Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Daniele Mastrogiacomo.

Here in the UK we talk a lot about Health and Safety at work. Employees dream about doing other jobs if only their lives had turned out differently. I dream about working as a journalist roaming around the world and writing great newspaper articles. One journalist realised his dreams, the Italian by the name of Daniele Mastrogiacomo. One day his work turned decidedly nasty and it made me wonder just how bad man can be to fellow man. We sit here in the UK living in our comfortable double glazed and centrally heated homes paid for by stable, secure, safe employment.

In his own words that were translated and edited by Peter Popham...

The commander comes into the mud hut where we have been sleeping. He is beaming. "You are free, fly away!" He mimes an airplane taking off. "You're leaving in two hours. Get ready."

My six guards burst in. They shake my hand and slap me on the back. They hurl themselves at the padlock of my chains. The keys went missing in the desert. They take it in turns, trying to break it. I just watch.

My translator Ajmal's face is a picture of misery. Too many times we have been disappointed, then I scream at him saying that he's the one who is to blame.

But there is no reason why I should be angry with him. We were sold. His contact promised us an interview with a Taliban leader. It didn't happen. Perhaps the contact sold us as spies to the chief of one of the Taliban's two factions.

It wasn't an abduction, it was torture - psychological and physical, religious and political, existential; 15 days that have marked me like 15 years. Inside and out. In my depths, in my subconscious.

I stop the commander and say, "Let's talk man-to-man: you condemned me in the desert, before cutting off the head of that poor guy, and now you're letting me go. Do you think I'm a spy or a journalist?" He looks at me fixedly. He's not smiling any more. "A journalist," he replies. "No problem. You're free."

... I decided to go south, to Kandahar and then to Lashkhar Gah because this is where the Taliban are in charge and here you can touch the reality that others only talk about. This has always been my way of working: to see with my own eyes, to listen, to record and then to relate.

My Afghan colleague said that everything had been set up, that an interview was fixed for 11 o'clock.

We drive 1km out of Lashkar Gah with our driver and pick up a youth. He is wearing the traditional scarf that comes down over his eyes. I greet him, he doesn't respond. He indicates the road to take, a road of stones and gravel that meanders into the countryside.

We drive for 1km then stop. Three black motorcycles appear, carrying three boys dressed like Taliban with black turbans and grey robes. They are armed and block our path. They tell my companions to get out and they tie their hands behind their backs. They open my door and look at me. They make me get out and take everything we have - money, passport, documents, computer, watch, telephones.

I try to tell myself it's just a misunderstanding. They jab me with their guns. They tie my hands and put a blindfold over my eyes.

I have a terrible attack of claustrophobia - I've got to see the light. I manage to tear off the blindfold. I am struck on the back with the butt of a Kalashnikov. I fall to the ground. On my knees, I get another blow on my head. My blood soaks the blindfold on my eyes.

I end up with the others in a mud hut. They are all there, some 10 of them, they give us tea and tell us that we are under arrest for illegal entry into Taliban territory. They must verify who we are. If they discover we are spies they will kill us, if we are journalists (as we said immediately that we were) they will trade us for Taliban prisoners.

They buy some chain and bind me hand and foot. They share food and blankets.

They never let us go without anything - even the cigarettes I had succeeded in giving up for seven days. We stay for two days in a hole, sleeping on the ground, a brick for a pillow, eaten by fleas, the dirt encrusting on my body. I try to preserve my dignity, I wash frequently.

One day they tie my hands behind my back and bring me into a room where they are seated in a circle. One of them asks me about money, asks me what is in my computer. I tell him everything... They make me lie down on the floor and flog me with rubber tubing. Ten blows, crying, "Allahu Akbar [God is great]."

"Stop!" I scream. The man in front of me makes a sign of slitting my throat. They roll around laughing. I repeat, "Please, please"... my heart beats furiously. I am still alive but it's all much worse than I imagined.

We are on the bank of a river when the commander turns up. They cover my face, tie my hands behind my back, blindfold me and make me kneel. But I manage to see anyway. It was impossible not to look. It freezes my blood.

The driver has been missing for two days, kept in a separate cell. They bring him into the centre. The commander pronounces his death sentence, in the name of Islam. He says we were spies. That we must die. I see the driver seized by four boys, they force his face into the sand, they cut his throat then carry on and cut off his head. He doesn't utter a single death-rattle. They clean the knife on his robe, then take head and body to the river and let them go.

I sit there waiting, my legs trembling. I mutter something to the commander, ask him what's going on. I imagine being grabbed, having my throat slit, blood spurting from my arteries and soaking the sand, my body consigned to the river. Instead they take us and put us back in the jeep.

We arrive in a new jail in the middle of an opium plantation. Hundreds of kilos of opium are piled up in the warehouse, ready to be sold. We go to sleep breathing that air, heavy with narcotics, and I wake up feeling deranged. We stay there for two days, shooting my video appeals - seven different ones.

Then the last day arrives. I thought it was just the usual - hope and despair alternating. But this time it's true, they are going to set me free. The commander hugs me then whispers in my ear, "If God wishes, we will meet in Paradise."

We drive past the spot where we were abducted. This is the place, I'm sure of it. The tears pour out of me, bathing my dusty face, my two-week-old beard. I cry, finally I cry.
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