As Jon Godsall stepped off his flight and walked through the terminal at Heathrow Airport on a cold December morning in 1990, he was met by a minibus full of his family who couldn’t wait to see him.
But the 23-year-old man who stood before them wasn’t quite the same as the person they had last seen six months earlier. He was over three stone lighter and subdued in his character.
That’s because Jon hadn’t arrived home from a luxury holiday abroad. Rather, he had just been released by Iraqi forces who had invaded Kuwait and kept him captive for the last four-and-a-half months. He had been a hostage of Saddam Hussein and his family had wondered if they would ever see him again.
“I don’t think family knew I was coming home until that very morning,” said Jon. “They were phoned in the morning and they got a mini bus to meet me at the airport and it was one of those experiences that doesn’t feel real life. I felt like a rabbit in the headlights going back home because I had gotten really good at switching myself off from what was really happening. I just shut myself down for those first few days and weeks.”
Now aged 53, Jon grew up as one of 11 siblings at his family home in Mount Pleasant, Swansea. He left school and then followed in the footsteps of his father and older brothers by starting an apprenticeship installing air conditioning and refrigeration with Pontardawe business, Kenyon. He had never joined the military and at that point, he never knew he would end up abroad.
“After plans for me to move to north Wales fell through, I got another job at another company in Neath. While I was working there, an old contact of mine got in touch saying he had the opportunity to work abroad in Romania and he couldn’t, so asked if I wanted to instead, and off I went. It was in 1988 when I left to go to Romania and I worked overseas then until I came back from Kuwait.”
Before the fateful day that would change Jon’s life forever, he had taken his Swansea trade across the world, installing air conditioning in various British embassies and picking up electrical work along the way. He had worked at the embassy in Kuwait for around six weeks and felt in complete safety. He had no inkling that there would soon be an invasion.
He said: “I felt safe in the knowledge that if anything was about to happen surely somebody in the embassy would know. It was to the point where I was due to fly home two days before they invaded on, July 31, but because I considered it so safe, I cancelled my flight because I wanted to make sure everything was finished on the job.”
On August 2, 1990, Jon set off in his car for work as though it was any other normal day. He realised something was wrong when he was stopped by several police officers as he neared the embassy. The next thing he knew, he was on the floor with a gun pointing towards him.
“I got up at 4am to start as we usually would, at about 5am. As I’m heading off to work on a beautiful morning, I got stopped by some police who had started waving their guns about. In the first five minutes, I thought the local police were stopping people because there was some dignitary passing – which they sometimes did.
“But the third time I was stopped, it wasn’t by police, it was Iraqi soldiers. I had literally driven into the invading forces that were taking Kuwait city on my way to work. They took me out of my car and things started getting heated and violent. I was on the floor with a boot in the back of my head, guns at my head and rifles in my ribs.”
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The soldiers took Jon right into the city, where they held him at the forecourt of the parliament building as they tried to occupy it and the Kuwaitis tried to defend it. He was there the whole day frightened and confused by the violence he saw before him.
For the next four-and-a-half months, Jon was moved around by soldiers to various military and civil installations – mainly in the south of the country. The first two weeks were relatively comfortable as he and other western captives spent time at Baghdad’s The Mansour Melia Hotel, but for Jon, his treatment went downhill rapidly from there.
He said: “In the initial weeks, I really don’t think they knew what to do with us. We were at the hotel, where they gathered everyone together including all the women and children. For those two weeks, even though it was uncertain, it was comfortable. There was a lot of confusion and eventually after a couple of weeks the women and children and the elderly started going home. Within three weeks it had become abundantly clear that the likes of myself, who was a single man working in Kuwait with no family out there, were going to be left to use as what they called human shields (essentially, being held captive).
“So, we were split up into different groups of people of my sort of stature and shipped off. As time went on, there was no contact with home and conditions and treatment got worse. There would be times when there was no food and it would get very heated as we were a group of seven to nine men with nothing on our minds other than our families back home. And when tempers flared, they’d come up with some sort of treatment to subdue us.
“Thinking of a word to describe it, surreal almost isn’t strong enough. It was almost like being in a hologram for the whole period whereby everything around you is just not real life, because it’s not supposed to be real life.”
