CANADA

A bittersweet victory

Iraq releases only a handful of Canadians

BRIAN BERGMAN December 10 1990
CANADA

A bittersweet victory

Iraq releases only a handful of Canadians

BRIAN BERGMAN December 10 1990

A bittersweet victory

CANADA

Iraq releases only a handful of Canadians

For Sandra Wolf of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., it was the end to weeks of anguished waiting. Four months after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, Wolf’s husband, Tom, 30, an oil worker employed in Iraq, was at last on the verge of freedom. Like the relatives of at least 46 other Canadians still held against their will in Iraq and Kuwait, Wolf had pinned her hopes on a delegation of three MPs who arrived in Baghdad on Nov. 19 and who spent the next nine days trying to convince Iraqi officials to release the hostages. When word of her husband’s impending release came last week, Wolf, the mother of three young children, rushed five blocks to St. Matthew Elementary School to share the news with her seven-year-old son, Byron, who was attending the Roman Catholic school’s monthly mass. Said Wolf: “I stayed for the mass, gave thanks, and then the kids all hugged me.”

Despite her elation, Wolf said that she felt saddened that so many Canadian hostages were still being detained. For similar reasons, the three MPs—Conservative Robert Corbett, Liberal Lloyd Axworthy and New Democrat

Svend Robinson—were also subdued about the success of their mission. Before travelling to Baghdad, the MPs said that they were hoping to bring all 46 hostages home. But last Friday night, the MPs returned to Canada alone. Two of the freed hostages—Husnain Abdul Aziz, an 18-year-old student from Toronto who had been on a pilgrimage of Islamic holy sites in Iraq during the invasion, and Lee Binns, a 38year-old oil consultant from Calgary—had already flown to London to visit with friends and family before returning to Canada. Three others—Robert Beck, 45, of Newcastle, Ont., Bob McKen, 31, of Edmonton, and Wolf—were still in Baghdad awaiting their final exit visas. Said Robinson: “Obviously we’re disappointed.” But, added Axworthy, “We hope we’ve opened the door for other Canadians to return in the next short while.”

For his part, Robinson said that the MPs’ efforts were likely hindered by Ottawa’s militant stance against Iraq—including its support, along with 11 other nations, for a UN Security Council resolution passed last week authorizing the use of force against Iraq if it does not

retreat from Kuwait before Jan. 15 (page 28). Robinson added that the MPs were likely penalized for failing to make the ritual abasements to the Iraqi leader. “We didn’t come here bearing any gifts,” he said. “We weren’t prepared to grovel at the feet of Hussein.” But other observers, including the relatives of some of the hostages still in Iraq and Kuwait, said that the initiative was destined to fail because the MPs lacked sufficient stature to attract Saddam Hussein’s attention. Indeed, last week Hussein granted former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali a personal audience—something denied to the three Canadians—and then released 14 U.S. hostages to return home with Ali. “It was wonderful of the MPs to go, but I think they were the wrong people to send,” said Torontonian Terril Reichstein, whose husband, Heinz, a 43-yearold director of a hotel management firm, remains stranded in Kuwait. “Hussein wants somebody who is powerful, prestigious. He’s not getting what he wants.”

Certainly, the three MPs found it slow sledding as they worked their way through the Byzantine world of Iraqi politics. By gradual steps, the MPs moved from talking with lowlevel Iraqi bureaucrats to meeting members of the country’s national assembly, and finally to talks with the Arab international affairs committee of the Iraqi parliament. After that committee made an undisclosed recommendation to Hussein’s office, the MPs learned that five Canadians—who had apparently been selected at

random—would be released.

At the same time, some relatives of the Canadian hostages condemned what they saw as inflammatory comments made by External Affairs Minister Joe Clark. During a Nov. 23 to 27 Middle Eastern tour, Clark talked tough about the need to maintain international pressure against Iraq. Declared Terril Reichstein: “I think Clark opening his big mouth probably set everything back.” But Tory MP Corbett said that some of Clark’s comments may have actually helped the hostages' cause—in particular, Clark’s statements in Israel that the issue of a Palestinian homeland must be dealt with immediately following the resolution of the Gulf crisis. Those remarks, claimed Corbett, “did us no harm at all.”

Last week’s developments left the future of the remaining Canadian hostages deeply clouded. Particularly cruel was the case of Pyarali Rustom, 73, and his wife, Sherbanu, 67, of Scarborough, Ont., who are stranded in Baghdad. When Iraq announced the release of the five Canadians, the MPs were led to believe that Iraqi officials also intended to release Pyarali Rus-

tom—who recently underwent triple-bypass heart surgery—on humanitarian grounds. But by week’s end, no further progress had been made, leading the Rustoms’ son, Ashak, to fear that his parents may remain hostages. Said Ashak: “Someone is probably having a lot of fun playing with our emotions.”

Still, at least two other Canadians may secure their release in the coming weeks. Rela-

tives of nurse Cheryl Dyack and her husband, Dr. Colin Dyack, told Maclean ’s that it still appears likely that the Nova Scotia couple will return home in time for Christmas—under the auspices of the Irish placement firm that had secured their postings at a Baghdad hospital. But, for the families of the other hostages, the immediate future appears bleak. “Our options are narrowing,” said Jeanne Skovberg of Calgary, whose husband, Fred, a 53-year-old computer engineer, is being § held in Kuwait. Skovberg, g who was instrumental in orQ ganizing the hostages’ fam2 ilies and convincing the MPs I to go to Iraq, said that one option may be to put together a humanitarian package, perhaps through the International Red Cross, to bring in badly needed medicine and baby foods. Said Skovberg: “We go in with a gift. We buy them out. The MP delegation could not do that.” For the relatives of those still trapped in the Gulf, desperate times clearly require desperate measures.

BRIAN BERGMAN

JOHN HOWSE

GLEN ALLEN