HOSTAGE
Like Jill Carroll, Phil Sands is one of the lucky ones: He is free to tell his story.

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.

He reverted to business. "We will fight the Americans and the British until they leave Iraq, this is natural," he said. "When they leave, our fight will be over and we can rest." It was a simple equation, but where did my life fit into his calculations, I wanted to know. I dared not ask. Instead, I listened as he told me how simple it would be to check my credentials: "God willing, we will only hold you for one night," he said.

When he had gone I was again tied up, hands behind my back. I wanted to sleep but lay fidgeting -- less scared than sad at the thought that my family would suffer more than me.

On the second day came the hostage video. I was handed a script -- full of amusing grammatical errors -- demanding the withdrawal of British and American troops. I wanted to tell my captors it would make no difference, this absurd video, but I didn't. I couldn't see the point. If they already didn't know how futile it was, it would be futile to tell them.

Behind the man with the Sony camcorder, one of the mujaheddin stood and, like a ham director, motioned extravagantly for me to raise my voice, to inject more emotion, to throw myself into this new role that the world would be watching.

Afterward, my captors proudly showed me the footage. I felt okay. But how would my father, mother, brother and sister feel when this vision appeared on their TV screens, dropping them all into a purgatory until the final video of my grim demise? From that moment, I decided I would not think of my family again -- it was too painful and unhelpful.

The following morning I was loaded into the front seat of a car -- the same BMW I had been kidnapped in. Blindfolded and disguised in a shemaghs, I sat rigid as we bumped along, an angry sermon about infidel invaders playing on the radio. I understood snatches of the Arabic, and it was all depressingly familiar. I held my hands tightly in my lap to stop them from shaking, to stop myself from reaching for the door handle.

We stopped, and one of the fighters -- I knew him as Allawi -- led me into a steep-sided pit. Allowed to see, I felt sure I would be shot dead in this solitary part of Iraq. There was nowhere to run, and I was terrified yet also quietly glad I was going to get a bullet, rather than the butcher knife. A close-range shot to the head wouldn't hurt, I told myself.

Allawi, in balaclava, sweater and Adidas sweat pants, stood in front of me and suddenly started a vigorous aerobic routine. "Come on, come on!" he shouted, insisting I follow suit. "You cannot sit all day. That is what makes you sad!" We did jumping jacks; we ran on the spot; we stretched. Laughter rose inside me, a guffaw of relief. Two American helicopters flew overhead but apparently didn't see anything unusual in the two of us working up a healthy sweat beneath the bright afternoon sun.

As time drifted by I began to feel a bond with my captors. I was well fed on rice, chicken and discs of Iraqi bread, with glasses of scalding sweet tea -- more than I could eat. Although I was regularly tied up, it was always done with immaculate care, bordering on tenderness: "I'm sorry, Mr. Phil," they would say as they bound my wrist with cloth, or later handcuffs, "but you know we have to do this."

I joked with the men who held me hostage and swapped family stories. One night Allawi, my firm favorite of the group, softly suggested I become a Muslim. We talked some more, and he made a sudden earnest demand: "You must never forget your time with us! We will meet again in Iraq when things are better, God willing." He said some British and American soldiers were people "just like you and me" but were part of an invading army that must be fought. As I came to understand his point of view, I started to feel I was winning my captors over, clinging again to the glimmer of hope that they would let me go, someday.

It was always hard to sleep. I would listen to the dogs barking outside, to the occasional helicopters passing overhead. I played Johnny Cash prison songs in my mind. During the long, cold days I learned new Arabic words, writing in the exercise book my captors had given me. And then there was the permanent mental drafting of escape plans, some simple, some fanciful: I worked out who was the weakest guard, the slowest, the worst shot. Yet I became comfortable being a prisoner, and it was interesting to live among the mujaheddin. I hadn't yet reached the total desperation needed to risk all on a bid for freedom: I told myself each day that I would escape tomorrow, if things started looking worse.

Because always there was the nagging fear, an underlying threat of violence.

Being a hostage is confusing: I couldn't work out if the kidnappers were my sworn enemies or misguided friends, and my opinion was in constant flux, allowing me no peace. I would analyze and second-guess every word, each gesture. Maybe the friendliness was just a means of control and I was being outsmarted. I was unsure how to measure the situation: Was it going well or badly? And they, too, seemed conflicted, uneasy about being hostage-takers. One guiltily told me it was against Islamic values, fretful about the impact this kidnapping would have on the purity of their cause.

So, one day I demanded to be set free. "We can all get in the car, drive to my hotel and forget about this," I said, seriously. Allawi smiled apologetically and explained it was not up to them, it was up to their bosses -- and that absence of control suddenly scared me.

At 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve my problems ended as suddenly as they had begun when U.S. soldiers burst into the room and, to their surprise as much as mine, found me handcuffed on the bed.

It was a routine raid; they had stumbled on the hideout by chance. No one, thankfully not even my parents who had been on vacation, knew I'd even gone missing. The video had never made it onto the television or Internet. It took time for me to realize I was safe, and I sat there, my hands still tied, shaking and cold. The American voices sounded unreal as one of the soldiers brought in bolt cutters to release the cuffs. I felt no overwhelming relief, no soaring elation, just mild pleasure and somber fatigue. It wasn't until I was in a helicopter being taken from my prison once and for all, that I felt a genuine smile break on my face. "Welcome aboard," the pilot said, and laughter welled in my throat.

Over the next days and weeks I learned more about the fate of the two men who were with me when I was kidnapped. My translator and friend, Salam, was taken hostage, too. Held separately from me, he was also found by the Americans, who treated him as a suspect. He endured six further weeks of custody in Abu Ghraib before being released. He talks of his time there as every bit as frightening as that spent with the mujaheddin.

My driver was apparently not a hostage, and investigators believe he may have delivered us to the insurgents. If so, I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he had no other choice -- perhaps his family had been threatened.

I harbor no hatred toward the people who kidnapped and threatened to kill me. There was, and still is, a mixture of fear, sorrow, fondness and anger in my sentiments. If I think about them now, in all likelihood suffering the misery of Abu Ghraib, I pity them. They are almost certainly being treated worse by their captors than I was by mine.

These feelings toward the mujaheddin have nothing to do with forgiveness: They were wrong to take me, wrong to hold me hostage. And I will never know for certain what they had in store for me. After freeing me, the Americans told me they found an orange jumpsuit and sword in the room next to mine. I long to look Allawi in the eye and ask him if he was planning to hurt me or allow me to be hurt. I suspect if so, it would have been nothing more personal than the bloody business of a war that is waged without rules.

It is now more than two months since my rescue, and the kidnapping has not profoundly changed my world. I do not view what happened through a religious prism, and it sparked no personal epiphany. I'm happy to be living still in the Middle East as a reporter. I don't have nightmares -- why should I? As a journalist working in Iraq I have seen worse happen to people. They have to live with loss and trauma every second of every day. I do not. I emerged unscathed. I was one of the lucky ones.

mailto:comment@philsands.com/

Phil Sands is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for British GQ magazine.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company