So here I am, into the edit for my film ‘The Pianist’, safe – or so it seems, in London. No news about Georges, my French friend kidnapped a couple of weeks ago and threatened with execution by The Islamic Army – the same people who killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni the week before. The latest official news is that Georges is in the hands of a more moderate group and is in the process of being handed back, although I have just been reading on the internet that the group are now asking for a 5 million dollar ransom. Just as things looked hopeful.
I’d gone on holiday to the Loire Valley in France, I remembered talking to Georges about going there whilst in Iraq. He recommended it as a place to relax after months in Baghdad. But I found it difficult to relax, disturbed by seeing Georges each hour as the headline news item. He’d been given 48 hours to live unless France revoked their law banning Muslims wearing head scarf’s in schools. I was counting down the hours in my head… when the 48 hours is up… then the further 24 hours… then nothing. Unimaginable, I kept thinking of him. The pizza we shared the last time we went for a meal in Pizza Reef, Baghdad. Even then, things were getting dangerous, but Georges was never fazed by this. You can’t afford to be if you are doing his line of work. If you are you’ll never go out. It is pot luck for the many journalists out there. No-one is safe, no matter what level of ‘security’ you have – a gun, an ex SAS soldier, a bullet proof car..
I remember sitting with journalists in the hotel when I first arrived back in January, thinking how long before we are targeted for kidnapping? Iraqis live under fear of being kidnapped and killed each day, and have done since their land was ‘liberated’ of Saddam, and left lawless by the Americans. They are taken and killed every day for a few hundred dollars. So it seemed like such a logical development that we would be next. I remember a photographer joking that he wouldn’t mind being kidnapped as long as they let him take some photos. A few months later on a return trip the same man was being held face down in the desert with a gun to the back of his head facing execution. Things had certainly moved on. Kidnapping of foreigners was now big business.
Now the journalists were stuck in the hotel fearful of going out. Sitting with them it wasn’t a question of who had been kidnapped it was a question of who hadn’t! Everyone had a story. Some much more scary then others. Some held for a few hours, after pulling out cameras on militants, trying to get that ‘money shot’… (freelancers can earn much more money if they take pictures as well as writing). But more often than not, it is committed journalists who take the risks for the sake of good journalism. I remember another friend who’d been picked-up walking through Fallujah, held for a few hours and released. The next day there was another story in Fallujah and so he headed straight back there. A bizarre commitment I thought, unfazed by the risk. You cannot afford to see it, if it gets to you, get another job.
I was told of a bizarre bonding process that happened with the people who almost kill you. Many journalists became friends with their captors. The photographer held face down in the desert with gun to the back of his head, became friends with his captors. He took a photo of them all waving their guns, the same guns they’d pressed against his head for 3 hours in the desert. He got the ‘money shot’ and his story became a front cover feature of a popular French magazine. When he returned to Iraq a couple of months later he called his former captors/friends and they invited him over… though half the militants on the front cover picture had been killed by the Americans the week before.
I don’t know what any of this means for the fate of Georges and his friend Christian. All we can do is hope.