Harmeet Sooden Speaks Publicly: Freed Hostage Believes Ransom Was Paid
By Yasmine Ryan
Harmeet Sooden At His Press Conference In Auckland Today - Image
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Speaking publicly for the first time since his release from his Iraqi captors and subsequent return to New Zealand, Christian Peacemaker Harmeet Sooden appeared before the media at a press conference in Auckland today. The Auckland University student spoke openly and freely about his experience, in particular airing his suspicion that a ransom was paid to secure him and his fellow hostages’ release, and responding to critics who questioned what the pacifists were doing in such a dangerous place in the first place.
Shunning the exclusive interview that had been planned with TVNZ, Sooden instead sent out an open invitation to all media, a move that seemed to be motivated by the young man’s desire to allow the public, through the media, “ready and fair access” to his story.
Sooden began by thanking communities across the world for their support and prayers for both himself and his family. He also expressed his gratitude to the New Zealand Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade and to Foreign Affairs Canada. Finally, the New Zealand resident thanked those involved in the operations that led to the freedom three out of four of the Christian Peacemaker hostages, namely the British armed forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Tom Fox, a U.S. citizen, was killed shortly before the other hostages were rescued.
In his opening statement, Sooden hoped to deflect attention from “the particulars of our captivity”, and focus it instead on what he considers the more crucial question: “What are the consequences of an illegal Anglo-American invasion and occupation with the complicity of a host of Western institutions, including the New Zealand government, on ordinary human beings living in Iraq?”
Responding to criticisms that in putting themselves in such a risky situation, the Christian Peacemakers were guilty of selfish and naïve behaviour, Sooden pointed out that the War on Iraq itself was vastly more expensive than the rescue mission to free the group. He also argued that soldiers “are taking permanent risks just by being in Iraq”.
On the subject of the rescue operation, which occurred on 23 March, Sooden was somewhat ambivalent. He described being awoken by Loney before there was any sign of the ‘Coalition’ soldiers. Unusually, their captives were absent and the three sensed something was afoot. This was confirmed when they heard the sound of an English accent. Within minutes they had been cut free by soldiers. Rather than feeling overjoyed, Sooden says he felt “strange” and as though the situation was “contrived”.
He felt it was not so much a rescue as the soldiers walking in and escorting the trio out. Although he has seen no solid evidence to suggest it, Sooden believes it is “highly likely” that a ransom was paid. This is further suggested by the murder of Fox, the only American in the group, just days before. The Iraqi kidnappers had apparently complained of the Americans holding up negotiations.
The Kidnapper-Hostage Relationship
Although softly-spoken, Sooden expressed himself authoritively and with conviction. Despite his 118 day ordeal, he seemed to be coping relatively well. He admitted that he had not yet been able to gauge the emotional toll the experience had had on him.
Sooden was treated, in his view, somewhat better than the other prisoners. He puts this down to his appearance, something about his behaviour that made his captors trust him more, and/or his Canadian/Kashmiri origin. The only violence he endured at the hands of his captors was a slap.
The others had a rougher time. Norman Kember is 74 years old and Jim Loney suffered from a fever towards the end. The Iraqi insurgents were apparently most suspicious of Tom Fox. As a whole, the group was treated with increasing leniency as time progressed.
The group was particularly frightened of one of the captors, the youngest, most volatile and seemingly most experienced. They preferred a gentler, larger man, who bought them food and even a rose and a Christmas cake.
Asked about his feelings towards his captors, Sooden responded that, on the one hand, they were essentially human beings. Each of the captors, he stated, had personal grievances against the occupying forces. One told the hostages that he had killed an American soldier, only to see the soldier’s “beautiful face”. And they did not seem to enjoy the prolonged guard duty, repeatedly informing the hostages that they too were prisoners.
On the other hand, Sooden confessed that survival was always utmost in his mind. Pragmatically, he added that he is aware that it is easier to look after well-treated prisoners.
Who Were the Insurgents?
The profile of the organisation which kidnapped the Christian Peacemakers remains shadowy. Sooden does not think the group members were extreme fanatics, or that they were connected to Al Qaeda. He suspects they were Sunni Muslims.
Some members prayed several times a day, but not excessively. Basically, says Sooden, they were just ordinary people, wanting to get on with their lives. They discussed Shia-Sunni tensions, blaming the Occupation forces for exacerbating and exploiting them. Iran was not viewed in a particularly positive light either.
Those entrusted with guard duties seemed to be receiving orders from superiors. They do not seem to have killed Tom Fox themselves, although of course they were complicit in his death, acting in the very least as transporters.
The 32 year old sees the kidnapping as a tactic within the greater insurgency, primarily motivated to generate income. The hostages were, above all, a “commodity”. Their captors assured them that, if they were going to be killed, they would have been treated far more harshly.
As a pacifist, however, he remained critical of the choice of violence to fight the insurgency, a topic he says he debated with the Iraqi insurgents. Finally, because of the use to which the funds will be put, Sooden does not believe a ransom should have been paid.