come from.

‘Do you think Iraq is on the road to reconstruction?’

I almost laughed. ‘No, it’s on the road to shit.’

I found the hostile attitude of some of the reporters aggravating. I felt like telling them to go to Iraq themselves and try to report. I was at the end of my tether. SBS had a car ready and I was quickly walked over to it. I piled in the back with my girlfriend and the SBS security consultant, and we began to drive away with cameras in tow. An Iraqi man who had been waiting came and threw a bunch of flowers on the car, and I thought how sad it was we didn’t stop to pick them up and thank him.

That night I finally managed to get some sleep in a hotel bed. The next day I had to go into SBS to pre-record an interview for that night’s edition for Dateline. As I got into the taxi, I could hear the radio. It was John Laws talking about Downer’s response to my comments at the airport. He was referring to me as ‘a so-called journalist’, claiming that I ‘obviously sympathised with terrorists’. What Downer had said was this:

I just could not believe he said those things. I was just appalled. For me, I mean, that is exactly what people should not do. They should never unintentionally, or intentionally in this case, let us be charitable and say unintentionally give comfort to terrorists in this way. It’s a terrible thing to have said. I was absolutely astonished when he said that … I just … I … just it’s pretty close to the most appalling thing any Australian has said about the situation in Iraq.

I had been asked a straightforward question as to why other hostages had been killed and why I wasn’t. To put it simply, I had been spared because I was not associated with the coalition forces, while the other high-profile hostages were. That was the grim reality of Iraq: if the insurgents deemed you to be part of the coalition or working for it, they saw you as a legitimate target. My understanding of this reality had contributed to my ability to negotiate.

But that wasn’t what the foreign minister wanted people to understand. He wanted to paint me as a supporter of – and a sympathiser with – terrorists, a charge that was then taken up by conservative commentators. The most hysterical of these was the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt who wrote a series of opinion pieces about me. In one, he wrote:

John Martinkus could have been beheaded but was safely released. In Iraq’s propaganda war, some journalists are better alive than dead.

Australian journalist John Martinkus said he was going to be killed by the Iraqi terrorists who grabbed him on Sunday – until he convinced them he was on their side.

‘I was not hurt and treated with respect once they established my credentials as an independent journalist who did not support the occupation,’ the SBS filmmaker told Reuters.

An SBS producer, Mike Carey, confirmed on 3AW yesterday that Martinkus told the terrorists he sympathised with them – ‘as you would’ to save your life. As I sure would, too.

And then, added Carey, his captors got onto the internet to check him out.

Did they? I guess they liked what they saw, then, or Martinkus would be as dead as the two Macedonian brickies who were beheaded in Iraq that very weekend.

In fact, it would have been easy for the terrorists to think Martinkus, brave as he is, was more useful to them as a sympathetic reporter than a dead infidel.

Two days later, spurred on by the condemnation of my comments by Downer, Bolt intensified his attacks:

Just when I feared I’d been too hard on SBS journalist and activist John Martinkus, he opens his mouth.

Martinkus, unlike many other hostages, was freed this week by the terrorists said to have snatched him in Baghdad on Sunday. And on Wednesday I noted that he said he would have been killed if he hadn’t persuaded his captors he was on their side and hated the American ‘occupation’. Once the terrorists checked out his anti-American writings on the internet, they let him go, seeming to believe he’d be more useful to them alive – as useful as too many Western correspondents are. They didn’t have to wait long for a reward. On arriving back in Sydney, Martinkus declared that freed Iraq was ‘on the road to s—’. The terrorists are winning. But, worse, he seemed to excuse the terrorists who recently, on video, sawed off the heads of three screaming Western civilians. ‘They’re fighting a war but they’re not savages,’ he protested. ‘They’re not actually just killing people willy-nilly. They talk to you, they think about things. There was a reason to kill [British hostage Kenneth] Bigley, there was a reason to kill the [two] Americans [kidnapped with Bigley]. There was not a reason to kill me.’ I think we’ve now heard what that reason not to kill Martinkus was.

Suddenly, I was guilty of such things as describing insurgents as disaffected Iraqis. The underlying criticism was that because I had tried to describe the ‘terrorists’ as people who had their own reasons for fighting against the occupation, I was therefore supporting them.

When I arrived in the office that morning, there was an extreme sense of disquiet. My immediate superiors were scared. They were scared of condemnation by Alexander Downer and they were scared for their own positions. On the surface, they were supportive, but in reality they were not going to back me up. They simply wanted to quiet down the issue and avoid a confrontation with the foreign minister. Phil Martin, head of News and Current Affairs, began ‘speaking on my behalf’. Unbeknown to me, he had already told the ABC that I would not be commenting further. His defence of my statement was that I was exhausted – which was true, but also ignored the reality of what I had said.

