THEIR LETTERS HOME REVEAL THE FEARS AND BITTERNESS OF THE CANADIANS HELD HOSTAGE
TERROR IN IRAQ
THEIR LETTERS HOME REVEAL THE FEARS AND BITTERNESS OF THE CANADIANS HELD HOSTAGE
They are a disparate group, united in the horror and helplessness of their situation. At least 47 Canadians from far-flung cities and towns across the country have been held hostage in Kuwait and Iraq since Aug. 2. The 13 in Kuwait and the others in Iraq were among the thousands of unlucky foreign bystanders caught in the jaws of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Since then, the Canadians have been among the human foils used by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to try to discourage a counter-invasion by the American-led multinational force, which continues to mass in the Persian Gulf. The Canadian hostages include doctors and oil workers, lab technicians and mechanics. But their stories, told in letters smuggled to Canada and in phone calls to worried relatives at home, all bear an achingly similar refrain: boredom at the enforced inactivity, moments of panic at their plight, bitterness about the federal government’s handling of the issue— and a nagging uncertainty about when, if ever, they will be free to return home.
Last week, the circle of concern for the Canadian hostages widened well beyond family and friends. A delegation of three members of Parliament travelled from Ottawa to Baghdad on an unofficial mission to try to secure their release. The three MPs—Conservative Robert Corbett, Liberal Lloyd Axworthy and New Democrat Svend Robinson—worked their way up the ladder of the Iraqi bureaucracy in an attempt to meet Hussein, the one man who can act on their pleas for the hostages’ release. Hussein had promised to release all the hostages under his control between Christmas and March 25. But both Washington and Ottawa dismissed the offer as a propaganda gesture. Instead, they renewed their call for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of military force to drive Iraq
from Kuwait. Against that flurry of war rhetoric, there was still no indication at week’s end whether the three MPs could hope for some success in their mission of mercy. Indeed, more than ever, the fate of the Canadian hostages appeared linked to how far Ottawa was willing to go down the road to war.
Until the MPs’ visit, scant attention had been paid in Canada to those trapped in Iraq and Kuwait. The Tory government has refused to negotiate for their release, insisting that Hussein was using the hostages as bargaining chips to stave off an attack.
Maclean ’s has learned that, in October, Corbett had tried to organize a delegation of MPs to go to Baghdad and had secured the necessary travel visa from the Iraqis. But the unpublicized mission was cancelled for reasons not yet revealed. Nor has External Affairs released the names of those Canadians being held, and last week the department declined a Maclean ’s request for the names and telephone numbers of the families of the Canadian hostages. Canadian officials said that the names were not made public because of a legal requirement to protect the privacy of the hostages’ families. But that has also discouraged publicity about the plight of the hostages. And with no faces and personal stories to attach to those now held in Iraq and Kuwait, public reaction to their plight has been slow to materialize.
At first, families and friends of the hostages uneasily followed Ottawa’s low-key approach. “We wait, but there is never any sign of life from Ottawa,” complained Claudyn Kavanagh of Chicoutimi, Que., whose husband, John, an engineering company executive, is passing his days in captivity by gardening in Baghdad. But as the weeks wore on, and as high-profile envoys from other countries successfully petitioned Hussein for the release of their nationals, patience among the Canadian families evaporated. “We wasted a lot of time in Canada,” said Jeanne Skovberg of Calgary, whose husband, Fred, a 53-year-old computer engineer, is held in Kuwait. “I welcome this delegation [of MPs], but it should have gone one month ago. And meanwhile, the hostages are sitting in this seesaw situation.”
Many of the hostages share that frustration
with Ottawa. In an Oct. 18 letter to his wife, Terril, Heinz Reichstein, a 43-year-old director of a hotel management firm, wrote: “It is rather amazing considering that there are only 13 Canadians remaining in Kuwait and still our government can’t do anything to get us out. Is it really that difficult to find a way to release 13 people? The more I think of it, the more depressed I get.” Three days earlier, admittedly despondent, Reichstein and eight other Canadians in Kuwait had written former prime minister Pierre Trudeau asking him to intervene with Hussein on their behalf. “You remember when [Austrian President Kurt] Waldheim came?” Reichstein wrote his wife. “He took a planeload of people back. So if a highranking Canadian would visit Baghdad and pay court, maybe we could go home.”
