Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was covering the destruction of the Iraqi city of Fallujah for the left wing newspaper Il Manifesto when she was kidnapped in 2005.
Immediately following her release a US soldier shot at the car that she was travelling in, killing an Italian secret service agent who had helped negotiate her freedom.
Giuliana is coming to London to speak at the Marxism festival next month. She spoke to Tom Behan about her experiences and her new book, Friendly Fire.
On 8 November 2004 the US military launched Operation Phantom Fury against the people of Fallujah. In the days that followed hundreds of Iraqi civilians were killed. The streets were littered with dead bodies being gnawed by hungry dogs.
Thousands of displaced people were forced into makeshift refugee camps. Giuliana travelled to Fallujah the following February in an attempt to allow the people of the city to tell the world about had happened.
Guiliana recalls in her book: “The climate was hostile, tremendously hostile, but I couldn’t let that dissuade me from telling the story of the destruction of Fallujah through the memories and images of the people who had lived through it.
“Up to that moment the news – what there was of it – was reaching us exclusively through journalists embedded with American troops.”
Giuliana met Abdallah, a 26 year old black market petrol seller, at a camp outside the university. He and his friend Majid were anxious to tell her their story.
“After a few days [of the US assault], corpses began to fill the streets,” recounted Majid. “Not only was there no electricity or water, but food also became increasingly scarce.
“One day the American troops took a megaphone and invited the whole neighbourhood (those left alive, shut up in their houses) to head toward a gathering spot where they were told they’d find Red Crescent volunteers distributing aid.
“Cut off from the world, they had no way of knowing that the Red Crescent had actually been prevented from entering the city to offer help. So they marched, in two separate lines – men on one side and women and children on the other – toward a mirage.
“Instead of help, however, the men found handcuffs. They were all considered combatants: hence, they were roughly interrogated and locked up in a camp.”
Having spent the morning talking to people in the makeshift refugee centre, Giuliana, her driver and her translator left so that she could phone her story in to her newspaper in Italy.
“Suddenly two, maybe three cars pull in front of the cement security barriers and blocked our exit. My driver, Mohammed, panics and takes off on foot, trying to dodge the bullets of one of the kidnappers.
“Wael, the translator, is sitting in the front seat, trying uselessly to block the doors of the car. A robust young man rips open the door and drags me away, grabbing my cell phone that has fallen to the floor before the colleague I had been calling has answered. Before my abductor switches it off, my colleague can hear the initial phase of my kidnapping.”
Giuliana was held in a darkened room, unable to tell the difference between day and night, for four weeks before being released. In Friendly Fire, she movingly describes the monotony and despair of being held in such conditions, and not knowing whether she would live or die.
In a sudden development Giuliana found herself in the process of being released. But as her captors bundled her blindfolded into a car, one of them warned her, “We promised your family that you’d return home safe and sound, but be careful: the Americans don’t want you to return alive.”
The words turned out to be prophetic. On the road to the airport, minutes after Giuliana was handed over to Italian secret service agents – at exactly the point where she started to believe that she was free – Giuliana heard the driver of her car screaming, “They’re shooting at us”.
The shots were being fired by the US army.
“The soldiers said that they are at war, and that if they feel threatened, they shoot,” Giuliana told Socialist Worker. “They claim that they made signals for our car to stop, but they didn’t.
“They aimed 57 shots at us inside the car, but only one at the vehicle itself, and that was after we had come to a halt.”
Last month Italian TV broadcast a video of the shooting. The US military said the car was travelling without headlights. In the video the car clearly has its headlights on.
The military said that they shot at the car when it was less than 50 metres away, but in the footage the car can be seen taking fire much further away than 50 meters.
So is there any chance that the soldier who shot Giuliana in the shoulder and killed Nicola Calipari – the agent who dived in front of her to protect her – will ever face justice?
Giuliana is doubtful. “The US army insists that its soldiers can only be tried in the US, and until the soldier who fired the shots is convicted of the crime at the trial in Rome, the Italian authorities won’t even ask for him to be extradited.”
On the situation in Iraq today, Giuliana is unequivocal.
“The occupation is making conditions in Iraq continually worse and there can be no solution until the US leaves. To find a solution the Iraqis need to have their sovereignty returned to them.
“Then the terrorists – those that don’t fight for Iraqi liberation – will no longer be able to hide behind the Americans. If Iraqis get control over their own country they’ll have to come to an agreement among themselves.”
Friendly Fire by Giuliana Sgrena is published by Haymarket Books and is available from Bookmarks at £12.99. » www.bookmarks.uk.com
To read Socialist Worker’s coverage of the Fallujah massacre go to » The truth at last
Giuliana Sgrena will join Yvonne Ridley at the Marxism festival in London on Saturday 7 July to discuss the media and the “war on terror”. For more details go to » www.marxismfestival.org.uk