Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Hostage in Gaza
Every time I hear of a kidnapping in Gaza a chill goes down my spine, and in the case of Alan Johnston, the BBC’s seasoned Gaza correspondent who disappeared a week ago, the chills are going up and down my spine the whole time.
I’ve been to Gaza more times than I can count, first in 1993, and basically several dozen times ever since. As one of CNN’s Jerusalem-based correspondents, Gaza is my beat. I know almost every inch of the place and, though conditions are often difficult, enjoy working there.
In the last three years I’ve seen Alan almost every time I’ve gone there. He was a regular at breakfast at the Dira Hotel, the journalist’s favourite Gaza haunt. Many a morning I sat with Alan and talked about Gaza’s ever-changing political landscape—which faction, which leader was up, which down. On more than one occasion we talked about the danger of kidnapping. Alan’s attitude, and mine, was usually to treat the phenomenon as an unfortunate inconvenience, as a potential danger, but something that was becoming a fact of life there. Both of us saw Gaza as an intriguing, tragic place, where for the most part we were met with generosity and openness from people who, given their circumstances, might have been expected to be hostile.
I am no stranger to kidnapping. I was with CNN producer Riyadh Ali when we were stopped by gunmen around the corner from our bureau. At the time I thought it was just another run-in with one of the many Palestinian security services. Something that would involve a lot of talk, a bit of shouting, and would end with each going his own way. This time it was different. A car pulled in front of us, stopped, and several armed men—all in their twenties, none masked—got out and, without any regard for whom might be watching, came up to the taxi. Riyadh was in the front seat, I was in the back with Cairo camerawoman Mary Rogers. One of the men came up to my window, stuck a pistol in my face and calmly but firmly asked, “which one of you is Riyadh Ali?” Before I could even open my mouth, Riyadh said “I am Riyadh.”
The man with the pistol went around to Riyadh’s side, opened the door and told him to get out. Riyadh did as he was told, was led to the car, a white Peugeot 504, got inside and was gone. I was completely dumbstruck. The entire operation didn’t last more than 40 seconds.
And then they were gone. After three seconds, I recovered and called our Jerusalem bureau. Michal Zippori, one of CNN Jerusalem’s most experienced staff members, answered the phone. “Riyadh’s been kidnapped,” I told her. She gasped. I quickly explained what had happened. Within minutes alarms bells were going off in Jerusalem, at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, and in lots of other places. Bad news always spreads fast. Within minutes, it was picked up by the news agencies, Jezira, etc. etc. My phone started to ring, and for the next few hours I had little time to do anything but explain to everyone who called what had happened.
We went back to our Gaza bureau—and stayed there all night, speaking on the phone and in person to all sorts of people—including some very shady types—trying to find out who might be holding Riyadh, where and why. I called Riyadh’s cell phone more than a hundred times in the vain hope that he would answer, but the phone was off.
By the following afternoon, we were getting indications that Riyadh would shortly be released. This was September 2004, a time when kidnappings in Gaza were rare. Alas, they’ve become so common in Gaza that they don’t have the same impact as they used to. Since then there have been at least two dozen such incidents. My friend Lorenzo Cremonesi, correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, was also kidnapped, if only for a few hours. In his case it meant sitting for several hours in a house in Deir Al-Balah, a town in central Gaza, taking notes as his abductors went through a long list of grievances against the Palestinian Authority. When I spoke to Lorenzo after he was released, he seemed surprised that anyone even noticed he had been taken.
In Riyadh’s case, his captivity was far less mundane. He was tied to a chair and blindfolded most of the time 24 hours he was held. His captors interrogated him for hours. It was a traumatic experience.
I am hoping Alan emerges from this nightmare without too many psychological scars. He is a very easy-going, soft-spoken, good-humoured, amiable person, someone who takes his job seriously and takes the time to listen to every point of view. If anyone is well-equipped to endure, it’s Alan.
Despite the dangers, thankfully everyone who has been kidnapped has, eventually, been released. The longest time in captivity was for two journalists for the American network Fox, which was two weeks.
My fingers are crossed that all Gaza kidnappings will end the same way. Because I’ve covered another kidnapping that didn’t. I was in Kandahar, Afghanistan in January 2002 when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan. I rushed with the CNN crew to Karachi, and spent several weeks there, waiting, hoping, that Pearl would soon be released, following up every possible lead. Shortly after I arrived in Karachi I interviewed his wife, Marianne, who was six-months pregnant at the time. Despite the agony of the experience, she was composed, and hopeful he would soon be released, and the signals we received, though mixed, hinted he would, possibly, be freed, and soon. But that kidnapping did not end happily.
Gaza is a small, cramped and crowded place where it’s hard to keep a secret from anyone, where everybody knows everybody. Most Gazans are aghast every time a kidnapping takes place, and few will make excuses for the kidnappers. Kidnapping goes completely contrary to traditional Arab values of generosity and kindness to strangers. But it’s become a fact of life. In recent trips, my Gazan friends have insisted, they say out of courtesy but I’ve always suspected it’s really out of concern, that they accompany me back to my hotel after work or after a get-together.
Palestinian journalists in Gaza and the West Bank have held a variety of protests since Alan was abducted, calling for his immediate release, because the fact is that most Palestinians are just as concerned, and disturbed, by the spate of kidnappings as I and other journalists who cover Gaza are.
-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent
ABOUT THIS BLOGHear from CNN reporters across the globe. "In the Field" is a unique blog that will let you share the thoughts and observations of CNN's award-winning international journalists from their far-flung bureaus or on assignment. Whether it's from conflict zone, a summit gathering, or the path least traveled, "In the Field" gives you a personal, front row seat to CNN's global newsgathering team.