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.
In fact, they had good reason to be afraid. Abu Ghraib was “the biggest, most feared prison in Iraq, perhaps the Middle East”. 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”. 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.”
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. According to a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat himself got involved, 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.”
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
“Missing Journalists Safe in Jordan“, CNN on line (1 April 2003).
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.)
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.
“Missing Journalists. . . .”
Bart Jones, “Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman freed with help from Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority“, Newsday (April 2, 2003).
Rome Neal, “Joy for Journalists’ Families“, CBS News on line (31 March 2003).
“Missing Journalists. . . .”