Italian hostage: Nicola said, 'You are free. Come with me.' Then they shot him

Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist held hostage in Iraq for a month, lies today in Rome's Celio military hospital recovering from the wounds she received when US troops fired into the car carrying her and her secret service liberator, Nicola Calipari, to Baghdad airport. In that short drive, Calipari died as he flung himself across her, saving her life for the second time that day. Here, for the first time in a British newspaper, she tells her full story in her own words

13 March 2005

I was lying on the bed as usual, and I noticed my two guards were not wearing their usual long shirts. They were looking almost elegant in tailored shirts and trousers. I said to them jokingly, "What's up, are you going to a wedding?" They replied, "Congratulations, you are going to Rome. Where are your things?" They were in a great hurry. They kept asking me: "Are you ready? Are you sure?" They wanted to alert me, they told me. "Look, it's going to be complicated. If something goes wrong, they will kill us all. If we are stopped by either the Americans or Iraqi police, don't make any gesture; don't tell them that you are a Westerner."

I put on the black tracksuit top with the zip, black jeans and on top my very anonymous hooded jacket, which is just what you want in an Arab country. They gave me back my stuff, but not everything. They gave me back my press accreditation, my documents, nearly all the money. I had $1,000 and they gave me back $800, a significant gesture. They did not return my notebooks, the mobile phones, the digital camera. Before leaving the house the made me put padding under my sun glasses; for all I knew it could have been broad daylight or night time.

They made me get in the car, and they got in too. Although I could hardly see I realised there was a third man driving. They spoke on their mobiles; maybe there were others in front of us and behind us. I can't be sure. We drove for about 20 minutes. At last we stopped - I've no idea where, as I was blindfolded. They told me to wait. I stayed where I was, I was terribly scared. I didn't move from the car. I was there on my own, in terror. I understood that this was a moment of passage; I was going to be handed over. There were cars stopping. I asked myself, "Is this the one?" At a certain point excited voices were coming from outside. All of this lasted no longer than half an hour. I felt agitated but it was no longer than half an hour.

I could hear police sirens and an American helicopter flying above me. When one of my guards came back, he told me, "Ten minutes." I started counting. I told myself when I count up to 60 it will be a minute. I counted up to 600 which surely took less than 10 minutes. In the meantime I knew I could have ended up in the hands of another [terrorist] group.

Then Nicola Calipari arrived. He opened the door on the right - I was seated on the opposite side. He said, "I am a friend of Pier's and Gabriele's [Pier Scolari, her partner, and Gabriele Polo, editor of Il Manifesto]. You are safe. You are free. Come with me." I didn't take my sunglasses off. I didn't even think about it. "Don't worry, come with me," Nicola told me.

Their own car must have been right there; we reached it in no time. "I'll sit next to you," Nicola said. A colleague of his was driving, the seat next to him was empty. I was still blindfolded; after a few seconds Nicola told me, "You can take your blindfold off." The first thing I saw was a street on Baghdad's outskirts but I didn't pay much attention in that moment of joy. It was not like when I was kidnapped when I would stare at things trying to retain every detail. Then Nicola said, "They told me not to come back without Giuliana." At that point I understood I was free. I felt as if I'd been reborn.

When I took the bandage off, the driver made a phone call, I guess to somewhere in Baghdad. "There are three of us. We are arriving," he said. I guessed that someone was waiting for us at the airport, maybe a colleague of theirs. In the meantime Nicola told me, "Now we'll call Rome." But he couldn't make the call because he couldn't find his glasses. He tossed one of the mobile phones on the front seat as it was not working. With the other phone he was able to call the chief of SISMI [Servizio per l'Informazione e la Sicurezza Militare, Italy's military security service] in Rome. He put me on to him, I can remember I told him "Thank you". Then Nicola told him: "I will call you back." I know it did not feel like an emergency situation. The same thing goes for when the driver said: "From here it is 700 metres to the airport." He said it in a normal tone of voice.

I did not see any check points. I was looking at Nicola. I was euphoric. He and his colleague turned on the light in the car, maybe to make the phone calls, maybe for security reasons, because the first rule is show your face. The journey lasted for 20 minutes, half an hour, no longer. I remember an underpass, but I didn't pay attention to the road. After that another 700 metres, and then the shots.

The gunfire came from the right-hand side, the side where Nicola was sitting. I did not see any beam of light. I only heard the burst of gunfire. The major who was driving saw it, but the shots arrived at the same time as the light, against all the rules. It was fired on the car and not at the engine. I know that the shots reached the car immediately; no one shot in the air.

The officer who was driving got out of the car shouting: "We are Italians!" But Nicola did not say another word. He had thrown himself on me while I was trying to slide down between the two seats, as far as I could go. He saved my life.

The driver had got out of the car. I couldn't believe the Americans were attacking us. I stayed in the car. The Americans illuminated the area with their headlights and I saw a tank about 10 metres from the road, on the right-hand side. How the thing happened made one think it was an ambush - what else could one think? The officer had stepped out of the car, and made a phone call, I think, to Rome: "Nicola is dead. She is out of it but her eyes are open ..."

I could feel Nicola on top of me. I tried to move him but I couldn't manage it. In that moment the soldiers approached, seven or eight of them. They opened the car door on the right-hand side; they understood that Nicola was dead and they picked him up. They looked dumbfounded. I think one of them said, "Oh shit," then he called out: "One of them is dead." Then they came round my side, on the left. They opened the door. But I was blocked in. On the seat I could feel a mountain of bullets, and what I had in my shoulder was more than just glass splinters.

I am still alive, I thought. I could feel the wound in my shoulder. The soldiers managed to get me out, I remained lying on the ground while one of them cut through my clothes. Another one tried to put me on a drip. I don't know what happened to the driver, I stayed with the soldiers, they took me to the hospital in the tank. They were all young Americans. I couldn't breathe, my lungs were tightening up, I was constantly asking for water. Only then did they ask my name and nationality. Then whispering in my ear, one of them asked me: "Are you the journalist that was kidnapped?"

Translation by Alessandra Maggiorani and Peter Popham