Jeff Jardine

Documentary maker brings personal experience to Islamic State captives’ Modesto family

UC Berkeley graduate student Shawn Baldwin prepares for an interview with Modesto resident Romel David at David’s home in Modesto on Saturday. Baldwin spent many years as a photojournalist in the Middle East and is now working in collaboration with other grad students to produce a documentary on the region.
UC Berkeley graduate student Shawn Baldwin prepares for an interview with Modesto resident Romel David at David’s home in Modesto on Saturday. Baldwin spent many years as a photojournalist in the Middle East and is now working in collaboration with other grad students to produce a documentary on the region. aalfaro@modbee.com

Two weeks ago, a Modesto family learned that its loved ones were among those taken hostage by ISIS militants in Syria.

Through the help of a mutual friend, I was able to sit down to talk last week with Sharlet and Romel David, Assyrian Christians who wanted to ask the public for their prayers. At that time, they knew only that Sharlet’s brother, Hanna Amo, and his son, Martin Amo, were being held in an encampment in the mountains.

My column posted that same day (Feb. 24) on modbee.com, after which they faced a deluge of interview requests ranging from British Broadcasting Corporation in London to stations in the Central Valley and Bay Area, and network TV affiliates in Sacramento and San Francisco to CNN. Some they accepted, others they did not. The attention became overwhelming. The family since has received word via one of the 19 hostages ISIS released that the Amo men were alive and doing OK.

I suspect this: None of those who interviewed the Davids, myself included, can begin to truly understand the myriad factors and complexities that have embroiled the Middle East for centuries, compounded by events of recent decades. Nor do I know of anyone in the media who has experienced the anguish of waiting to learn the fate of loved ones held captive by terrorists.

But that changed Monday, when I received an email from a UC Berkeley student who wanted to contact the Davids for a graduate school documentary he’s doing on the Middle East.

Shawn Baldwin isn’t your basic grad student, though. At 44, he spent 11 years as a free-lance still photographer throughout the Middle East. He lived in Baghdad at times and most recently in Cairo, capturing images of a world in turmoil throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the falls of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

The Jamesville, N.J., native knows well the area of Iraq where Romel David’s family lived until fleeing to the United States in 1961. He has a clear understanding of the danger and perils of working in the world’s most tumultuous region.

And, like Hanna Amo, Baldwin knows what it is like to be taken hostage at gunpoint, not knowing whether he’d live to see another day or even another minute.

In 2004, he was hired by The New York Times and was traveling with reporter John Burns when their group was captured by Shiite militia near Najaf, south of Baghdad. The media groups hired “fixers,” locals who knew the landscape and could assess the dangers of the day. The Shiites were looking specifically for Burns, Baldwin said, and found him around 11 a.m. that day.

“They knew his car,” he said. “They knew who we were. They came to our car and they grabbed us.”

The Shiites took them to a mosque, took away their bulletproof vests and other protections.

“They said they were going to take us somewhere,” he said. Their fixer, he said, tried to keep the mood light even though at times the captors put guns to the captives’ heads. They were blindfolded and driven over bumpy roads outside of the city.

“You’re thinking they’re going shoot you in the head,” Baldwin said.

But this militia wasn’t as organized as ISIS.

“They had no idea where they were going or what they were going to do with us,” he said. “They took off our blindfolds. They got lost. Fortunately, they let me keep my (camera) equipment.”

They were taken to a building about 20 miles or so from Najaf, and guarded until they were released at 3 a.m. or so the next morning. Being left with no flak jackets, no protection and no money was just about as dangerous as being kidnapped. They found their way back to a U.S. military encampment, where they were debriefed and given a place to sleep.

Baldwin simply went back to work taking photos, working on short-term contracts with various media outlets until he returned to the States last year. Tired of fearing for his life due to the violence, political instability and warring religious factions? No. He came back, he said, because the drivers over there are really lousy.

“I had a bad accident,” he said. “I was walking with my girlfriend and was run over by a Hummer in Egypt. Being around cars is scary. There are bad drivers everywhere.”

He suffered numerous injuries that kept him in an Egyptian hospital for four days before he came home to the United States for the necessary surgeries.

Baldwin decided it was time to make the transition from still photography to video and film documentary making, which is what took him to Berkeley.

Romel and Sharlet David appreciate the chance to talk with someone else who knew their homelands so well. They spoke by phone earlier in the week. “I talked to him quite a bit,” Romel David said.

Baldwin then came Saturday to Modesto to get their story on film and to share with them more of his own experiences from his time in the Middle East.

It was the only time in the past two weeks the Davids got as much or more from an interviewer as they gave.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

  Comments