While the captives stayed at these various locations, Jon said they were guarded by anti-western soldiers who took great pleasure in tormenting them through any means they could. Some of the men Jon met completely withdrew, while others would react against the guards violently “and then they’d be taken away and never seen again”.
“Generally there would be three or four plain clothes security guards with weapons who would be in the room with us,” said Jon. “How we were treated depended pretty much on what those guards were like. Sometimes no food would turn up, and when I talk about food I’m talking about some stale bread and maybe some boiled eggs. They would say we could call our family tonight and then when the night would come, they would just walk out laughing. Those are the occasions which would happen day after day and would cause us to lose our temper.
“Conditions also got worse. The last place I stayed at was covered in human faeces when I walked in. I ended up in hospital with dysentery.”
Jon said that although the whole experience was degrading, one incident really stuck out in his memory as being the absolute worst.
He said: “They loaded us onto a coach going slowly through a protesting crowd. People were there with their placards and their news cameras and they were banging and spitting on the coaches. Then they took us off the coaches and marched us through the streets. Crowds were gathering and throwing food and spitting, we were walked through the streets.
“Supposedly we had a line of soldiers protecting us, but of course they were allowing the punches to come in from the crowds. We were just there to allow them to vent their anger on us until we were eventually put back on the coach, bruised and covered in food and spit.”
For Jon, the cruel mixture of his poor treatment and inhumane living conditions led him into a dark mindset. He didn’t care what happened to him as the months went on and fell into a state of resignation, where he believed he would probably die during captivity in one way or another.
“I just didn’t care what happened to me, all I was concerned about was my family back home who didn’t know if I was dead or alive,” he said. “I actually felt like the lucky one in the situation because at least I knew what was happening.”
Jon said he had been writing home to his family to reassure them that he was alive, but his letters would arrive home six weeks later. It meant the family only knew for sure that he had been alive six weeks earlier and not knowing if something had happened to him in the meantime.
Around three months into his captivity, Jon said Saddam started making humanitarian gestures and began inviting the families of captives to come over and see their relative to show they were okay.
He said: “That scared me no end that my family would take up that offer because I knew what it was really like – I was afraid of the treatment they might be met with. However, my family were determined and they made the move for my eldest brother who was 40 to come up. He flew up to Jordan trying to get a flight into Baghdad.”
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One night Jon was told to pack his few belongings in a plastic bag because he was leaving. However, instead of being overjoyed, Jon simply didn’t believe it.
“They put me in a car and we drove from Nasiriyah. We drove for a few hours through the night up to Baghdad and we stopped back at the hotel from where it had all started. They took me in there, they told me to sit down in the foyer and next thing I know, my brother walked in.
“There was that initial shock and then we sat down and he gave me letters from my family. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, but my brother took that away by making me laugh – he managed to get us a beer and we sat back in the hotel and he said ‘what’s all the fuss about? because it’s not too bad here actually’.”
Jon said this was exactly what Saddam wanted outsiders to believe about the treatment of the captives, but, of course, it couldn’t have been further from the true reality of what many endured.
“After a few days, my brother quickly caught light of the situation. He wasn’t allowed to leave the grounds of the hotel, which he didn’t expect, he became ill with the food, and became quite low and, of course, I was of a very different mind frame,” said Jon.
“After about six days of him being there, it was announced that we could go home. And just like that, they put us onto coaches and took us to the airport onto a British Airways flight. There were a lot of people celebrating but I just sat there very subdued still not believing a word of it.”
When he finally saw his family, every one of them was overcome with a sense of relief and disbelief. They had been campaigning to get him home from the first day he was taken and now everything they had so desperately hoped for had finally come true. However, Jon never felt like quite the same person again.
For the first six months of Jon being home in Mount Pleasant, he has very little recollection of what happened or how he felt as he turned to alcohol to try and numb his memories of his time in Iraq. But he said something suddenly changed in him and all he wanted was to get back to Kenyons, the humble job he left behind and to settle down with children – and that is exactly what he did.
“I got my life back on track,” said John. “But that hologram feeling, where everything just seems to happen in front of my eyes, has always stayed with me.”
Jon said that until now, he had completely buried the details of what really happened to him – not even to his own family, who he wanted to protect. However, a sequence of events in lockdown has led to him opening up for the first time in 30 years. He is currently working with Swansea-based author John Morris to tell his life story. He said the process was finally helping him to come to terms with his ordeal and that he felt very positive for the future.