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Insurgents Detain and Release Humanitarian Activists Near Fallujah

by Dahr Jamail

As abductions of foreigners working in Iraq continue, four Westerner humanitarian activists recently detained say captors treated them humanely, provided medicine, and released them unharmed

Baghdad; Apr. 19, 2004 – Last Wednesday, Sunni resistance fighters detained five Westernerns and a Palestinian Iraqi who were traveling from the besieged city of Fallujah to Baghdad. In a month marked by numerous kidnappings of foreigners by Iraqi guerillas, the activists recount that their captors treated them well and released them unharmed.

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British activist Bethan Jones said of her captors, “From the moment they took us out of the vehicles until the moment we were released, they treated us with complete and utter humanity -- to the extent of giving me medicine since I was sick.�

After US Marines besieged the city for more than a week, killing hundreds of Iraqis, Jones and fellow activists Jo Wilding, David Martinez, and Donna Mulhearn had traveled to Fallujah to carry out emergency work that included escorting ambulances to rescue wounded Iraqis. They also assisted in evacuating from the city Iraqi families trapped in their homes by more than a week of heavy fighting.

While leaving Fallujah Wednesday, the four activists were traveling with British journalist Leigh Gordon and a Palestinian Iraqi who went by the name “Ghraib�. The six were reportedly caught in crossfire between US Marines and Iraqi resistance forces, known to locals as mujahideen. To escape the crossfire, drove to a nearby village, where they say several armed Iraqi guerillas detained them.

“We were surrounded by mujahideen with RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] and Kalashnikovs [assault rifles] demanding to know what we were doing there,� recounted David Martinez, a Mexican American independent filmmaker.

“The people who captured us were not lunatics, gangsters, foreigners, or barbarians. They were the people of Fallujah fighting for their own survival, and they were civilized and courteous.” -- David Martinez

The guerillas separated Leigh Gordon and Ghraib from the rest of the group and took them to a different location where the two were reportedly questioned and released the next day. The armed men took Wilding, Jones, Martinez and Mulhearn to a nearby house, where they say they were held briefly and then transferred to another house in separate cars. There, the activists say, the guerillas interrogated them and searched their bags.

“They asked us who we were, what we were doing in Iraq, why we’d gone to Fallujah, these types of questions,� said Wilding, a British political activist and journalist who is currently working with non-governmental organizations in Iraq.

The captors asked why they had so many cameras, according to Martinez, who replied, “Because we went to Fallujah to help the wounded, and to report the truth of civilian casualties caused by US snipers and US military bombing raids.� When their questioners saw that the group’s photos backed up their explanations, the activists say their story was accepted as the truth.

When it grew dark the guerillas drove the foreigners to a third house where they spent the night. "Because I was feeling so ill,� Jones said, “to my amazement I was actually tucked in by a mujahideen fighter with his face covered by his kuffiyeh [headscarf], and his Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder."

After a stressful night due to what the group members reported as the distinctive sound of US cluster bombs detonating in Fallujah, the activists say their captors delivered them to a safe place and released them.

To date, no journalist or humanitarian activist apprehended in Iraq during the recent wave of such incidents has been killed by the resistance. Iraqi fighters have held some noncombatants as hostages for periods of up to a week, but so far all have been released essentially unharmed. Iraqi guerillas are known to have executed one hostage: an Italian mercenary employed by a private security firm. Captors have threatened and terrified other internationals, and some seven are reported still in guerilla hands, but most of the more than 50 abductions have ended with the captives’ release.

Reports of the more spectacular and adversarial abduction incidents have frightened many aid workers, journalists and other noncombatants into staying put in safer locations, moving about more quietly, or leaving Iraq altogether.

“We knew we ran the risk of being kidnapped, but felt like it was worth it because what the Americans were doing in Fallujah was so outrageous,� Wilding said. “We’d been there once and been shot at by US snipers while escorting ambulances. We’d seen unarmed civilians killed, and it seemed that we were the only people that could move around in the areas controlled by US snipers.�

Martinez also stated, “The people who captured us were not lunatics, gangsters, foreigners, or barbarians. They were the people of Fallujah fighting for their own survival, and they were civilized and courteous.�

Many Iraqis who have been released from US prisons in the country have complained of torture and humiliation. The military has court-martialed several US soldiers for abusing prisoners. Iraqis detained by coalition forces are not typically released, even after suspicion of wrongdoing in individual cases has been dropped.

In recent days the US military has continued its bombardment of Fallujah, according to reports by refugees fleeing Fallujah for the relative safety of Baghdad.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Dahr Jamail is a contributing journalist.

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