We speak with French reporter Christian Chesnot of Radio France who was kidnapped–along with reporter Georges Malbrunot of the Daily Figaro–by the Iraqi resistance. They were held for four months, from August to December 21st 2004. [includes rush transcript]
Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist today. At least 22 journalists were kidnapped by rebel forces in 2004. Two of them were Christian Chesnot, a reporter for Radio France, and Georges Malbrunot from the daily Le Figaro.
The two men were captured along with their translator, Mohammed Al Jundi, in August of 2004 and released four months later on December 21. They were held in five different locations in Iraq and often feared for their lives. Their kidnappers announced an ultimatum calling for the French government to repeal the law forbidding girls from wearing the Muslim head scarf at school. When Chesnot and Malbrunot were finally turned over to French Intelligence, the Islamic Army of Iraq said they decided to release the reporters because they saw France as their ally in opposing the occupation.
The same group kidnapped and executed Italian freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni after Italy refused to withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq. I spoke with Christian Chesnot in Italy last weekend. He attended the Conference to talk about the case of French journalist Florence Aubenas who was kidnapped with her translator and is still being held after five months of captivity.
- Christian Chesnot, French journalist with Radio France.
AMY GOODMAN: We now turn to another French reporter, Christian Chesnot of Radio France. Iraqi resistance kidnapped him and reporter Georges Malbrunot from the Daily Figaro. They were held for four months, from August to December 21, 2004. At the same time Italian freelance journalist, Enzo Baldoni, was kidnapped and executed. I spoke with Christian in Italy last weekend. He begins by talking about the day of his kidnapping.
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: The day of the kidnapping I was with Georges and our driver, Mohammed. We were going to Najaf on the Friday, 20 of August, because at this moment there was a very big battle around Najaf, and especially because Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the rebel, Shia rebel, was occupying the holy shrine of the Shia in Najaf. And Americans’ army and Iraqi army tried to crush him, and he refused to give up. So at this day we were going there because the Iraqi government said this is the last chance of the peace, so you have to leave, saying to Muqtada al-Sadr. So we are going on the way to Najaf and 50 kilometers south of Baghdad, in a zone called Mahmudiyah Latifiyah, it’s now called the Triangle of Death, we were on the wrong way and suddenly two cars were coming very fastly and a man wearing weapons, Kalashnikov, and were taking us hostage. It was a very rapid attack in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did they take you?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: It was, as I told you, it was near Latifiyah. It’s a town 50 kilometers south of Baghdad in a zone where you have Shia and Sunni in the same place. So this was — it’s a very tough zone. There is many attacks, many bombings. It is a very sensitive zone in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: And where did the kidnappers take you, the other reporter and your driver? Where did they bring you?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: They bring us in a little farm, not far from the place of the kidnapping, which take place in a countryside in a very remote area, and after we are brought to a place like a farm, you know, with different barracks, and we discovered after, this is a place where all the kidnapped people were taken to be interrogated and maybe to be executed. And so we are there and we — the first day we recorded a tape and rapidly we discovered the Islamic army in Iraq. They call — they said we are Sunni [inaudible]. We are the resistance and we are fighting against the American forces, against the spy, against the collaborators. So we want to check your identity if you are real journalist, if you are not spy, so it will take some time, and after, if you are okay, we can release you. But unfortunately for us there was division among this group. And on the two, three, first day, we could have been released, but their chief was very radical, and he said that we have two French guy, journalists speaking Arabic, so maybe we can use them to gain something politically or, you know, on the media side. This is why, after all, it take a long time, four months, and because we were — we couldn’t understand why we were taken hostage for so long, because France was against war, France don’t occupy Iraq. We don’t have soldiers, we don’t have, you know, companies working there, so there was long negotiation with the French authorities for our release.
