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I was a hostage: reporter -

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Broadcast: 15/09/2004

I was a hostage: reporter


TONY JONES: Well, since the war in Iraq began last year more than 100 foreigners have been
kidnapped, at least 25 have been executed.

British newspaper reporter Stephen Farrell is one of those who was taken hostage and got away.

"The first thing you see in the long, dark tunnel of eternity inside the barrel of a gun," he wrote
in an article in the Times of London, describing his capture near Baghdad in April.

Well, Stephen Farrell is still in Baghdad and he joins us from there now.

TONY JONES: Stephen, thanks for joining us.

It must send a chill through your veins to hear that three decapitated corpses have been found on a
roadside north of Baghdad today.


There but for the grace of God goes anyone who has been anywhere near that experience.

TONY JONES: It is such an unpredictable and chaotic time.

How can anyone tell the motives of the people who are picking you up?

There seems to be such a mixture of motives ranging from criminal gangs through to Islamists.

STEPHEN FARRELL: Yes, when I was taken in April, we are pretty much sure we were grabbed first from
a bunch of local bandits, thieves who stripped us of my watch, my money, most of my possessions and
then handed us on the food chain, if you like, to people who describe themselves as the resistance,
the unofficial fighters against the American-led coalition.

They had two very different agendas.

That was back in April.

Since then, the rules have been re-written and re-written again and I think in the last fortnight
or so the rules have been ripped up.

TONY JONES: Let me take you back to April, if I can.

You gave an extraordinary account in the Times of what was going through your minds and the mind of
another journalist with you, a female as I understand it, at the time you were picked up and put in
a taxi.

STEPHEN FARRELL: Yes, it was early April.

The siege of Fallujah had just started.

The four American contractors, the Blackwater guys had been found hanging from bridges and burned
or decomposed.

I'm sure people remember those images.

They were certainly fresh in my mind when we drove down the road into Baghdad to cover the story.

And this lorry just came out of nowhere, and it carried like 20 people with Kalashnikovs and

They started spraying Kalashnikov bullets at the car.

It was an armoured car.

I did a U-turn and headed off in the other direction, but they shot out my tyres and just grabbed
us out of the car 10 seconds later at gunpoint and led us off to a safe house.

It took about eight or 10 hours.

We were lucky, pretty much the first to be kidnapped and we managed to find some way of talking our
way out of it.

TONY JONES: Tell us about the moments in the car, the original car they put you in where you were
looking around, in gauging the attitude of the people around you, those who had just kidnapped you.

STEPHEN FARRELL: Well, it was both very professional and very amateur at the same time.

As I got out of the car, there was a guy who grabbed me by the throat and my watch was away within
a second or two.

At first I thought looting.

And then I realised the best way to disorient people, you have no idea of the time as soon as that
has been taken.

Hands were going through my pockets.

Everything went, cash, identity cards.

The lot.

They were scouring my passport screaming "Britani, Britani!"

I actually have an Irish passport and a British passport, but they got the British first.

My colleague was American, which didn't help.

As we were driven away in a taxi, one guy was trying to blindfold me while head butting me at the
same time.

The guy on my right had a knife to my throat.

The guy in front of me had a Kalashnikov to my head.

And you are just trying to work out which is the biggest threat - the head butt, the Kalashnikov or
the knife.

There is just no point in panicking in those circumstances.

You deal with them one at a time.

The guy who was head butting was actually very ineffectual, it didn't hurt, but the Kalashnikov was
the one that worried me.

You hope you don't say the wrong thing for the next eight hours, two weeks whatever you're facing.

TONY JONES: This first group then passed you on to a group who were more sophisticated and more
politically sophisticated as well.

STEPHEN FARRELL: Yes, it was a very interesting dynamic what was going on there which we didn't
work out until with the benefit of hindsight, we saw a few other kidnaps after that.

We thought we were grabbed by a butch of bandits who led us to a safe house.

As we were led into that, the resistance just happened to stumble on us or their own intelligence
network picked up and were coming to get us.

The bandits grabbed everything they could in terms of easy money.

I had $15,000 in cash on me.

They took that.

They handed us over to these guys knowing that they could get brownie points, if you like, from the
bigger fish, the insurgents from handing over a person who would be a political tool.

The second group interrogated us more much more calmly, but much more professionally, again and
again, Arabic, English.

In fact, I'm pretty sure now being a journalist wouldn't be enough.

It got me out then.

Now I suspect would be a very different story.

