The Guardian 16 March, 2005

Italian reporter tells of dirty war

Terrie Albano

Little did Giuliana Sgrena know that after she had been released by her captors in Iraq she faced a bigger obstacle to her freedom: the US occupation forces. Sgrena, 56, a reporter for the Italian left-wing newspaper Il Manifesto, was released on March 4 after being held hostage for a month. US troops fired on the Italian convoy making its way to the airport, wounding Sgrena and another passenger, killing an Italian secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, who threw his body over Sgrena to save her life.

Writing two days after her release, Sgrena published her immediate thoughts about the harrowing events in her life in Il Manifesto under the headline "My truth."

Sgrena says her captors "said things that I would understand only later. They talked of transfer-related problems". Later she learned that the kidnappers believed if the Americans got involved there "would be an exchange of fire".

"They said they were deeply committed to releasing me, but that I had to be careful because 'the Americans don't want you to return'", she writes.

In an interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Sgrena said, "I believe, but it's only a hypothesis, that the happy ending to the negotiations must have been irksome. The Americans are against this type of operation. For them, war is war, human life doesn't count for much."

During the handover, Sgrena was blindfolded and taken to a car. Her captors told her within 10 minutes the Italians would come for her and then they left.

"I was motionless. I thought, what do I do? Should I start counting the passing seconds to another condition, the one of freedom? I had just started counting when I heard a friendly voice: 'Giuliana, Giuliana, this is Nicola, don't worry, you're free'", she writes.

"He kept talking non-stop, he was uncontainable, a flood of friendly words and jokes. I finally found comfort."

Sgrena describes going towards the airport. "It was less than one kilometre, they told me when ... I remember only fire. At that point a rain of fire and bullets came at us, forever silencing the happy voices from a few minutes earlier.

"The driver started shouting we were Italians. Nicola dove on top of me to protect me and immediately, and I mean immediately, I felt his last breath as he died on me", she writes.

The campaign to free Sgrena received widespread support among the Italian people, the European Union, the Arab League and European and Arab journalists and media organisations.

Sgrena, like the majority of the Italian people, opposed the war on Iraq. She was in Baghdad at the start of the war and wrote scathing articles about the brutality of the US occupation. She interviewed Iraqi women who were tortured by US forces at Abu Ghraib.

Sgrena had just finished interviewing Fallujah residents when she was kidnapped. "I wanted to tell about the bloodbath in Fallujah through the refugees' tales."

In "My truth" Sgrena gives a picture of the kidnappers and the trauma she faced. "In the first days of my abduction I didn't shed a single tear. I was simply mad. I told them directly: 'How can you abduct me, if I am against the war?' And they started a fierce debate. 'Yes, because you want to speak to the people, we would never abduct a reporter who stays shut in the hotel. And then the fact you say you're against the war could be a cover-up'", she writes.

"It was a month of ups and downs, moments of hope and moments of deep depression."

Sgrena writes about one humorous episode the day of her release. "The guard said he was a Rome [soccer] team fan and he was amazed that his favourite player had taken to the field with 'Free Giuliana' on his T-shirt."

The toll of a month-long kidnapping and escape is evident in "My truth": "I now live with no more certainties. I find myself deeply weak. I failed in my belief. I had always claimed there was need to go tell about that dirty war", she says. But her captors told her, "We don't want anyone. Why don't you stay home? What can such interviews be useful for?"

"The worst collateral damage", Sgrena writes, "the war kills communication. It was falling on me."

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