Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Behind the scenes of the Kidnap Release



Saturday 26th August 2006
Gaza City 12.45 pm lunchtime

The view from my hotel window in Gaza is of the the sea, Olaf & Steve have a view we do not know. This is without doubt the most important assignment I have ever done in my career spanning back to 1979, when I first statrted in a mail room of a Television Station in Melbourne, Australia.

I arrived down in Gaza midday, and as I waited alone on the Palestinian side of the border in the noon heat of a brutal Gaza summer you could sense that this place has changed and not for the better. The abduction and kidnapping of two of my friends and collegues has changed me and my views on many issues surrounding the Palestinian quesstion. But another time and another blog to reflect that.

The biggest and most major change is now our private security down here. The negotiation team is being lead by Ken La Corte (Fox News Senior VP), along with Ibrahim Hazboun (Fox News Producer) and now myself in the mix and with the most important person here in Gaza Anita Mc Naught. Olaf's wife, if anyone has ever wanted a role model of how a lady remains under control in the most incredible and intense pressure of your life look no further.

We cannot move a step even inside our hotel without a fully armed guard taking a step behind us, I have never had really full personal security and the guys we have from the Palestinian Authority are the elite units . These are the complete package with body armor and lots of weapons, nobody and I mean nobody will mess or in any way harm us.

We have only one and one sole aim and that is to ensure the release of our friends and the full resources from all levels are being used to negotiate this.

There are honestly not enough words in any language to describe the strength and power that I have seen in Anita, from the moment I embraced Anita upon arriving here and my first words of "olaf is going to be OK and I will be here for as long as it takes" we have strengthened our bond of friendship and commitment to getting our guys out. She is incredible and so strong and then later in the night talking in her room she held out the photo of Olaf she has been carrying, and for a moment the strength she carries she slipped and in her eyes you could see the tear and fear of a wife. The photo is now wearing out from being handed around for the last couple of weeks, but I knew that it is her most precious personal effect in the world.

It is hard to try and explain what it is like to be in the middle of this situation, I am the new person on the team and hopefully will be the shortest serving member of the team, every hour we get word that in the next few hours and then another word that it could be in the next day or night, then another word that all is well and soon. Like a piece of string there is no measurement or how long, a Gaza hour does not go by a normal clock and we can only wait. We wait and then wait. In the hotel our door are open and we walk between rooms talking , standing, sitting on the floor in bathroom doorways of rooms, telling stories and planning, trying to figure out what is the plan from here on, for the next hour for the next day and for the future.

One of my roles here is obviously a technical role to record and document events in what we hope are the last hours, and yesterday I for the first time in over a month I came back to my crew car and equipment, the same car and gear that Olaf had been using. It was hard to look at the car and not have the memory of what had happened in this very car on a couple of weeks ago. As the afternoon sun was setting Ken and I discussed what video we would need for future Channel coverage and I was asked if I would go out onto the streets and shoot a re enactment at the scene where the kidnap happened. Quietly it was talked about and with New York VP's in the loop I went out quietly with Ibrahim, Arafat the driver, Arafat the Interpreter who had been working with Olaf and Steve up to the minute before the kidnap and the lead security detail guard.

It is a new Gaza now and as we drove up the street into the main city area I could feel the eyes looking at us, the armored car is known by everyone here, all 1.4 million people they all stare at the car as I try to film out the windows. Turning into the street where it happened is a dreaqdful feeling knowing what was to happen to the guys in the matter of minutes and having to figure out how safe am I as I get out of the safe confines of the locked armored car along with my security gunman. For the next fast ten I work as fast as I can to re enact the events from the memory of Arafat the translator who Olaf and Steve had just dropped off.

To have to film this, is emotionally hard, as they are friends and collegues but also important for future records and any thing that the Channel plan to do in the future.

I re enact the scene with the drive up to the last corner they were seen at and then as the sunset of Gaza we head back to the hotel and the full security detail. New York is constantly checking on my status every moment I am out on the streets and are relieved when I get back to the hotel.

How do you explain the roller coster of emotions that thru the night we experience, it is a constant mind game of what if and Anita spends almost every minute either on the phone or texting family friends and contacts around the world. And in the minutes in between as a team we talk, sometimes silly events that are not related to the guys, looking up I see Anitas photo of Olaf on her room mirror and we all know that nothing else matters apart from the release of Olaf and Steve. We wait as the night turns to early morning and a early morning phone call to Anita indicates that the release is soon very soon but not tonight, another Palestinian hour will have to pass.


