Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Hostage Negotiator (Updated)

(If you haven't heard about the tragic death of Nicola Calipari check out the story on Yahoo News if you want to get caught up.)

Yes, there is a war of words between former hostage Giuliana Sgrena and U.S. officials as to exactly what happened on that road in Baghdad. But that's not what I'm here to talk about.

When I first saw the story on the news yesterday, I was moved by the selfless heroism shown by the hostage negotiator Nicola Calipari. He probably didn't even have the time to think before literally throwing himself in harms way to shield Sgrena from the bullets, saving her life for the second time. The news outlets focused their reports mainly on the controversy and Sgrena but I wondered, 'Who was this man, the hostage negotiator, and what was his story?'.

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Husband and Father

Nicola Calipari was born on June 23, 1953 in the city of Reggio-Calabria which is in the toe of Italy across from Sicily. He had a wife, Rosa Maria, a 19-year-old daughter, Silvia, and a 13-year-old son, Filippo. His brother is a priest who is currently serving on the Vatican advisory body.

What kind of person was he? In the words of someone who knew him:

...I will never be able to forget his discretion, his kindness, even while he was smoking a cigarette or referring a conversation, a contact.

...he expressed this deep morality, that is respect for himself and not only for others, through his modesty, through his ability to never speak over the lines...

He was a person that inspired the maximum trust even to myself - consumed in so many experiences -: if Nicola told me something, I believed him, I had no doubts nor suspects; Nicola would not say something to hide something else.

And all of this was shown - to a careful eye - on his face, on his smile... And the eyes, which were full of words and discreet.

A Life Of Service

Giuliana Sgrena was far from the first person he had ever protected from harm. He served 20 years in the police force of Rome and headed the immigration office there for a time, before moving on to Italy's secret services.

He proved to be an expert hostage negotiator and was soon well known for securing the release of several hostages in Iraq: three Italian private security guards, a Polish businessman, and two Italian aid workers, Simona Toretta and Simona Pari.

But negotiating the release of Sgrena proved to be an especially difficult case, and he was forced to leave Baghdad empty handed at least once. Eventually he was successful in his mission, though it proved to be bittersweet.

The Last Hour

Friday 8:20 pm. A stringer for Al-Jazeera delivered Sgrena to the team of Italian secret service agents, which was led by Calipari. (This is disputed by Al-Jazeera, who say that they didn't have any stringers in the area.)

Sgrena's account of what happened next:

I hardly had time to realise what was happening when I heard a friendly voice in my ear: 'Giuliana, Giuliana, I'm Nicola, don't worry I spoke to Gabriele Polo (Il Manifesto's editor), take it easy, you're free.'

He took the cotton blindfold and the dark glasses off me. I tried to be relieved, not because I didn't understand what was happening, but because of the words of this 'Nicola'. He was talking, talking, he was insatiable, an avalanche of friendly phrases, jokes....

The location of the handover is unknown. But it couldn't have been far from the Baghdad Airport as it was at around 8:55 pm that the car he was in came up against those bullets, only miles from the plane which was waiting to take them all back to Italy.

Many facts about that incident are uncertain right now and may always be, but one thing is known for sure: when the car came under fire he immediately put himself between the bullets and Sgrena. One of the bullets hit him in the head and he died on the spot. It was a matter of seconds.

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I'm sure Nicola Calipari knew and accepted the dangers inherent in his line of work. But that doesn't make his death any less heartbreaking. In a situation muddied by so many people's different agendas, his pure act of heroism stands out and will always be remembered.

Nicola Calipari 1953 - 2005


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