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30 years on: How Saddam Hussein used human shields from Shropshire

By Mark Andrews | Oswestry | News | Published:

The message was simple. Bomb Iraq and you will end up killing men, women and children from your own country.

Saddam Hussein chats to five-year-old Stuart Lockwood in a propaganda broadcast

En route to meet his fiancee in Kuala Lumpar, Simon Chapman sent her a fax message informing her there had been a hitch with his flight.

"I might be delayed," he wrote.

It proved to be something of an understatement. He spent the next four months in captivity, held hostage by the Iraqi government.

Simon's flight touched down to refuel in Kuwait just as Saddam Hussein's forces seized control of the Gulf state. Instead of travelling the Far East with his wife-to-be, the then 29-year-old firefighter would become a 'human shield' at a power station near Baghdad.

It is 30 years tomorrow since Iraq invaded Kuwait, sparking an enmity between Iraq and the West which still has major repercussions today.

And for Simon, who lives in Llansantffraid, near Oswestry, and Susan Correll, a 49-year-old schoolteacher from Shrewsbury, it marked the beginning of a nightmare which would see them spend weeks being held at gunpoint at the Al-Nasseriya power plant.

Susan Correll and Simon Chapman recall their time as human shields in Baghdad 30 years ago

Simon's fiancee Ruth never did get the fax. Instead she was left waiting on tenterhooks at the airport, where she was informed that flight BA 149 was unlikely to arrive at all.

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Back in Britain, viewers saw television footage of a cheery, avuncular Saddam Hussein, chatting with his 'guests', inviting questions, and checking on their welfare in a propaganda stunt for Iraqi TV. The most famous image was of the Iraqi president ruffling the hair of five-year-old Stuart Lockwood, from Worcester, and asking him what he had for breakfast.

But away from the TV cameras, it was a very different experience for Simon and Susan. Forced to live in caravans at the power station, they feared for their lives as the dictator used them as bargaining chips with western governments.

For Simon, the scariest part was being woken in the middle of the night to be taken for drive with the soldiers.

"They would wake you up at 3am, and say 'Mr Simon, you come with me'," he says. "He would take me out in his Mitsubishi Shogun, and just drive around for an hour.

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"You just think 'this is it'. You're in a deserted part of Iraq, nobody knows where you are. If a soldier wanted to do something to you, nobody would ever find the body."

Pictured at the Al-Nasseriya power station in August 1990, Susan, centre in pink, and Simon, far right, in blue shirt

Susan was a 19-year-old student at Leeds Polytechnic, who had travelled to the Gulf state in June 1990 to get experience teaching English and PE to Kuwaiti youngsters. She was not unduly concerned by reports of a build-up of Iraqi troops at the Kuwaiti border.

"I was due to fly home on August 15, I was just finishing my job," she recalls.

"We had heard warnings about a build-up of troops near the border, but we didn't think it would ever happen. My boyfriend at the time had been out there two summers before, during the Iran-Iraq war, and had no problems. And they offered me a lot of money. I was a student, and we got paid quite a lot."

The first Susan, then known by her maiden name, Susan Breeze, knew about the invasion was when she watched the television news at 9am.

"We had heard noise in the night, and planes flying, but didn't know what it was," she says. "There were now tanks and troops outside, it was quite scary. We were advised to stay indoors, and close the curtains. One or two people had been out to get food, and there had been no problems at all, but we were a little bit out of the way. We heard that in the city centre people were getting shot in the streets, but we were four-to-five miles away."

Judith Empson, bottom right, in Iraq, with others acting as human shields and Iraqi people

After about a week, a group of western staff at the school decided it was time to leave, and headed towards the Saudi border in a convoy of about 30 cars. But it wasn't long before they were stopped by Iraqi troops.

"They said 'you're not going as a convoy' they didn't like us all being together. They said if you drive into Iraq, you can drive out the other side, and we kind of believed them." The troops then took them to the Sheraton Hotel in Basra under an armed escort,

"They said 'park your cars, you will stay the night here, and then tomorrow morning you can drive out'," Susan recalls. "We believed they were trying to help us, we got told a lot of lies."

The hotel was filled with a large number of British people, including many teachers and engineers. But instead of being allowed to go home the next morning, their passports were taken off them and they were put on a train to Baghdad.

