Journalist describes five-month ordeal in Iraqi cellar

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The Independent Online

In an extraordinarily courageous and humorous performance, the French journalist Florence Aubenas has spoken for nearly two hours about how she survived five months blindfolded and tied up in a small, dark cellar in Iraq.

In an extraordinarily courageous and humorous performance, the French journalist Florence Aubenas has spoken for nearly two hours about how she survived five months blindfolded and tied up in a small, dark cellar in Iraq.

However, Mme Aubenas, 44, who seemed spirited and composed after her ordeal, made one startling revelation and also generated a mystery, which she refused to clarify.

The journalist, who was kidnapped near Baghdad in January and released at the weekend, deepened the controversy surrounding the actions of a pro-Saddam French MP, Didier Julia.

She told a press conference at the offices of her newspaper, Liberation, yesterday that her chief hostage-taker claimed to have twice spoken on the telephone to M. Julia last March.

"He said that it was very brief because M. Julia speaks English very badly," Mme Aubenas said, provoking laughter among her colleagues.

M. Julia, a member of President Chirac's UMP party, has denied that he interfered in the official attempts to free Mme Aubenas. He already faces a criminal investigation for his muddled efforts to release two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq last year.

The other mystery generated by Mme Aubenas concerned two Romanian journalists, who were freed in Iraq last month. They claimed at the weekend that they had spent part of their captivity, from April, with the French journalist and her guide, Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi.

Despite repeated questioning, Mme Aubenas said that she could not speak about the Romanians. She hinted that the reason for her silence was something to do with the need to protect French intelligence sources in Iraq, "not my kidnappers ... and not people in offices".

"However many times you ask," she said, "I will say that I spent my captivity with Hussein. That's all."

Mme Aubenas, dressed in a light blue blouse, with dark glasses tipped over her hair, looked fresh and relaxed. She refused to accept that she had been especially courageous. She paid tribute to her family, her colleagues at Liberation and others who had organised events to keep her name before the public.

She said: "If you are a hostage, you are just there, that's all. There is nothing you can do. For those at home, to keep up their hopes, and keep up the pressure, that takes real courage."

Mme Aubenas said that she had spent the whole of her five months in a cellar, four metres long by two metres wide. She was blindfolded and tied hand and foot. She was allowed to go the toilet twice a day and to shower once a month.

She was beaten if she spoke to the fellow prisoner in her cell. She did not know that he was Hussein, her guide, until a few days before her release. She was also beaten if she moved too much on her bed or if she cried too loud.

"To be a hostage is long in the living but short in the telling," she said. "I passed the time by counting things. Counting the seconds, the minutes, the words spoken to me, the steps to the toilet." She also described a series of surreal conversations with the head hostage-taker, a man called, in English, "ze boss" or, in Arabic, "Hadji". There was never any mention of money or a ransom, she said. Nonetheless, "ze boss" seemed anxious to contact the French government but did not know how. "He asked me 'Have you got Chirac's e-mail?' and then, 'Is there an opposition party in France? Have they got an internet site?'"

When she proved unable to answer these or other questions, he said: "You are a useless hostage. You don't understand anything."

"Hadji" - who said that he was a Sunni freedom fighter, resisting American occupation - then had the idea to contact M. Julia. He filmed Mme Aubenas for a video, which was released in March, appealing to M. Julia to help her.

Some days later, she said, he was delighted and said that he had spoken twice to the French MP on the telephone. M. Julia will now face awkward questions on his involvement in the affair.

Asked if she would go back to Iraq, Mme Aubenas said: "I don't know. Maybe in 10 years. Imagine if I was to agree to go back now. Imagine ringing up and saying, 'Mum, guess what...'."

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