Ex-hostage stands by decision to visit Iraq

Journalist regrets lax security awareness en route to main war zone

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A freelance journalist recently freed after being held hostage in Iraq said that while he regrets not properly realizing the dangers of traveling near a war zone, he stands by his decision to go and report on the situation there.

Jumpei Yasuda, 30, who returned to Japan on Tuesday, told The Japan Times in an interview later in the day that, as a journalist, he feels it is his mission to return to Iraq.

He added, however, that he may have to put this idea on hold due to the escalating violence there and the intense criticism leveled by the public and media in Japan against him and four other Japanese civilians who were held hostage in Iraq, as well as against his parents.

“I was aware of where the combat zones were, but I failed to predict the mounting distrust and antipathy toward foreigners in areas that were considered relatively neutral,” said Yasuda, who was captured while trying to get to the area of fiercest fighting.

“But I still believe it is the mission of journalists to go to Iraq and report the war, which Japan has actively participated in, from the perspective of the local people.”

Yasuda and Nobutaka Watanabe, a 36-year-old peace activist, were taken captive by gunmen in Abu-Greib, west of Baghdad, on April 14 while approaching the city of Fallujah in a cab. They were released unharmed Saturday.

Their capture came a week after three other Japanese civilians were taken hostage near Fallujah. The trio were released April 15.

Yasuda, who has visited Iraq four times since 2002 and last entered the country in mid-March, said he believes his captors are a small group of local tribal militiamen.

He said there were at least two farmers in the group who said they had been maltreated when they were detained by the U.S. military for more than a month and bore a strong dislike for the pair.

“Iraq now seems to be in a process where the anger of such people who have experienced war or harsh treatment by the occupation forces is rapidly spreading,” Yasuda reckoned.

He added that he believes most of his abductors were not organized military units but just civilians who decided to arm themselves to protect their communities in response to the huge influx of refugees from combat zones in Iraq and out of paranoia over the possible infiltration of “spies.”

Given such a situation, workers with nongovernmental organizations and journalists who are in or want to go to Iraq must select safe destinations and re-establish personnel ties with locals and find safer travel routes to achieve their goals, he said.

For instance, the highway linking Amman with Baghdad, which used to be a main artery for the transport of medical and other aid supplies, as well as aid workers, has become a perilous route due to the danger of abductions, attacks and roadblocks by militants, he said.

But apart from taking these preventive steps, Yasuda said it is vital for NGO activities to find public support at home. “But the Japanese public seems more concerned about the risk of (NGO workers) being kidnapped than sympathizing with their humanitarian missions,” he observed.

“Journalism also aims to respond to the public’s right or desire to know, but it would be sad if the Japanese public is more concerned about the risk of (civilians) being taken hostage and disturbing the government activities in Iraq,” he added.

He stressed that his mission as a journalist is to report the sentiments of Iraqis toward the ongoing war and toward Japan’s dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq on a humanitarian aid mission.

“While I was interviewing locals about the (first) three Japanese hostages, they asked why I was not concerned about the hundreds of Iraqi civilians who had already been killed,” he said.

“It is such voices as these that all Japanese, who condoned the dispatch of our military as an ally of the United States, must hear.”