Eight Days in Abu Ghraib

On this day in 2003, British journalist Matthew McAllester, in Iraq to cover the war for Newsday, was arrested in Baghdad along with his colleague, Peruvian-born photographer Moises Saman. It was the beginning of a difficult, and still unexplained, eight-day ordeal.

McAllester and Saman were taken from their hotel in handcuffs along with two other photographers, Molly Bingham (an American) and Johann Spanner (a Dane). No explanation was given for their arrest. At first, the prisoners were told they would be taken to Syria, but instead they were taken to Abu Ghraib prison, where they were held in separate cells and unable to talk to each other. “We thought we were going to be killed at any moment,” McAllester told his own paper later.[1]

In fact, they had good reason to be afraid. Abu Ghraib was “the biggest, most feared prison in Iraq, perhaps the Middle East”.[2] It was known as a place into which men disappeared for decades, if they ever came out at all; where prisoners were tortured and executed “without recourse to any normal concept of law”.[3] Indeed, from his cell McAllester could hear people being beaten and tortured in the room next to his. Living conditions were difficult, food minimal, and — with their cells flooded with light, and the noise of bombs falling near the prison and anti-aircraft missiles being shot from within nearly constant — sleep hard to get. And yet, although they were interrogated for several days and pressured to admit that they had been sent by the CIA, none of them were tortured. “It wasn’t much fun,” McAllester told CNN after his release, “but we were not physically hurt.”[4]

While Matt McAllester and his colleagues languished in Abu Ghraib, a remarkable assortment of people were working for their release. Moises Saman’s grandfather was a Palestinian, and he still had family living on the West Bank. Those relatives appealed to the PLO to intervene.[5] According to a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat himself got involved[6], sending a former Palestinian ambassador to speak with the head of Iraqi military intelligence. Also working for the group’s release were the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Red Cross, the Vatican, and even Mohammed Aldouri, Iraqi ambassador to the UN, who “expressed his concern about the situation and his desire to help.”[7] 

Eight days after they were arrested, again with no explanation, the prisoners were given their clothes and possessions, driven to the Jordanian border and set free.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014


[1]Missing Journalists Safe in Jordan, CNN on line (1 April 2003).

[2]Matthew McAllester, “Eight Days In an Iraqi Prison“, L. A. Times (April 23, 2003), chapter 2, p. 3. (The first ever Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism was awarded to McAllester and Saman for this article. McAllester also wrote about his experiences, and about life for the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, in the book Blinded by Sunlight: Emerging from the Prison of Saddam’s Iraq.)

[3]Washington Post Book World review, (quoted here). Later, of course, it became known in the west as the place where a group of American soldiers tormented their own prisoners.

[4]“Missing Journalists. . . .” 

[5]Bart Jones,Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman freed with help from Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, Newsday (April 2, 2003).

[6]Rome Neal, “Joy for Journalists’ Families“, CBS News on line (31 March 2003). 

[7]“Missing Journalists. . . .”

The Antrim Torchbearer

On this day in 2012, 17-year-old Gemma McAllister of Glengormley, Northern Ireland, carried the Olympic torch through Antrim, cheered on by thousands of local people.[1]

The opportunity to carry the torch was an appropriate honour for someone who has done so much to advance the cause of youth sports in her country – and beyond. In addition to playing football (soccer) internationally, she also represented her school in hockey and girls’ rugby and played water polo for Belfast team the Donegall Diamonds. Since 2009 – the year it began in Northern Ireland – Gemma has been part of the Youth Sport Trust’s Young Ambassador programme, which has as its goal “changing young people’s lives through sport”.[2] 

She served on the programme’s steering group and has worked to encourage young people to participate in sports. She even held a mini-Olympics event, in which a hundred primary school children participated.[3]

In January of 2012, Gemma’s love of sport took her all the way to Egypt, where she attended a youth sport conference as part of the British delegation. The conference focused on creating sporting opportunities for young Egyptians.[4] While there, Gemma gave a speech on behalf of the British Council in Egypt.[5] At home, her position as ambassador involved promoting last year’s Olympics and Paralympics in London, and in this role she was involved in a project that brought athletes from several middle eastern countries to train in Antrim during July and August in preparation for these major sporting events.[6] 

