Held Hostage

updated 10/01/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Since Iraq's takeover of Kuwait early last month, only a few journalists have been permitted to visit Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Reporters and photographers who are granted visas are allowed in for only a few days, and are followed round-the-clock by government escorts. Earlier this month, after waiting nearly a month for permission, senior writer Ron Arias and photographer Ken Regan visited the city. This is their report.

On a hot, dusty afternoon, a motley group of 500 Iraqi Popular Army reservists hunkers on a military parade ground, awkwardly snapping empty ammunition clips into semiautomatic rifles. For the next two weeks, these reservists and new enlistees—from 17-year-old students to paunchy, middle-aged lawyers and businessmen—will train for a call to arms. "We must prepare ourselves, because if war happens, everyone must fight," says Karim Awat during a break in the drill. Awat, a 43-year-old Iraqi TV actor who briefly attended California State University at Los Angeles in the mid-'70s, grimly adds, "Bush and the American people should know we are ready. I hope it does not happen, but if it does, all Iraq will fight."

Such sentiments are commonplace in this sprawling desert city of 4 million residents. But seven weeks after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein devoured tiny, oil-rich Kuwait, Baghdad, with its modern, palm-lined boulevards, stately municipal buildings and narrow market streets, still has at least the appearance of a peaceful city at work. All around the Arabic-speaking metropolis straddling the Tigris River, lifeblood of one of the world's first civilizations, people go to their jobs and to market, much as they have for thousands of years.

Yet just around every corner there are signs of menace and police-state paranoia. Giant poster portraits of Saddam are seen all over Baghdad. At major intersections, armed soldiers stand guard; other troops roam the streets. In the fields outside the city stand rows of sand-colored tanks. Breadlines—a result of the U.S.-led trade embargo—grow by the day, as do the crowds of Iraqis who cluster outside army recruitment centers, eager to enlist. Government "minders" shadow foreign journalists, preventing them from asking ordinary citizens all but the most innocuous questions.

Despite such restrictions, reporters can speak frankly with a handful of Baghdad residents—some of the 200 or so U.S. hostages being held in the country as Saddam's reluctant "guests." The Americans still in the capital, most of whom have some sort of diplomatic status, have fared better than scores of their fellow countrymen, who have been taken to strategic military and industrial sites elsewhere in Iraq to serve as "shields" against attack by the huge multinational army now massed along Iraq's border. Some of the hostages in Baghdad are the college-age sons of diplomats or U.S. government contract employees who had been working in Kuwait. Now they are stranded.

Outside the walls of the U.S. Embassy, Jared Scogna, 20, joins two other detained students, John Charlton, 19, and Craig Turley, 21. The three had planned to be back at school by now. Scogna was visiting his father, Paul, the U.S. commercial attaché in Kuwait, during summer vacation from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Charlton was to have started his sophomore year at Saint Leo College near Tampa, Fla. Turley would have been a senior at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "I was visiting my parents for the summer and was going to fly back to the States the day of the invasion," says Turley. "I had my bags packed and everything. From then till now, it's been like a bad Hollywood movie."

On Aug. 2, about 5 A.M., the three young men remember hearing the distant thump of exploding mortar shells or tank salvos. "At first, I didn't think anything of it and went back to sleep," recalls Turley, who was staying with his mother, Merrill, and his father, John, an engineer helping build roads in Kuwait, at a hotel near the U.S. Embassy. "Then my dad woke me up and told me the Iraqis were here. We knew they had been up on the border, but we hadn't expected them to invade. We thought it was just a lot of hot air. Obviously it wasn't. I could see shells exploding from our window."

A few hours later, Charlton, whose father, John, is a U.S. Embassy official, heard helicopters and jets overhead. His mother, Margriet—who later was allowed to leave Iraq with other women, and with girls and boys under 18—told him not to take Lady, the family's golden retriever, outside their apartment for her usual morning walk. Machine-gun-toting soldiers had already spread through the city.

Scogna, a husky, 6'1" rugby player, heard machine-gun fire and began packing, then left his father's apartment for the safety of the embassy. "The first thing Dad did was go around buying lots of food," Scogna says. "It's a good thing he did because everything that was stockpiled is still helping people hold out at the embassy." (Seven U.S. officials remain inside the embassy in Kuwait City.)

For nearly three weeks, the young men remained indoors, either in their homes or at the embassy compound. Having worked as clerks at the embassy before the invasion, they continued helping the beleaguered diplomats wherever they could. "One of us was in charge of washing pots, or the kennel patrol, another helped pack furniture and household things for moving—chores like that," says Turley. "But I felt I was lucky. The Iraqi soldiers who came around to see what was up were polite. We could have been rounded up and taken away like the American they took out of our hotel, the one who died of a heart attack later on." (American banker James Worthington Jr., 53, died in Basra, Iraq, last month.)

