As a 10-year-old, U student spent days as Iraqi hostage

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

Penny Nabokov’s British Airways flight was scheduled for a one-hour refueling layover at Kuwait International Airport on Aug. 2, 1990. Unfortunately for Nabokov, it was the same day the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait to start the first gulf war.

Nabokov, 10 years old, and the other passengers waited for takeoff. But she could see smoke and fire and bombs exploding all around her.

“The (Iraqi) army didn’t want people taking off,” she said. “They eliminated the runway.”

The Iraqis eventually took Nabokov and the other passengers as hostages. Nabokov’s ordeal lasted 10 days.

Now, 13 years later, Nabokov, an international business major at the Carlson School of Management, said her experience does not create any sense of connection with the new conflict in Iraq.

“It was scary, but I don’t think about it unless someone asks me,” Nabokov said, adding that she does not feel any shared identity with the recent U.S. prisoners of war.

“I was just in the middle of something,” Nabokov said. “It is not part of my life.”

After her plane had been grounded, Nabokov said, passengers and crew members from other commercial planes were taken to nearby Kuwaiti hotels. After a few days, Iraqi soldiers came for them. Nabokov said the troops treated her well, but she said others were not so fortunate.

“Some (flight attendants) of mine were raped or threatened with rape by the soldiers,” she said. “They got the harsh end of it.”

Nabokov and the others were then taken by bus to Basra, in southern Iraq. Less than a day later, they were put onto a train bound for Baghdad.

Nabokov said she does not remember being scared throughout her time as a hostage, even though she was traveling alone to India for school. She credits the adults who served as surrogate parents, playing cards with her in the hotel and giving her little jobs to keep her busy.

“I was well-taken care of and protected,” Nabokov said. “Even as their lives were threatened, I was still made a priority.”

Nabokov was then placed in the care of U.S. embassy officials who were leaving Iraq. As they headed toward Amman, Jordan, Iraqi border patrols would not let Nabokov pass through. Her name was not among the list of embassy officials cleared to leave the country by the Iraqi government.

“We were stopped, and the officials had to bribe the guards to let me through,” she said.

Nabokov flew from Amman to Paris, where she was reunited with her parents on Aug. 12.

Faded memories

Nabokov said she has no memory of being a hostage. She can only recall the events because her father recorded her depiction of the experience a few days after her release.

Blocking memories is a common response to the trauma of war, said Abi Gewirtz, a University research associate at the Institute of Child Development.

“It’s very common,” she said. “The body and mind naturally want to suppress what happened. They just shut it off.”

Nabokov said the experience has shaped her worldview.

“For me, it wasn’t ‘those Iraqis are bad people,’ ” she said. “If anything, it was a positive experience because I made it out alive.”

Gewirtz said Nabokov’s positive perspective could be based on the fact that the adult hostages made her feel more secure.

“Children are remarkably resilient,” Gewirtz said. “I’m sure she understood a lot of what she saw, but it was mediated by the caregivers around her.”

Last week, Nabokov and 179 other hostages won a lawsuit against Saddam Hussein for damages incurred while they were hostages. However, the United States has frozen Iraqi assets that the awards would be paid from, and the present conflict makes it unclear when, if ever, the plaintiffs will receive any of the settlement money.

Nabokov said her award will be at least one hundred thousand dollars. Unlike some of her fellow recipients, she is not willing to sell herself or her story, she said. She has rebuffed requests from media outlets that have resurfaced in the face of the U.S.-led Iraqi invasion.

When she was reunited with her parents 13 years ago, she was inundated by a curious media. She said she does not want a repeat of such incidences just because there is renewed conflict with her former captors.

“I’ve made it clear that I don’t want to help make things worse right now,” she said. “I don’t harbor a grudge, and I don’t think Iraqis should die because I was inconvenienced for 10 days.”

However, Nabokov is looking forward to spending her financial settlement on graduate school, to travel and to buy a new couch. She viewed the settlement money as a twisted perk.

“If it’s going to pay for grad school, I’m not going to say no,” she said. She feels more fortunate than hostages who didn’t get to leave or whose time in Iraq was longer and probably grimmer.

“What happened to me was a fluke,” she added. “But it did, and I’m fine. There are a lot of people who aren’t fine because of their experience. I am not one of them.”

Geoff Ziezulewicz welcomes comments at [email protected]