War-zone crisis: What to do when the unthinkable happens

By Chris Elliott

“It was 2.15pm on Wednesday, and a moment I had dreaded since moving to Iraq nine months earlier had arrived: kidnap.”

Thus did Rory Carroll describe a moment on 19 October last year,
which was heart-stopping for him and stunned his family, friends and
colleagues throughout Fleet Street. An extraordinary 36 hours followed
before he was released, and last week a group of those most closely
involved at The Guardian sat down to work out what we could learn from
the experience.

Our small conference of foreign correspondents
and editors met at a poignant moment. Jill Carroll, no relation to
Rory, but his friend and colleague from Baghdad, of the Christian
Science Monitor, had been kidnapped two weeks before, and as I write is
still missing. To go through as much of the detail of what we know
happened was important if the paper is to continue to send
correspondents to Iraq or any other war zone, and to help us frame some
practical steps for the future along the lines of those to be found on
the International News Safety Institute’s website.

Among the key
points that emerged were how helpful other colleagues on national
newspapers had been. Old rivalries don’t matter at such a time and
co-operation is crucial.

The basic facts we knew. As a different
angle on the first day of Saddam Hussein’s trial, Rory was to watch the
televised opening speeches with a Shia family on the edge of Sadr city.
The trial was delayed, which meant that he spent longer than he would
normally have done in one place. While watching the television with the
family, two groups of men came to the house, some of them armed. They
left, but his host then began to question him quite aggressively. When
he left, his car was ambushed by three vehicles, his driver, Safa’a,
was pistol-whipped, his translator bundled to the ground and three
bullets were pumped into the windscreen of the chase car, narrowly
missing the driver, Omar.

The news that he had been taken was
relayed by Omar to Ghaith Abdul- Ahad, an Iraqi photojournalist, who
also works for The Guardian and who was at the Hamra Hotel where
Guardian reporters had rooms, along with Peter Beaumont of The Observer.

The
first lesson to be learned is that if you have a plan in place, then
warn the switchboard what might happen in such an event. Ghaith had
difficulties getting through and in the end called Ian Katz, the
features editor, on his mobile. Once people had got over the first few
seconds of stunned disbelief – no matter how much you know that it
might happen, the reality is different – they began calling diplomatic
contacts and others who might help, both here and abroad.

There was an outline of a plan in the event of a correspondent being kidnapped.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor, had asked for one to be drawn up a year before, but it was basic and untested.

One
important decision was to have a small group of people with the power
to make key decisions and assess the blizzard of information, much of
which was contradictory. Among the members of the committee group were
the editor and Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of GNL. One of the
main difficulties was that within a few hours of the kidnap there were
more than 50 offers of help from around the world.

Everyone
wanted to help. But how do you rank each offer? Weigh the importance of
the information within each telephone call and email?

Oddly enough you need a touch of bureaucracy. One individual to collate and group the information, track the contact details.

One
of the first decisions was to offer to send a close friend and
colleague, Ian Prior, the deputy sports editor and old flatmate of
Rory, to Dublin where Rory’s family lives. It is crucial to do all that
you can to retain an honest and open dialogue with the family.

Controlling
the flow of news of the kidnap is important. While most other news
organisations were helpful, at least one ran an early edition story the
night Rory was kidnapped describing him as British, which is not only
wrong, but dangerous in Iraq. Another strange feeling is that, while
you feel absolutely at the centre of it, you realise very quickly that
after 24 hours the control of the situation passes to governments.

You
may be able to influence, but the governments involved, in our case the
Irish, British and, of course, Iraqi governments, have the real power.
What precisely led to Rory’s release into the care of Ahmed Chalabi,
then deputy prime minister, we still don’t know. We can surmise that
the pressure from politicians on the ground, including Chalabi, proved
enough to change the minds of the Shia militiamen holding him.

As
a result of our one-day conference we will beef up our basic plans and
revise the advice we give, and we will keep the issue of whether or not
we stay in Baghdad under constant review. For instance, we want
correspondents to tighten up what the security advisers call journey
management, simply logging their movements with the office and our
security advisors AKE. In future we would also call the families of
other correspondents in the zone as, when hard information is scarce,
they can mistakenly believe it is their partner, spouse, child who has
been taken.

We learned that newspapers can and do work together
when the life of a correspondent is at stake. To that end Harriet
Sherwood, the foreign editor, will seek to strengthen links with all
the other UK newspapers. In this area, cooperation, rather than
competition, can save lives.

Chris Elliott is managing editor of The Guardian

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