High Salvington pensioner tells of Iraqi capture

editorial image

A PENSIONER has re-told the incredible story of his capture by Iraqi soldiers as he celebrates the anniversary of his release.

John Cunningham, of Hayling Rise, High Salvington, had been living with his family in Kuwait, in 1990, when the country was invaded by Iraq.

In August that year, John heard the sound of explosions as the Iraqis destroyed Kuwait’s satellites and invaded the country, prompting him and his family to barricade their home with tyres.

But on August 31, a group of eight soldiers, armed with kalashnikov machine guns, invaded John’s home, demanding to know his nationality to determine whether he was English or American and worth kidnapping.

The 81-year-old said: “We had a dog and the dog’s barking gave us a bit of time to prepare. When they came in, they asked what nationality I was and I said I was Swiss. They told me to show them my driving licence, so I tried to grab my wallet and hide my licence, but he grabbed it from me, and he said ‘he’s British!’.”

From there the family was taken to the Ahmadi Governate Building, in Kuwait, before being transferred to Baghdad, where they were separated.

What John had not realised, or been told at the time, was that his wife and three children had been sent home a week after their capture, while he was taken with a group of men to a factory complex in Amarah, Iraq.

There, John and a group of around 10 people were fed one hard piece of bread a day, with soup made from water and salt, which John said was inedible. “They put us in a camp where the Yugoslavs were working in the factory.

“We stayed in that camp for a week to 10 days, then they said we’re going into the factory and we said ‘no way’. I thought there was going to be a fight, a punch-up.

“My room-mate Tony Hodds picked up my suitcase and he said ‘come on John, we can’t win’.”

Through the group’s ordeal, hope glimmered thanks to a radio John had secretly taken in with him, on which they listened to messages sent by the BBC.

It was a month and a half before John received the message he had been waiting for from his sister: “Martha and the children are back in Worthing.”

John said: “It was fantastic. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us, but it was such a relief to hear Martha and the children were home.”

Despite their failing health, the group members managed to campaign for the shutters in the room they were staying in to be opened, giving them sunlight, and to be let outside into the ground’s tennis court to exercise.

It was during one exercise session they left a message for another captured group, which also used the court, to ask whether they wanted to go on hunger strike.

Days later, a message was returned saying ‘yes’, but John wonders if the message was intercepted by Iraqis, who threw a surprise impromptu party with food and alcohol for their prisoners soon after.

It was during this party John was told by a drunken soldier they would soon hear some “good news”.

Roughly a month later, on December 10, the group was released.

John said: “It was fantastic. I had been reading poetry by Rupert Brookes, and as in his poem, when I returned to England I felt a body of England breathing English air.”

John is now considering putting his incredible experiences on paper.

“Now I have more time, I might a write book about it,” he added.