The news has become all too familiar in recent years: reports of another kidnapping in Iraq, followed by a video threatening death to the captive, then the announcement of a brutal execution. But Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton tell a different story in their new book, American Hostage: A Memoir of A Journalist Kidnapped in Iraq and the Remarkable Battle to Win His Release (Simon and Schuster) The book describes a struggle on two fronts -- Micah Garen's efforts to survive his ten days in captivity in southern Iraq, and Marie-Helene Carlton's grass roots campaign on his behalf.
Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton had a long-standing relationship that was both romantic and professional when they went to Iraq, planning to make a documentary film on the looting of archeological sites in southern Iraq. As the project neared its end in August, 2004, Marie-Helene flew back to New York. Micah stayed on to gather additional footage. He was taking pictures in a Nasiriyah market where guns were sold when he and his translator, Amir, were captured by Iraqi insurgents.
"When a couple of men saw my small camera they immediately started shouting, 'Foreigner,'" he recalls. "Two men grabbed us and put us in the back of the car, and drove us out into the marshes, blindfolded and tied up. This group that took me was very much engaged in the battle against the Coalition that was going on in Najaf, the very heavy conflict that was happening at that time, and so I very quickly became a political pawn in that struggle."
Marie-Helene Carlton had been back in New York for just two days, and was expecting Micah to return the following day. "And then I got this phone call saying he'd been kidnapped in southern Iraq. And my first instinct was really to do something, because I'd been to Iraq. We still had so many contacts. We had journalist friends all over the country. We knew Amir's family, and so I really felt I could reach out to people and get information. And we were very fortunate that many people felt compelled to pick up the phone immediately and really go to work."
Working closely with Micah Garen's family, Marie-Helene quickly forged a global network of friends, journalists, relief agencies, and Muslim organizations. The round-the-clock effort was aimed at making contact with the kidnappers. For Micah and Amir, meanwhile, existence became a struggle to survive in the face of the unknown. "Within the first hour, my translator was beaten and they had broken his jaw," Micah Garen says. "But for the next ten days, on a day-to-day basis they didn't treat me badly. They fed me at regular intervals, and it could have been significantly worse. The real terror was not in the day-to-day beatings or anything like that. For me it was in what they were doing to my family and everyone on the outside, and then the thought that they would just come one day and kill me."
Micah Garen says the men who acted as his guards were mostly young --19 or 20 years old -- and fascinated by life in the West. "They'd heard all sorts of rumors, and they'd ask me if they were true. One of them asked me if I made it free would I send him French perfume. You see people who are living for $500 a year, there's such a lack of opportunity, that it's very easy for them to fall into things like militancy and fundamentalism."
On his fifth day in captivity, Micah's kidnappers forced him to make a videotape, then released it to the world, threatening to execute him if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf in 48 hours. He recalls making the video as the most terrifying part of his time in captivity. "They blindfolded me again, tied me up and led me across a field and brought me into a house. I could make out the hazy outline of a dozen men with guns, and the video camera that was sitting right there. You realize -- I'm probably going to get killed. And at the same time you also are determined to send a message to the people who love you, so I winked my eye twice, sort of a message that said. 'Things are okay.'"
For Marie-Helene Carleton, the video was especially shocking because it was so unexpected. "We were getting back word that Micah and Amir were alive, and it seemed like things were moving in the direction that they could be released. So for us it was really a shattering of all the work we had done, all the hopes we had. And then you pull yourself together, because you do have only 48 hours and you want to do everything you can."
Word eventually reached Marie-Helene that the influential Muslim Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr was sympathetic to the release of Micah and Amir. Micah's sister then released a statement to Arab television and radio acknowledging al-Sadr's efforts. On August 22, Micah and Amir were brought to al-Sadr's office and freed.
Micah Garen believes it was the global campaign on his behalf that gave his story one of the rare happy endings. "There was so much of an effort, including grass roots efforts from Iraqis living in Nasiriyah who knew my translator, who were working so hard, saying 'You can't do this to people.'"
Marie-Helene Carleton says the campaign helped build a bridge, so that the division between what she calls "us' and "them" disappeared. "It really became 'protect Micah and Amir as people and release them.' And it was all based on relationships that existed between these journalists and sheiks and religious leaders, so they could have a dialogue. "
Micah Garen proposed to Marie Helene Carlton by satellite phone just after he was released. They are now completing editing on the film project that took them to Iraq. They believe Iraq today is even more dangerous for journalists than it was when Micah was taken captive, and they urge journalists who travel there to take great precautions. But they hope to return to Iraq themselves one day, to see the many people who have become friends over time, and who helped save Micah Garen's life.