This is the truth


I’m still in the dark. Friday has been the most dramatic day of my life. It had been many since being kidnapped. I had spoken only a short while ago with my kidnappers that had been saying for many days that they would set me free. And so I was spent many hours waiting. They talked of things whose importance I would realise only later. They talked of problems that “had to do with the transfer”.

I came to understand which way the wind was blowing through the attitudes of my two “sentinels”, the two figures that had me in custody every day. One, in particular, who showed signs of attention at every whim of mine, was incredibly dashing. In order to understand what really was going on I asked him in a provoking manner if he was happy because I was leaving or because I staying. I was both surprised and happy when he said, “I only know that you will go away, but I don’t know when”. Confirming the fact that something new was happening, at a certain point in time both of them entered the room as if to comfort me and to joke. “Congratulations”, they said, “you are leaving for Rome”. For Rome, they said exactly that.

I experienced a strange sensation. Because that word immediately evoked liberation but also projected an emptiness within me. I understood that it was the most difficult moment of all the kidnapping and that whereas all I had passed through until then was “certain”, now a chasm of uncertainties, each bigger than the other, was beginning to open. I changed my clothes. They came back. “We shall accompany you, but don’t give any sign of your presence when you are together with us otherwise the Americans may intervene”. It was the confirmation that I would have liked not to hear. It was the happiest and at the same time the most dangerous moment. If we had met someone, that is to say the American troops, there would have been shooting. My kidnappers were prepared for that and would have answered back. I had to be blindfolded. Already I was getting used to a temporary blindness. Of what was happening around me I knew only that it had rained in Baghdad. The car was moving steadily in an area full of mud ponds. There was the driver and the two kidnappers. I soon heard something that I didn’t want to hear. A helicopter that was flying low over the area in which we had stopped. “Stay calm. They will now come to look for you… In about ten minutes they will come looking for you”. They had talked all the time in Arabic, and a bit of French and a very poor English. Even this time around, they talked the same way.

Then they got off. I remained in that condition of immobility and blindness. I had my eyes padded with cotton and covered with sunglasses. I was still. I thought… what do I do? Shall I start to count the seconds that pass from now to another condition, that of freedom? I had hardly started counting mentally when I heard a friendly voice, “Giuliana! Giuliana! I am Nicola. Don’t worry. I have talked to Gabriele Polo. Stay calm! You are free!”

He made me take off the “blindfold” of cotton and dark glasses. I experienced relief, not for what was happening and I wasn’t understanding, but for the words of this “Nicola”. He was talking and talking. He was unrestrainable. An avalanche of friendly phrases and quips. I finally sensed an almost physical, warm consolation, that I had long forgotten.

The car continued on its course, passing an underpass full of puddles and almost disbanding to avoid them. We all broke out into incredible laughter. It was liberating. Disbanding on a road flooded with water in Baghdad and perhaps ending up in a nasty road accident after all that I had gone through was really not fit to be told. Nicola Calipari then came to sit by my side. The driver had communicated twice to the Embassy and Italy that we were headed towards the airport which I knew to be very heavily controlled by the American troops. It’s less than a kilometre away, they told me, when … I only remember firing. At that point, a shower of fire and bullets hit us, shutting up for ever the cheered up voices of a few minutes earlier.

The driver started to yell that we were Italians, “We are Italians. We are Italians…” Nicola Calipari threw himself upon me to protect me and immediately, I repeat, immediately, I felt his last breath as he died on me. I must have felt physical pain, I didn’t know why. But I had a flash. My mind went straight to the words my kidnappers had pronounced. They had declared they were committed to letting me free but I had to be wary “because there are the Americans that don’t want your return”. Then, when they had told me that, I had judged those words as superfluous and ideological. In that moment they risked giving me the taste of the bitterest of truths.

The rest I still cannot tell.

