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The kidnapping of Mrs Sotiriou in Baghdad

The kidnapping of Mrs Sotiriou,
Vice-president of the humanitarian organisation Heart Doctors

Forty-five days after our last mission in Iraq the violence was ballooning and adding, day by day, more dead, wounded, sick and miserable people in the list of the victims of this war.

In view of the situation, the board of our Organisation decided that we should carry out our 26th humanitarian mission in Iraq. As in previous missions, we decided to ship to Al-Kindy hospital in Baghdad medication and other hospital equipment as well as second hand external fixation sets donated by Greek hospitals. The goods weighted, in total, 930 Kgr.

On Saturday 28 October I flew from Athens to Amman, via Larnaka, accompanying the above goods. At Amman we transhipped the goods on a truck and took the road to Baghdad, a 14-hour drive. While at the Jordan-Iraqi border check point, I decided not to continue by road. I have travelled this way to Baghdad and back 25 times, without any stop, uncomfortable, sitting with the drivers in the front seat, with numerous difficulties and obstacles from bombing and endless checks done by Americans and Iraqis. This time I paid a little something to the drivers in order to continue on their own. I returned to Amman and flew to Baghdad on Sunday. I met the drivers, who had already arrived and handed over the goods to the director of the hospital, who accepted the offer in great joy and gratitude and delivered a letter of thanks to the Heart Doctors for the assistance given for years on a regular basis to Al-Kindy. The needs of the hospital were so urgent, that 25 of the newly delivered external fixation sets were immediately used in the operating theatres.

I didnt call my husband or the Heart Doctors during Sunday because my mobile phone was not functioning in Iraq. My husband was informed about me and the mission by calling the drivers. While in the hospital, I was given a special card used in Baghdad in order to make use of my mobile phone. I stayed for the night at the hotel Palestine, where we stay when we need to spend the night in Baghdad.

On Monday morning, after calling my husband and informing him about the mission, I went to the Iraqi Ministry of Health and met the Minister. In the presence of the director of Al-Kindy, we discussed the issue of Heart Doctors building a new maternity clinic within that hospital. This is a relatively old matter that we have also discussed with the president of Iraq. After this conversation, I had to return to the hospital, according to my agreement with the director. Nevertheless, I was too tired and decided to return to the hotel in order to pick up my things as well as the return air tickets. For security reasons, I had to take a narrow corridor framed with high concrete walls in order to enter the hotel. There are three different check points of the incoming persons. As soon as I crossed the first check point, someone yelled in English:

- Madam, madam! You are wanted at the Al-Kindy hospital! Let me drive you there.

I thought that they might be waiting for the meeting we had planned. I noticed that the person talking to me was a gentle and decent young man. He opened the door of the car and I entered. I saw that there was a gun in the car, which is however very common, given the situation in Baghdad. We made our way for the hospital. After a while, he talked on his mobile phone in his language and slowed down, pulled aside and another man opened the door, entered and sat by me while the car was still in motion. He was also armed. At the same time, I realised that the car was not heading for the hospital. I asked furious what was the other man doing in the car; I requested that he steps out and enquired why we deviated and did not head directly to the hospital. The latter man told me that I was under arrest, kidnapped. I thought of it as a practical joke and replied that I had only 100 euros. I quickly understood that these people were not joking and tried to open the door in order to get out. Then, the same man grabbed me and tied my hands tight.

They drove me to some place with my eyes covered. It was not far away. They took my mobile phone, my watch, two rings, a cross and the little money I had in my wallet. They tied my feet and my hands over my back. They tied my eyes with a piece of cloth so that I couldnt see. They asked why I was in Iraq, why do I come to help now that the war is over. I replied that our Organisation helps suffering people regardless of their colour, language, religion etc, and that this was the reason we assist the Al-Kindy hospital since the last bombing. They wouldnt listen. They were asking for money. They asked for my husbands phone number. I gave them an inexistent number. They could not get in touch. I explained that my husband couldnt answer the phone because he was, supposedly, on a similar humanitarian mission in Afghanistan. My husband and I have the same madness, I explained. They were calling our embassy in Baghdad asking for the ambassador, who was in Athens.

I asked to go to the toilet. A young woman that belonged to their team and surveyed me led me there. She unleashed my eyes, hands and feet.

I was hearing screams, quarrels and furious voices from the neighbouring room. I could not understand the language. There must have been other hostages next-door.

There was no bed or seat. I sat on the bare concrete floor. I asked for something to cover myself at least. They gave me the only thing they found in my handbag: the Greek flag. Heart Doctors always carry the Greek flag in every mission. We hang it at the place we offer our medical or other services so that foreigners understand we are Greek.

I could not look out of the place of my detention but I could here the sound made by water falling from various fountains.

In the meantime, I hadnt been in any contact with my husband for quite some time. He and other members of Heart Doctors in Athens were worried. Such a gap in our communication was observed only during my previous kidnappings. They called the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They reported that I was missing since Monday morning. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mrs Dora Bakogianni, the Secretary General of the Ministry, Mr Haris Rokanas, the Greek ambassador in Baghdad, Mr Panagiotis Makris (who was in Greece) and the ambassador of Iraq in Athens were informed.

