Micah Garen and Marie Helene Carlton went to Iraq in 2004 to make a movie about the looting of archeological sites. Garen’s photos of looted artifacts were published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and he and Carlton shot hundreds of hours of video, which are now be edited into a feature film. They documented amazing scenes – large Sumerian sites that have thousands of holes, dug at night by teams of looters. The looters find artifacts from as early as 3000 BC – cunieform tables which are both fiscally priceless and critical pieces of history.
The film making was extremely dangerous. Because there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in the artifact trade, the few archeologists who try to protect the sites neeed to carry firearms. And they still don’t have much success in protecting these sites.
Micah and Marie Helene had tried to do all the right things – she wore a hijab, he grew a beard and moustache. But shortly after Marie Helene left for home, Micah was kidnapped along with his driver Amir, near Nasiriyah. His kidnappers were associated with Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and they treated Micah pretty badly. He and his translator were beaten – Amir’s jaw was broken – and they were held in an outdoor compound for five days, a space enclosed by four date palms.
Micah tells us about the thoughts that go through your head when kidnapped. First, he tried to communicate with his kidnappers. He was desperate for information – what was going to happen to him? what did his captors want? He also spent time thinking about whether he could attack one of his captor and get free. He made a makeshift shiv from the sharp ends of palm fronds.
Perhaps more useful than the shiv, he wrote a note to Marie Helene on the back of a matchbook in mud, using the tips of a date palm. The message read “MH Zug Love” – a reference to Marie Helene, their dog and that he was thinking about them. As Micah said, “kidnapping is all about loss of control” – writing gave him a small thing he could control in an uncontrolable situation.
After five days, Micah was hauled into a building and put in front of a videocamera, with four masked kidnappers behind him. Remembering Daniel Perl and Nick Byrd, he wondered if we would be beheaded on camera.
Behind the scenes, Marie Helene had leveraged social networks to try to lobby for Micah’s release. Turning their studio apartment into a command center, they called friends all over the world who might know people who know al-Sadr. They chose not to contact the media – though the FBI eventually had to move them from their apartment because of the media crowds outside the building. The family issued a plea to let them work through these channels instead.
Micah was released ten days after his kidnapping, as was Amir. He asked Marie Helene to marry him almost immediately after, proposing over a satellite phone. (Amir got married within three months as well.) They both credit their ability to mobilize a network with his survival and release.
One question from the audience asked whether the American Embassy had been useful. Marie Helene mentions that she talked with the FBI and the state department – but her network of international journalists and aid workers was quite possibly better prepared to negotiate their release than the American diplomats were.