AMY GOODMAN: And you made videotape, about 10 of them. Did they talk to you since you did speak Arabic about your being French and the difference that that made for them?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: Yes, and especially at the beginning, the first word I said to them, I am French journalist working for Radio France, Le Figaro, because it was, of course, you know, important, because if you are on the wrong side, you are executed. And I told them, you know, if I was an American journalist or British journalist, did you, you know, treat us like you have done until now? And they say, no. The journalists who represent your country. So are you French, even if you are journalist, you are representing your country. If you’re American, British, you are representing your country. It means Blair and Bush policy, and so you are occupying the country. So we played this card, the French card, because we know we have some sympathy there in Iraq and also I asked them at one moment because we have some discussion with them, I said, because at this time they had I think two American officer and one British soldier, and I said but why don’t you swap these two guy or three guys against, for instance, 1,000 prisoner of Abu Ghraib. You make a swap and you are winning, you know? And they say, no, no, the people in Abu Ghraib, the prisoner, they can wait. If we execute one guy, American, we cut his throat and we make a video, we’ll have the maximum of impact in New York or London. So they are using, you know, they are playing on the fear. They have — they are not crazy. They have a strategy, a strategy of fear, which is very cruel. But they are not — they can be very pragmatic. They can negotiate people. They negotiate, for instance, the release of the Iranian Consul, which is also a very difficult task, because the Iranian are Shia, and the group was Sunni. So, they can be very pragmatic. But they can be also very cruel. We have a poor colleague, Enzo Baldoni, an Italian one, and he has been executed because they said he’s a spy. So it’s a very horrible game.
AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera immediately reported that you were kidnapped. What role did they play?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: It was not just Al Jazeera, because the most important thing when you are taken hostage is the first day, the first two, three days, because your life is in danger, so you need a very strong mobilization abroad, especially in the media, not only Al Jazeera, but also in France and in Europe, to say Christian and Georges, they are journalists, they are working for Radio France, for Le Figaro, because it’s a kind of insurance, because now the journalists in Iraq are seen by the resistance or the terrorist group as a spy. So if rapidly you are not seen as a journalist, your life could be threatened. So this way it was very important. And in the case of Al Jazeera, it was the first time that Al Jazeera take officially a position on this issue of kidnapping, saying we ask, we demand to the hijacker the release of Christian Chesnot, Georges Malbrunot, and their driver Mohammed Al Jundi, because it is unfair, it’s against the Islam. It’s against all the human value.
AMY GOODMAN: And you feel that made a big difference?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: In our case I think it was a big difference and after we make a kind of investigation, because wrote a book with Georges about all this affair, and I know that some people around the hijacker appreciate, for instance, the role of Michel Barnier, the French Foreign Minister going to explain the French position in Al Jazeera and the role of the pressure also for other Islamic group, from Hamas, Hezbollah, was very important in our case.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who your kidnappers were?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: It was a mix. A mix of people of the ex-army of Saddam Hussein, of the ex-regime, people from the secret intelligence, from the republican army, republican guard and they are the leader of the group and there was also Islamist people and also some people, a few of them were belonging to the bin Laden group, al-Qaeda, maybe some of them. And some foreigners, so it is a mixture of nationalist people belonging to the old regime, intelligence service, army, all the security apparatus of Saddam. So these guy have — they have money, they have weapons, they have experience, plus Islamists, because now it is not very interesting for them to fight with the flag of the Baath and Saddam. So all these guy are fighting with the flag of Islam and the independence of Iraq. And plus Islamist and bin Laden people, very few.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by bin Laden people, since I thought Saddam Hussein and bin Laden were enemies?