This has been the most dramatic day. But the month that I have spent kidnapped has probably changed my existence for ever. One month alone, all by myself, prisoner of my most profound convictions. Every hour has been a pitiless check on my work. At times they joked with me. They would go to the length of asking me why I wanted to go away, to remain [with them]. They insisted upon personal relationships. It was they who made me think of that priority that many too often put aside. They hinted at the family. “Ask help from your husband”, they would say. And I did say that in the first video that I believe you have all seen. My life has changed. The Iraqi engineer of “Un Ponte per”, Ra’ad Ali Abdulaziz, who had been kidnapped together with the two Simona’s, used to tell me, “My life is no longer the same”. I didn’t understand then. Now I know what he wanted to say. Because I have gone through all the harshness of truth, the difficulty of its proposal. And the fragility of one who tries to.

In the first days of the kidnapping, I did not shed a single tear. I was simply enraged. I used to tell my kidnappers in the face, “But how! You kidnap me, [the very person] who is against the war?!” And at that point they would open up a fierce dialogue. “Yes. Because you go and talk to the people. We would never kidnap a reporter who stays closed in a hotel. And then the fact that you say you are against the war may well be just a cover”. And I would rebut, almost provoking them, “It’s easy to kidnap a defenceless woman like me. Why don’t you go try with the American military?”. I insisted upon the fact that they couldn’t ask the Italian government to withdraw its troops. Their “political” interlocutor could not be the government but the Italian people who are against the war.

It has been a month of ups and downs, from strong hopes to moments of great depression. As when during the first Sunday, in the Baghdad house where I was being held and on which a parabolic antenna rose, they made me watch the news on Euronews. There I saw my photo in a gigantic poster hanging from the building of Rome’s municipality. And I was heartened. Then, however, immediately afterwards, the vindication of the Jihad that announced my execution if Italy wouldn’t withdraw its troops arrived. I was terrorised. But they quickly reassured me saying it wasn’t them, that I should not trust those claims. They were only for “provocation”. I often used to ask the one who, by the looks of him, seemed to be the most accessible but nevertheless had, together with the other, the looks of a soldier, “Tell me the truth. Are you going to kill me?”. And still, many times, there were strange windows of communication right with them. “Come and see a film in the TV,” they would tell me while a Wahabite woman, covered up from head to toe, went around the house and took care of me.

The kidnappers seemed to me to be a very religious group, continuously praying with verses from the Quran. But on Friday, at the moment of my release, the one that seemed to be the most religious among them and who used to get up every morning at 5 to pray, said “congratulations” to me, incredibly squeezing my hand tight, a behaviour not at all normal for an Islamic fundamentalist, adding, “If you behave well, you will leave immediately”. Then an almost funny episode. One of the two guardians came to me amazed both because the TV was showing my portraits hanging from European cities and because of Totti. Yes, Totti. [The kidnapper] had said he was a fan of the football team of Rome and had remained bewildered that his favourite player had entered the field with the writing “Free Giuliana” on his T-shirt.

I have passed my time in an enclave in which I no longer had any certainty. I found myself extremely weak. I had failed in my very certainties. I had upheld the need to go and tell the story of that dirty war. And I found myself having to choose between staying in the hotel and waiting or ending up kidnapped due to my work. “We don’t want no one any longer,” my kidnappers had told me. But I wanted to tell the story of the bloodbath of Falluja in the words of the refugees. And that morning, the very refugees, or some “leader” of theirs, were not listening to me. I had right in front of me the exact verification of the analyses of what the Iraqi society had become due to the war and they were hurling their truth in my face, “We don’t want no one. Why don’t you stay home? What good can this interview do for us?”. The worst collateral effect, the war that kills communication, was weighing down upon me. Me, that had risked everything, challenging the Italian government which did not want journalists to get to Iraq and the Americans that don’t want our work to become a testimony of what that country has really become with the war and notwithstanding that what they call elections.

Now I ask myself. Is this, their refusal, a failure?

[Giulian Sgrena, "La mia verità", from il Manifesto of March 6, 2005, translated by Arif Ishaq]

Leave a comment