In the three or four weeks since I finished filming in Iraq I have felt no inclination to write anything for this blog. Until now, the news came of a friend kidnapped…. an American guy called Micha who I’d actually filmed with Samir, joking about what we’d do if we were kidnapped; it was the only time I found Samir speechless. But Micha had a dark sense of humour about the whole thing, and in a funny way I wasn’t surprised to see him on TV, on his knees flanked by seven hooded guys with guns. And it did actually happen, some months later, when I was back in the UK. But Micha got lucky; Moqtada al Sadr negotiated his release…..
Then came the news that Georges Malbrunot was missing.
I’d been anxious, having not heard anything of his whereabouts for a week. Georges was my neighbour in the cheapo Al Dulaimi hotel in Baghdad.
He was known as somewhat of an Iraqi expert, having worked there for many years; he was also a great fan of tabbouleh – we’d spend many nights eating this and talking about wine, women, and where to holiday in France. He’d recommended the Loire valley, which is where I am right now, on holiday. And where I picked a newspaper up today finding his face on the front; having been missing for a week, it turns out he’s now in the hands of the worst kidnapping group in Iraq. The same gang responsible for killing the Italian journalist and Red Cross aid worker Enzo Baldoni last Thursday.
They have given France an ultimatum: to reverse their recent ruling on conspicuous religious symbols, which resulted in the banning of the hijab in schools, within 48 hours. 24 hours have passed since the ultimatum.
I find my holiday time here is spent thinking about Georges and the good times we spent together in Iraq.
It also makes me think about the eight months I was there filming. Sitting around looking at the other faces round the table, thinking … Who? When? If? What? … and how I would respond if it ever came about. And that complete nightmare is upon me now.
Georges told me about how he had rediscovered a childhood sweetheart he had not seen for 20 years – how they had got together again and planned to marry. And that this was to be his last trip to Iraq before he planned to adjust his work so that it didn’t involve any more warzones; so that he could settle back down in his hometown in France.
The whole thing I suppose ultimately makes me feel sick in my stomach and brings home the danger that Georges was always rejecting, putting to one side, in pursuit of good journalism, a conviction for what he was driven to do. He never had a driver, a bodyguard, a fixer, security, anything – he was always out there, like most freelancers, getting close to the stories. And close to the people.
Since being back in England people are constantly asking me “What is the risk?” “How close were you to danger?” And it’s only on occasions like this (as Samir was always telling me) – “The danger is around you all the time – you just don’t want to realise it.”
Having never said a prayer since leaving school, I will say one for Georges tonight. I think that in times of despair we turn to some greater power to intervene. I don’t know what more to say.