Sasha Uzunov, Australian journalist and war reporter mentioned in new book by award winning Canadian reporter Scott Taylor.
Douglas & McIntyre
Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting
By: Scott Taylor
from Chapter 9: Among the Mujahedeen
On June 16, 2005, I received a telephone call from Zeynep Tugrul asking me to have a look at the photograph on the front page of the International Herald Tribune. In the photograph, four Iraqi men, identified as insurgent suspects captured in the city of Tal Afar, were huddled together in the back of an American vehicle. The individual on the left of the photograph—even with B-5 scrawled on his forehead in grease pencil—was instantly recognizable as one of the mujahedeen who had beaten me during my captivity the previous September.
On the morning of June 18, I was still trying to figure out whom to provide with this information when I received a phone call from Major Gary Dangerfield of the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, inviting me to make an “all-expenses-paid visit” back to Iraq. As a result of the regiment’s commanding officer having read my book Among the Others: Encounters with theForgotten Turkmen of Iraq, I was being asked to come and provide a briefing to the 3rd Armored Cavalry.
After accepting the proposal and being assured that I would have “more fucking protection than the president,” I pointed out to Dangerfield that his regiment had arrested one of my tormentors. Although he was aware of my having been taken hostage, Dangerfield was not aware that prisoner B-5 had been involved. As a result, B-5 was relocated and isolated from the other prisoners until I could arrive to give a 100 per cent identification and statement. True to their word, the Americans sent a Black Hawk helicopter and an Apache gunship to pick us up at the Iraq-Turkey border.
Sasha Uzunov had agreed to accompany me on this trip, and Stefan Nitoslawski was filming the entire venture for a CBC documentary entitled Targets: Reporters in Iraq. I had already signed a contract and begun participating in Targets before receiving the call from Dangerfield. The producers had wanted me to venture to Iraq on my own for the movie, but after two sleepless nights of anxiety at the prospect I told them I could not do it. I was prepared to travel right up to the border but not beyond it.
The offer of flying in by helicopter changed all that. Almost immediately after the chopper had delivered us to Forward Operations Base Sykes, we were issued with protective gear and sent out on a patrol into the centre of Tal Afar. The gunner in the rear hatch suddenly ducked down inside the armoured fighting vehicle and hand-signalled me to do the same. When our column of five Bradley personnel carriers had rumbled along this narrow street just thirty minutes earlier, a large number of Iraqi civilians had been clustered in doorways. Dozens of young children had waved enthusiastically at the U.S. soldiers, running beside the vehicles in hopes of having candy or toys tossed in their direction.
By the time we returned along this same route, all evidence of the local citizenry had disappeared behind closed doors and shuttered windows. Sensing that Iraqi insurgents in the vicinity had prompted the exodus, the patrol commander ordered all the troops to duck down as we sped through the now ominously quiet streets.
Thankfully, our patrol returned to the U.S. base without receiving any hostile fire. The troops of the 3rd Armored Cavalry explained that spending a day in Tal Afar without being attacked was a rarity. The purpose of our trip into this volatile northern Iraqi city was to retrace the route taken by my captors when I had been abducted and held hostage the previous September.
Although I could make general presumptions about locations based on my memory and satellite imagery, once I returned to the site, a lot of landmarks came rushing back to mind. Many changes had occurred in the past eleven months because of the continual fighting and the shifting political fortunes, and the police checkpoint where Zeynep and I were first taken had long since been dismantled.
Nevertheless, after viewing the same approach road we had taken from Mosul, I remembered the large Hitachi neon sign that stood in the centre of the checkpoint. Once this vital starting point could be confirmed, it was amazing how the detailed memories came flooding back. Our armoured patrol followed the main boulevard that the terrorists had used, and I could recall where they had crossed the median and then driven uphill into a tightly packed suburb on the outskirts of town.
At that point, our patrol veered back onto the main route. Before our departure I had been told that there were still two large areas in Tal Afar that the U.S. military would enter only with a full combat mission, including tanks and helicopter gunships. To know that after eleven months of often heavy fighting the area in which I had been held hostage remained a heavily contested zone brought home the magnitude of the good fortune that I had been released alive.
That evening I met my host, Colonel H.R. McMaster, the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who explained that I would be making a special presentation to at least three hundred members of his regiment on the following day. After McMaster excused himself from the table, his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Armstrong, said he wanted a private discussion with me in his office. Once the door had been closed, Armstrong got straight to the point.
“The boys here love Colonel McMaster, and I want you to assure me that he didn’t make a mistake in bringing you here,” he said. “I’ve read your stuff—all of your stuff, including the Al Jazeera features—and I know you’re not a believer in this intervention.” I was surprised at how much research Armstrong had conducted, and was shocked to learn just how far McMaster had stuck his neck out to arrange this trip.
“The Pentagon would never have approved this, so the Old Man [McMaster] did this on his own hook,” Armstrong said. That certainly explained the confusion at the Iraq-Turkey border when we had shown up at the American military office and said we were expecting a helicopter pickup. The U.S. soldiers had been amused and had explained that American helicopters were not authorized to operate in this airspace. Their smugness had turned to awe when an Apache suddenly swept in over the border checkpoint, and a Black Hawk landed at a nearby soccer field.