"We still believed we were getting out," says Susan. "It was quite a scary journey, the train had bullet holes in it from the Iraq-Iran war."

They were taken the Al-Mansour Melia hotel, on the banks of the River Tigris, where she met Simon for the first time.

And it was there that the alarm bells began to ring.

Smoke billows from a building hit during a coalition forces air raid in Baghdad Monday March 31, 2003

"We couldn't believe it, the hotel was full of people, all foreigners," says Susan. "We were there for about a week, and every day more people were joining us."

Susan, now a teacher at Concord College in Acton Burnell, does not believe there was any grand plan at the beginning to hold them as hostages. But as US President George H W Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ramped up their threats of military action, Saddam realised they could be a useful deterrent.

"I think to begin with, they just didn't know what to do with us," she says. "But as they heard Margaret Thatcher and George Bush talking about launching air strikes, they thought we might come in useful."

Simon, having been identified as a 'leader' by the Iraqis, was ordered to divide the hostages into smaller groups. He decided to keep the families together, while the single hostages – himself, Susan, two other single men and six single women – formed the group that would be taken to the power station.

While their stays in the hotels had been comfortable, with large swimming pools, accommodation at the power station was cramped and the food rudimentary. That said there was a camaraderie among the hostages, and they generally felt reasonably safe.

At the same time, they knew they were very much at the mercy of their captors. The Foreign Office had no idea where they had been taken, and Susan's parents had been informed they were still at their hotel in Baghdad.

Susan Correll

Before they were used as human shields, Susan was invited to write a letter to her parents, but knew she was limited in what she could write as the mail would be censored.

Yet, paradoxically, Susan says it was the vice-like grip that Saddam Hussein had over his country which ensured their safety.

"There were some very good soldiers, but there were one or two who were a bit scary," she says.

"We were safe because of Saddam Hussein's government, he had so much power and control, everyone was scared of him, and nobody would dare step out of line. If it had been Isis or someone like that, they would have done what they wanted with us."

For Susan, the hairiest moment came after the women and children were told on August 27 that they were being freed, following growing diplomatic pressure from the British and US governments, as well as American civil rights activist the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

"Us seven women were being taken to Baghdad by Iraqi soldiers, they took us in two cars," she says.

"We didn't believe them, we had been told so many lies before. We had this mad driver, he didn't speak English, the two cars were driving together, and the drivers were chatting to one another, and we had no idea what they were saying.

"We were out in the desert, we had been separated from the men, and the British Government didn't know where we were. We knew they could have just taken us out and shot us."

How the Star reported Susan's captivity

The women were taken back to the Al-Mansour Melia hotel in Baghdad, which by this time had fallen in to a state of severe decline.

"There wasn't a lot of food, there would be one tea bag shared between 10 people," she says.

"There weren't any cleaners, so we had to clean the bedrooms," she says. "A lot of the people who had been serving us before had gone, and the staff didn't want to be there."

Morale among the detainees was not good by this time, either.

"A lot of the women had left their husbands behind, and were worried about them, and we still didn't trust the Iraqis," she said.

Before being sent home, Susan and her fellow detainees were issued with a final parting gift: letters from 'The Women of Iraq', which asked them to go home and persuade Mrs Thatcher and President Bush to see the error of their ways, and not to intervene against Saddam's occupation of Kuwait.

Simon says that after the women left, their treatment by their guards became much rougher, and it was then that the late night rides out in the car became a common occurrence.

By this time he was suffering from vertigo, and had to be taken to a hospital in Basra to be treated, and he remembers the journey back as being quite un-nerving.

"The guards driving me back took me to a couple of places where, if anything happened, they could have just lost my body," he says. "That was definitely a frightening moment."

Sir Ted Heath negotiated the release of some prisoners

Towards the end of his time in captivity, Simon was moved to the Al-Mussaib power station, where they were were not allowed outside at all.

"The Iraqi guards said 'if we're going to get bombed, you're going to bombed with us'," he says.

He finally returned home on December 10, one of the first 100 men released after former prime minister Ted Heath visited Saddam in person to negotiate their release.

"We flew out with Ted Heath, after he had been over towards the end of October," he recalls.

He did eventually make it to Kuala Lumpur, but as he wrote in his fax, the journey was slightly delayed.

"We went back to Malaysia the next year, for our honeymoon," he says.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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