I have to confess that I’m utterly mystified by this story.
Short recap for those who haven’t followed the events. Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist for Il Manifesto and contributor to the German Zeit, was abducted outside of Baghdad on February 4. The outrage was great – Italians went on the streets to protest and demand her release, the Zeit magazine dedicated an entire section with articles, pleas and reports to Ms. Sgrena.
13 days into her abduction, a video surfaced in which a haggard, terrified, tear-choking Sgrena pleas for an end of the Italian engagement in Iraq. It was a chilling document and no one who saw it was left untouched.
The Italian government promised to do everything to secure her release — short of calling its troops home.
Then, a month after she was abducted, the joyous news: Giuliana Sgrena is free and on her way back home to Rome. What happened then is still a mystery. Ms. Sgrena later tells her story:
The car kept on the road, going under an underpass full of puddles and almost losing control to avoid them. We all incredibly laughed. It was liberating. Losing control of the car in a street full of water in Baghdad and maybe wind up in a bad car accident after all I had been through would really be a tale I would not be able to tell. Nicola Calipari sat next to me. The driver twice called the embassy and in Italy that we were heading towards the airport that I knew was heavily patrolled by U.S. troops. They told me that we were less than a kilometer away…when…I only remember fire. At that point, a rain of fire and bullets hit us, shutting up forever the cheerful voices of a few minutes earlier.
The US claims that
The car carrying the Italians approached a checkpoint “at a high rate of speed” at 8:55 p.m. local time, the military said in a statement. A Pentagon spokesman said Ms. Sgrena was being brought to Camp Victory, the American command headquarters near Baghdad International Airport, along one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq.
A State Department official in Washington said that an American hostage coordinator in Iraq had not been informed of Ms. Sgrena’s release. The military did not know the hostage was in the car, the official said.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said that soldiers flashed white lights, used arm and hand signals and fired warning shots as the car approached them at high speed, and fired at the car only when it did not slow down or stop.
The New York Times, March 4, 2005
Let’s try to wade through these murky waters. We know three things for sure.
Fact 1: The car was heavily shot at by US troops. Some 400 bullets were later secured from the wreck.
Fact 2: Secret agent Nicola Calipari died immediately from a shot to the head.
Fact 3: Giuliana Sgrena and at least one other passenger were slightly wounded. Ms. Sgrena had to seek medical attention before she could continue to Rome. She was wounded in her shoulder.
Other than that, we have only very conflicting accounts.
Ms. Sgrena intensified her accusations of the US in the past days. She claims to have been told by her captors that the US military didn’t want her to return to Italy. She also says that they had not been shot at a checkpoint but rather by a US patrol. She also says that there had been no warning gestures or shots. The reason for her shooting, so she explains, is that a ransom was paid for her release. (This is, BTW, not yet confirmed by any official source.)
“The fact that the Americans don’t want negotiations to free the hostages is known,” Ms. Sgrena said in a telephone interview with Sky TG24 television. “The fact that they do everything to prevent the adoption of this practice to save the lives of people held hostages, everybody knows that. So I don’t see why I should rule out that I could have been the target.”
The New York Times, March 6, 2005
The US government, on the other hand, called the incident a “tragic accident”. George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld offered condolences and apologies to Rome.
The political fallout from this incident is difficult to predict. The outrage in Europe and especially in Italy is understandably great. Some sources suggest that this could weaken Berlusconi’s power considerably – he is a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq. It will be interesting to watch how he will deal with this matter in the next days and weeks.
The question remains, though: what did really happen in that rainy night in Baghdad?
I’m no fan of conspiracy theories and this reeks like one. But I’m no fan of Bush, Rumsfeld, and the war in Iraq either, and I don’t take anything they say at face value. But we just don’t have enough facts to make an informed decision.
I have nothing but the utmost respect for Ms. Sgrena and her work, and I am sympathetic to her ordeal and the terror she has been through. I’m conflicted on the issue of the ransom. In the abstract, I don’t think countries should bow to pressure. Had she been my sister, mother, daughter, friend, my take on this issue would have been very different, though.
However, her account is not objective. Personal experiences are always incomplete and inaccurate. (In that, they don’t much differ fom those pieces of information that the US military deems suitable for the public.) She had just lived through one month of intense fear. She was under great stress, it was night, she was distracted. But her account is backed up by the other passengers in the car.
On the other side, we do hear way too many stories of accidental shootings at checkpoints, and of fatal mistakes by US troops.
So – misunderstandings on both sides, US soldiers whose stressful duty has made them quick to pull the trigger, panic, death?
Maybe my mind just refuses to fold itself around the notion that US troops could be ordered to kill a woman just because the US government disapproves of the ransom that has been paid for her.
What a disgusting mess.