The Most Appalling Thing Anyone Has Said About Iraq

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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.

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 I was 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.

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. 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.

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.

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 Mick 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.

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 24 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 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."

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.

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 the departure gates at customs, I was overwhelmed by photographers, television cameras and journalists. 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."

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 Dateline, for that night’s edition. As I got in to 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."

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 Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun 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."

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 addressed directly 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."

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.

Meanwhile, as the government and its sympathetic media mouthpieces condemned my statements and questioned 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 Australia 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, 57 media workers have been kidnapped in Iraq since 2003. Seventeen of those have been killed; 35 — including me — were released. The whereabouts of five others is still unknown.

This is an edited extract from a longer article appearing in Overland 204, which is being launched by Sophie Cunningham at the Melbourne Writers Festival on 27 August.

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