Gemma was selected to be a torchbearer by the Youth Sport Trust “for her outstanding contribution as a Young Ambassador”. The experience, she recalls, “was unbelievable.”[7]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]‘Olympic Torch Relay: Antrim’s Moment to Shine, in Active Antrim, issue 14, September 2012-January 2013): 4.
[2] Youth Sport Trust:About Us

[3]‘Moment to Shine’, Olympic Games Official London website: Torchbearers: Gemma Mcallister

[4]Sporty Gemma on British team off to land of pyramids for conference, Belfast Telegraph, 3 January 2012.
[5]Successful Year for Antrim Grammar, Antrim Times, 26/12/12.

[6]FiveAthletics and Paralympics teams to train in the north‘, Athletics Northern Ireland, March 2012.
[7]‘Young Ambassador Carries Torch in Antrim’, Youth Sport Trust: news, 7 June 2012.

This Week in Macalister History . . .

Major events in the history of the Macalisters take a bit of a break in October, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at what’s happening in the Macalister world at the start of October of this year. Macalisters in the arts and entertainment have certainly been busy. David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, is hard at work preparing for the 10 October opening of Romeo and Juliet. The company celebrates its 50th anniversary on 2 November of this year, which has led to quite a bit of media attention. Back in the UK, Irish actress Amy McAllister (whose television work includes roles in Call the Midwife and Emmerdale) is currently appearing as Nellie, the female lead in The Man on Her Mind at Charing Cross Theatre in London’s West End. Performances are given six nights a week, with an additional matinee performance Saturdays. The play runs through 27 October. To the north, award-winning Scottish comedian Keir McAllister (whom the Edinburgh Evening News called “…a gifted comedian destined for much bigger things”) has been touring the west coast with his Walking in My Shoes tour. This week he appeared in Tyree, Fort William and the Isle of Mull.

Macalisters were also busy studying insects, of all things. Dr Erica McAlister, curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London, undertook the last Specimen Collecting Field Trip of the season. This is part of a research project she and others in her department have been doing for the Ministry of Defence at a ‘top secret military testing station called Porton Down’. Details of the excursion can be found in her blog. Meanwhile, in the US, mosquito control expert Janet McAllister of the Center for Disease Control has been kept quite busy working to contain this year’s deadly outbreak of the West Nile Virus.

Charitable undertakings by members of this clan were also celebrated this week. On Sunday, the Wellesley (Mass.) Mothers Forum celebrated its 21st birthday; this non-profit community organisation, now 600-members strong, was established in 1991 by Lisa Macalaster and Maureen Bousa. Also on Sunday, but across the ocean, Leona McAlister, her daughter Maria McAlister, and her sister Pauline Murty, all of the Isle of Bute, were featured in the Buteman for their participation in September’s Great Scottish Run (a half-marathon), by which they raised £2,676 for the Beatson Oncology Centre.[1] Taking a slightly different approach to helping others was Don McAlister in Cape Town (S. Africa), whose latest editorial beseeched his readers to pay building contractors fairly.

Other Macalisters have been occupied with violence prevention this week. On Monday Detective Sergeant Randy McAlister of the Cottage Grove (Minn.) Police Department was interviewed by the local television news after a recent workplace shooting in that state. McAlister is a pioneer in the emerging field of threat assessment, which attempts to predict and prevent such events. He and his colleague spoke about the ‘red flags’ that often precede these tragedies and how to recognise them in time. The next day, Fort Morgan (Colo.) mayor Terry McAlister signed a proclamation making October National Domestic Violence Awareness month in his town. Various activities and programmes have been planned “to work toward improving victim safety and holding perpetrators of domestic abuse accountable”. The town council will be working in conjunction with S.H.A.R.E., Inc., a nonprofit group that serves battered women and their children in northeast Colorado.