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: I mean, because — it’s a very curious thing, because during the Saddam’s time, there was no terrorist group in Iraq. Bin Laden was not in Iraq. But after the fall of the regime, the border were all open. So, you know, hundreds, maybe thousands of foreigner of people coming from everywhere from Yemen, from Saudi, from Iran, from all around, entered Iraq with sometime bad intentions, and maybe some people of bin Laden came in all this chaos. And so the American, you know, policy in Iraq has create bin Laden in Iraq, which was not the case before. And so we know for sure there was some bin Laden people, because in our case one of the hijackers said to us I am a fighter of the jihad of the Islam. I was trained in Afghanistan with Osama, with Cher Osama, you know. He don’t say bin Laden, he say Cher Osama, which is honorable, you know, title for the [inaudible]. He said I have fought also in Bosnia, and so I know — I can manage all the weapons, even chemicals, and so the Iraq is the starting point from the Islamic revolution in the world. So for us it is a new base. And he say, thank you, Mr. Bush, because you tried to kill us in Afghanistan and now we’re everywhere. And he said, also in 60 countries. Maybe it’s wrong. But he said, now we’re in a state of confrontation. And at this time it was very, not funny, but amazing because it was at the time of the election, American election, where there was John Kerry and George Bush, you know, competing in the U.S. election. And I said to him, maybe you will vote to Kerry because he wants a withdrawal of the U.S. troops in Iraq. He said not at all. We want George Bush. I vote George Bush because with him it will be more confrontation, more violence and after one year, two years, we will be more stronger because we will be more experienced in the fighting against the Americans. So, you know, it is a kind of very deadly game between this guy, the extremist or terrorist, as they call them in America, and George Bush putting, you know, fire and — you know, oil on the fire. And so, this very, I think, dangerous and very gloomy for the future. Because now we are really in a kind of clash of civilization.
AMY GOODMAN: French journalist Christian Chesnot, kidnapped by the Iraqi resistance for four months. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to French journalist Christian Chesnot of Radio France. Iraqi’s resistance kidnapped him and reporter Georges Malbrunot from the Daily Figaro, as well as their driver, held for four months, until December 21, 2004. I asked him if the videotaped messages his captors made him make gave him hope that the government, French government, was negotiating for his release.
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: During all the four months of captivity, we have made roughly ten videotape, and it was a kind in the framework of the negotiation between the French and the hijackers, so it was very simple. It was, you know, you give your name. "My name is Christian Chesnot, working for the French radio. I am in good health, and we are, for instance, the fifth of June 2005." And so, it was very short tape, and it was a kind of proof of life for the French negotiator, because they want to know if we are in good shape to negotiate. And so we make this kind of tape. But we make also some threats — you know threatening tapes. For instance, they said to us, "Now your situation is very critical, so appeal to your government to do something to find a solution. If not, you can be killed at any moment." So you make the tapes, and you are very afraid, of course. The tape were recorded in Arabic and English. "I appeal my — the French government to do something, because the situation is very critical for us if you don’t do something. Please, please do something, because we’ll be killed." And so these tapes were sent to the French government and after…
AMY GOODMAN: And after four months you were released. What happened on that day? Did you understand you would soon be released? Where were you released?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: Yes, in fact, we have some signals, you know, one week before, three days before, because we make a tape, videotape, three day before, and it was a very strange videotape, because it was a tape that they shoot us, you know, they shot us, you know, the front, the back, and walking because, as I say, the French wants to know if you are in good health, you can walk and you are okay — you know, your health is okay. So they shot us in different point of view, and together. Because all of the tapes were make separately. Me, and after, Georges, and for the first time, we made the tape together. So it was a proof, an evidence for the French, so we are two, we are in good health, and so the release could happen. So three day before we knew something — we were on a good track.
AMY GOODMAN: And where were you released? How did you get out of Iraq?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: It was a very strange release, because we imagined before that we should be released, for instance, in a more kind of natural place, you know, a mosque, I don’t know, a place or an embassy, you know, Arabic embassy. In our case, we were released not far from the airport on a motorway. It was 4:30 p.m. It was sunny. And the coffin, you know, the back of the car, were open and I jump, and I discovered the blue sky and the French Embassy cars and they say, "Come on. It’s finished," and I saw the hijacker with the kalashnikov, they have a coufier, so I couldn’t see their eyes, and it last, you know, two minutes. But what was very strange, it was, you know, in a traffic jam. You know, the cars was, you know, going everywhere and it could happen anything — it was a very sensitive moment, because maybe a U.S. patrol could happened, and you see, you know, people with gun, with the French Embassy. Everything can happen, you know. It was the case with Giuliana Sgrena, when she was released, after, on a checkpoint, American soldier shoot at her convoy. For us it was very miraculous, you know, to have nothing, and for the French secret service, it was very a success.
