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US soldiers open fire on freed hostage

Jim Jepps

Giuliana Sgrena, wounded and tiredWhat should have been news to rejoice in has been thrown into controversy. Giuliana Sgrena  the Italian left wing journalist has been freed by her Iraqi captors. But as she was driven to Bagdad airport by the Italian government agent responsible for negotiating her release their car was drenched in a hail of bullets from a US check point. The agent was killed as he threw himself in front of Giuliana to protect her and in doing so saved her life.

This agent, Nicola Calipari, was one of Italies most senior intelligence officers and his killing has created a serious diplomatic incidence between the coutnries, despite Italy's continued involvement in the occupation.

Giuliana's husband described how Giuliana had been able to pick up handfuls of bullets from the car floor after the firing had ended. One question that should be asked is how on earth could this happen?

The US forces had been informed of their approach and the car was well out of danger so it was driving at a responsible speed towards a regulation check point. There are two possible scenarios. First that US forces habitually fire on private cars despite no obvious threat and without verbal warning or shots into the air. Or secondly they knew that the left wing, anti-occupation journalist was in the car and that this was the reason they shot up the vehicle.

Gabriele Polo, of the italian paper Il Manifesto, put it this way.

"A few minutes, that is how long our joy lasted. The time which goes from a phone call to another: the one telling us of Giuliana’s freedom and the one which throws us into the killing of the person who more than anybody else worked to free her. Fifteen, maximum twenty minutes, the time to save one life and lose another. Within the absurdity of a war in which we all risk to get lost.

Sure, we are happy to be able to soon hug Giuliana, to be able to have her back with us, to go back and listen to and read her stories of peace. We owe it to what we have done in this very long month. All of us: we of il manifesto, the colleagues who helped us keep the attention on this abduction alive, the many people who with a phone call, a letter, or by coming to the streets kept the presence of our comrade alive even while she was forced to be silent. But we also owe it to those who worked night and day to find a contact with the kidnappers, to reach an agreement. People who are different from us, who speak a different language and uses different means. Yet with some of them we have been united with a common aim: to bring home a woman deprived of her freedom and to do it though a negotiation, not through those weapons which are the root of evil which for thirty days has taken Giuliana away from us. After those 15, 20 minutes of joy, last night we fell into a live drama. We are journalists and we must tell the story, but do not ask of us to be detached as a reporter should be.

It is not possible. Just as it was not possible to coldly separate  the duty to report and comment from the worry for Giuliana’s fate, from the fear she had fear, she was hungry, cold. When that second phone call arrived in a palace with high ceilings and wide spaces - so different from our daily working place -, we were there. And we will never be able to forget the pain of the colleagues of  Nicola Calipari, how Gianni Letta was upset, even how the Prime Minister - whom we saw there and then for the first time - could not believe the news. We will never be able to forget the hectic calls, the chaos, the feeling of being lost by a place of power dealing with a power absolute and uncontrollable, the power of was, of who makes it and directs it. «Nicola died, Giuliana is wounded»: a bit crying, a bit asking for more details of the wound of Giuliana, knowing she was there, with the American guns pointing at her, bleeding who knows how, asking she would be brought immediately to the hospital. Then we heard the wound was not serious, only superficial on the shoulder, because the bullet which could have killed her had first gone through the body of Nicola Calipari. Who saved her. For the second time.

In those chaotic minutes, made of calls among ministries, generals, ambassadors - calls which all seemed pointless --  we witnessed impotence going on stage, the performance of war killing politics, chalking democracy. All our reasons - those of Giuliana - were confirmed. Yet we wanted it to be different. We wish we could hear another call, telling us it was all a mistake, nobody had died, Nicola magically had got up, maybe a bit hurt and together with our Giuliana he was going to the airport, to come back home. We would have hug them both and all that we had just witnessed would only have been a bad dream.

But no. That call never arrived. There has been another one, confirming everything: Nicola died, Giuliana and other two secret agents in the hospital. At that point, the only thing left to do was to leave, go back to the newspaper, tell everything to the comrades, explain that the joy was lost.

They taught us to be cold, to analyze the events, not to get involved too much, in order to understand what happens. And try to change it. Right. But the world is made of people. Facts, even history, are our product: at the end they are the product of bodies, flesh and blood. It all depends on us, on what we do. On what Giuliana Sgrena has done and will do, on what Nicola Calipari had done but will never be able to do. We got a comrade back. We lost someone who would have become our friend. "


One thing worth remembering in these unfolding events, when the occupying forces gun down Iraqis the world press does not give it the kind of attention that this murder has received. This is one episode, one tragedy of the occupation of Iraq. Ten of thousands of families have lived through the deaths of their loved ones via the occupation - these are deaths that the world press is less interested in. It seems that some lives are more important than others.



Hostage recalls 'hail of gunfire' on the BBC website

March 2005


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