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2004-09-29

Free: Kidnapped Bridge to Baghdad Workers Released in Iraq

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Four humanitarian workers–two Italians and two Iraqis–were freed yesterday after being kidnapped in Iraq three weeks ago. Simona Torretta, Simona Pari, Raad Ali Abdul Azziz and Mahnouz Bassam all worked with A Bridge to Baghdad, a humanitarian group that opposed much of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq including the sanctions, invasion and occupation. [includes rush transcript]

Four humanitarian workers–two Italians and two Iraqis–of the organization "A Bridge to Baghdad" were freed yesterday after being held hostage in Iraq for three weeks.

The women, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari both 29 years old, were kidnapped from their Baghdad office in broad daylight, along with Iraqi aid workers Raad Ali Abdul Azziz and Mahnouz Bassam.

The two Italians received a rapturous welcome as they arrived at Rome’s military airport on last night. Looking overjoyed, they stepped off the plane dressed in traditional Iraqi clothes into the arms of waiting friends and relatives. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was at the airport to welcome them.

Simona Torretta told Italian news agencies "We have been treated with a lot of respect." Toretta and Pari have worked in Iraq for years with A Bridge to Baghdad, a humanitarian group that opposed much of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq including the sanctions, invasion and occupation. Torretta said the kidnappers "Understood our work and from that moment on the situation improved."

The BBC reports Torretta and Pari said the kidnappers had possessed no list or pictures of the aid workers when they stormed their Baghdad office on September 7th. Instead, they asked everyone their name before taking four of them away. The women told Italian officials they had been treated well but kept blindfolded for most of the time and had never seen their captors’ faces. They were kept together and in the same place all the time, with the exception of a quick move the day after the abduction. In the beginning, their two Iraqi colleagues were also with them, but they were taken away after a few days. They said their jailers spoke English.

A Kuwaiti paper reported that the Italian government paid a $1 million ransom for their release. Berlusconi avoided the topic when asked about the claim by reporters.

Describing their capture, Simona Torretta said "There were times when we feared we’d be killed. But at other times we laughed together." She also described how the captors came to apologize to the women as they were about to release them and even gave them a box of sweets for the journey home.

In footage captured by Al-Jazeera, the two Italians were received by the Red Cross outside a Baghdad neighborhood. They wore full black veils revealing only their eyes. They lifted their veils and Simona Torretta repeated, "Thank you," in Arabic.

Upon her return to Italy Simona Torretta said she planned to return to Baghdad. She said "I would do it all over again with all the consequences that carries even though I’m sorry for all the suffering my mother went through and didn’t deserve."

  • Jeff Guntzel, a staff reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. He has been to Iraq 9 times since 1998. For years, he was a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness. He has known Simona Torretta for 5 years.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Jeff Guntzel. He’s a staff reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. He has been to Iraq nine times since 1998. For years, he was a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness. He has known Simona Torretta for some five years. He joins us in our New York studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JEFF GUNTZEL: Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to be with you, Jeff. Can you describe Simona Torretta and the work that they do, and your response to the release of both the two Italian aid workers as well as their two Iraqi colleagues?

JEFF GUNTZEL: Sure. Well, the response was elation. We had seen the headlines, and then once we saw the pictures and them smiling, it was — that was when it became real. So, it was incredible joy, a lot of phone calls going back and forth to people that I had worked in the last few years who also knew Simona, the other Simona, Raad and Mahnouz. Incredible joy. As far as — I know Simona Torretta, that smile that you saw was kind of the smile you always saw on her face. I spent time with her working with her before the war. Bridge to Baghdad, of course, opposed the sanctions, and very clearly, and worked inside Iraq doing humanitarian work which is how Voices in the Wilderness got to know them and became very dependent on them because they were in country all the time. And then during the war, she went back, very courageous. And after the war, she stayed, running sometimes kind of dangerous humanitarian missions into Fallujah when it was sealed off and into Najaf. The program was working with Sadr City. Just very, very brave work, but also very importantly always an advocate, which is rare in that community, the N.G.O. community.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised that Simona Torretta said she would like to return to Baghdad?

JEFF GUNTZEL: No, I wasn’t surprised at all. I think anybody who spent a lot of time there is constantly nagged by that feeling. She is different in that she goes back. So, I’m not surprised. I mean, she spent the better part of a decade going back and forth to Iraq. And you know, the relationships you build there stay pretty close to your heart. You know, I can speak for myself, you feel a constant nagging when you are not there anytime you read the headlines. So I’m not surprised at all. In fact, I’m encouraged by it.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the taking of these hostages, and the numbers of hostages taken, still being held, those whose names we know and those whose names we don’t know?

JEFF GUNTZEL: Well, I think — I mean, the thing I’d like to say is, you know, you saw something very interesting and typical happen just after they were released — or just after they were kidnapped, I’m sorry. Initially, you often saw their names next to the names of their Iraqi colleagues. The two of them who were kidnapped, Raad and Mahnouz. But as you kind of followed the story, which I did every 20 minutes for three weeks, those names started dropping away and it became the two Italians, it became the Simonas, and the Iraqis just kind of disappeared. And you wondered had the Italians not been kidnapped with them, would the story have disappeared altogether. And that certainly has happened with kidnappings of Iraqis just going about more ordinary lives inside Iraq. I was there just after the invasion, about two weeks after the invasion. Already, you were starting to hear rumors about the abductions of young girls. That was the first thing you started to hear. Then the children of the rich, older boys, maybe 15 to 17 were being kidnapped and sold back to their families for a ransom. And it was difficult to tell just then if it was rumor or fact. But then the news stories started coming out. There have not been many of them. You can find a handful talking about this underground economy of kidnapping. So, I think the important thing when we talk about these kidnappings and all of the internationals that are held, the internationals that have been killed, is to remember all of the Iraqis who are daily faced with this threat. It’s kept some of them out of schools, it’s kept a lot of people off the street. I have a friend who is working for the American Friend Service Committee, has been in Baghdad for the better part of the last year-and-a-half. In one week four months ago, their landlord knew of, had some connection to, seven Iraqis who were kidnapped. And as I recall it, all but one of them were returned alive. But one was actually killed. Of course, these do not make the headlines. It’s very important to keep that in mind.

AMY GOODMAN: One other thing that is not discussed very much in the media is what A Bridge to Baghdad does and their position on the occupation, not to mention the invasion.

JEFF GUNTZEL: Sure. What they do is — I mean, specifically recently, they have been involved in water projects trying to rehabilitate water systems in small towns in Iraq. They have been involved in helping schools. They have often been involved in work with the schools for as long as I have known of them and have been affiliated with them at all. They have worked with the U.N. and in partnership with the U.N. a lot. So, they have really been a humanitarian organization, but inside Italy, they’re an anti-war organization. They’re pacifists. They were against the war, they were against the sanctions, and they’ve been kind of the leading voice there, sending that message. So it was ironic last night to watch — see the pictures. You could see them smiling, and you can see Berlusconi kind of popping up behind them, kind of trying to get in the picture, but they were paying him no mind. There’s good reason for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Guntzel, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Reporter with the National Catholic Reporter. He has been to Iraq nine times, knew one of the Simonas, Simona Torretta, very well, for five years. This is Democracy Now!

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