AMY GOODMAN: Was it done at night or in the day?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: No, it was at night. It was 4:30. But it was shiny, you know, in Baghdad, it was. So it was sunny, and so we were released at 4:30 and at 5:00 we were in a house of the French embassy, and immediately after, of course, we have a bottle of champagne — just a glass of champagne with the French ambassador, and after we have been debriefed by the French intelligence service for three or four hours, you know, saying everything, because it could be useful for other hostage and voila. And after, we spent the night in Baghdad in this house, and the morning after at 9:00 we have the French ambassador, he came with his vehicle, his big car, and we have been — and we went to the airport, passing the checkpoint and the French were very, not worried, but afraid that our visa has been expired, you know. So we fear that at the checkpoint at the airport at the controller of the passport maybe, the Iraqi will say, "Your visa is finished, so you have to do something," and there can be some confusion. And there was all the commandaux of the D.G., so the French Intelligence Service with us, the French ambassador, so they were afraid that something could happen. But finally it was okay. And the French military airplane came from Amman, coming to pick up us back to home.
AMY GOODMAN: And your driver, Mohammed?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: It was another story, because Mohammed, we were, you know, with him two weeks, the first two weeks in this farm, near Latifiya, and after two weeks, me and Georges have been transferred to near Baghdad, in the west of Baghdad, but he stayed alone behind us, and after we discovered that he has been released in Fallujah the 12th of November. So one month, roughly one month before us, and he was find by the American, and he was interrogated one or two days and afterwards, he was released. So it was also another big story.
AMY GOODMAN: So as you watch the news now, now you’re back in France, what is your assessment of what is taking place?
CHRISTIAN CHESNOT: My assessment is very gloomy, because I think that the situation in Iraq is chaotic, will become more violent. The violence will continue because you have a climate of revenge, of violence and there is no political — the political solution is not there. And especially I think now, the Iraqis are paying the price of the American mistake from the beginning because they — the Americans, they opened the borders, they dissolve the army, they dissolved the Baath party, all these things, and so, and all of these guys, you know, the border, you know, with the border open, all the extremists, the radicals could enter in Iraq and all of the people of the army, which was not all bad, you know, it’s not all with Saddam, you know, maybe 80% of the army could have been recycled, you know, and on the police, on the secret service, but on the contrary all of these guy are now in the resistance. This why we discovered them. They were officer in the army or in the secret service, and now they have the gun, they have the money, so I think they’re paying the price of the mistake. And now I don’t see, you know, positive things in the next, you know, few months.
So the only solution and the Americans are starting to think about it, is to include the Sunni community. But not just the Sunni community, the people of the army, of the ex-secret intelligence, all of these guy, you know, that could be very fruitful for the stability of Iraq. But you have to recognize your mistake and the problem is not the Shia and the Kurd. People are on the top of the state, so maybe for the government, they don’t want these guy coming back, not to power, but to the state, you know, it’s not a question of power. But if you say one side of the country, "You are criminals, you are terrorists," how can you build a new country and especially unify Iraq? So I think we are now in the slope of [unintelligible]. It means you have three big regions. You know, the Shia in the south, the Kurd in the north, the Sunni in the west, Baghdad in the middle, and you have a very weak central state and the periphery is starting to enjoy autonomy, and so the chaos will continue. So especially when you look at the election, which was an achievement in itself, because for the first time the Iraqis could vote, you know, but when you read, politically, the election, it is also the beginning of the [inaudible], because the Shia votes for the Shia, the Kurds vote for the Kurds, and the Sunni, they don’t vote. So you are basically making a sort of communitarization of the country, and so I think for the future it will be, I think, a disaster.
AMY GOODMAN: French journalist Christian Chesnot.