During their 13 days as hostages of Palestinian kidnappers, Fox News correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig kept reminding themselves that they were more useful to the kidnappers if they were kept alive. Still, the mantra did little to calm their anxiety. Centanni spoke to B&C’s John M. Higgins about his captors’ motives, his thoughts about escaping, and what he learned during those terrifying days.
It’s funny what passes for good news. When the first tape emerged our reaction was, “Great, it doesn’t look like the kidnappers going to kill them right away.”
It was good for us when that came out, but we were torn. We saw the ones coming out of Iraq with [Al Qaeda figure Abu Musab al-Zarqawi] with Americans getting kidnapped and then beheaded on tape. “You know, we don’t want that.” We ran our fingers across our necks to indicate ‘you know what happened’ and a couple of them thought that was funny and joked among themselves, ‘oh, Zarqawi, ah-ha ha ha.’ And then said, ‘well, those are Iraqis, we’re Palestinians, and we do things differently.’
So by the same token when they had us tape the things saying ‘we’re alive and well. please do all you can to help, we’re being well treated.’ We did do it. We didn’t have a lot of choice. We did do it and we were kind of happy to because then people would know we were alive and well which, up until that point as it turns out they did not know. Nobody knew anything, and so at least we put their minds at ease and so we were happy for it and they didn’t use it as an event to attack us or kill us so it worked out okay.
When you were abducted, you didn’t seem to realized anything was wrong until they roadblocked your car?
Right. It was a normal day, very quiet. It was the day the cease fire was declared up north with the Hezbollah and a quiet day for us. There was a lot of attention focused in Lebanon and not too much in the Gaza Strip. Our last live shot was canceled and we were on our way back to the hotel. We just dropped off our fixer and we were going to drop off the guy that provides some security for us. He was still in the car and the way was blocked by a pickup truck and we said, ‘Oh, when’s this guy going to get moving?’ Four guys jump out, two of them holding assault rifles, two of them holding pistols; two of them with masks on, one of them in the process of putting his on. Another guy, the one who grabbed me from the passenger side front door of the car, never got his on. He put a pistol to my head, grabbed me roughly by the wrist, yanked me out of the car and marched me up to his car.
Ultimately Olaf and I, we were both jammed into the back of the car and the two guys on either side piled in on top of us and forced us to keep our heads down, slipped blindfolds over us and drove away.
They stopped the car, pulled us out, got all our other blackberrys, cell phones, everything out of our pockets, grabbed my backpack, which I had clung to stupidly, just out of habit. They tied our hands behind our backs with these plastic cable ties that dig into your wrists. It was very painful.
The first thing we knew was the car pulled up to a large garage door that we could hear sliding and rattling open and they drove inside, the door closed behind us. There was a large generator roaring somewhere nearby in an adjacent room and I thought, ‘great, okay, deserted warehouse loud generator going, guys with guns, this could be it. Put a bullet in our heads and nobody would know the difference. They might never find us.’ But Olaf tells me that we’re no good to them dead and you have to keep hope alive. If they kidnapped us for any purpose at all, they have to keep us alive or we’re no good as a bargaining chip or anything like that.
And we were then put into another car and taken to another place, maybe in the basement of a mosque [or] the house next door to a mosque. The call to prayer was really loud.
Every time we tried to talk to each other they either knocked me over my head with a gun, and just ‘shhhhh!’ to shut up. I could see through the blindfold a little bit, see Olaf across the room, a window up above us and these guys keeping us quiet and sort of playfully tormenting me and a sadistically playful guy was tickling my toes. They’d taken our shoes and socks. Tickling my toes with one of those plastic cable ties. Poking me in the belly and doing all kinds of nonsensical things. He was having a good time.
Were you talking much with the guys?
Not right away. We didn’t say a word, they wouldn’t let us talk. After a couple hours, they come in and take the handcuffs and blindfolds off and we see some guys there, who are the first people we’d actually gotten a good look at. They are kind of assessing the situation. They brought in some cheese and fruit. So things start getting better. We tried to tell them we’re there to help the Palestinian people, that we’re not going to be any kind of menace to them, that we’re just journalists, but they didn’t seem to understand or seem to care.
The second night and then they moved us to a second house where we were under the care of these young jihadists, or wannabe jihadists. They were very passionate about Islam and wanted to convert us. They wanted us to learn that Islam is the true religion and that Bush was wrong to invade Iraq; wrong to “wage war on Islam,” as they put it, wrong to say things like “Islamic fascists,” which were some words he used just a few days prior. They were extremely angry.
So the idea that you were American journalists means nothing different than being any other American, or from the government.
I was American and so they must hate me. And Olaf was a Westerner. At first, they weren’t even sure what is New Zealand. He had to draw them a little map to show where it was.
There’s probably not that many Americans that can find Gaza on a map, either.
Or New Zealand. We were able to pace back and forth, talk to each other, try to figure out what the hell’s going on. We sometimes had access to the rest of the house.