My watchman informed me that my kidnapping was reported by television and radio stations in Baghdad. I subsequently learned that my kidnapping was reported by CNN and that Greek and Iraqi authorities were enquiring on the place of my detention. Greek authorities, as well as my husband and members of Heart Doctors did not agree to a dynamic intervention since this would cause the loss of lives. Moreover, Mr Rokanas asked Greek journalists who had already been informed about the kidnapping (through Iraqi media, the CNN and the Heart Doctors web site) not to report the news because my life was in danger. As I learned later on, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked for (and obtained from my husband) some of my personal data, such as a picture of mine, my age etc.

On Wednesday they transferred me to another building. This happened, as my watchman explained, because they were expecting an armed attack against them at the initial position they detained me. In order to discourage them, I kept telling the Iraqi woman that they shouldnt expect any ransom, since nobody cared about me, as they could already understand.

- In such cases we cut an ear or a finger of the hostage and send it as a persuasive sample to the relatives, who then manifest their interest!

Those words frightened me and explained perhaps why there was so much blood in the toilet. There were boxes in the corridor, which I believe contained explosives. I was frightened at the thought of being attacked.

I decided to escape. I thought of climbing up to the toilet window and jump. But I didnt know the height. I had to cooperate with the Iraqi woman. I explained that if she could help me escape, I would give her the 600 euros I had (in every mission I hide an amount in my shoes). If she didnt help me and I was finally shot, she wouldnt get anything, since the other members of the team were many and all men.

They didnt ill-use me but it was a real torture to stay tied day-and-night on the cement floor without a mattress or a blanket. They were bringing me food. I didnt eat it. I was drinking water and eating some bread they were giving me.

They transferred me at a new (third) place. I was afraid for my life. Friday noon, when all men were out for the institutional Muslim prayer, I escaped wearing a veil and a robe that my Iraqi guard gave me. We faked up the scene: I supposedly hit, gagged and left her tied on the ground. I took my mobile phone and the documents they had removed. I got out and found a main street through a poor neighbourhood. I then took a taxi to Al-Kindy. The hospital guard reported what happened and snipers and police cars arrived immediately. I was taken to the Ministry for Home Affairs, where I was asked to give information about the kidnappers. I gave imprecise answers because I thought that along with them, they would kill the Iraqi woman who helped me. Americans questioned me. I replied imprecisely. I asked to be received by our Ambassador. I stayed the night in the Embassy and on Saturday I went to the hotel and picked my things. I took the plane to Athens on Sunday.

When Heart Doctors arrived in Baghdad for their first mission at the Al-Kindy hospital, before the beginning of the bombing (28.3.2003), it was inconceivable that that hospital with the smiling doctors and patients, the embroidered sheets on the beds would end up in the miserable situation we faced during the bombing: Deserted rooms, looted, without medication, doctors, or patients. Thanks to the medicines we offered then and to our personal involvement and struggle the hospital resumed its functioning. We never ceased supplying the hospital with medicines since then. The victims of war and violence crowd the hospital. I often step on blood and my shoes get stuck on the hospital floor. Explosions, shooting, violence and terror are met everywhere. The odour of rotten flesh is in the air of the hospital area: There is not enough space in the refrigerators and dead bodies putrefy, since families of dead people do not imagine their relatives are dead. My driver is shot in the head. His brains are all over my blouse. I am arrested by unknown armed people; they cover my eyes and tie my hands. Eight hours later they liberate me with their apologies (8 April 2006). Unknown people arrest me (6 September 2005) when my lorry carrying drugs for Al-Kindy broke outside Baghdad. They detain me for three days in a narrow room with no window, light, water, food, seat, mattress or blanket, with dead and   wounded fighters inside, their faces covered. My lips swell and crack. The odour suffocates me. They force me to stitch deep and infected wounds of sixteen young men, all between life and death lying in a terrible state. They warn me that for every man that dies they will cut a finger of mine! In three days I made it with the help of God. Then they let me go. They gave me the medication load back. They also gave me money to transfer the medicines to the hospital. It is obvious: as time passes, the situation is dramatically deteriorating.

Iraqis are a courageous, proud and tortured nation that deserves our admiration and help. On 27 December 2006, we accomplish our 27th mission to Iraq in order to hand over drugs to Al-Kindy.

Heart Doctors is a small Greek humanitarian non governmental organisation founded by a small number of families and friends upholding it. Through our missions in 30 African and Asian countries we reach the tragic fronts of war, earthquakes, tsunami, hunger, illness and absolute misery. We find people dying over there. Our compassion is not enough. Immediate and substantial help is urgently needed from every one of us. We try to offer immediate medical care, drugs, food, clothing; we build schools, orphanages etc always through our personal presence. None of our members is remunerated for their work and those who participate in the missions, bear their own expenses.

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