But although sources close to Trudeau said that he was interested in the proposal, the former prime minister did not go to Baghdad. Axworthy, for one, said that Trudeau had a prior
commitment to travel to Vietnam. In his place, the MPs organized their trip, which Ottawa, while providing the usual assistance made available to travelling parliamentarians, has refused to sanction. Ottawa’s lack of diplomatic action has made the hostages’ family members alternately depressed and angry. “The government does not know what we are going through,’’ said Terril Reichstein, who was in Kuwait with her husband but managed to leave in the first week of September when Hussein released most foreign women and children. “You have these tremendous emotional highs and lows. They do
not know how depressing it is when you are waiting, waiting, waiting.”
That sense of despair hangs over the hostages as well as their families. Merebeth Beck, of Newcastle, Ont., said that her husband, Robert, is growing more dispirited with every day spent in Baghdad. Beck is an auto mechanic who was sent to Iraq in the spring on a one-year contract to train local mechanics. His plans to return home for a holiday on Aug. 24 were crushed by the Gulf crisis, and Beck was not allowed to leave even when his father died last month. Merebeth talks to her husband by phone every Saturday and Sunday, but she said that the calls from Baghdad are now often cut off after five minutes. Robert, who is allowed to leave his room at the Palestinian Hotel freely, continued to work part time even after the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. But the economic embargo against Iraq has staunched the flow of auto parts, curtailing one of Beck’s few remaining pleasures. “Being a mechanic, he likes to
tinker,” said Merebeth. “Without that, you go kind of berserk.”
For the 13 Canadians known to be in Iraqioccupied Kuwait, the strains are even greater. In their communications with family members here, hostages in Kuwait City have described the situation as bordering on anarchy, with widespread crime, shooting and looting. David Wright, a 56-year-old Toronto native who has spent 10 years in Kuwait, where he is in charge of a hospital laboratory, wrote to Carol Thomson, his niece in Toronto, that it is dangerous to go outdoors. Wright, who speaks Arabic, wrote
Thomson that he had learned four new Arabic expressions: “blockade,” “machine-gun,” “starvation” and “Don’t shoot.”
Some of the Canadians are in hiding from Iraqi troops, and their families are reluctant to publicize their plight or even to send messages for fear of exposing their whereabouts. One woman, who wanted to guard her identity, said that she had not heard from her son in Kuwait since the day of the invasion. “Maybe if he can just be a nobody for a little while, he can get out,” she said.
Unlike Baghdad, where food remains available in spite of the economic embargo against Iraq, Kuwait City is clearly suffering from shortages. One woman, whose son is hiding in Kuwait City, said that banks and stores are closed and only canned food remains. In a letter to his mother smuggled out by British hostages who were released, he wrote that Kuwait “looks like the early Middle Ages. Everything is destroyed, and there is looting.” Military
roadblocks are on every street corner, he wrote, and traffic is controlled so tightly that “not a mouse could get through.”
As a result, the hostages’ best hope for release appears to rest with the unofficial parliamentary delegation. Before they left Canada, the three MPs spoke to many of the hostages’ families and told them they expected their mission would take at least a week. Their first two days were spent meeting with representatives of the Iraqi Committee for Solidarity, Peace and Friendship—a liaison organization. As well as talking to some of the Canadian hostages, the MPs also met with low-ranking Iraqi bureaucrats and participated in ceremoni-
al events, such as a wreath-laying at Iraq’s Monument to the Unknown Soldier. Corbett, who has travelled extensively in the Arab world since 1982, dismissed criticisms that, by laying the wreath, the MPs were giving Hussein a propaganda victory. “It is absolutely apolitical,” he said.
But after meeting with members of Iraq’s national assembly on Nov. 22, Axworthy appeared to suggest that the opposition parties could better attack the Canadian government’s military stance in the Gulf if the hostages were
freed. Said Axworthy: “We have said to the Iraqi authorities that we cannot have an honest, open debate while there is still the emotional issue of Canadian nationals being detained.” The prospect of a tumultuous domestic debate did not deter Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from renewing his calls last week for a UN resolution to authorize the use of force. But some of the hostages’ families express concern that Mulroney’s support for the increasingly tough line of President George Bush may make Hussein less inclined to free the Canadians he holds. Jeanne Skovberg, who received a chilling, one-month-old letter from Fred last week that included a will he drew up, believes that Mulroney’s stand is an obstacle to freedom. Said Skovberg: “Mulroney is sounding like a northern George Bush. Keeping some Canadians will be part of the punishment for our Gulf policy.” The suffering of the Skovbergs and other hostages was a grim reminder of how innocent lives can be swept up in the violent gusts of international affairs.
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