There were plenty of curious stares from the Kurdish and Turkish border guards as Sasha, Stefan and I strutted out to the Black Hawk, carrying a briefcase and camera bags. I assured Armstrong that I respected McMaster’s initiative in bringing me to Tal Afar, and I promised him I would not use the opportunity to do anything but tell the story of what had happened to Zeynep and me the previous year. It was just after lunch, and the mess hall had been converted into a mini-auditorium. At least three hundred U.S. soldiers filed in to take their seats.
When Colonel McMaster strode into the room, the entire assembly stood to attention. In introducing me, the colonel praised my courage for returning to Iraq and instructed his officers to pay close attention to my tale. Stefan Nitoslawski was filming the whole thing, and I’m sure that most of these soldiers were wondering, Just who the hell is this Canadian civvy who brings his own cameraman to tape his performance?
Always a nervous public speaker, I mumbled my way through an opening joke—I likened my thanking them for being there to the way the padre always thanked us for attending the church parades that we had no option but to attend. Once I started telling the story, though, I had their undivided attention. I started by telling them a little bit about my previous involvement with the Turkmen of Iraq and how in September 2004 I had found myself in Ankara to discuss the details of publishing and shipping my recently completed book Among the Others.
While conducting business in Turkey, I heard a couple of sketchy news reports about a violent flare-up in Tal Afar between insurgents and U.S. troops. The reports from Baghdad claimed that foreign fighters were responsible for the violence—and most media outlets had no idea where Tal Afar was. I had a five-day window in my schedule, and through the Iraqi Turkmen Front I arranged yet another trip into Iraq. As a matter of mutual convenience, Zeynep Tugrul joined me on this fact-finding mission into Tal Afar. The Turkish media were certainly keen to learn more about the possible suffering of the Turkmen, and there was absolutely no reliable news coming out of that region.
From their sources, the Iraqi Turkmen Front knew that things were very dangerous, and promises were made to provide us with an armed escort. Zeynep and I made an uneventful border crossing and arrived in Mosul at around noon on September 7. Our driver dropped us off at the U.S.-controlled green zone at the airport, where I had made prior arrangements to meet with Phil Atkinson for lunch. Phil was a retired Canadian soldier and a subscriber to Esprit de Corps. He had taken a job working with General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario, where the Stryker light armoured vehicles are manufactured.
The twenty-two-ton wheeled personnel carriers were the controversial new addition to the U.S. Army inventory, and this was the first time the newly formed Stryker Brigade had deployed to Iraq. Atkinson’s job wasn’t just to repair any battle damage suffered by the vehicles; he was also required to recommend possible improvements to the armour protection. On my previous visits, Phil’s workshops in Mosul had been beehives of activity, but on this day when Zeynep and I visited, the place was like a ghost town. I asked him if there was a special holiday, and Phil dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“Can you guys keep a secret?” Assuring him that that’s what journalists do best, he proceeded to tell us that everything had been moved forward to Tal Afar.
“We’re gonna mount a major offensive up there in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, and you guys won’t want to be anywhere near that place when that happens.” Of course, that’s exactly where we headed as soon as we left the Mosul airport’s front gate.
As I explained this part of the story, I saw an American captain’s hand shoot up in the front row. Although it had been explained beforehand that I would field questions at the end of my talk, I could see this guy’s query wasn’t going to wait that long. As I acknowledged him, the captain asked,
“Why the hell would you do that? Why wouldn’t you listen to his advice?” I explained that as a Turk and as a Canadian, Zeynep and I were unembedded and that both our countries were neutral in the conflict. Our plan had been to push down the highway as far as we could. If the Americans were about to attack, we thought they would have the city cordoned off and would deny us entry into Tal Afar.
If that was the case, we planned to wait behind the U.S. troops and follow their attack from behind. If we actually got inside the city, we were going to look up Doctor Yashar Talafarli and hole up at the hospital throughout the American attacks. In the past, I had found the hospitals to be about the safest places to gain up-to-date and accurate assessments of the fighting. In April 2004, when the United States announced its intention to arrest Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, spontaneous violent attacks against American troops erupted in Baghdad and Najaf. My driver had called his Shiite contacts to ensure us safe passage, and he drove us to the hospitals in both locations.
When the United States launched counter-strikes against the Shiite militia, we had seen the dead and wounded civilians and insurgents being rushed in for treatment. I explained to the audience that this really wasn’t as dangerous as it sounded and that the toughest challenge we faced as unembedded journalists was the fact that the U.S. military did not like to admit its own setbacks. Bristling at this suggestion, the captain asked me to give an example.
I told him of an occasion in November 2003 when Sacha Trudeau and I had teamed up again in Baghdad. Trudeau had been anxious to get embedded with the U.S. 82nd Airborne division that was reportedly having a hairy time securing the city of Fallujah. He was becoming frustrated as the Americans kept putting off his request. I convinced Anmar and Sacha that we should just drive out to this hotbed of insurgency and visit the 82nd Airborne on our own initiative. We spent a considerable amount of time driving around the streets of Fallujah, observed by increasingly hostile crowds of locals, but saw no sign of any U.S. presence.
