"We Will Bring Him Home"
Kidnapped by Iraqi terrorists while documenting looting in Iraq, Micah Garen's prospects looked grim. But Marie-Hélène Carleton and her network of SAIS friends refused to give up... or let go.
Pushing past her, I entered the hallway into the apartment and was surrounded by noise — disorienting, strangled, sharp, loud. The noise melded with the air. I looked into the kitchen as I walked by. The sound was clearly coming from there. Eva was lying on the kitchen floor next to the dog bowl, screaming.
Standing now in the middle of the room, I looked toward the big computer screen, but Loren blocked my view, and Tom rose to join him. No one spoke.
"What's going on?" I asked.
Chantal held my arms. "There's a video."
Micah had reappeared. He was one-dimensional, on a screen. For the past days, we had searched, craved, asked for information. Here it was.
Forcing myself forward, I tried to get by Loren and Tom. "I have to see it." They moved closer together. "No, you can't," Tom said firmly.
"I have to see it! Let me see it!" I pushed my way toward the computer and leaned in to the screen.
I began to scream. Suzanne came in, and I wanted to be strong for her. She was followed by Nabila.
There was a video.
My thoughts separated from my body, and I struggled to breathe. Chantal moved closer to hold down my arms, which had begun to move on their own. I was drowning, every breath a struggle, raspy and pained, as I listened to them.
Micah was in a video.
American businessman Nick Berg was taken hostage in Iraq in May 2004; in June it was South Korean translator Kim Sun-il. Both men were videotaped and beheaded by a group associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Journalists Marie-Hélène Carleton, SAIS '98,
and Micah Garen had gone to Iraq that spring to begin work
on a documentary about the looting of archaeological sites
in the southern part of the country. They spent five months
together reporting, photographing, and filming, traveling
between Baghdad, where they stayed, and Nasiriyah, the
location of several important sites being ravaged by
Four Corners Media
At the end of their trip, after Carleton had left Iraq,
Garen was kidnapped in a Nasiriyah market. The couple tell
their story in a new book, American Hostage: A Memoir of
a Journalist Kidnapped in Iraq and the Remarkable Battle to
Win His Release.
Though the United States had declared an end to major combat operations a year earlier and, in June 2004, had turned political authority over to the interim Iraqi government, security in the country was deteriorating. Insurgent uprisings that had begun in the spring continued throughout summer, and coalition forces at times lost control of several cities.
Kidnappings were on the rise. Both Iraqis and foreigners were taken hostage, and many were killed. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 22 journalists were taken hostage in Iraq during 2004, though all but one, Italian Enzo Baldoni, were released.
Kidnappings aside, the war in Iraq has been one of the
deadliest for journalists in recent history, according to
the CPJ Web site, with 23 journalists and 16 media workers
killed just in 2004. "Not quite two years after the U.S.-
led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, reporters in Iraq
continued to face banditry, gunfire, bombings, and
insurgent missile attacks," the site reads. "By mid-year,
escalating hostilities made most of the country a virtual
no-go zone for foreign reporters."
Garen films an Italian Carabinieri patrol of looted
sites in the Dhi Qar province. Below, Carleton, wearing a
traditional Iraqi hijab.
Four Corners Media
According to the couple's friends, it was no surprise that Carleton and Garen would want to go to Iraq, despite the dangers. It was a natural fit, for one, because Carleton was born in the region — in Beirut, to an American father and a French mother, both of whom worked for the United Nations — and Garen had focused on Near Eastern studies, archaeology, and landscape architecture at Cornell University. But they were also drawn to Iraq because they feared that the story of the looting was being ignored.
"Their commitment to telling the untold story in the developing world — that really drives them," says Aparna Mohan, A&S '97, SAIS '98, who met Carleton at Hopkins' Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and has been a close friend since. "I wasn't at all surprised that it would take them [to Iraq]. They had already been to Pakistan. They had filmed a documentary called Zero Tolerance about police brutality following the WTO meetings in New York. So they had already put themselves in the middle of some pretty hot situations."