Sunday 27th August 2006
Beach Hotel Gaza

I woke early, as tired I am, I want the day to start I want the guys released and hope that today day 14 from memory will be the day. The hotel floor is quiet and all our doors are closed as opposed to the way we work here with all doors open and the team walking in and out of all rooms. We had power last night so the air conditioner was working but that means that you do not have water. And Anita walks in as I am typing proclaiming a tactical mistake

" I should of showered last night"

We laugh and head down to the restaurant for breakfast complete with the armed security and sit by the window and talk for an hour, about everything and what if's and what for's. The occasional journalist walks over and tries to get information and we just change the topic to matters like deers on her farm and the vermin problem of kangaroos in Australia to annoy the inisquisitive scribe, when they finally get the point that no information is forthcoming.

Ken and Ibrahim join us for breakfast with the news that water is back on in the hotel and both Anita and I go to excuse ourselves when Ibrahim gently pushes my leg down and quietly whispers to us all that a new tape has just been released, at around 10am a tape was delivered to Al Jazeera in Gaza City. Included in the tape we are told that Olaf and Steve have converted to Islam, the tape is scheduled top be aired in one hour, all we can hear before is an audio recording played down the phone.

For the next hour Anita rings family and friends and prepares a statement for an arranged Press Conference around noon after the tape airs.

A statement is also included in which the guys are no longer refered to as prisoners but a vague reference to being former prisoners.

At 11am we gather around the TV in my room and watch the tape, it is the same background as the first tape and one by one the guys claim conversion to Islam, to be honest we all are confused but our thoughts and emotions are in check as we let Anita prepare for the upcoming Press Conference, but we do add that she may longer be the only wife as Olaf is technically now as Muslim entitled to four wives, we did add that she will always though be wife Number One. It is one of those black comedy moments that we use to try and make light of tense moments.

At midday with the Press assembled downstairs we go down the one flight of stairs with the armed security guards flanking the team, a brief statement read with conviction and a plea for the safe release of Olaf and Steve. The statement lasts less than a minute before we head back up to the rooms and think about the coming hours, as the midday sun is beating down we all think that if the release is going to happen it will not be before the evening now. Anita meets and talks with the New Zeland diplomat in my room and I shoot a few shots of the meeting.

And then i flash the world changed with a few simple words the ordeal after 14 days ended

Niall came running into the room screaming in a voice these simple words

"ANITA ANITA THEY ARE HERE THEY ARE HERE"

Grabbing the camera I raced into the hall and there coming around the corner was Steve and Anita had jumped into Olafs arms clinging on with the love and passion of a wife who had her husband back, the first photo is the first frame I shot of Olaf and Anita together. I turned and caught up with Steve as he entered the room.

"Steve Steve" I cried out and he turned took a moment to look at me and then with tears in his eyes he said "Mal Oh Mal"

and dropping the camera on the strap we embraced and hugged tears streaming from both our eyes we just hugged his body seemed frail and limp from exhaustion and the emotional release of being free and knowing that we still had to get out of Gaza. In the moment Mohamed took the camera off me and continued to film as I turned out of the room and Olaf and I looked at each other and his words to me me were "Man I am glad thats over" and again we hugged tears streaming down my face as my emotions went unchecked. If you look at the video you see me grab the camera back as we went back into the room and the six of us took the moment to just breath.

Anita and Olaf just hugged and kissed in the room, Steve and I smiled and hugged again as his emotions came out.



Those few minutes were magic, I do not think that any of us will ever forget the bond of joy we all felt, it was over finally over my friends were back alive and safe. And as they proclaimed they had not converted to Islam and had been made to do the video with guns pointed at them out of camera sight. Olaf kept apologising and saying Mal all that went thru my mind in those first few moments was "boy is Mal going to mad with me if the car and gear was taken" "Trust me Olaf I did not care"

We heard snippets of the ordeal and that is best coming from their mouths and not from my recollections, we got Steve's brother on the phone and he cried as he spoke to his brother and Anita reached over and held his hand.

