A Ray of Hope in Iraq’s Hostage Crisis

ROME – "Shukran, shukran gesilan, ma salama (Thank you, many thanks, see you later)," Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta said after being freed this week in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

The women, who work for the Italian non-governmental organization (NGO) "A Bridge to . . ." were kidnapped by militants on Sept. 7 from their office in Baghdad, where they were managing education and water improvement projects. Their Iraqi colleagues, Raed Ali Abdul Aziz and Mahnaz Bassam, were also seized.

However, others taken hostage in Iraq have not been as fortunate. Of the seven Italians who have been seized since April, two – private security guard Fabrizio Quattrocchi and peace activist and freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni – were killed by their kidnappers.

More than 140 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq since the beginning of the United States-led invasion of the country. Of these, about 30 have been killed – most recently American engineers Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley.

The men were beheaded a week ago by a group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant who allegedly has links with the fundamentalist al-Qaeda movement. In recent months, al-Zarqawi has become one of Washington’s main opponents in Iraq.

Worryingly, there are no official figures for the number of Iraqis seized – and these cases appear to be receiving less attention from authorities. An example of this is the abduction of Ajad Anwar Wali, an Iraqi-Italian architect who has lived in Italy since 1980, and who disappeared in Baghdad on Aug. 31. His family has accused the Italian government of not being sufficiently committed to having him freed.

An abduction that has received considerable media attention, however, is that of British engineer Kenneth Bigley, who was kidnapped Sept. 16 by the group al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad ("Monotheism and Holy War"). Much coverage has also been given to French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were seized Aug. 20. All three of these men are still in the hands of their kidnappers.

Malbrunot and Chesnot were abducted by a group known as the "Islamic Army in Iraq," which has demanded that Paris repeal a law passed March 15 that prevents Muslim schoolgirls from wearing traditional headscarves in public schools. The French government has refused to yield to this demand.

The number of groups taking hostages in Iraq has mushroomed, but unlike the group headed by al-Zarqawi, most are somewhat obscure. Typically, the groups demand a withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq in exchange for freeing kidnap victims. However, in the case of Armstrong and Hensley, al-Zarqawi’s group called for the release of Iraqi female prisoners detained by U.S. forces in Iraq.

In certain instances, the motivation behind the abductions is purely criminal, as some in Iraq have discovered that taking hostages can prove extremely lucrative.

The Italian government has said that no ransom was paid for the release of Pari and Torretta. Red Cross official Maurizio Scelli, who went to Baghdad to mediate with the kidnappers, also denied that any money changed hands.

According to Scelli, the women were released in exchange for the Red Cross’s "commitment to remain in Iraq despite the risk of abduction for Westerners, and the strengthening of our activities." Twenty Iraqi children arrived in Italy on Wednesday to be treated in Italian hospitals. At present, there are 25 Red Cross volunteers in Iraq.

However, other sources contradict the statements by Rome and Scelli. These include a Kuwaiti newspaper, Al Rai al Aam, which was used by the women’s kidnappers to communicate with the Italian government.

It remains unclear which group was responsible for taking Pari and Torretta hostage, and authorities have chosen to keep detailed accounts of their experiences while abducted under wraps. However, Torretta has said, "When our kidnappers discovered we were not spies, they were sorry."

In spite of this incident, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has declared that Italy will not withdraw the 3,000 troops it has deployed in Iraq.

For Italian civil society groups, debates about whether a ransom was paid or not are beside the point.

"Peace has won. Our weapon was the dialogue," said a peace activist who wanted to be identified only as Marco – this during a spontaneous celebration at his association’s headquarters in Rome, to mark the release of the female hostages.

Many people in Rome and Rimini, where the families of the two women live, took to the streets to celebrate their release.

"We hope that the release of the volunteers will be a metaphor of the end of the war and of the occupation," their NGO said in a press statement. A Bridge to . . . also thanked "Italian civil society and the Italian and Middle East countries’ governments" for their efforts to secure the release of "the two Simonas," as the hostages have become known.

For her part, Pari said: "We ask everyone not to forget Iraq. We have to denounce what is happening there and try to change the situation – also withdrawing the troops."

After their Sept. 28 release, the two women arrived at an airport in Rome wearing the galabiya, a long robe that is typical dress in Muslim countries, and carrying a gift from their kidnappers: an English translation of the Koran.

"Our suffering is stronger today because we cannot stay with Iraqi people who need our help," Torretta said.

"I want to go back to Iraq soon," Pari added.