en-Spanish correspondent survived wars, ISIL captivity


Profile published at Global Journalist

Marc Marginedas has covered some of the world's most brutal conflicts, and has the psychological scars to prove it.

The first thing to know about Marc Marginedas is that he has gone on living.

The veteran Spanish war correspondent for Barcelona's El Periódico de Catalunya, had already made two harrowing trips to Syria by late 2013 and witnessed cruel atrocities unlike any he'd seen in nearly two decades of war coverage.

"The suffering that I witnessed, I hadn't seen before in my life," he says, in an interview with Global Journalist. "The regime bombs civilians living in regions controlled by the rebels to deliberately and severely punish them. The regime systematically bombs hospitals to send the message to employees that if they go to work, they can lose their lives. The same happens with schools."

By August of 2013, a number of foreign correspondents and aid workers had been kidnapped by various rebel groups in Syria, including the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Marginedas had been planning to go to Oman to take an Arabic course when he decided to change plans and enter Syria for third time. In early September he sent a report about a possible international military intervention in Syria.

Then El Periódico lost track of him. "I had a work accident," Marginedas says.


Fighters loyal to the Islamic State, or ISIL, had captured Marginedas on the outskirts of the western city of Hama. On his second day in captivity, he was told: "You've already entered Syria twice and you were lucky, but this time you're going to die."

Marginedas recalls how at first he was moved from prison to prison until he was transferred to a jail on the outskirts of Aleppo, sharing a cell with 19 other Western prisoners.

Among them were the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as the U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.

In that prison near northern Syria, Marginedas, Foley, Sotloff and the others captives were guarded by a group of four British-Arab men who the prisoners nicknamed "The Beatles," for their accents. The Beatles were particularly sadistic guards, abusing them both psychologically and physically. "We were their entertainment, their way to kill time, their experiments, their own laboratory to put into practice their insanity," Marginedas later said.

In his memoirs, published in El Periódico and his autobiography "Journalism in the Battlefront: 15 Years Behind the Jihad," Marginedas remembers Foley as someone who was liked and who could joke about the paltry rations, normally pita bread with beans and olives, that they were fed. Sotloff, he recalls, helped the captives briefly forget their difficulties by teaching morning yoga classes.

Marginedas would be the first in the group to be released. One day, the Beatles asked him if he was ready to leave, and he instantly said "yes" - even as he doubted if the offer was real. On March 2, 2014, nearly six months after his capture, Marginedas was freed after being ransomed. Other captives from mainland Europe were also later freed. As the New York Times later reported, ISIL had chosen to negotiate first with the Spanish government because they thought Spain would be the most willing to negotiate.

That was fortunate for Marginedas. But not for the American and British captives, whose governments have a policy of not paying ransoms. Between August and November 2014, Foley, Sotloff, Haines, Kassig and Henning, with whom Marginedas shared a cell for months, were beheaded, one by one.

The Wars Before

Syria wasn't Marginedas' first brush with danger. Originally from Sarriá, an affluent suburb of Barcelona, Marginedas grew up in a conservative culture where family members stayed close to home and went to work for large companies. He was 13 when he first told them his future lay elsewhere. "I didn't fit in that environment," he says.

The chance to leave came when, as a young weekend reporter for El Periódico in 1995, he volunteered to move to Algeria to cover that country's civil war for the equivalent of $800 a month.

"My mom suffered a lot when I left but she never stopped me," he says.

That conflict, between Algeria's military-backed government and Islamist rebels, featured brutal tactics as both sides targeted civilians in a "dirty war" that included massacres of entire villages.

"To find a balance between informing people about what's really happening and not angering the regime is very difficult," Marginedas says.

It was not in Spain's interest to see articles that blamed the Algerian regime for the deaths of thousands of civilians, he says, and some Western news agencies such as Agence France-Presse and the New York Times often depended on the Algerian government's news agencies for reporting on the conflict. "Thousands of women and children died and no explanation has been given since," he says. "A big part of the violence was orchestrated by the government."

Marginedas reported closely on the killing of seven French monks in 1996, an incident that attracted widespread publicity and was the subject of the 2010 film "Of Gods and Men." In January 1998 he scored an interview with Abdelkader Hachani, the leader of the opposition Islamic Salvation Front, shortly after his release from prison.

Just two months after his interview with Hachani, in which Hachani called for western countries to withdraw support for Algeria's government, Marginedas received a warning.

Someone from Spain's consulate in Algeria told him the Algerian government was unhappy with his coverage and advised him to stop covering sensitive stories. "They told me that if something happened to me they wouldn't be able to help me," he says. "In other words, they were telling me that they were not going to risk Spain's relationship."

