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The Stories Issue

Lifetime Acheivement Award

Ben Anderson is a guy who the BBC pays to go to the most dangerous places in the world with a video camera.
01 August 2006, 12:00am

Ben Anderson is a guy who the BBC pays to go to the most dangerous places in the world with a video camera.

I Was Taken Hostage
We’d just got out of Iraq and apart from a British missile thudding into the sand next to us one day, we didn’t have much trouble. Everyone thought the war was going to start while we were there, but it hadn’t, so we drove to Damascus and caught a flight to Tehran. I’d been looking forward to this for months. I’d spent hours on Iranian dissident chatrooms and was convinced I was going to spend the next two weeks partying with gorgeous Persian revolutionaries who threw off their headscarves and drank all night. Tehran is one of the busiest places in the world for plastic surgeons (mostly boob jobs, nose jobs, and even hymen repair) and I was certain I’d make a film that would shock people whose only image of Iran was the mullahs and the crowds chanting “Marg bar Amrika” (death to America) at Friday prayers.

But the first few days were a real struggle. Privately people would tell me everything, but when the camera was on they became model citizens of the Islamic Republic. I even interviewed a death metal band who wouldn’t tell me why they wanted to commit suicide, which is what most of their songs were about.

On about the fifth day, we had arranged to interview students who were at the famous 1999 demonstrations which were put down by the religious police and their thugs, who used clubs and chains and eventually burned down the students’ dormitories. Just before we turned the cameras on, the students told me they didn’t want to talk about the demonstrations. I spent an hour trying to get something out of them about the younger generation of Iranians and how they felt about the ruling mullahs, whose average age was in their 70s. Two thirds of Iran’s population is under 30.

Then we got a call saying, “Leave as quickly as you can, one by one, and go in different directions.” But it was too late. A huge bearded man burst in and started pushing people around. Six or seven smaller grinning men stood in the doorway. He grabbed my passport and shouted something in Farsi with glee when he saw that I only had a tourist visa. He started roughly searching my fixer, who motioned toward his address book, which was on the table in front of me. I tried to slip it under a fruit bowl, but it was no good. He grabbed it and shouted something else with glee as he read through it. I looked around the room and all the students were terrified, all of their eyes were moist.

Five of the men—who didn’t identify themselves or wear any kind of uniform—took me and my producer to their car. They drove us around Tehran for hours and forced me to eat ice cream and these disgusting nuts. The streets of Tehran are covered with huge murals of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war and from Palestine. Every time we passed a Palestinian mural, the guy next to me asked me if I liked Israel. “Yes,” he said, “You love Israel, Benyamin.” I have a long thin nose, and the bearded man would later stroke it again and again, saying something to his friends in Farsi that made them all laugh. “Benyamin love Israel.” I assumed he was saying that he’d like nothing more than to break my long thin nose.

Eventually we were taken to our hotel. They turned over our rooms, and things gradually got worse. Because we’d thought that the war in Iraq was going to start while we were there, we had taken chemical and biological weapons suits with us. I’d dumped mine in the bottom of the wardrobe. We’d also taken secret camera equipment into Iran. They soon found both, and decided that we weren’t journalists at all, but spies. Their job was now to find out whether we were MI6, CIA, or Mossad.

A small table was brought into the room, and a translator told me to sit in front of it. For five hours they asked me questions and got me to write pages and pages of confessions. The translator would read out my confessions, which were all inane, and the bearded hulk would get up off my bed and storm over, sometimes flipping the table. “Boop,” he would scream in my ear (Farsi for idiot), “Boop!” Often he’d give me a smack or a thump in the back of the head, although never as hard as he could. Other times he would just stroke my nose and make the others laugh with whatever he was saying.

I am often docile when there is violence. It takes a few seconds for me to register what is actually happening and tell myself to react. At one point after Beardy had stroked my nose, he drew his elbow back very far and swung it at my face. He stopped millimeters from my nose and I had one of those docile moments, thinking, “Get ready to duck, he’s gonna swing again soon and this time he won’t stop.” But to everyone else in the room, my docile moment looked like a Bruce Willis moment, and I appeared incredibly brave. The others were slightly stunned and Beardy was enraged, but beaten. He pulled his elbow back and stormed out of the room.

They had also found all the tapes we had shot, and were watching them in the room across the corridor from mine. Occasionally I’d get a glimpse of men going in and out and discussing what they’d seen. I kept thinking about what they were about to see. I’d said that the mullahs were corrupt, wealthy, and had even invented a new Islamic law which allowed temporary “marriages”—sometimes only lasting a few hours—so they could sleep with prostitutes. I’d said that Khomeini must be spinning in his grave.

I kept reassuring myself by thinking that the punches to the back of the head meant that they didn’t want to leave marks on me—they were under orders from someone to treat us well. Iran and the UK still had diplomatic relations. My series producer back in London knew something was up because he hadn’t heard from us, and at about 8 AM one morning, just a few hours after an interrogation session had ended, the hotel manager put a call through to my room while the men were outside. I only had time to tell the series producer that we were in very deep shit and that I didn’t think we were about to be freed. Shortly thereafter the men were back, and they ordered us to pack our bags very quickly. Downstairs the hotel manager looked mortified. I was worried that they’d been listening in on the phone call, and that now he was in the shit for putting it through. I was also worried about where we were being taken. I’d said a few very bad things on the tapes about Evin Prison, the notorious hellhole just outside Tehran. There had been stories about prisoners being held in big rooms, blindfolded, and forced to listen as one man was tortured just feet away. There were also stories about stonings there. Beardy had used Evin a few times when my confessions weren’t good enough for him. He had told me that after two days there, I would be traumatized for the rest of my life.

