A man from the outside world who cared


Lara Marlowe meets an Irishman who wanted to help the suffering in Baghdad and wound up in a jail cell

If you ran into John Flanagan in O'Connell Street, you'd probably mistake the kindly 69-year-old in the grey herring-bone jacket for a retired clerk or teacher. There's nothing in his appearance to indicate that the retired window merchant has a literary bent and is a convert to Islam, or that he just survived a near-fatal adventure in the war.

Mr Flanagan converted to Islam in 1991. "I was looking for something," he explains. He had a son and daughter with his wife,Margaret, who died of angina in 1995. "If a wife of an Irishman dies and they're elderly and he remarries, it's looked on as a kind of betrayal," he said when we talked this weekend in the Palestine Hotel.

"I never dreamed of marrying again," Mr Flanagan continued. Then one day in 2000, he was at the Clonskeagh Mosque, where he helps out with public relations. A young Chinese Muslim woman, a communications engineer with Ericsson half his age, walked in.

"I looked at her, and she looked at me, and whatever happens between a man and a woman happened. There are no boyfriends and girlfriends in Islam. We married two months later."

This may all seem a long way from the war in Baghdad, but it helps to explain Mr Flanagan's extraordinary decision to come here. "I cannot believe my happiness," he said. "Miriam [his Chinese wife] has a heart as big as a football. She's a fantastic cook. I just felt I had so many blessings in life . . ."

Mr Flanagan said he was affected by photographs of victims of the previous Gulf War. "I knew it would be a repetition. I knew hospitals would be full and understaffed. The main reason I came was to try to help the victims of the war. I felt the marriage would be blessed and our families would be blessed. I'm not over-religious, but I believe in God and pray."

His wife was "horrified" at his desire to come to Baghdad. His sister was upset, and his niece "went hysterical". But nothing would deter him. Armed only with a letter of recommendation from Dr Nooh al-Kaddo, the director of the Clonskeagh Mosque, Mr Flanagan arrived in Baghdad two days after the war started.

The vehicle he took from Amman had to shelter overnight next to a farmhouse, to escape being bombed. He spent two weeks visiting destroyed houses and hospitals, trying to comfort the victims.

Eight days ago, at 2 o'clock in the morning, six men in dark clothing banged on the door of Mr Flanagan's hotel room. "They looked very ominous," he said. "One had a Kalashnikov. The main heavy was the most vile-looking creature I've ever met."

The plainclothes Iraqi policemen told Mr Flanagan that a man fitting his description had been seen signalling to US aircraft. "I was frog-marched out of the hotel and into a car, and taken to a police cell."

Khalil al-Soudani, a Jordanian official with the Red Crescent relief agency who was staying in the same hotel as Mr Flanagan, was also arrested, "simply because he was associated with me." The cell had no bed, no toilet and was filthy.

For two days, Mr Flanagan was given no food or water. He paced the cell to keep sane. On the third day, his hands were bound with electrical wire and he was transferred to a police prison where he was given bread and an egg. "One of the guards gave me a biscuit, and while I was eating he said: 'When you finish, I am going to kill you'.

"I was trying to philosophise that we all have to die some time. There was constant bombing, close by. I thought the end had come. They had hooks coming down from the ceiling, and loose electrical wire. My imagination was playing tricks on me."

As the Americans entered Baghdad, Mr Flanagan's jailers began disappearing. "The first thing I heard were helicopters, then a lot of shooting. I knew they were very close."

In the end, the Red Crescent freed him from his cell. He spent the night of his liberation in hospital. When he returned to his hotel room, he found the secret police had stolen his passport, money and credit card. "All of this has no value," he said. "Compared to what's going on around us, what happened to me is unimportant.

"I helped a few people. I was able to talk to some of the injured men and children and console them in some way, even if it was just a few words to show them there was someone from the outside world who cared."