Sitting across a restaurant table from me was a man who had once been the prisoner of Saddam Hussein. Our surroundings were pleasant enough now – but we talked about war and hostages.
Almost thirteen years ago Alan Barnett had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. His parents had been Christian missionaries, and he was returning to Asia to complete his final year of schooling.
The 15-year-old’s BA flight had landed at Kuwait airport to refuel – just as Iraq invaded. All the passengers were seized as ‘human shield’ hostages.
‘We were in the airport lounge’, said Alan, ‘when people screamed at us to get away from the windows. Jets soared overhead and started bombing the runway.
‘Soon afterwards, the BA crew took us to the airport hotel where we were kept overnight. I was shocked to wake next morning to see the building surrounded by tanks with their guns trained on us.
‘I also heard machine gun fire inside the hotel – an Iraqi soldier had seen a picture of the Crown Prince of Kuwait on the wall and had shot it to pieces.’
The seriousness of the situation only dawned on Alan when he heard about the invasion. The passengers were held in the hotel for another six days and then herded into coaches and driven across the desert to Basra, in southern Iraq.
He told me: ‘The drive to Basra took about eight hours in intense heat, and all along the route I saw burnt-out vehicles. At Basra we were put on a train to Baghdad, guarded by armed troops’.
His family had no news of him – and he could get none to them. He was, to all intents and purposes, alone.
I asked him if any of the passengers were hurt. He said no, but he heard that some expatriates who tried to flee across the desert into Saudi Arabia were shot.
Once in Baghdad they were taken to the Al Mansour Melia Hotel, on the River Tigris, where they were confined to the top floor for eight days. Alan had only his hand luggage, with one change of clothes, his Bible and some sweets. While there, the British community in the city brought them clothes.
Alan said that he never really felt scared, although he was often lonely. His Bible was his most significant help at this time.
His family have a special verse (Hebrews 13:5-6) that they always read together before they part – it is permanently etched upon his mind: ‘God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you”. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”.’
The British Ambassador visited the hostages and brought messages. Alan’s parents, not knowing his circumstances, had simply said, ‘Remember our family verse. Thousands are praying for you’.
At this point, Alan paused and said, ‘My dad had read another verse as well before I left.
‘It was from Psalm 139 and greatly helped me in my captivity: “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast”‘.
He then added: ‘Dad had said, “That even means the wings of BA”.
After eight days in the hotel they were called to the lobby and told they were going by bus to the airport. However, as he peered through the blackouts, Alan noted that instead of heading towards the airport they turned towards Babylon.
They arrived at army barracks, where they stayed for two days, before being taken to an office block for yet another three days. He thought they were next to a chemical factory as the guards carried gas masks.
At this point the guards separated the single men, including Alan who was only 15. However, there was not enough room on the bus and so he and one other were allowed to stay behind.
Captive in Babylon
While here Alan felt pretty lonely and desperate, and broke down in tears on his bed. But the strength of his faith showed again. ‘I cried out to God in prayer’, he said, ‘feeling that he had forgotten me.
‘I opened my Bible – at the story of Daniel’s release from the lion’s den. It dawned on me that Daniel was also a captive in Babylon, just like me!
‘I then had a strange conviction that I would be released in three days. This sort of thing is not my normal sort of experience – but this wasn’t a normal situation, I suppose. Three days later I was flown out of Iraq.’
Before this happened, guards started displaying pictures of Saddam Hussein everywhere. Then the president himself entered, surrounded by bodyguards.
Saddam Hussein remained for an hour talking to the hostages. Alan said, ‘He asked if we were being treated well and gave us the opportunity to ask questions. Most of the questions were about when we would be released.
‘The president blamed their captivity on Margaret Thatcher and George Bush. A lady standing next to me suddenly said through the translator that I was only fifteen and that my parents didn’t even know whether I was dead or alive – would he please let me go?’
‘There was a strange silence for a few moments as Saddam Hussein looked intently at me. He then spoke to a guard, who in turn looked stunned.
‘The guard then turned to me and said, “The President of Iraq says, ‘Would you like to go home?'” I broke down in tears and everyone started to hug me.
‘The Iraqi TV cameraman missed this and asked for the people to hug me again so that he could get it on film.’
Alan was then taken to the airport and flown to Amman where he was picked up by BA staff who looked after him until he arrived in the UK.
Finally I asked Alan about the ‘voluntary human shield’ that went to Iraq in February. ‘It seems very bizarre to me,’ he replied, ‘an act of desperation. I can’t see that it will resolve anything, as it simply introduces new difficulties into the situation.’