In the office, I was told not to speak to the press and I agreed, thinking that the interview I would do with Mark Davis for that night’s program would be enough.

On Dateline, Davis directly addressed my perceived support for terrorists:

Well, you’re very aware of the fate of others [… a]nd that would have been wearing on you at the time. You’ve described your captors, you said that they’re not – they’re not monsters, but it’s pretty monstrous to be slashing the throats of truck drivers and engineers, which they have done, and I’m assuming that it’s the same group or an associated group.

‘Yes, it is a monstrous thing,’ I replied, ‘and there’s no way anybody could support that kind of behaviour, and you mentioned some comments I made when I arrived back yesterday at the airport and I think some of them have been used out of context. All I was basically trying to say there was I wasn’t – I wasn’t killed because they didn’t see me as a target. They didn’t see that, they realised that I didn’t, they realised that I didn’t work with the Americans. From their perspective, anybody, Iraqi or a foreign national, who works with the coalition is a combatant, is a justified target in their campaign to basically terrorise the foreign presence there into leaving.’

I had to tell the whole story one more time in print to get it on the record. I chose to publish in the Bulletin magazine the following Monday because I had worked for it in the past and trusted the editors. I sat down to write the piece in my Melbourne home exactly a week after being kidnapped in Baghdad.

It was very hard to write. I vividly remembered all the details and how terrifying the experience had been. When I gave the article to the Bulletin, the assistant editor, Kathy Bail, called me with some changes recommended by the editor, Garry Linnell. He wanted to move the section where I cursed one of my captors to the intro to make me, I suppose, seem more antagonistic to those who kidnapped me.

I agreed but have since always regretted the decision, since it changed the tone of the piece. A few friends remarked to me later that the article did not sound like me at all.

I also published a clarification called ‘a message to Alexander Downer’, alongside the story:

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and others seem intent on painting me as someone who condones kidnapping and murder. Some clarification is necessary. In no way do I justify such actions, in any circumstances. I survived because my captors came to believe they had no reason to kill me. It was my position as an independent journalist which saved me. To note this is in no way to justify their decision to murder others, which I have unreservedly condemned. I was also incorrectly accused of being in the wrong area. In fact, I was kidnapped in the area the Australian government chooses to house its diplomats.

This, I thought naively, would be the end of the matter. But it wasn’t. The accusation that I was a left-wing activist or that I was sympathetic to terrorists was something that was raised again and again by those in the media who followed the government, condemning my statements and ridiculing my experience in order to obscure the truth about the deteriorating situation in Iraq in 2004.
On 25 October 2004, Australian troops near the Australian embassy in Baghdad were directly targeted for the first time in a car bomb attack on their armoured vehicles, near where I was kidnapped. Three soldiers were wounded.

Alexander Downer claimed the media had been tipped off and were at the bomb site within two minutes of the attack. The reality was that the main hotel housing foreign journalists in Baghdad was across the road, and journalists would have heard the massive blast. It had already been announced the Australian embassy would be relocating to the relative safety of the heavily fortified Green Zone across the Tigris River.

But after the fourth electoral win by the Howard government, prominent individuals in the Australian media had become so supportive of – and defined by – their close association with the Howard government that objective reporting of the Iraq war (and other issues) had ceased to exist. A serious dialogue in some sections of the Australian press about Iraq and Australia’s role in that war simply never occurred. The commentary and analysis offered by many Australian outlets on Iraq and Afghanistan simply mirrored what the US and Australian governments said.

While the government and its sympathetic media mouthpieces were condemning my statements and questioning the circumstances of my kidnapping, the Australian federal police and a representative of Britain’s MI5 came to the offices of SBS in Sydney to seek advice about Care International worker Margaret Hassan who had been abducted on 19 October. I told them everything I knew about the insurgents who had kidnapped me to help them formulate a negotiation strategy for her release. Tragically, Hassan was later killed.

According to the International Committee to Protect Journalists, fifty-seven media workers have been kidnapped in Iraq since 2003. Seventeen of those have been killed; thirty-five – including me – were released. The whereabouts of five others is still unknown.

John Martinkus is the author of A Dirty Little War: Indonesia’s Secret War in Aceh, Quarterly Essay 7: Paradise Betrayed and Travels in American Iraq.
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 8–16

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John Martinkus

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