Nonetheless, their families and their friends worried. "We all universally thought it was a terrible idea," says another grad school friend, Britta Crandall, SAIS '98. "If anyone would be supportive, it would be her friends from grad school. Being SAIS grads, we're the last ones to look at a crisis situation and take the immediate media reflection that it's got to be dangerous. The fact that we were slightly cautious about her going made her pretty cautious."
Carleton and Garen had met about five years earlier, drawn together by their shared interest in international issues. Both are photographers and writers, and had started a small company, called Four Corners Media, in 2000. "We both have an appreciation of some of these larger issues: environmental, refugee, why conflicts happen, the impacts of conflict," Carleton explains. "To be at the center of that pulse and to be able to share it with other people in these artistic ways is very inspiring."
Their first major project took them to Zeugma, in Turkey, in 2000. The ancient city made headlines when recently discovered ruins were threatened by floodwaters of the newly built Birecik Dam. They filmed a documentary that focused not only on the fate of the ancient ruins, but also on displaced villagers. (While there, they befriended and ultimately adopted Zeugma, a stray dog living at the archaeological site.) Other Four Corners projects have included an oral history of Americans' thoughts after 9/11 and a photo documentation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan in 2001.
In May 2003, The New York Times ran a front-page story about the looting at Isin, an archaeological site south of Baghdad. Carleton and Garen — along with the rest of the world — had read about the looting of the Iraqi National Museum immediately after the war. But this was the first they had heard about the destruction of the sites, even though the looting continued there nearly a month later — and arguably, Garen explains, the consequences were worse.
"Archaeology is a forensic science," he says. "The information and the context is destroyed because looters dig straight down for some sort of object."
"You can do an analogy to the burning of Alexandria," says Carleton. "That's what's happening."
Mesopotamia, the site of some of the world's first urban civilizations, is also the birthplace of writing. According to Glenn Schwartz, a Johns Hopkins University professor of Near Eastern studies, the archaeological sites contain building remains, tools, weapons, works of art, and written records, including works of literature, bureaucratic and economic records, and letters of ordinary people. "If we want to understand what makes us tick as a civilized society, the place to begin to look is in Iraq," he says.
Looters simply go after objects they think they can sell on the black market, often to collectors who don't understand the damage being done in the process.
"The terrible tragedy is that this looting is destroying the sites that have never been studied," Schwartz says. "They're really destroying human history."
Some looting had been going on since the first Gulf war, but as long as Saddam Hussein was in power, he minimized the destruction of the country's cultural heritage. After the 2003 war, when there was no functioning Iraqi government and the United States did little to stop the looting, the sites were up for grabs.
"We would hear stories that illustrate just how massive the looting was," Carleton says. "Sometimes there were buses that would drive looters to the sites. Or they sold concessions — women would come and cook — because it was such a city of looters."
"One estimate is that in the first three months after the 2003 war, the amount of looting equaled the entire amount of the previous 10 years," Garen says, attributing the figures to Abdul Amir Hamdani, the inspector of antiquities for the Dhi Qar province.
Garen visited Iraq first in June 2003, photographing and writing about the looting; his photos were published by the Associated Press, The New York Times Magazine, and Science magazine, among others. He returned the following December to lay the groundwork for a documentary. After that second trip, he and Carleton approached the Carr Foundation for funding. Their documentary would attempt to focus world attention on the terrible consequences of the looting, and to put a human face on it by following the stories of the Iraqis trying to protect the sites.
They knew they would have to take precautions. Carleton
dressed in a long, black abaya, both sometimes wore
Kevlar vests, and they traveled on Carleton's French
passport. But they believed the risk was worth taking.
|"You know the statistics," says Garen. "And statistically this has been the most deadly war for journalists, but plenty of journalists come back."
"No one was covering this. This would have meaning,"
Carleton says. "Another pull was to be in an area that's at
the center of foreign policy decisions.
"On a personal level," she continues, "this was a huge challenge. Being interested in telling stories, this was taking it to a new level. If this was going to be my profession, I needed not to stay in my comfort zone." She concedes, however, that "it was a difficult decision because the security situation was getting worse and worse."
