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CBS News Crew Tells of Beatings, Interrogations : The Media: 'I remember a couple canes breaking over my head,' producer says. Four men were held 40 days after being captured by Iraqis.

March 04, 1991|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Iraqi soldiers beat with canes and interrogated as spies the four CBS television newsmen who were captured on the fourth day of the Gulf War, the newly freed newsmen said Sunday.

The four were held for 40 days, first in a Kuwaiti bunker and later at Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.

Correspondent Bob Simon, producer Peter Bluff, cameraman Roberto Alvarez and soundman Juan Caldera were released Saturday, largely through the intervention of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, CBS reported. Also instrumental in the release was a letter to Gorbachev written by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, the network said.

The four men talked about their ordeal Sunday on their network's newsmagazine program, "60 Minutes."

"They beat us with canes, with sticks, on the legs, on the head, and they did something that came straight from so many Grade-B movies that we have all seen," Simon said of his captors.

"I was in a room being interrogated. I knew my three friends were outside the room in a hall. The door was closed. . . . But when they were getting to these important questions, they opened the door and they beat Juan, Peter and Roberto so they would scream and I would hear them scream while they were asking me questions and beating me at the same time."

Bluff, the producer and chief of CBS' London bureau, said: "I remember a couple canes breaking over my head. . . . It's the shock of it. . . . You are in the dark because you're behind the blindfold. You've been messed around for probably eight to nine hours prior to that. It's dark. Even if the blindfold came off . . . you wouldn't know where you were anyway, even if it wasn't dark."

The beatings were not severe, the doctor who examined the four in London said, and no bruises were evident on their faces while the men were on the air.

CBS had privately asked all reporters covering the story of Simon and his crew to withhold the information that Simon was Jewish and based in Israel, but apparently his captors knew, Simon said.

"An army . . . captain . . . he grabbed me by the face and forced my mouth open and said 'Yehudi, Yehudi,' which means Jewish, and then he spit at me and slapped me," Simon recalled.

"This sixth instinct that every anti-Semite has ever had--'Jew, dirty Jew.' I didn't think he would shoot me. (But) I could have killed \o7 him. \f7 I would have killed him if I could have. I would have killed him, and I would have had no more remorse than I had when I got up in the morning and killed a cockroach in my room."

The four almost were killed at one point by an allied bombing raid of Baghdad, they said. A shell destroyed Caldera's prison cell.

"I heard the plane. Then I heard the bomb coming. The sounds were incredible. And I knew it was coming to me. So I just crouched into a corner," recalled Caldera, who is actually a free-lancer, not a CBS staff member. "Rubble fell all over me. Half the room was absolutely gone."

Caldera was able to make his way to Simon's room.

Bluff, the producer, tried to dash their fear.

"We are not dead. We are not dead," he reminded them.

For most of their captivity, time passed slowly, the men said.

Alvarez said he kept busy part of the time by making a ball from a piece of foam and a string from his pajamas, which were coming apart.

"It wasn't completely round, but I got it to the point that I could play with it against the wall. And (I) spent time talking," Alvarez said.

"I talked a lot--whispered--about everything: plans when I got out, my family, my son, about food." Alvarez's dreams of food became so intense that he finally had to force himself to stop them.

Simon dreamed of it too, in deep daytime trances.

"At one point, I heard someone brought up onto the floor," he recalled. "I heard him being kicked. Four times. But I was so deep at that moment--I was walking down Broadway with an ice cream in one hand and popcorn in the other--that I couldn't pay attention to the kicking. You develop defense mechanisms you don't know you are capable of."

The four men said it was too soon after their captivity to impart any lessons from it.

But the 49-year-old Simon broke down on camera as he recalled one simple insight--that all the history he had seen as a journalist meant far less to him than life's more personal moments.

In his fears and anger, "what came back to me was not the last day of Saigon, or (former Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat coming to Israel or these things. What came back to me is the first time I carried my daughter into the Mediterranean. She was 3 months old. The day I took a bicycle trip through the French countryside to flirt with this young French girl who was to become my wife. Stuff that had nothing to do with history or news or journalism.

"That is what made the essential realization that life had been good and if it had to end now it had to end, but I want more, I crave more. I want to go on living."

The four men were captured Jan. 21 at the Kuwaiti border by three Iraqi soldiers who spotted them at an abandoned customs checkpoint and sped in a lone jeep across the desert to take them.

"We weren't after the story of the war," Simon admitted, explaining why the crew had gone off on its own without a military escort to the front line. "We weren't after an enormous scoop. We just wanted to check out what was going on."

The jeep stopped about 10 yards from the men. The three Iraqis got out and started saying, "Peace, peace."

"But then their guns were at us," Simon said, "and a hand came down on my head and shoved me into the jeep. And there we were."

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