If this one guy, the ringleader, was not there, we could walk into some of the other rooms, get some exercise. We could walk into the kitchen, walk into some of the other rooms, back and forth. That guy always kept his face covered, then we weren’t allowed to leave one room because they didn’t want us to see him. And he’s the one that took a pose in the corner during interrogations acting like a very spooky looking-figure, a very scary-looking figure. Propped up in the corner, cross-legged in the shadows so we couldn’t see his face with a gun propped up next to him making these pronouncements and asking questions, trying to intimidate us and terrify us.
What was your of level of fear?
Extremely high when we were first taken. I was panting, short of breath, and thinking ‘Oh my God, this is the worst possible nightmare you can think of.” Frightening as hell. Things got better, but there were still moments of psychological torment. They were asking us to write things about our past lives as journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, tell our whole story. Write a letter to President Bush, tell him ‘Islam is good.’ Then they said, ‘Can you tape a message, tell President Bush?’ And I said, ‘I can tell him, but I don’t think he’s going to listen.’
That was very scary We didn’t know if they were going to call us back individually and just kill us. We couldn’t trust them completely, but we had to keep telling ourselves, ‘We’re no good to them dead.’ So you keep giving yourself little pep talks.
Did that work most of the time?
Yeah, we kept on a fairly even keel. Nobody was extremely frantic or panicking, We talked to each other, tried to reassure each other, keep our minds active, our thoughts focused on positive things. We kept walking back and forth across the room to keep our bodies working.
Did you ponder an escape?
Definitely, we pondered. but we thought it ranged from risky to suicidal and never took action.
Well, absolutely the best thing, as it turned out.
Yeah, as it turned out. Experts have since told me that you have to be passive. It’s hard to relinquish control of your life to somebody else, but in situations like this, you really have no choice but to stay calm and do the things you can do, which is take care of your mind and body and soul as best you can.
When you were released, I was surprised that you seemed clean-shaven.
Yeah, I shaved every two or three days. We had cold showers, but you get used to that. The food was okay. They went and bought tuna, bread and tomatoes and cucumbers or fresh fruit, and then sometimes at night they’d just go out and get falafel. We got almost anything we asked for, after a while. They couldn’t always find everything we asked for, but they tried to be helpful and responsive.
How tight were you and Wiig before?
We’ve known each other six years and have worked together in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the Middle East, Israel and Gaza. We ran across each other time and time again and wound up being teamed up and working together. We understood each other pretty well.
In the final tape, you and Wiig said they "converted" you to Islam. How much did you know about Islam going in?
I have great respect for the Islamic faith and learned a lot about it during captivity. I won’t really have any comment one way or the other about the conversion. They gave us the Quran and a lot of other books, and told us things and I know more about it now than ever.
When did you realize that you were going to be released?
The final day, before dawn, two of the guys come into our room and wake us up and turn on the light and announce, “You go home today!” They seemed happy about it. They seemed happy about the whole thing. To them, it was one grand adventure, these guys in the house who were keeping us.
Olaf says, “I don’t want to believe it. I’m going to pretend they didn’t say that ’cause I can’t stand the crushing disappointment when they don’t free us.” They were waiting for somebody with a car to come over and they did. Around noon. Pulled in down below and they, they put a khafit-- the black, the red and white checkered cloth--over Olaf’s head and sort of a bushcap on my head to sort of disguise us. They said, ‘look down. Come with us, just look down.’ They shoved us into the back seat of a beat up old car, drove for about 10 minutes, and backed into the entrance to the driveway, right up the street, to the driveway to the hotel and said ‘get out, that’s it. Go. Go, go go.” We didn’t wait another second.
Have you figured out or learned why you were abducted?
We think there were three different groups with different motives. The guys who actually nabbed us off the street who were probably a mob for hire, hired muscle. We were turned over to guys who were probably the ringleaders. We believe they were part of a clan or a mafia group—street thugs who decided they wanted some political leverage with Hamas. I think it ultimately backfired. They felt so much condemnation for what they did that that’s probably why we were released.
There was a third faction which is new in Gaza, sort of a wannabe-jihadist group. They were the young guys who were keeping us in the house. They seemed very passionate about their religion and their worldwide political goals—not so much what’s happening for Palestinian people, but that Bush "declared war" on Islam. I think they emulated Al Qaeda and certainly emulated Osama bin Laden. They said, ‘Osama is king.’ They wanted to put themselves on the map but don’t have the connections they claim and the power they wish they did.
How does this change how you look at the Mideast? And how other American journalists should be looking at the Mideast?
Well, the Mideast is always dangerous and you take your risks of a number of things happening. We never really thought a kidnapping like this would take place or that we’d be the victims. People have to be aware of the dangers.
But I hope ultimately this will encourage the Palestinians themselves to secure the area and make it safe for journalists because we are there to tell their story as part of the larger picture. Unfortunately, after our kidnapping all foreign journalists pulled out of there. So for right now, they don’t have the advantage of having those international journalists there and it’s to their own detriment.
Will you go back?
I would go back. Maybe. But not too soon. This sort of scared me away for a little while. I love to work internationally, and I hope to do it quite a bit more in the future.