It was a nightmare scenario that an Australian journalist had virtually no chance of surviving.
Snatched from a car and taken hostage by ruthless terrorists while covering the war in Iraq, Michael Ware knew death was imminent.
Taken to the back of an apartment block, his blood ran cold as he saw a hastily-erected banner like those you see in execution videos. A large knife was brought out by one of his captors.
“When I had been dragged from that car and they were getting ready to cut my head off,” Michael, a Brisbane native who had been working for Time magazine, tells The Weekly Online, “I knew there was no way out. There was nothing they wanted that could save my life so for me, it was the end. Yet I was oddly calm and I was waiting.”
The terrorists – who were under the command of the notoriously murderous jihadi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of the group now known as ISIS - seized his hand-held camera so they could film his beheading.
“On the frontline in conflict when all that metal is in the air, you really find out who you are,” Michael ruminates. “In the midst of all that, there’s no hiding from yourself. But most importantly you find out what’s really important in life.”
So what was going through his mind, as his kidnappers pushed him to his knees and tried to figure out how to work his video camera?
“Love,” he answers unhesitatingly. “You are thinking about love and the people that matter to you. I can tell you now with luminescent clarity, all I was thinking about was my family.”
The terrifying encounter is included in Michael’s new award-winning documentary, Only The Dead, which is being released on demand at cinemas nationally from next month.
Against all odds, however, Michael was given a last minute reprieve from his near beheading.
The guides with whom he’d been travelling in the car warned the terrorists that killing Michael would spark a turf war with their rival insurgent group.
Given Zarkawi’s group had just seized and staked control over an important stretch of central Baghdad, they decided not to risk it and released Michael.
Demonstrating just how unlikely that is, even 11 years on, Michael remains the only journalist to ever survive such a kidnapping by the group.
As a war correspondent for Time and CNN, Michael survived numerous deadly situations. He admits he probably shouldn’t be here today.
Love wasn’t always at the centre of his mind during these times. When he first became fascinated with finding out more about insurgents in Iraq, he accepted an offer to meet with a group. He was blindfolded, bundled into the boot of a car and driven to a remote and undisclosed location.
“That was really [a case of me thinking], ‘Am I going to die? Am I going to die? Am I going to die’,” he recalls of this encounter. “I didn’t really know these people - sometimes they were perfect strangers – and I was surrendering myself to them.”
Zarqawi died aged 39 in 2006 but left a toxic legacy of suicide bombing and extreme acts of violence that weren’t previously seen in Iraq but are now part of an insidious contagion that continues to plague the region.
Michael returned home to Australia, where he now runs an independent documentary film company with his partner Justine Rosenthal, a former Newsweek deputy editor whom he says “brought me home” from the darkness and despair of post-traumatic stress disorder.
From no longer wanting to live at his lowest points to finding joy in the seemingly mundane today, Michael says his experienced have shaped his outlook on life.
“A lot of things don’t bother me back home,” he says. “And the little things can give you the most surprising amounts of pleasure: the way the light hits the wall, the sound of your kid laughing, or a good cup of coffee. There’s an added richness.. it really brings your life into razor sharp focus.”
Today Michael is settled into domestic life with Justine, their baby daughter and a high school-aged son by a previous relationship.
He no longer feels the pull to work in warzones.
To see a preview of Michael’s powerful documentary Only The Dead, based on his own video footage from his time as a war correspondent, click here.
Only The Dead is being screened nationally from next month – for details on how to secure a screening at your local cinema, go to fan-force.com/films/onlythedead/.