HOSTAGE

By Phil Sands
Sunday, April 2, 2006

DAMASCUS, Syria The kidnapping happened quickly and efficiently on a bright, cold Baghdad morning, the day after Christmas. I'd slept well and decided I would leave Iraq -- after one more story, one more set of interviews. Now I knew I'd waited too long: A pair of sedans blocked the empty road I was traveling down with my driver and translator; men in balaclavas clutching AK-47s jumped out. Tied-up, blindfolded, my mobile phones taken, I was bundled into the trunk.

After the lid slammed shut, there was silence, an appalling moment, fear choking the breath from my lungs. It was also strangely cathartic: I quickly came to terms with the idea of being dead and decided there was not much else to worry about, no point in panic.

I don't understand why I responded with such calm any more than I understand my other reactions during the days of captivity that followed. But I can't help but hear echoes of my own feelings in the words Jill Carroll spoke soon after her release on Thursday: "I was treated very well," she said. "That's important for people to know." Perhaps those reactions have something to do with the overwhelming sense of helplessness, and with the intense gratitude you feel for the small acts of kindness -- and for the things that don't happen to you.

"They never hit me," Carroll added. "They never even threatened to hit me." They didn't hit me either, or worse. But that possibility was always there, leaving me feeling strangely disembodied, as if I were watching my fate unfold, just as I had watched the gruesome hostage videos. I would see myself appearing in the next, a successor to that other British hostage Kenneth Bigley. His final moments -- before a slow beheading -- had been spent pleading for Prime Minister Tony Blair to pull out the troops.

However unafraid I sometimes felt, my instincts to survive were strong, and so began a bizarre process of making an ally of my captors, an attempt to snatch back some control from those who had stolen it from me. In more rational moments, I would have recognized this as Stockholm syndrome; at the time it was nothing more than blind instinct, and it took over the moment the trunk slammed shut.

The maroon BMW drove off at high speed, racing along dirt tracks for a half hour before stopping. I was hustled inside a building and strip-searched. That simple concrete room would be my home, my prison, for the next six days -- a fraction of the 82 days Carroll spent in captivity. But time passed slowly.

Five or six hours passed, and the daylight had faded before the blindfold was taken off. I found myself in a small, dark room lit by an oil lamp. Standing to my right were two mujaheddin, dressed in dishdasha robes, heads wrapped in traditional shemaghs, rifles held across their chests.

A man in a balaclava sat to my left and asked in good English if I were afraid, insisting there was no need. "I want you to feel like our guest," he said. Theatrically, he called the guards to untie my hands and put their weapons away: "We have a guest," he told them. "There is no need for guns."

For at least an hour we talked, but it was more than a conversation. It felt like a test, with my life -- if not already lost -- depending on each answer. Still oddly calm, I determined to play this man at his own game to try to beat him.

Matter-of-factly, he told me my head would be chopped off if it turned out that I worked with the occupation. If my claim to be a reporter proved true, however, I would be "freed and rewarded." He asked if I thought I was being held by terrorists, what I thought they were fighting for, my opinion of Islam. He sought my views on why Tony Blair had won so many elections, on Saddam Hussein, on Osama bin Laden.

I answered carefully but truthfully, fearing greater anger at being caught in a lie than revealing my honest opinions. With each reply, my confidence grew. I instructed my captor how to Google my name on the Internet to show I was indeed a journalist. I outlined some of my stories for him, including one about an Iraqi whose family had been shot dead, as so many have been, at a U.S. Army checkpoint.

"My wife and child were killed like this," my interrogator said, and the sudden crack of emotion in his voice ignited a slight spark of hope in my chest. A door had opened, however slightly.


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