Athens County resident and peace activist Peggy Gish, who has worked extensively in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams, was reportedly released by kidnappers there on Jan. 29 after two days in captivity.
Gish's brief kidnapping, accounts of which CPT had apparently been trying to keep under wraps for security reasons, came out in the national news after Will Van Wagenen, a former Brigham Young University soccer player working with CPT, was released Feb. 4, along with an Iraqi man who had also been captured.
Reports on Van Wagenen's release and return to the United States ran Feb. 16 in media including the Deseret (Utah) Morning News and the Salt Lake Tribune.
In an e-mail message to local supporters of her work dated Feb. 16, Gish, whose husband Art also does peace activism work in the Middle East, recounted the events of her capture along with Van Wagenen, a translator and an Iraqi associate who had invited them to visit the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq.
'William Van Wagenen and I and our translator went to an area in northern Iraq, outside the official KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) area, but an area that other internationals said was possible for internationals to visit with minimal risk,' Gish wrote. 'We went at the invitation of a newspaper editor and leader of an educational center in that area, who wanted us to see the hardships and problems of the people there and report about it. He also told us there were many organizations and people there who might be interested in nonviolence training or collaborating to build a nonviolence movement in Iraq.'
After three days in the area, she recounted, the three visitors and their host were on their way home Jan. 27, when, they were stopped on the road by three armed men and told to follow another car into the desert.
'The men took us to a small village, where we were kept in a large sitting room, where we slept, were fed, and could talk together when the guard was out.' Gish wrote. 'We also talked some with our main guard to build a human connection. We were captive, but treated well.'
The captors at first told the group that they planned to release only the translator, according to Gish's e-mail. After Van Wagenen told their guard about CPT's work in the West Bank with Palestinians, however, the kidnappers decided to let Gish go as well.
As luck would have it, Gish happened to have a photo with her of her husband standing in front of a tank in Hebron (on the West Bank), trying to block it from destroying Palestinian homes there.
'I... showed (the guard) that and pictures of my family,' she wrote. 'He went and talked to the other kidnappers, and came back saying that I would also be released the following day with our translator, that I was like his mother. I struggled a lot, with leaving without Will, but he was very insistent that I do that and try to help him.'
After Gish and the translator were released Jan. 29, a brother of the man who had invited them to the area arranged for another family member to drive the two back to Suleimaniya.
'That week, I was questioned for hours by the security police for their investigation,' Gish added. 'We worked with other organizations which had contact with leaders in the area where we were abducted, who tried to work toward Will and our friend's release.' She was reunited with her husband, Art, two days after her release, when he came to Iraq on a previously scheduled visit.
Remarkably, Gish has opted not to leave the country, but to continue with her work there. 'I have stayed on here for many reasons,' she wrote. 'It has been helpful for me in my healing after the kidnapping. I have felt it important to connect with authorities and do necessary work. We have not yet decided when to return to the U.S.'
CPT, a faith-based group that sends volunteer non-violence organizers into war-torn areas, has been in Iraq since 2002. This is not its first kidnapping there; in November 2005, four members were captured and one, Tom Fox, was eventually killed by his captors. The remaining three were rescued in March 2006.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Van Wagenen confirmed that his group was not mistreated by their kidnappers.
When the group was first abducted, he told the paper, 'those first few minutes, I thought we were dead for sure.' Eventually, however, he said, he came to believe the captors' insistence that they meant the four no harm.
'They didn't take my money or my passport,' he recounted. 'For being kidnapped, I was treated very well. My experience was a walk in the park compared to what is normal.'
Helen Horn of New Marshfield, a compatriot of Gish's in the peace movement, said Wednesday that CPT had been attempting to keep news of the kidnapping out of the media, out of fear that publicity might endanger those still in northern Iraq.
'I did hear that there had been a media leak about what happened,' Horn said. 'We'd really been trying to keep it quiet, because of the safety of the people in Kurdistan.'
She added in an e-mail message that Gish herself has expressed a wish that the media not focus on the kidnapping incident, which she plans to recount when she next returns to Athens.
'Peggy and all her friends and family were aware that she might be kidnapped if she returned to Iraq,' Horn noted. 'She is so clear about her vocation to work with the victims of the Iraq War that the risk was secondary to her. We are deeply grateful that she has been freed.'