"When you're trying to make a decision to go — am I safe or am I not? — there is no answer, it's just probabilities," says Garen. "You know statistics, and statistically this has been the most deadly war for journalists, but plenty of journalists come back."
By the end of July 2004, the couple had nearly
finished shooting. Carleton left Iraq, first for a European
trip with her mother and sister, then home to New York and
their dog, Zeugma. Garen stayed behind to wrap things up
and to get a few final shots. The Carr Foundation had
recently made funds available to the Nasiriyah Museum
through the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage
to hire 20 civil guards to protect the heavily looted
archaeological site at Umma, near Nasiriyah. Garen wanted
footage of their first day on the job. He also wanted to
film at the market where many of the guards purchased their
Carleton films the aftermath of the looting. "When you
look out at the sites, they're these sandy, dusty
stretches," she says. "I think people sometimes find it
hard to visualize the value of what's under
Four Corners Media
On Friday, August 13, Garen and his Iraqi friend and
translator, Amir Doshi, left Baghdad for Nasiriyah. While
in Iraq, Garen writes in the book, he did his best to blend
in: He had grown a thick mustache, he dressed in Iraqi
clothing, and in public he never wore his glasses, which
would mark him as a Westerner. That morning, he carried
with him only the things he needed — his watch and
wallet, some money, his International Herald Tribune
press card, a small camera — and he let Doshi do the
At the market, Garen successfully filmed one seller's wares before coming across a man displaying a peculiar-looking machine gun. Doshi suggested that it would be OK to photograph it. "Against my gut, I snapped a picture," he writes. "The man suddenly became agitated."
Though Garen deleted the image from his digital camera, the man insisted on getting the film. When Garen couldn't produce it, the man erupted. Doshi tried to calm him down and told Garen to go back to the car. But the situation escalated, and a crowd began to gather. As Garen walked past the first gun seller, the man asked, in Arabic, "What happened?" Garen responded, "I don't know" in Egyptian — instead of Iraqi — Arabic. He writes, "I wanted to grab the words as they left my mouth, the look on his face confirming my mistake. . . . He seized on my words, his face erupting in rage and excitement. Jabbing his finger in the air at me, he began shouting, 'FOREIGNER!'"
Despite their efforts to escape — and Garen's pleas that he was French and a journalist — Garen and Doshi were shoved into a car and driven away.
First they were taken to the office of Muktada al-Sadr — a good sign, Garen thought. Sadr, the young Shi'ite cleric leading the uprising in Najaf, seemed to recognize the benefit of maintaining good relationships with journalists, even issuing press credentials to reporters who wanted to work in Sadr City. Though his militia, the Mahdi Army, had detained journalists, as far as Garen knew, none had been killed.
But they didn't stay long in Sadr's office. They were blindfolded, their hands tied, and driven out to the marshes. In a space between some date palm trees, their captors had created a prison of sorts from newly cut fronds stuck in the ground. In this stifling enclosure, they would spend the next several days — not knowing who their captors were, what might secure their release, and if they'd make it out alive.
Back in New York, after a few days without hearing from Garen, Carleton was becoming increasingly worried. On Monday morning, her worst fears were confirmed when Garen's mother, Suzanne, called to tell her that Garen had been kidnapped.
"I felt nauseated," Carleton writes, "the dizziness that comes from realizing the ground has disappeared beneath you. A story about Micah, not by Micah. On Al Jazeera, the Arab world's largest satellite TV station."
Her first thought was to reach out to her network of
friends. "Everything around me confused and dark, only one
thing was clear: Micah needed us and we had to act. I had
just returned from Iraq; I knew the country, I knew people
there, I could help him. Words formed inside of me, and by
speaking them, I could make them true.
Carleton, Amir Doshi, and a museum guard in July
Four Corners Media
"Suzanne, he is OK. He will be OK. I promise you. He will
come home, I promise you we will bring him home."