Looking back, he's now thankful for the advice. "They could've ended up shooting me," he says.

From Algeria, Marginedas was sent to Russia in 1998 on the eve of the Second Chechen war. That war, between Chechen separatists and Russian troops and pro-Russian paramilitaries, featured the Russian siege of the Chechen capital Grozny, which led to the near-total destruction of the city.

Russia had banned Moscow correspondents from covering the conflict, so Marginedas was forced to bribe local officials to get in.

"In Grozny, it was the highest level of destruction I've ever seen," he says. "I remember that I felt like I was entering Mars...there was nothing left."

In Chechnya, Marginedas says he learned that every way of getting to a place where news is happening is valid, and that journalists should have no compunction about violating rules laid down by one government or another. "In war there are no rules," he says. "If you accept the official version, you're going to get nothing."

Russian officers communicate with troops at their field headquarters on the outskirts of the Chechen capital Grozny in advance of a major offensive on the Chechen capital in December 1999. Marginedas covered the second Chechen war after leaving Algeria. (AP Photo)

For Marginedas, there is a euphoria, a "chemical reaction" to covering wars that kept him on the trail of conflict. But as the Chechen war wound down in 2002, Marginedas returned to Barcelona, where El Periódico had made him a special correspondent for war coverage, a job that didn't include a full-time salary and benefits.

Yet as it happened, at that time the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq and Spain was sending troops in support-thus launching Marginedas on a spate of assignments covering conflict in the Middle East.

In Iraq, he managed to get into the country with just the clothes on his back. In Afghanistan, he learned to trust his instincts when entering so-called "no-go zones" for journalists where the Taliban was active. In Lebanon, during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, he and other correspondents were buzzed by an Israeli drone, forcing them to flee on foot while holding a "Press" sign as a visible shield.

Psychological Consequences

His instincts, of course, failed him on that fateful third trip into Syria. But he has other painful memories. In Lebanon, he interviewed a man who had his hand blown off two days before Hezbollah and Israel agreed to a ceasefire.

In Libya, during the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, he met a nine-year-old child in a hospital who had his spine severed by a sniper shot while watching television. As a nurse brought a bone scan, the child, with the only hand he was able to move, desperately tried to grab it to see if he might ever walk again.

"When I got out of the hospital I rang my boss and started to cry, I couldn't help it," he says.

He first showed symptoms of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after covering the Algerian civil war, and had difficulty separating his private life in Spain from the reality of the conflict. The daily problems of his friends and family in Barcelona had come to seem petty.

"One day my mother came to pick me up at the airport when I came back home from Algeria for Christmas," he says. "She started telling me she didn't have enough money to renovate her bathroom. And I started to shout at her. I thought this was an absolutely childish comment. Later...I started crying and said sorry."

After returning from one of his first two trips to Syria, he was so disoriented by the difference between the war and Barcelona's calm streets he couldn't find his way to his best friend's apartment.

There is also the guilt and sorrow from his six months as a captive in Syria. His co-captives Foley, Sotloff, Kassig, Haines, Henning and Russian aid worker Serguéi Gorbunov didn't survive the ordeal of ISIL camptivity, even as Marginedas did.

They "will always remain as an example of people who gave their lives for a job they believed in," Marginedas later said.

Another of his fellow inmates, British journalist, John Cantlie, is still alive after nearly four years in captivity, and has survived by helping ISIL produce English-language propaganda.

During his own time as a captive, Marginedas feared for his life and but says the worst part was not knowing how his capture was affecting his family. "With death you undergo mourning and have certainty," he says. "A kidnapping doesn't allow [the family] to move on."

After his release, Marginedas said the first words out of his mouth to his family were an apology. "I'm sorry, sorry, sorry," he said. "It won't happen again."

Today, Marginedas is El Periódico de Catalunya's correspondent in Moscow. Covering the Russian government is challenging, "like playing a game of chess," he says. But he doesn't face the life-or-death assignment of covering Syria or Libya.

Now 49, he's never married or had children, something he understood he had to give up for the career he wanted to pursue. "When you have to be on standby and possibly be on a plane in two hours to cover a conflict in another part of the world, it's difficult to form a family," he says. "Your decisions are your own. But they also affect people who care about you."

Despite witnessing the horrors of war and captivity, the maimed children and murdered colleagues, the fearful families and the destroyed cities, Marginedas doesn't regret the path he chose. "I've lived the life that I always dreamed of, and if it means I have to leave this world at 50, then it won't be a huge drama. I prefer to live a shorter life and end up being 80 without living the life I wanted," he says. "I'm prepared to die for my job."