When the phone rang at Marie-Hélène Carleton’s house early Monday morning on Aug. 16, 2004, she let answering machine pick-up.
“Marie-Hélène, this is Suzanne” spoke the voice into the phone. “Please call me back as soon as you can.”
Suzanne’s son and Carleton’s boyfriend, Micah Garen ’94 was a journalist working in Iraq. Carleton immediately called back Suzanne, who told her, “…Alan [Micah’s dad] just called me; he got a call from the Associated Press. A journalist is missing; they think it might be Micah.”
This past Friday, Carleton and Garen spoke in Alice Cook house about their about the days that followed this horrifying phone call.
In the spring of 2004, Garen and Carleton had traveled to Iraq to work on a documentary they were making for the independent production company, Four Corners Media, that they co-owned. The two were covering the increased looting of archeological sites that followed the start of the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003.
After three months of interviews, research and filming, Carleton returned to the states while Garen remained to tie up loose ends. He planned to come home two weeks after her departure.
On the weekend before his return, Friday, Aug.13, Garen and his translator, Amir Doshi, went to film in a Market in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. At the market, a man noticed Garen taking pictures and immediately became agitated. A confrontation ensued and a crowd gathered, but Garen and his translator were able to walk away unharmed. As he was leaving, a man asked Garen in Arabic what had happened. Garen responded “I don’t know” in Arabic. But Garen had used Egyptian Arabic, not Iraqi Arabic, and in doing so, he had exposed himself as a foreigner.
“I wanted to grab the words as they left my mouth, the look on his face confirming my mistake,” said Garen. “Jabbing his finger in the air at me, he began shouting, ‘Foreigner!’”
In Iraq, foreigners are not trusted and not safe, according to Garen.
In the chaos that ensued, Garen and Doshi were “mobbed … and thrown into a car at gunpoint.” The two were then taken to an area in the marshes where they would live for the next 10 days as hostages.
Garen and Doshi spent 10 days not knowing where they were, who was holding them captive and what their future contained. As Garen explained, the most pressing question that lingered of course was that of his future, and suddenly, the terms in which he thought of it had changed drastically.
“I guess the best way to describe it is … your world suddenly collapses into seconds,” Garen said, “because for 10 days, you realize that you can be killed in the next few seconds, and it felt like that for the entire time.”
Garen and Doshi considered escaping, but again, questions lingered. If they did not know where they were, how could they find their way to safety? Was it better to better to stay and hope that they would be released, or was their only chance of survival to escape?
In America, Carleton and the others trying to save Garen faced their own questions as well. Foremost, they had to determine who had Garen. The nature of the group that had Garen would affect the way the rescue mission was conducted. It also affected the chances of Garen surviving. Because he had been kidnapped in Nasiriyah, where Shiites predominate the area, Carleton suspected that the kidnappers were Shiites. As she described to the audience, this belief offered both reassurance and further concerns.
“Shiites hadn’t been known to take hostages, and they hadn’t killed a hostage … so there a was a sense that this was probably group of people that we could somehow reach out to, but there was also a fear that because he was an American, he was therefore a valuable asset and he could be easily sold to another group, a group like Al Queda or a Jihadist group, where there would be no hope.”
What everyone involved in Garen’s recovery did know was that Iraqi contacts and relations would be the strongest was means of recovering Garen. In Iraq, it is not the American government that has the most influence, but personal relationships.
The image of a man on his knees with armed gunmen behind him has become an almost grotesque symbol of the Iraqi war. For Garen, it became a reality.
On the day of the taping, his captors took him away from his translator and led into a room with a camera and “about a dozen young men with weapons of all kinds.”
In the book Garen and Carleton wrote about the kidnapping, he describes the experience: “It seemed unreal, and yet coldly real — I began to wonder where my life had gone so completely wrong that I found myself walking blindfolded and tied up into a scene lie this. … It was a scene I instantly recognized from kidnapping videos on television. … Daniel Pearl, Nick Berg, Kim Sun-Il — the names and the tragic footage of their videotaped beheadings flashed through my mind; I know how these videos ended.”
Carleton was also familiar with the tragic endings of so many of these videos. Seeing her “life and business partner” as its subject, she said, was the “darkest hour.”
In the video, the capturers made a demand: either the US troops withdraw from Najaf, where one of the Shiites’ holiest shrine is located, within 48 hours, or Garen would be killed.
After the video aired, the team trying to save Garen redoubled their efforts. Having at that point determined that Garen’s capturers were, in fact, Shiite, the team tried to put as much pressure on the an important Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, to denounce the kidnapping. The Shiites have a hierarchical tradition, so, “if you have a religious or political leader speak out” in favor of Garen’s return explained Carleton, “it will probably have a huge impact.” Thus, Al-Sadyr’s denunciation of the kidnapping would be crucial in determining Garen’s fate.
In order to get through to al-Sadyr, fellow journalists pushed any Iraqi contacts they had, telling them, “I know Garen, please reach out to al-Sadyr and have him make a statement [against the kidnapping].”
In addition, Garen’s sister, Eva, tried to humanize Garen for al-Sadyr by making a video begging for his recovery. The tape, explained Carleton, was an attempt to portray Garen and Doshi not as “symbols of the war” but “as sons and as husbands.”
Just before the 48-hour time limit expired, al-Sadyr made a statement calling for Garen’s release. Two days later, on Aug. 22nd, Garen and Amir were set free. No money was given to the captors, because, they were told, no one had ordered the kidnapping.
That day, Carleton received a very different phone-call than the one she had received seven days prior. It was Garen on the other line this time, and he was safe. That day, the two went from boyfriend and girlfriend to fiancées. As for Doshi, he immediately got married upon his release.
When reflecting on the events, Garen offered Friday’s audience a perspective on how the successful recovery can relate to America’s general tactic in Iraq.
“So much of what happened is the network of appeal and human-to-human contact,” Garen said. “And I just think that’s one of the most important elements of our story, because that’s really what’s important right there, just the ability to talk to people, and there’s an enormous amount of conflict going on, but there are ways of resolving the situations that benefit everyone, and I think this is an example of that.”