As soon as word got out that Garen was missing, Carleton's friends and colleagues from SAIS sprang into action.
"The first reaction was just shock and worry," says Britta Crandall. "There wasn't disbelief — we knew they were in dangerous places." The first thing they did, she says, was "mobilize." "We knew there were SAIS connections there, and through [the Department of Defense], the State Department, local channels, through Arab professors at SAIS who could help out on a less official capacity — just to try to get balls rolling. We all immediately got together and started trading a lot of phone calls."
"For everyone, it was 'OK, what can we do?'" says Russell Crandall, SAIS '97, Britta's husband. "How do we put the SAIS network into the highest gear possible?"
Their approach included calls to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former SAIS dean, who assigned a DoD staffer to the case, and SAIS Professor Fouad Ajami. One SAISer had a friend who had just returned from Iraq, where he was working for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Another had a colleague whose father was the NATO supreme allied commander. Friends called contacts in the State Department, Congress, the U.S. embassy, humanitarian organizations, and the media.
"Because we were all from SAIS, we felt a little less helpless because we all did know someone," says friend Sherri Levy, SAIS '98. "I don't work in politics and I don't have any direct influence, but we all were three or four steps removed from power — some were one step or two — and we all knew we could reach out for help."
In addition to her SAIS friends here at home, Carleton turned to Doshi's family and the community of journalists she and Garen had worked with in Iraq, a group that was able to provide crucial on-the-ground information. Journalists and fixers — Iraqis who translate for foreign reporters and help set up meetings and interviews — pursued every conceivable contact, including important sheiks and other leaders close to Sadr.
The cleric, she understood, could be critical to bringing
Garen home. Sadr had previously spoken out against
kidnapping, saying that it went against Islamic law. And
just days before Garen was taken, another journalist
hostage, James Brandon, was freed when Sadr called for his
Carleton and Garen safe at home; behind them, a painting
by the Iraqi artist Kamil.
Photo 2005 ©
As Carleton worked through her grassroots network to get to Sadr, she knew it was crucial to control information, to keep everyone on the same page. The apartment she shared with Garen in New York's West Village became command central. Its small size is "the stuff of legends," says Mohan, and it was filled well beyond capacity during the ordeal. Carleton's sister, Chantal; Garen's mother, sister, Eva, and brother, Jonathan; Loren, their intern at Four Corners Media; and two FBI agents — they were just some of the people crowded into the studio apartment, along with ringing telephones, computer equipment for tracking e-mails and news reports, charts of contacts on the ground in Iraq, and a makeshift shrine where people could think about and pray for Garen.
Information began trickling in, some of it solid, some of it speculative, some of it false: Garen and Doshi were alive; they had been beaten; they were held by a criminal gang who wanted money; they were held by a group with ties to the Mahdi Army; they would be released; they would be killed.
After a few days, Carleton got news that people in Sadr's Nasiriyah office were responding to the pressure coming from the grassroots network and working to have Garen and Doshi released. She began to feel hopeful, that progress was being made.
Until the video. Carleton learned that Garen's life had been threatened when a CBS reporter called for a comment and gave them the Internet link. The video showed Garen kneeling in front of five men. One pointed a Kalashnikov at his head. The kidnappers said they would kill their hostage if the United States didn't leave Najaf within 48 hours. Everyone in the apartment watched with horror.
"That was the scariest moment," Mohan remembers. "Everybody was having their own terrifying reaction. It was loud. It was very loud. People were crying. One guy ran in the bathroom and sat on the floor. I just remember sitting on their couch kind of curled up and looking at everybody, and kind of praying and not sure what would happen. It was chaos."
For Carleton, there was fear, but also frustration. "When you see the video, and you love that other person, the worst thing is not to be able to reach them," she says. "You wonder, what is he thinking? Is he thinking of me? Is he thinking about the fights we had? There's this gap that can't be bridged. You want to give them as much strength as possible, but how do you reach them?"
For Garen, it was the humiliation and the anger at being used as a pawn to hurt the people he loved: " I always think that I had the easy part. Everyone on this side was completely tortured — you know, that's the point of those videos. They have the impact they're intended."