TONY JONES: Stephen, you quickly decided under interrogation that you had to tell the truth to
every question that was asked of you, no matter what, otherwise you were in trouble.

STEPHEN FARRELL: Yes, I work in Jerusalem and I work in Baghdad and I have to move between the two,
so you would be a fool if you didn't commute between those two cities without thinking ahead and
try to plan out a strategy just in case of such an eventuality.

I had one already, it was the truth.

There is no point in hiding the fact you come from Jerusalem.

They either find out you are keeping quiet or they find the document from where you are.

If you are just flat out with it and say, "I am a Middle East correspondent, so what. How do you
expect me to cover the siege of Jenin, how do you expect me to cover the death of the Hamas leader
Sheikh Yassin if I'm not moving through to the West Bank."

They were very sophisticated.

I had Israeli stamps all over one passport and as long as I had a good explanation and why I was in
an armoured car and why I was passing Fallujah.

It was like you could see the mental ticks in their heads.

OK, he has explained that, she has explained that.

Eventually, go.

But if you said the wrong thing or, I really think, if you had been caught out in a lie, we would
have been finished.

TONY JONES: Why do you think he released you in the end, because things have changed a lot now.

They are not even releasing journalists, the French journalist, the case in point here an in the
case of contractors like the two suspected Australian kidnap victims, it's going to be a lot more
difficult for people like that, isn't it?

STEPHEN FARRELL: Well, the first thing these resistance guys said to us, if you are contractors or
soldiers or spice you're dead.

We're going to kill you, chop your head off, hang you from a bridge.

If you're journalists, we will let you go.

So, it was as simple as that.

I don't think the rules have changed.

If you were a contractor from a country that supported the coalition, they would have killed us.

And, I'm afraid, if that had been for the recent Australians I'm very much afraid for their safety.

TONY JONES: If it does prove that they have been taken because we still don't know, does it depend
which group because we've even heard today of one man, one Australian-Iraqi citizen being taken
north of Baghdad paying his way out with a $US25,000 ransom.

STEPHEN FARRELL: Yes, this is the problem.

It does depend who you are taken by.

But who originally takes you isn't necessarily the same who you end up with.

In my experience, there were two different groups.

The fact is you can be taken by Zarqawi's Islamist or Al Qaeda faction.

If they get you, frankly, you would be dead if you're a Westerner.

You're not going to talk your way out of that one.

They are not interested in that one, they want to hack your head off on a video.

You can be taken by the former Baathists, the former Saddam loyalists.

And, fortunately, as we were able to turn the kidnap into an interview and ask them what message do
you have for Bush, what message do you have for Blair, they seemed to think they could use us this
way and gave us an interview and let us go.

So we flipped that.

But now, with the increasing number of kidnaps, money is coming into play and if money comes into
play, copy cat kidnapping comes into play.

You have criminals out there trying to jump on the bandwagon.

And I suspect the original people who took you for political reasons will think "if there is money
going so we will have that as well".

There is a massive blurring of those boundaries going on.

Islamists, political kidnapping, criminal, ransom demands, I think they're all mushing into each
other and I wouldn't fancy your chances of trying to work out who it is who has kidnapped you and
how to get out other than the in fact that you're at their mercy and you don't try to say anything
that aggravates them even more.

TONY JONES: Is there any role at all, as you see it, for government experts?

You may know that a plane load of logistics experts, they call them, is on the way to Baghdad now
in case it is found we have two Australian hostages.

STEPHEN FARRELL: Expertise is always helpful.

Knowledge on the ground is always helpful.

You...We speak to all the security experts we can in terms of getting general briefing and what to
do in situation X, what to do in situation Y if you're kidnapped what you have to do.

Frankly, I have to say, as a caveat, everything you learn in these forces you go to, by former
soldiers or whatever, I pretty much threw out the window because everything I had been taught is
what a soldier does in captivity.

Looking at the guys in who kidnapped us, they were former Baathists, former police, former
soldiers, they know how the military behaves.

We inverted it all and became slightly nuisance journalists.

We demanded paper, pen, "what do I call you", "what's your age".

If you make a nuisance of yourself, we made it up as we went along.

I wouldn't recommend anybody to do the same.

You're still abide by the same basic rules.

Stay calm, don't panic, stay away from awkward subjects like religions, how many their numbers are
and so on.

But, if you are journalist, act like a journalist.

Don't try and follow advice that somebody who was a soldier, or an ex soldier, or some book you
read somewhere told you to do.

TONY JONES: Stephen Farrell, we will have to leave you there.

We thank you very much for coming in and taking the time to tell us your story.