Finally, on Aug. 23, a 30-car convoy, carrying mostly U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families, left Kuwait City with the permission of the Iraqis. Earlier, a trickle of Westerners, including some Americans, had fled south to Saudi Arabia. Now the three students and their parents joined a caravan for a journey of 17 wearying hours across 350 miles of desert to Baghdad. "The highway was clogged with trucks and troops heading south," says Charlton. "We were also delayed by a lot of checkpoints with bureaucrats from hell. They'd look at our papers, permits and passports, then check our luggage. It wasn't much fun."

Two days after the convoy arrived in Baghdad, a smaller group of American women and children left for the Turkish border to the north, believing they would soon be able to put Iraq and the invasion behind them. "We drove 15 hours, reached the border with our permits to cross, but they took seven hours holding us up at the final checkpoint," says Turley. "Then the guards got a phone call and were told to cancel our exit permits. They said it was because we were over 18. My brother, who's 17, crossed over without a hitch—and my mother too. So the trip wasn't a complete failure." Charlton also kissed his mother and sister goodbye at the border. "We came so far and were so close that it seemed like they were playing with our lives," he says. "The only thing that made it easier for all of us was the thought of returning to our fathers."

Margriet Charlton and her daughter Irene, 21, were not sanguine about leaving their men behind. "I said, Take care, John. I love you,' " says Irene. "Then we crossed the border, and Mom and I burst into tears." Just a few minutes before, John had been taken to a detention room; his mother could see him waving from a window. She remembers her son wearing his Philadelphia Phillies cap, a memento of his father's hometown. "He'll wear just about anything with a Philadelphia team logo on it," she says, "be it the 76ers, the Eagles or the Phillies."

On Aug. 29, Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived in Baghdad and was able to arrange a safe-passage flight for another group of American women and children and infirm men. "We were hoping to get out with him," says Charlton, "but all he could tell us was, 'Just hang in there, fellas." It wasn't much comfort, but given the situation, I guess it was all he could do."

As the days and weeks passed, more flights were arranged for women and children out of Kuwait and Iraq, but departure prospects for the American men remained the same: zero. "You make the best of a bad situation," Scogna says. "We're in limbo, just trying to kill the days by doing whatever we can at the embassy—file stuff, pack up what the women and kids left behind, run the snack bar. I'm told we're at the top of the embassy list to get out, but still I think the overall situation regarding war doesn't look good. So it's comforting just knowing all those friendly forces arc right over the border. We all feel that way. We just have to be careful when we're out by ourselves. You never know when things could go crazy."

Back home, Scogna's mother and girlfriend are not so calm. "My son knows the seriousness of the situation," says Ruth Scogna, 44, a Fairfax, Va., computer consultant who is divorced from Jared's father. ''He's very mature. The first message from him was a cable on Aug. 16. It said, "I'm fine. Having a wonderful time. Don't worry. Be home soon.' It was almost like a postcard from the beach. The only thing missing was 'Wish you were here." I read that and knew he was okay."

As the son of a State Department family, Jared is an experienced traveler, says Ruth. "He flew to Greece by himself when he was 9 years old. He reacts well under stress. When you're 20, you take something like this almost like an adventure." Jared is able to call his mother about twice a week. "He said to me, 'Please don't cry on the phone. I can't deal with that,' " says Ruth, her voice breaking. "So I don't." Jared's girlfriend of two years, Sherri Stephens, 20, also tries to stay upbeat. "He's always trying to make me laugh, because I go into tears on the phone," she says. "Every morning when I get up, I turn on CNN and I see these people coming home and being reunited with their families, and I just sit there and sob. But I've learned things too. I've come to see just how petty most things in life are. Like who does the dishes. Now, who cares? What docs it matter? The big thing is that he gets home safely. We're going to Mexico in December, to Cancun. I have the plane tickets, the hotel room is paid for. So he has to be home by then. We're going on this vacation, even if I have to call Saddam Hussein myself."

Although Saddam, with the maddening whimsy of which despots are capable, has been known to yield to such personal entreaties—just over a week ago he released Thomas Ewald, 25, after a written entreaty from his mother in Greenwich, Conn.—an air of hardening resolve hangs over Baghdad that promises no easy solutions to the Middle East stalemate. Although Iraq emerged only two years ago from eight bloody years of war with Iran, most Iraqis—at least those willing to speak under the gaze of the government's party workers—appear to support Saddam's policies. "I will fight as I am, again," says Hassan Mohammed, an unmarried electrician who lost half of one leg in the last war. "I am not afraid." Nor is Abdullah Habib, a young information-ministry guide for foreigners. He points to a monument showing the mangled remains of a downed Iranian jet and adds, "Next time, we will show an American plane the same way." ' In such an atmosphere, the American hostages can only wait—and hope. "The Iraqis, at least to us, are very polite so far," says John Charlton. "Yet here we are, their 'guests,' against our will, politely kept from leaving. Florida and my school sure look good to me now."

Additional reporting by Jane Sugden in New York City

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