The good of the video, Carleton says, was that it forced her to let go and then refocus her energies. "There was that hour breakdown," she says. "In a way, I'm glad it happened because you had to move beyond all that fear. Through the screaming and the crying you just get it out, so you're like, 'OK, there's 48 hours, we just have to redouble our efforts.'"
Those efforts were directed at convincing those close to Sadr that the cleric should speak out on Garen's behalf. Unfortunately, the Mahdi Army was under siege in Najaf, and Sadr's whereabouts were unknown. The second half of American Hostage tells the tense and harrowing story of Garen's continued captivity, Carleton and the network's efforts to reach Sadr, and the risky decisions they made to force the events that would finally lead to Garen's release.
On Sunday, August 22, Garen and Doshi were freed. Strangely, the first place they were taken was back to Sadr's office in Nasiriyah, this time for a press conference. On a phone interview with Al Jazeera, Garen thanked his family and friends, Carleton, and Muktada al-Sadr.
Later that night, after finally making it to the safety of the American base, Garen was able to phone home, where Carleton and the others — who had heard the news of his release — anxiously awaited his call.
In the fall, more than a year after the kidnapping, Carleton and Garen sit at a café in the Village. It's a little cold, but they sit outside so that Zeugma can get some time away from the confines of their tiny apartment. Their book has just been released, and they've been juggling many media requests: Good Morning America, Hardball with Chris Matthews, CNN's American Morning, NBC's Weekend Edition, among others.
One gets the idea that this isn't their favorite thing, being in front of the camera instead of behind it.
"Suddenly, after the kidnapping, everyone focused on our story," Garen says. "That's difficult for us — part of the reason we wrote the book is so that we don't have to focus on it in the film. We wrote the book so we could write the story that everybody is asking about, and then set it aside."
When they first got home, they began to work on the film right away. But when they were approached by a literary agent, they realized that a book would allow them to tell not only their own story but the many stories in Iraq that were often too complex — or too dangerous — to film for their documentary. It also enabled them to work through the trauma of the experience.
"I don't know if we would have had the time to work through it if it hadn't been for the book," Carleton says. "Emotionally, it was good to focus on this."
Hostage Terry Anderson, who was abducted in Beirut in 1985
and held captive by Shi'ite militants for more than six
years, told Carleton and Garen that, in fact, a short
period of captivity can have more long-term effects. "He
said that some of the hostages who have the most difficult
time dealing with captivity are those who are held the
shortest time because they don't have time to work through
it," Garen says. "And that's what happened to us initially
because we got thrown back into working on the film. Too
much moving ahead without enough looking back."
Celebrating Garen's release: From left, brother
Jonathan; sister Eva; mother Suzanne; Carleton's sister,
Chantal; Carleton; intern Loren Nunley; Garen's
sister-in-law, Nieves (holding son Tomas); and Aparna Mohan
Four Corners Media
As traumatic as the experience was, it hasn't deterred the couple from seeking out important stories. They went to New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. They are also working on a photoessay illustrating the effects of global warming, another about Cuban immigrants and the wet foot/dry foot policy, and other non-fiction projects.
"We're not shying away from danger," Garen says. "We are careful in how we plan things. We're more cautious now of going into places where you're not just facing danger, but you're facing people who will judge you because of your nationality."
"This is their life. They're going to be constantly thrust into conflict situations," says Mohan. "And as much as it's an adjustment for them, it's a different kind of adjustment for us, their friends and their family."
The couple say they will go back to the region someday. For now, they remain dedicated to their documentary — they are currently editing the film and raising post-production funds, and expect to release it next fall — and to their effort to call attention to the ongoing looting.
"Winston Churchill said a country that forgets its past has no future," Garen says. "Sumerian history is not just Iraqi history. It is human history. This is the footprint for us as intelligent beings who can express themselves in writing and literature. And if there's no appreciation for that, we may as well go back to the Stone Age."
Catherine Pierre is the magazine's associate editor.
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