Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How France Turned an Iraq Hostage into a Cause Celebre ; Florence Aubenas Was Released over the Weekend after 157 Days in Captivity

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How France Turned an Iraq Hostage into a Cause Celebre ; Florence Aubenas Was Released over the Weekend after 157 Days in Captivity

Article excerpt

For five long months her face and name haunted France. Through constant reference in newspapers, on radio and television, by posters hung from town halls, and from statements by government ministers, Florence Aubenas became an absent friend to the whole country.

Tuesday, Ms. Aubenas spoke publicly for the first time since she was last seen on Jan. 5, leaving her hotel in Baghdad where she was working as a reporter for the daily Liberation. She had been kidnapped and was forced to spend 157 days bound and blindfolded in a dark cellar before being freed over the weekend.

Aubenas said that her captors imposed a daily limit of 80 spoken words and 24 paces to go to the bathroom. Despite her ordeal, Aubenas cracked jokes with reporters and described how she kept her courage up.

"It's not a question of holding on or not. You are there and that's it," Aubenas said. "People in France hung on as well. Courage is releasing balloons and things like that ... to support someone for 157 days without giving up."

As with hostage releases in Italy, questions have surfaced about whether a ransom was paid. The government has made token denials, but most here quietly assume otherwise. However, this has not provoked much controversy.

"If it takes paying money to save a life, people here think it's worth it," says Robert Menard, president of Reporters Without Borders, the journalists' group that led the campaign for Aubenas's release. Some governments have a policy of not paying ransoms because it is seen as encouraging hostage-taking.

Aubenas's plight was hardly unique. According to the Brookings Institution in Washington, 95 foreign hostages in Iraq have been released since May, 2003; 49 remain captive. And Aubenas was only the latest in a long line of French kidnapping victims stretching back to Beirut in 1985.

But the public response to her plight was enormous. "Never in 20 years have I seen such mobilization" says Mr. Menard. "People were ringing up from the smallest villages asking for badges and posters."

All across France, Aubenas's lively, smiling face - and that of her Iraqi assistant Hussein Hanoun, also now released - looked out from giant portraits hung from public buildings. …

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