Held in Iraq
Held in Iraq, which catalogued individuals taken hostage in Iraq, was a personal project I undertook during the time I took time off from work to get involved in the 2004 Presidential election. While it started as a reaction against snuff sites and right-wing outlets, Held in Iraq was meant to reclaim the individual stories of people from politicization of all stripes. It was also a personal attempt to feel the weight of the lives disrupted by a war whose lethality and Babel's Tower of groups involved stripped the resulting numbers of their emotional heft.
The site was hugely time-consuming. I found that initial news service accounts of hostage incidents were often wildly inaccurate, and almost no follow-ups could be found in large U.S. and U.K. media outlets (unless the hostage was from a developed country and therefore usually middle-class). I used local sources where possible, since those were the only ones who were interested in the fate of a humble truck driver from rural India. I found, as I expected, that the hostages whose names had become a search term were a tip of the iceberg. I did not expect to find so many more under the surface. By the time I had shut down the site, I had catalogued 449 separate individuals, corroborated by at least 2 separate credible media sources, kidnapped between April 2004 and August 2005. These are just the reported cases that made it into news outlets that have some degree of international circulation. The 449 during this 16-month period is the tip of another, even larger iceberg.
There were very few happy moments in working on this site. I remember being absurdly pleased to discover a missing driver of a Western journalist (driver/interpreters are nearly always seized with their Western clients, and nearly always ignored int he ensuing media coverage) among a ragtag group of hostages who were saved when their prison took random mortar fire. I had managed to find his name during the initial cataloging, and there he was after many months, though with a broken leg.
More than any coverage, researching and running Held in Iraq gave me a glimpse into Iraq as the American invasion has made it. The country still exists, but barely meets the definition. It seems held together by a mesh of chaos, an unsustainable state of survival. The project has also added to my understanding of the landscape of global poverty. In working on the site, I saw convoys of working poor from places as far-flung as Turkey, Bulgaria, India, Nepal and the American South, bright lines of hope, desperation and determination to make a living, leading them to Iraq.
I decided to shut down the site when it became clear that the kidnapping industry in Iraq had converted almost fully into a domestic one. With the number of incidents rapidly escalating, low reporting by victims, no reliable statistical authority and little coverage by extra-local media, there was little hope of credible data. I was also being plagued by a very wrong kind of readers, who had found the site despite no attempts at advertising.
Despite the expense, the time and the grimness of the facts, it was a worthwhile endeavor.