As we pulled out of Tehran, I was looking around every corner and expecting to see Evin Prison up ahead. I was relieved when we pulled up outside a huge embassy-type building, although it was surrounded by spiked fencing and I had no idea where we were.

My producer and I both had bedrooms, and a kind of lounge area where we could wait around for the next interrogation, which normally started very late at night and went on until 4 or 5 AM. One of their tactics was to try and catch one of us lying, so they asked us about each other’s personal lives. My producer was a lesbian, was married to a lesbian, and had adopted the schizophrenic child of a schizophrenic couple they were very close to. I couldn’t lie, and one of the only light moments of the whole experience came when I saw the look on my interrogators’ faces when the translator told everyone what I’d said. Even he was amazed. “Wait, she is a gay woman MARRIED to another gay woman?”

When you go to war zones for the BBC, they send you on what’s called a “hostile environment” training course. It’s run by ex-SAS guys and is supposed to help you detect mines, avoid bullets, survive in the jungle alone, and handle a hostage crisis. The main piece of advice had been to identify the most sympathetic member of your captor’s group and befriend him. The best method was supposed to be a conversation about football or films. If someone was to be beaten or killed, the argument went, he would intervene to make sure it wasn’t you or your colleague.

One night Beardy took all the other men out for dinner, but left the man I had identified as the most sympathetic to watch over me in the interrogation room, which was on the top floor of the strange building I was in. I was sitting with my elbows on the table, facing forward, totally exhausted. He was sitting to my side, but he was facing me, restless, as if he was fantasizing about beating the shit out of me. I still thought it was my best chance to try the SAS trick.

“So, you like football?”

“No.”

“You like sports?”

“Yes. Violent sports. Kung fu, to the death.” He grinned—awful teeth. Right.

“You like films?”

“Yes. Violent films, to the death.”

I cursed the hostile environment training course.

“What about you?” he asked. Maybe there was hope after all…

“Yes,” I told him, and started listing all the kinds of films I liked.

He interrupted me: “No, you take drugs and watch porn films all day. In Islam this is very bad.”

I gave up. I thought our little back-and-forth was over until he started grabbing chunks of the hair on my right forearm and pulling them out slowly.

After a few nights, one of the guys who had served me food came up to me while the men were all in the room next door.

“I saw you the other night and felt very bad for you. These men are very bad. I wish there was something I could do. I am very sorry.”

I thought this might be a trick. He was, after all, employed by these same men. In between interrogations I thought about how little resistance I had offered. I thought I should have refused all questions until the UK ambassador was contacted, or maybe a lawyer. There had even been times when I thought I was a pussy because I hadn’t attacked one of the men, stolen his gun, and tried to escape. I was careful with the guy who had served me food, thinking he might have been another one of them.

“So why are you working here?”

“I am university graduate, but there is no work—this is all I have. The young people of Iran hate these men, they are animals.”

I still didn’t trust him.

“What did you study?”

“Philosophy.”

“Really? Me too, my favorite was always Nietzsche.”

His face lit up and he told me that Nietzsche was his favorite too. He asked me to wait and stepped aside for about a minute, then jumped back in front of my chair.

“That which not kill me, make me stronger,” he said triumphantly. I told him I liked that line a lot. He stepped away again and thought hard for another moment.

“The theory of eternal recurrence!”

He did the same thing a few times, always looking out the door to make sure Beardy and his men weren’t coming back. He finally patted my shoulder, apologized again, and dashed off. It was the first time I had smiled in a week.

The whole thing lasted eight days. They had threatened torture and even death. Most of the time I thought that was a ridiculous threat, but there were regular moments when I imagined my own execution. I’d seen footage of three teenage rapists who were hanged by cranes high above a public square, just weeks before we arrived. I imagined being driven to a similar square in the back of a blacked-out camper van and being led to another crane in front of hundreds of women in burkas chanting “Marg bar Amrika, marg bar Israel.”

But it wasn’t to be. After eight days they told us we’d be on a plane home the next morning. Beardy said he wasn’t satisfied with any of my answers (I had written about 20 pages of the most mundane information about the BBC, all of which they could have got from the website) but as Iran and the UK had diplomatic relations, he had decided to let us go. Two of the guys drove us to the airport the next morning, but Beardy had our passports and tickets and was two hours late. We only just made the plane, and even as we were walking to the boarding gate they were still trying to provoke me.

I can no longer remember what it was, but I had managed to hide something from them, or managed to get away with a whopping lie. As we went through to the boarding lounge I saw some officials come and talk to Beardy. What they said seemed to alarm him. I got up and told my producer to grab her ticket. We walked up to the boarding desk, showed our tickets, and walked as fast as possible onto the plane. I kept expecting to see Beardy board and pull us off. Departure was taking too long and at one point they even reopened the luggage hold to remove something. “There’s no way they are getting me off this plane,” I thought, “This time I’ll fight. This is too much.” It wasn’t until I saw the wheels leave the tarmac that I could finally breathe properly. I was too tired to even feel relieved.

BEN ANDERSON