The letters arrived in Calgary in the hands of weary travellers from the Middle East and were delivered to an anxious wife. Reading them, Jeanne Skovberg, 43, could sense, plainly and painfully, the dete-
riorating condition of her husband, Fred, 53, a computer engineer who has been held in Kuwait since Iraq invaded that country on Aug. 2. In three letters—the most recent arrived in mid-October—Skovberg’s husband told her
that the Canadian hostages in Kuwait feel neglected and ignored by their government. At the same time, living conditions in the occupied country are rapidly worsening. The men, who are keenly aware that they are at the epicentre of a potential war zone, complain that they are confined to quarters and watched constantly by Iraqi soldiers. “Food is sketchy, intermittent,” said Skovberg, who left Kuwait in early September at her husband’s insistence. “They are suffering mentally and physically.” Now, three MPs are preparing to go to Baghdad to seek the release of all Canadian hostages.
For her part, Skovberg brushed aside the assurances of the department of external affairs that it is doing everything possible to secure her husband’s release. Instead, after talking to the worried relatives of other Canadians held hostage in Kuwait and Iraq, she offered to raise money to pay the way for a group of prominent Canadians to travel privately to Baghdad to plead their case. The appeal reflected the success of similar missions on behalf of other nationals held by Iraq by wellknown political figures from Germany, Japan, Britain and the United States. But one early candidate for a comparable high-profile Canadian mission, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, turned aside the appeal—citing a prior commitment to visit Vietnam.
Still, the three MPs did pick up the challenge. B.C. New Democrat Svend Robinson, Manitoba Liberal Lloyd Axworthy and New Brunswick Conservative Robert Corbett said that they intended to pay an unofficial visit to Baghdad to try to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to release 37 nondiplomatic Canadian workers held by his government. And although by the end of the week Corbett was the only one of the three who had been granted an entry visa by Iraqi authorities, Robinson said that he remained optimistic. Said Robinson: “Even if only one or two of the Canadians trapped in Iraq are able to come home as a result of this mission, it will have been worthwhile.” For her part, Skovberg said that the group of families with relatives in Iraq or Kuwait, assisted by the employers of some hostages as well as by private donations, was already assembling pledges for the estimated $12,000 needed for the trip.
In the past, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has condemned rescue missions. He said late last month that any official mission would only help Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to create the impression of divisions within the military alliance that now opposes him in the Gulf. External Affairs Minister Joe Clark instructed his officials to assist the three MPs with travel arrangements and briefings on the situation in the Middle East. But he also said that an official mission would run the risk of undermining the solidarity of the international opposition to Hussein. And he repeatedly stressed that the proposed delegation would not represent the Canadian government.
Of the three MPs, Corbett is the most knowledgeable about the Middle East. The New Brunswick businessman, along with six other MPs, drew criticism in 1984 for accepting an
invitation for a private tour of the Middle East from Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Corbett has also visited Baghdad at least twice and appears to be well-regarded there. Fellow MP Jean Lapierre, for one, recalled that when he travelled to the Iraqi capital with Corbett in 1984, “doors were opened” wherever the New Brunswick MP went in the city.
The Canadian mission would follow a welltrodden path to Hussein’s door. Last week, 74 Japanese hostages flew home after former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Baghdad to plead for their freedom. Similar interventions by such figures as former British prime minister Edward Heath, former West German chancellor Willy Brandt and former U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson have resulted in the return of hundreds of other hostages. Not all of those missions have found official favor with the governments of the countries involved. The British government, for example, tried unsuccessfully to discourage a visit by 13 women last week seeking the release of their husbands and fiancés.
Meanwhile, as of last week, there were 21 Canadians in Kuwait, eight of whom have dual citizenship or other travel papers, which allow them to leave. There were another 57 Canadians in Baghdad. Thirty-three of them have dual passports but do not wish to leave because they do not want to abandon property or jobs in Iraq. In addition, there are nine diplomatic workers who fled Kuwait and are now stranded in the Canadian Embassy in Baghdad. The Iraqis have refused to grant them exit visas or diplomatic papers, which would let them work in Baghdad. Said Robinson of the hostages: “They’re under tremendous emotional stress.”
That view is echoed by many of the hostages’ anxious relatives back home. In Roblin, Man., Linda Chase, whose brother was trapped in Kuwait when his plane landed there to refuel, responded impatiently to the public debate over the wisdom of mounting a rescue mission. Noting that reports out of Kuwait last week indicated that Canadian hostages had lost their food supplies and are living under increasingly difficult conditions, Chase declared: “I don’t care who goes over, as long as they just try to get the people out before something happens.”
While the three parliamentarians expected eventually to be received in Iraq, their safety there is far from assured. Tensions rose again in the Gulf last week, as U.S. President George Bush announced the deployment of more than 150,000 additional troops to the region, bringing the total U.S. force strength to almost 400,000. But the MPs said that the mounting danger made their mission even more necessary. Declared Corbett: “It is never a good time to head for Iraq these days. But if it is a worse time today than it was yesterday, that just underscores the urgency.” For worried families awaiting the return of loved ones from the Middle East, that urgency becomes more painfully clear with each passing day.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.