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To hell and back again

Nahoko Takato's nightmare didn't end when she was released by Iraq militants

by David Mcneill

For a woman who barely cheated death earlier this year and who has since spent months recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Nahoko Takato looks in remarkably fine fettle.

Animated and chatty, she radiates the energy of someone who has rediscovered her zest for life.

In April this year, the 34-year-old children’s aid worker briefly became one of the most famous faces in the world when Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera broadcast harrowing footage of her and two other Japanese hostages with swords at their throats.

The three had been captured by mujahedin rebels, who threatened to burn them alive unless Japan pulled its Self Defense Force troops out of Iraq.

All were eventually released unharmed but returned to a ferocious barrage of criticism in Japan where the government, much of the press and many ordinary people said they had needlessly put themselves in harms way.

The last sight most Japanese had of Takato was as she tearfully made her way through the media scrum at Narita Airport, clearly a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

“Yes, I came home after that and just collapsed on the floor of my home,” she says, lighting up the first of several cigarettes.

“I don’t remember much after I came back. People came up to me later and said: ‘I was waiting to greet you at the airport and I tapped you on the shoulder but you didn’t notice.’

“When I wrote my book I had to ask my family what had happened to fill in the gaps.”

Takato’s book, “Senso to Heiwa” (“War and Peace”), which has just been published in Japan, was written in a remarkable 10-day burst of manic energy during the summer as she struggled to come to terms with her experience.

“I was crying all the time and having nightmares. What gave me courage were the boxes of supportive letters from Japan and e-mails from Iraq.

“My family made sure nasty letters didn’t get through, although I did see two postcards. One threatened to kill me. Another said ‘Go to Hell.’ But the rest said ‘You did the right thing.’ ”

Her ordeal began on April 9 when she was snatched, along with freelance writer Noriaki Imai and photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama, from outside a service station near Fallujah while on her fourth trip to the country to bring emergency supplies to children.

“A boy approached us and asked out driver where we were from. I couldn’t understand it all but I heard the driver say ‘They’re Japanese.’ Then a crowd of ordinary Iraqis surrounded us and a man holding an RPG rocket launcher came running over. I just froze in terror. When ordinary people turn on you like that it is terrifying.”

She says she has no doubt about why she was snatched. “The Iraqis changed after Japan said it would send troops. They have a lot of sympathy and admiration for Japan because it lost the war and then developed so rapidly. They couldn’t believe that we would send an army.

“At first they thought (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi was sending humanitarian workers. When they learned it was the Self Defense Forces they said: ‘Why are soldiers coming to take jobs like water distribution that we could be doing?’ ”

Her captors, who demanded that Japan pull its troops out of Iraq, treated them roughly. “We were blindfolded and moved around in cars. It was well over 40 degrees and we had to keep our heads down but if we tried to raise them we were hit. I stopped drinking water because I had to go to the toilet in front of them.

“But the worst part was the fear that we were going to be bombed or ‘rescued’ by U.S. Special Forces. We thought solders would come bursting in at any moment. We really thought we were going to die.”

The three were released unharmed on April 15 only to be traumatized again at the hands of their fellow citizens when they became a lightning rod for the conflicted feelings of a country divided from top to bottom by the decision to dispatch SDF troops to Iraq.

Many in Takato’s home prefecture of Hokkaido, which supplies many of the soldiers in Iraq, thought she was disloyal and unpatriotic after she and her family criticized the SDF dispatch.

The whiff of political revenge was also in the air; the Japanese Foreign Ministry threatened to charge the ex-hostages for the cost of getting them released and one senior politician called them ‘antigovernment, anti-Japanese elements.’ They were accused of being communists and even of organizing the kidnapping themselves to propagandize against the war.

“Japan is very strange,” says Takato, whose eyes briefly cloud over again at the memory of her treatment. “But the reason why so many people criticized us is because they lack information about what is going on in Iraq. They think foreigners are helping Iraqis.

“They see on the news that those Americans were killed and hung up on a bridge (four private contractors, attacked, beaten and mutilated in Fallujah in late March) and think ‘Iraqis are evil.’ They don’t know that Fallujah was not radical until conditions deteriorated and the deaths from bombings and the behavior of the [U.S.] soldiers there angered people.”

Is she angry at Mr. Koizumi, who told the three ex-hostages to “reflect on the trouble they had caused” and who led criticism against them for going to the war-torn country?

“The thing is, my family would never have complained if I’d been killed. They knew what I was getting into and so did I. But my reply to those who say ‘why did you go?’ is ‘Why did the situation in Iraq become so bad? Who made it that way?’ I believed I had a responsibility to help out.

“I’m single and I’m not tied down by a company, so I’m lucky to be able to help and I felt I had to.”

Takato says she will return to Iraq as soon as she can, hopefully before the year ends.

“I’ve been given a second life and I want to use it to tell people to respect human life.” She believes the coalition troops should be pulled out of the country.

“I really believe the Iraqis can solve their own problems. We just have to leave them alone.”