And finally, Macalisters were also busy in politics this week. Wayne McAllister, Controller of Naugatuck Borough in Connecticut, reported on Wednesday that the borough had finished its fiscal year with a surplus of about US$1 million. Perhaps he should be running the country. The following day the Scotsman named Colin McAllister as one of those chosen by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to serve as political advisers to the Scottish government. This follows the loss of two senior advisers who left to serve in the Scottish National Party and the Yes Scotland independence campaign. And on Friday, Sinn Féin councillor Noreen McAllister was also in the news, doing what she was elected to do: speaking for the people. Councillor McAllister is trying to get the Moyle District Council (N. Ireland) to make structural changes that will eliminate the flooding problem experienced by some of her constituents.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] This is probably cheating, as neither his accomplishment nor his media recognition took place in the past week, but 10-year-old James McAllister of Darlington (England) also ran for charity in September. He completed the 4km Junior Great North Run in 22 minutes, running to raise money for leukaemia and lymphoma research. Well done, James!

New Zealand 40, Scotland 0

On this day in 2007, New Zealand beat Scotland 40-0 in the Rugby World Cup. The only Macalister involved was New Zealander Luke McAlister, who accumulated a total of 17 points over the course of the whole tournament.[1] The win against Scotland put the All Blacks through to the quarter finals, where they were defeated by France 20-18 – the first time in World Cup history that New Zealand failed to reach the semi-final.[2] Some commentators blamed the loss on the fact that McAlister was ‘sin-binned’ partway through the game, removing a serious threat to the French team. 

Ironically, only a few years later McAlister would prove quite an asset for a French team, when in his first season with Stade Toulousain he was the only team member to score in either the semi-final or the final of the Bouclier de Brennus (the French Rugby Union domestic league championship). A report of that match described McAlister as Toulouse’s “most dangerous player”, who was “unerring with his trusty right boot”. Thanks largely to his efforts, Toulouse won the game 18-12. It was the team’s 19th French championship win.[3]

You can read more about Luke McAlister’s career here.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]BBC Sport match report: “Scotland 0-40 New Zealand” by Thomas McGuigan (http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/rugby_union/7002859.stm)
[2]BBC Sport match report: “New Zealand 18-20 France” by Julian Shea (http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/rugby_union/7030471.stm)
[3]“Toulouse defend Top 14 title”, 9 June 2012 (http://planetrugby.com/story/0,25883,9818_7803752,00.html)

Aussie Macallister Makes History in Iceland

On this day in 2011, Australian Dylan Macallister scored the first goal ever made by Icelandic football team Breiðablik in a European Championship League. The goal took place 28 minutes into Breiðablik’s second game against the Norwegian team Rosenborg in qualifying round competition. Although they were the top team in their own country, Breiðablik had never before made it into the European league, and a week earlier Rosenborg had defeated them 5-0.

The teams were more evenly matched than they had been the first time they met; even so there were several near misses in the first half, where Rosenborg came close to scoring a goal. But it was 29-year-old Macallister who scored first, pulling Breiðablik into the lead. In the second half of the game, Macallister helped set up a another goal, this one made by his teammate Kristinn Steindórsson, who brought the final score to 2-0 Breiðablik

Rosenborg’s earlier victory was too significant to overcome, and the Norwegian team went on to the next round. But Breiðablik’s win in the second game was well deserved, and it was partly thanks to Macallister. Although he has since left to play in New Zealand, Dylan Macallister will go down in Breiðablik history as the first of their players to ever score in UEFA competition.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

Germany’s ‘Conservative in a Kilt’

On this day in 2010, David McAllister became the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony in Germany. McAllister was born in West Berlin, one of an increasingly visible group in modern Germany: The children of British soldiers who have settled in Germany and married local women. His father James, a Glaswegian, was stationed in West Berlin from 1969 with the Royal Corps of Signals. David McAllister, who still has relatives in Glasgow, holds dual citizenship and is bilingual.

McAllister took a traditional route to politics by training as a lawyer. He joined the Christian Democratic Union while still a teen and is so well regarded in that party that Chancellor Angela Merkel once asked him to serve as its general secretary. McAllister declined, preferring to remain for a while at the state level, and two years ago he became the youngest person ever to hold the premiership of a German state.

Like members of the Scottish diaspora everywhere, McAllister’s loyalties are with the land of his birth but Scotland is unmistakably part of his identity: He is known as ‘Mac’, supports Rangers Football Club and, after proposing to his future wife at Loch Ness, he was married wearing a kilt. It is, he explained, a family tradition.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

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Note: ‘Conservative in a Kilt’ is the name given McAllister by the Guardian in an article that appeared 4 June 2010; it is available here.