On the seventh day of Desert Storm, veteran CBS correspondent Bob Simon broke the cardinal rule of journalism: He made news instead of just reporting it. Simon and his three-man crew had been out of touch for two days when their rented Toyota Land Cruiser was found abandoned at the border; tracks from it led into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. Allied authorities deduced the team had been taken prisoner.
Baghdad continued to announce its allied POWs, but maintained an ominous silence about the TV crew. Iraq hasn’t always treated newsmen as noncombatants. In 1990 Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian-born British national reporting for the London Observer, was lynched as a spy. Further, Simon, 49, was Tel Aviv-based and Jewish—two facts the world press thoughtfully omitted from their stories.
As family, friends and colleagues mounted a global full-court press for information (Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s assistance was solicited by both Henry Kissinger and CBS chief exec Larry Tisch), Simon and crew were living through a hell they had previously witnessed only from the safer side of the camera. “New Yorkers will talk about ‘surviving’ when they refer to overcoming their competition,” muses the Bronx-born Simon. “Survival now has a different meaning for me. [In captivity] I remembered the documentaries on World War II concentration camps. Holocaust survivors, so terribly thin, just skin and bones, yet alive. Not that I would attempt to compare my situation to theirs, but I consoled myself thinking if they could survive, so could I.”
The team’s misadventure grew out of frustration with the short leash the Pentagon put on the press. When fighting commenced, Simon, who has covered wars since Vietnam, began making unauthorized forays from Dhahran to the front. His team scored a coup on Friday, Jan. 18, by taping a skirmish in what he identified on-air as “the no-man’s-land between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.” On Sunday they went out again, without luck. The next morning, en route home, the team detoured up to the border. With Kuwaiti soil an enticing football field and a half away, they decided to take a closer look. “Obviously we had no intention of staying,” notes Simon, “since we left our gear and money in the car.” Suddenly, what he calls “the jeep that changed our lives” roared up; out leapt Iraqi soldiers who handcuffed Simon, producer Peter Bluff, 47, cameraman Roberto Alvarez, 37, and sound man Juan Caldera, 29. “At first we didn’t realize how serious our situation was,” Simon admits. “What worried me most was that they grabbed my cigarette lighter, which shows how long it takes for reality to sink in.” The prisoners ended up at a bunker commanded by Iraqi officers who “spoke fluent English. They were immaculately dressed, intelligent, polite and gave us good food—rice with tasty, piquant beans.”
Alas, that civility soon vanished like a desert mirage. The team was shipped to Basra, in southern Iraq, where, Simon recalls, “We were brutally interrogated. They beat me on my head and feet, then they beat the others. I asked for water but was told we wouldn’t get any until the following day, in Baghdad.”
The trip to the Iraqi capital was “the longest and most painful imaginable,” he says. The blindfolded men “could recognize each other’s voices, so we knew all of us were alive. But the road was shelled incessantly. Every time a bomb exploded, we were thrown backwards, the cuffs cutting into our swollen and bleeding wrists. The couple of times I asked them to loosen the handcuffs, they beat me. I never asked for anything again.”
Ten hours and 210 miles later, they arrived at an army prison. “At that point there was still some compassion,” acknowledges Simon. Indeed, a medic treated sound man Caldera, who had developed a cough, with antibiotics, and a teenage soldier gave the team a kerosene heater for their dank cell. ” ‘But we learned that the Iraqis had not announced our capture, and we feared that our families did not know we were alive.”
In fact, French-born Françoise Simon, 48, already sensed something amiss. With her husband of 25 years in the gulf, she had gone to New York City to visit their only child, Tanya, 20, a Columbia University junior majoring in comparative literature. “Three days running, Bob was not on the news,” Françoise says. “My intuition told me that something was terribly wrong.” Those fears were confirmed on Jan. 23 when a Saudi patrol found the Land Cruiser and telltale footprints. CBS’s efforts to get a fix on the team were fruitless. Françoise’s only consolation: “As long as I had no reports of a body found in the desert, I knew he was alive.”
But hardly well, for Simon and crew were soon shifted to an intelligence center in downtown Baghdad. “Here the guards were animals—all they did was shout and beat,” he says. One day an officer “grabbed me by the face, forced my mouth open and said, ‘Yehudi, Yehudi,’ which means ‘Jew.’ Then he spit at me and slapped me. I feared for my life, but I would have killed him if I could, with no more remorse than killing a cockroach.”
By now, recalls Françoise Simon, “I was totally obsessed with the need to establish Bob’s whereabouts. I functioned on coffee, cigarettes and unbelievable amounts of adrenaline.” While CBS worked the back channels, she wrote Saddam Hussein. PLO head Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein. On Feb. 15, as she prepared to seek help from a Yemeni diplomat, CNN’s Peter Arnett reported that a source had told him Simon and crew were alive in Baghdad.
They were, however, still very much in harm’s way. “The really unbearable thing was the hunger,” Simon remembers. “One does not get used to it. It gets worse; in fact—we were actually starving. We got two pieces of bread a day and maybe two glasses of water. Sometimes they gave us a bit of thin soup. One tries to prolong the process of eating, but that simply doesn’t work; you swallow that tiny ration of food in a minute. I really went crazy with hunger and knew that in the future I would never again casually say, ‘I’m hungry.’
“I tried to sleep as much as possible, to disconnect myself from prison reality. One is so helpless, controlled not by individuals but by a system that decides if you will live, if you will see your family again. I didn’t think I had a future left, so I held on to the past. I kept remembering beautiful moments with Françoise, like when we first met at the university in Lyons.” Meanwhile, Iraqi interrogators had begun to accuse Simon of spying. After an especially harrowing session, he concedes, “I thought they would execute me. Hack in my cell I punched the wall until my knuckles were bleeding. That was the only moment that I lost it.” What spared him and his colleagues also nearly killed them: the fierce allied bombardment of Baghdad (the building where they were held sustained three direct hits).
Two days after the cease-fire, at 2 A.M. on March 2, Simon’s cellmate, a Kuwaiti, woke him. “He said, ‘Something is happening!’ I got up and went to the door. A guard said, ‘American? Come. The President releases, you.’ My three colleagues and I were put in a van.” After cruising the city for two hours, “We passed a sign reading DOWNTOWN BAGHDAD. Peter [Bluff], who had been to Baghdad, said, ‘If we turn left 200 meters from here, they’re taking us to the Al Rasheed Hotel.’ Those were the longest 200 meters in my life.” But the van did turn left; after a biblical 40 days and 40 nights, Simon and crew were free. In the suite of a waiting CBS executive, Simon demolished three Cadbury fruit and nut bars “like a demon.” The four men were driven to Jordan and then flown to London, where doctors pronounced them in good shape (even though the 5’10” Simon had dropped 30 lbs., down to a gaunt 140).
Before resuming his CBS duties in early May, Simon spent time with Françoise and Tanya at their beachfront home near Tel Aviv, where he recuperated by eating well, swimming, playing tennis and tackling 1,000-plus letters from fellow newsmen (“If I acknowledged one, I’d make enemies of 50”) and viewers. His trials, he feels, can only strengthen him professionally: “I thought I understood political prisoners. But in the future I will ask how many pieces of bread they get each day. And if they were aware of being beaten—I learned that sometimes one is in a trance and does not know he is being beaten.”
There is, however, one assignment Simon will no longer accept, something any local-news rookie could knock out in a single take: “Never again will I visit a zoo, where animals are kept behind bars, in a cage.”