Vit Pohanka - surviving captivity in Iraq

My guest on One on One this week is my Czech Radio colleague, Vit Pohanka. Vit is one of three Czech journalists who were taken captive in Iraq last week. Along with a Czech TV reporter and cameraman, he spent six days being held by an unknown Iraqi group somewhere in the country outside Baghdad.

Vit Pohanka
The three men were suddenly released on Friday, when they were brought blindfold to the outskirts of the city. Their ordeal was over, but the experience will remain engrained in their memories. A few hours after returning to Prague on Sunday, Vit spoke to me about the extraordinary and gruelling experience. I asked him how he felt to be back home.

"There are moments when I feel in a kind of surreal situation, in a situation which doesn't have anything to do with reality. Even 48 hours ago I was still kept by the Iraqis, and now all of a sudden I'm in's difficult to describe all the feelings that are going through my head, and all the thoughts that I have.

"But it's getting better, I would say, gradually. The good thing is that immediately at the airport there was my wife, there was my mother. I was able to go home, I was able to do some shopping. So things are getting OK now, I would say.

On the subject of your family, I think that the last time we spoke together you were in my office with your son on your knee. It must have been dreadful not to know whether you'd see them ever again.

"Yeah, that was the thing that I'd say was most often on my mind. There were various feelings that I felt. What was very strong was a feeling of guilt that I had for letting my family undergo such a situation, and undergo such stress.

"The next feeling was that if I wasn't going to come out of that alive my son would have to grow up fatherless, which wasn't very nice. But at the same time, to be quite frank, it gave me some strength thinking about them, and it gave me the will not to fall into depression, to try to survive in the very basic sense of that word."

Was this the first time that you had been directly confronted with the possibility of death?

"To a certain extent, yes, definitely. This was the first time that I was confronted with the reality was a probability that I wasn't going to survive. But in the end, if you think about it, you think well, what can happen, OK I'm going to die one day anyway, may sound a little bit crude, maybe cruel, but that's the way it is."

Many people in those sort of situations turn to God - was that your case?

The journalists after being released in Baghdad,  photo: CTK
"God was certainly on my mind. I'm not a strictly religious person in the traditional sense of that word, I don't go to church every Sunday. But yes, I was trying to communicate with God, if that's what you mean, yeah."

Also you were't alone - you were there with Michal Kubal and Petr Klima from Czech Television. That must have been an enormous help.

"Indeed. This was the thing that really helped all of us. And it's something, I mean this experience of being there, the three of us...Michal Kubal I had met before but Petr Klima I met for the first time the day we were captured.

"It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. That was the most important thing: we were able to live together side by side. There wasn't an argument, that was important. And I think this whole thing - that we were able to make fun of the situation, and to joke about it, it really helped us to survive."

When you say to joke about it, were you actually sitting there making jokes?

"Yeah, there were times, there was some black humour involved. One thing we did was we would talk about movies, but in a way that we would retell the story of a movie, basically in real time - we would talk about a movie for nearly two hours.

"Sometimes we would laugh. You have nothing to do, there's just a small window and you see the desert, and the only backdrop to that, or background, was the Americans bombing Falluja, which must have been 12 or 15 kilometres away.

"That's the only thing you have to keep your mind busy, and then you can talk about movies and tell stories; that definitely helps, to an enormous extent, I would say."

Vit Pohanka,  Petr Klima and Michal Kubal back in Czech Republic,  photo: CTK
There's a famous novel by Stefan Zweig about a man who's in prison, in solitary confinement, and one of his guards accidentally leaves a book about chess in the cell, and on his own, sitting with this book about chess, he becomes a brilliant chess player - I gather that you also tried to make a chess board when you were in captivity.

"Yes, we did make a chess board but we couldn't play chess because we couldn't figure out how to make the different figures. We would have been able probably to do that had we stayed there for a longer period of time.

"But I was playing solitaire, which is a game you can play just with stones and you can play it yourself. Because Petr Klima is not much of a player, he wasn't inclined. And we played another sort of game in which Michal Kubal was much better than I was, and it was kind of depressing to be beaten all the time, so I was playing solitaire all the time. It definitely helped to take my mind off the situation and to think of something else.

"I can only recommend to listeners that if they find themselves in solitary confinement if they can find a few stones, if they can draw a chess board or something like that on the floor, try to invent something, play, it will help you."

Could you outline a little bit what actually happened? You were being driven in a taxi from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad to the Jordanian capital, Amman when somewhere in the desert you were suddenly stopped.

"We were supposed to go via Samarra, which is north of Baghdad, and we wanted to avoid the area of Falluja, where there had been, there was and there still is heavy fighting. What made us think that everything was going to be fine was the fact that the day before two guys from a Czech newspaper managed to go through Samarra and they got to Amman, safely.

"But the driver on the way - and it hasn't been explained why - decided to take a short cut, and he wanted to go not maybe directly to Falluja, but very close to Falluja, and we were stopped at a checkpoint after several kilometres and were dragged out of the car. Then all of our property, all the things that belonged to us were taken away from us.

"This would be a long, long story, but to cut it short, the worst things were happening the first morning when we had our hands tied behind our backs, we were blindfolded, we were driven around, we were interrogated, we were blindfolded again, we were told that we were going to be released but we were not released.

"Then we were driven to this small sort of hut, which had been used as a kind of car workshop, as I understand; it was really just a hut in the desert. And there we stayed for the next five or six days. That's how it happened, and then we were released.

"But my worst memory is of being driven around blindfolded, because those were the moments when I was really saying goodbye to my life and all the people that I had known."

What do you know about the people who actually kidnapped you?

"What we now know I think, the most likely scenario, is that we were first stopped by the so-called Ali Babas, the looters, the people who stop you on the highway, they take away all your property but normally they let you go.

"In this case they didn't let us go, they handed us over to another group, which was probably a local group of insurgents, as the Americans call them - armed Iraqis who are trying to fight the Americans.

"At first we thought they were some sort of local villagers, not very well organised. But then it started to change and decisions started to be made on a higher level, it seemed.

"The people who would come, there were several people who would come to see us and ask us again 'are you really from the Czech Republic', or Czechoslovakia as they would say. So there was some degree of organisation, definitely there was."

And they treated you quite well, I gather - you were given food, you had enough to drink...

"Yeah, we could go outside three times a day, we were given bottled drinking water. One day we weren't given bottled water, there was some shortage. But we were given the basic foods: some biscuits, we would get bread, we would get apples, we would get some vegetables.

"So we had basic food, we weren't tortured, we weren't hungry or thirsty, and we could speak to each other, that was the most important thing."

Finally, you've already said in one interview that you want to go back to Iraq - why?

"It is an enormously interesting country, an enormously interesting situation. I think it's a place where it will be proved whether the US can actually keep their word and make Iraq democratic.

"The question is do the Iraqi people want democracy as a system of government. Do the majority of them really want it or is that a concept perhaps that they are not happy about? Perhaps they want something completely different, I don't know. I find that very interesting, definitely."

What does your wife say about your plans to go back to Iraq?

"We haven't discussed it yet, we are kind of postponing it."