In fact, all we found was a padlocked compound where the paratroopers used to reside. The American army in Baghdad was telling journalists that they were on a waiting list to be embedded in Fallujah, instead of admitting that its troops had already abandoned the city. Only weeks later, when the Americans tried to re-enter Fallujah, did it become apparent how lucky we had been to get in and out alive. I explained that it had been a similar situation in Tal Afar for Zeynep and me on September 7, 2004. It was nearly dusk when we arrived at the outskirts of Tal Afar.
On the highway to Mosul, a checkpoint had been set up, and about a dozen Iraqi policemen were supervising a frightened exodus of civilian refugees. Over the past week there had been local reports of escalating violence between resistance fighters and U.S. troops in Tal Afar, and many of the residents were fleeing the embattled city. It had not been easy to find a taxi driver willing to take us to Tal Afar. All the drivers in Mosul had been warned that the mujahedeen were in control of the city and that it was too dangerous. One Kurdish fellow disagreed with his colleagues and said that their fears were unfounded. With daylight fading, we quickly made a bargain on the fare and set off. The sight of U.S.-paid Iraqi police forces monitoring traffic had seemed like a good sign that things were still under control, despite the recent fighting. Since I did not have an exact address for my contact, I approached a police checkpoint to ask for assistance.
When I asked the policemen about contacting Doctor Talafarli, they recognized his name as that of a prominent local Turkmen official. A senior police officer was summoned, and he instructed Zeynep and me to climb into a nearby car containing four armed and masked men. As we clambered into the back seat, one of the gunmen said in excellent English, “We will take you to Doctor Talafarli. Please do not be afraid.” I had presumed these men were part of some sort of special police force—our own Canadian Joint Task Force 2 counterterrorist teams often wear ski masks—so I had no immediate cause for concern. As soon as we entered the city, however, I saw that the streets were full of similarly masked resistance fighters armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. I suddenly realized that we were in the hands of the resistance.
Still believing that they were taking us to Doctor Talafarli’s house, we were instead ushered into a small courtyard outside a walled two-storey building. There were about a half-dozen armed men inside. None of them was smiling.
As soon as the metal door had clanged shut behind us, the English-speaking leader said, “You are spies . . . and now you are prisoners.” All of our cameras, other equipment and identification were taken from us, and we were told to sit on a mat with our backs to the wall.
“The Americans will attack soon, and I have to see to my men,” said our captor.
“I will deal with you when I return.”
Shortly after nightfall they brought a platter of food into the compound and, in what would soon become a routine pattern, served us first before eating dinner themselves. I did not have much of an appetite. The plates had just been cleared away when another car pulled up outside and four more gunmen came quickly through the door.
Before I could react, I was pulled to my feet and pressed with my face against the wall and my hands on top of my head. Almost immediately I heard the distinct sound of a Kalashnikov being cocked about a metre behind me.
Realizing that they were about to execute me, Zeynep screamed in Turkish, “Don’t shoot him . . . He has a son!”
The outburst was enough to distract them, and they began to explain to her the necessity of killing a “Jewish spy.”
Thankfully, I had no idea what was being said. The brief discussion was still taking place when our original captor returned. Harsh words were exchanged between the two groups of gunmen, and it seemed as though my fate was in the hands of those who had made the capture. The would-be executioners left.
Now Zeynep was blindfolded and taken away for questioning. The remaining guards—their ages ranging from fifteen to fifty— took turns watching me and crouching behind the second-floor parapet, looking at the sky for signs of a U.S. attack. About two hours later it was my turn to be blindfolded and roughly manhandled into what felt like an suv or a Land Rover. At the second house I was rushed through several doorways and up several stairs. With my hands tied behind my back and unable to see, I stumbled and fell several times, only to be pulled forcibly back to my feet and once again shoved forward.
“Hurry, hurry, you bastard Jew,” one of my guards whispered as he slammed my head into a door frame. I was forced to lie face down on a mat, and two men carefully searched through my pockets.
Finding my money inside my sock (about us$700), they laughed and said, “Your money is our money. You won’t need cash in heaven.”
It was difficult to gauge how long I lay there in the dark, but my shoulders were aching when my hands were finally untied and I was brought to another room for interrogation. They removed my blindfold and shone a bright flashlight directly into my eyes.
Two men were questioning me: “Which intelligence agency are you working for?”
For about an hour I did my best to answer all their allegations and explain to them that my intention in going to Tal Afar was as a journalist. In what seemed like a bad Hollywood comedy, when someone started a generator outside, the lights came on immediately and the two interrogators clumsily tried to pull their ski masks back on before I could see their faces. The one who identified himself as the emir actually started to laugh and, with the tension broken, left his mask off.
This man had been among the group who took us at the police checkpoint.
“Sleep now, and I will check your story,” he said. “If you are telling the truth, we will release you. If not, you die.”
© 2009 D&M Publishers Inc.