The word was out and the scenes in the hallway became chaotic as moved into the next phase, a rapid Press Conference and hopefully a chance to stop and thank the Prime Minister for his help. Ken Ibrahim and I moved into the logistics of getting out of Gaza as fast as we could. John the Security detail man from the British Consulate and I talked about driving the Armored Cars out and the formations and distances we needed along with the Palestinian Presidential Security detail that would provide the guns to run the streets of Gaza to the border It was going to be a full escort out with guns bristling form there vehicles.

At the same time we also remembered what had happened in Baghdad when after being released a journalist and her guard were caught in an ambush heading to Baghdad Airport, with tragic results.

Bags were packed and thrown together into the mayhem of the hallway with hotel staff and guards helping lug the kit down to my car and the Embassy car.

Palestinian Officials and the Prime Minister came down to the hotel and meet Olaf, Steve and Anita statements and photo oppurtunities followed as we tried to keep things moving wanting to get the guys out of Gaza as soon as we could, as safe as we felt, we also knew that until we were out of Gaza it was not over.

In chaos of the next hour Olaf Steve and Anita did the important thanks to people who had helped and then our final event before the border run and out of Gaza was a final Press Conf with the three of them around the microphones in the hotel dining room, crowded and noisy, where only a few hours before Anita and I had sat alone and uncertain of the what was to happen.




The cars were packed and ready to go in convoy formation Lead Police car, Lead Palestinian Security truck packed with men with more guns than a Hamas Rally, then the British Car to take Olaf, Steve and Anita, then my car with Ken, Ibrahim, Abed and myself followed behind by two more Security vehicles with more guns and sirens.

From the Press Conference it was a mad dash thru the lobby and into the vehicles, being mobbed by Press and Security, these were the moments of tension behind the scene we were now so close, so close to freedom just the drive out to the border. In previous times we have done this drive many times and thought nothing of it, the world has changed now in Gaza is no longer the same.

With sirens blaring we took off, in a scene that can only have parallels in a movie we screamed thru the crowded streets and alleys out, past donkey carts and battered cars and to be honest at any moment in these tense minutes the thoughts of a road side bomb were in my thoughts a final desperate move by the people who had abducted Olaf and Steve. Driving in the way only an Egyptian taxi driver would applaud we hammered out, not stopping or slowing , our only thoughts now to get the team out safely, safely out of Gaza. We stopped once at the Palestinian Checkpoint at the border for a few minutes more bags thrown into the now only two cars crossing back to safety, and just before 2pm we drove the last few hundred meters to the Israelis and as Olaf and Steve stepped out of the car and walked to Passport Control on the Israeli Side we watched from 100 m away as they stepped back into freedom, in my car the four of us shook hands it was finally over.

How did it affect me, in many ways too many ways to express now. Because these moments belong to Olaf, Steve & Anita.

No matter what happens in the future, in those minutes of reunion we had the world to ourselves and I will never forget those minutes, if you want to define courage and bravery then my friends Olaf, Steve and Anita you are true role models for any of us to try and achieve.

9 comments:

NewsJunkie said...

What a wonderful, touching, heartwarming story Mal. Thanks for sharing it!

Steve Runner said...

What an amazing, wonderful, heart-pounding story...Mal, this post is such a moving description of the historical events that you were a part of. Thank you for sharing this with the world...I'm absolutely speechless over here...brilliant stuff!

Murman said...

Thanks for sharing that Mal. I am without words.
Stories with a happy ending,

Keep well and thank you for your insight.

Murman

Anonymous said...

Mal,

Thanks so much for sharing the story. Steve and Olaf have been in my mind constantly, and I'm so glad that all of our prayers have been answered.

BJJ

Plaid said...

Wow!! What a touching story...... Thank you for sharing with us. I found myself with tears in my eyes after reading this.....

Thanks once again for your willingness to share....

Eitan said...

This story has really touched me. Thank you very much for sharing, and take care.

Anonymous said...

Mal,

Thank you for sharing this story. Your description and pictures let us have a glimpse into the sorrow, joy and suspense we never would have known.
Please be safe.
Yvonne

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mal,
Its so good to hear that they were released! Keep those guards close as you continue working. I can guess that the kidnapping did not scare you away.
Regards, Drusy

Anonymous said...

Mal -- Great description. I'm so happy -- among other things -- to have found this blog. Your sensitivity and perception was obvious during and after the start of the Iraq war, and I've since wondered many times what you were up to. Now I know! I knew you must be part of the saga of Steve and Olaf. Take care.