[Marxism] French reporter's take on the situation in Basra

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Mon Apr 19 02:53:55 MDT 2004

TRANSLATION: Firsthand account of being seized by Moqtada al-Sadr's
militia in Basra       
Written by Mark Jensen     
Monday, 19 April 2004 
Translated from Le Figaro Magazine, a weekend publication of Le Figaro
(Paris), part of a special series of articles on Iraq whose overarching
theme is that however tempting Vietnam is as a parallel to the current
situation in Iraq, another precedent is more appropriate: Lebanon. This
article offers a firsthand account by a photojournalist of being seized
in Basra by militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr....

By Abbas, as told to Katia Clarens 

** Abbas is a reporter-photographer who works for the prestigious agency
Magnum. An exemplarily picaresque character, who has been bouncing
around the Muslim world for years. For Le Figaro Magazine, for example,
he reported on the world's Shiites. A few days ago, he was, of course,
in Iraq. In Basra. There, Shiite militiamen seized him, before releasing
him, safe and sound, after several hours of high tension. ** 

Le Figaro Magazine 
Le Figaro (Paris) 
April 17, 2004 


It was the third time I headed for Iraq. But this time, I had taken two
precautions: the passport I slipped into my pocket was Iranian. On the
Hostage Exchange, an Iranian is worth less than a Frenchman. And I'd
also chosen to take my least valuable cameras. I wasn't fearing anything
in particular, but you never know. The taking of three Japanese hostages
and then of two Israeli Arabs sounded like calls for prudence. . . . 

On Wednesday, Apr. 7, I took off. When I landed in Basra, I found that
the city was in a state of disrepair, the streets were dirty, and I
didn't find the happy optimism I had felt in the aftermath of the
American liberation. 

The following Friday, I went to prayers at the city's great Sunni
mosque. On that day, Shiites and Sunnis pray together. They united in
protesting against American occupation. Against the slaughter of
civilians in Fallujah, too. The mosque is thus guarded by Iraqi police
and Shiite security guards. There were a lot of them. But there's no
problem with me working. Around me, there are other photographers,
Iraqis. So I decide to go up to a balcony. I'm thinking of an image: in
the foreground, the militiamen of the Army of Mehdi, with, in the
background, the faithful praying. I'm with a BBC journalist. 

Between two shots, I see a security officer go by. "What are you doing?"
He's agitated. "Journalists." We show our press cards. The photo session
then continues without problems. It's at the moment we're leaving that
trouble arises. We're walking in a dark, narrow corridor -- typical of
the buildings here -- to get back to the street. A group of civilians
stops us. Security. They have walkie-talkies. I recognize the guy from
before. They were waiting for us. Everything happens very quickly. A
minivan stops at the end of the little alleyway. We're seized and shoved
inside. No question of trying to talk. I know that if we resist, they'll
beat us and will take us away in any case. It must be about two in the
afternoon. It's incredible. There, a few feet away, are more than 50
Iraqi police. Not one of them moves. They don't want to fight the Shiite
militia. One of them even gets into the van with us. I realize that in
reality, the British, contrary to what they claim, are in control of

We drive away. There are six of us in the van. In the front, the driver,
and next to him, a young mullah in a black tunic and white headband. He
has a fanatical, stubborn look, the kind of look that I've already run
into a long time ago, at the beginning of the Iranian revolution. Facing
us, there are three civilians wearing shirts and carrying Kalashnikovs
glaring at us. A deathly silence. Behind us, the policeman. They're all
very young and are sure they've captured spies. Above all they want to
show that they control the city. We drive fast, are bounced around, head
for the outskirts of town. They blindfold us. The world goes dark. 

We drive ten more minutes during which time I figure out they want to
know if we speak Arab. I know a few words, but haven't mastered it. I
tell them we need an English or Farsi interpreter. The car stops. They
pull us out and soon we're in a room. There, my cameras, my satellite
phone, and my Saharan coat are confiscated. They tell me to sit down and
take off my shoes, and I guess that I'm in a mosque. Or perhaps a
husseiniyé, a Shiite prayer site. That's rather reassuring: I know that
they won't kill me in a holy place. I think also that my Iranian
passport is going to protect me. In spite of everything, I'm
apprehensive, all the more so in that they are visibly trying to
intimidate me. 

Two of them come up to me and stick the barrel of their Kalashnikovs
against my heart and in my shoulder. They release the safety catches and
cock the guns. I'm familiar with that sound. The say to me: "You're
going to be killed." In my uncertain Arab, I answer: "Ana chahid
sahafi." ("I would be a press martyr.") That gives them a shock. The
Shiites started the cult of martyrs. After that, they lay off. I hear
them repeat the sentence a few times. I also understand that they're
saying we're spies. Suddenlty, I feel the white light of a flash through
my blindfold. I have the fleeting thought that that's not a good sign. 


But I remain optimistic in spite of everyting. I want to stay. Then they
ask me to get up and back up. I back up to the wall where I feel under
my hands a tissue stretched over the wall. No doubt "Allah u Akbar" is
written on it. They must use it as the backdrop for their photogrpahy.
Nearby, I hear my BBC colleague being interrogated in English, they're
asking her who she is, if she's married . . . In reality, they're much
more interested in her. I don't know exactly how much time I stayed like
that. A few hours. Then they stood me up and gave me back my bag. They
put films into my hand. I could feel that they'd been exposed, since the
film didn't stick out. Pure joy. They were my photographs. They were
giving them back to me. 

A guy came up to me and said: "You're free. I'm sorry..." He repeated
that several times. Then, everything speeded up again. They put us back
into the minivan. I was missing a camera and a satellite phone. I
decided to shame them: "Muslims can't steal," but I didn't get any
response. Then they sang hymns to Moqtada al-Sadr. I explained that I
had photographed him. I also added that I hadn't been able to do that
with Sistani. I understood from their reaction that they didn't like

They stopped the car at the side of the road, in the suburbs. Then they
took off the blindfold. I recognized the same people as before. I went
up to the crazy mullah and told him that stealing cameras was haram,
"forbidden," by religion. His wacko gaze remained fixated straight
ahead. They left. 

We took a taxi to get back. Watching the road, I thought that they
hadn't made a bargain. The confiscated camera had jammed during the last
shoot and the telephone was blocked. That made me smile. 

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Chair, Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
Web page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/
E-mail: jensenmk at plu.edu 

Last Updated ( Monday, 19 April 2004) 

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