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Kidnapped BYU grad home safe from Iraq

Captors held the peace worker for more than week

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William Clifton Van Wagenen was kidnapped while working for the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

William Clifton Van Wagenen was kidnapped while working for the Christian Peacemaker Teams.


PROVO — The son of a co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival is home safe after being kidnapped in Iraq and held for more than a week, according to sources close to the family.

Kidnappers grabbed 29-year-old Brigham Young University and Harvard Divinity School graduate William Clifton Van Wagenen on Jan. 27 and released him Feb. 4, said Neena Andersen, a friend of the family.

"He's home and he's OK," Andersen said.

Van Wagenen is from Holladay and is the son of Sterling Van Wagenen, director of the second and third movies in the "Work and the Glory" series.

Sterling Van Wagenen co-founded the Sundance Film Festival in 1978, and his cousin Lola was married to Robert Redford from 1958-85.

The kidnappers abducted Will Van Wagenen and three others. Van Wagenen was working for a group called the Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization of the Brethren, Quaker and Mennonite churches.

The CPT places "trained peace workers in explosive situations for sustained periods of time to do 'third-party nonviolent intervention,"' according to its Web site. CPT has had peace workers in Iraq since October 2002.

Andersen said Van Wagenen was working 100 miles north of Baghdad gathering information on prison issues.

The kidnappers released a man and a woman immediately but held Van Wagenen and another man for eight days, said Nathan Lowe, a Van Wagenen family friend. No details about the release were available.

The same week Van Wagenen was kidnapped, gunmen abducted four U.S. soldiers in Karbala and then shot them to death in a neighboring province.

One soldier's wife learned of her husband's death while she was attending last month's Sundance Film Festival.

News outlets have reported numerous abductions by kidnap gangs that mostly target Iraqis. At least one newspaper has said there is an "Iraq kidnap epidemic."

The Van Wagenen kidnapping was a renewed nightmare for the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Four CPT workers were abducted in Iraq on Nov. 26, 2005, by a group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade.

One peace worker, 54-year-old Tom Fox, was shot and killed and found dead on March 10.

After a 118-day ordeal, the other three — two Canadians and a 74-year-old retired British professor — were freed on March 23.

The Associated Press reported that weeks of planning had gone into rescuing the three from a kidnapping cell in a western Baghdad house.

A year earlier, Fox had written a blog entry about the possibility of being kidnapped:

"But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am asked to risk my life and if I lose it to be as forgiving as they were when murdered by the forces of Satan."

Van Wagenen was Fox's roommate in Iraq earlier in 2005. He left Iraq six weeks before Fox and the others were kidnapped to return to Utah, where he managed a clothing store in the Provo Towne Centre.

"It's a danger we all thought about even before we went," Van Wagenen told the Deseret Morning News the day the other members of Fox's team were released.

Van Wagenen said Wednesday night that he wasn't ready to talk to the media.

"I saw him on Sunday and he looked good, but he was very quiet and soft-spoken," Andersen said.

Van Wagenen graduated from BYU in August 2003 with a degree in German. He also speaks Arabic. He completed a master's degree in theology at Harvard Divinity School in March.

He began working with CPT after he got to Harvard and spent three months in Colombia in the spring of 2004. He's also worked with CPT in Palestine.

He went to Iraq in May 2005.

The following month, another CPT member wrote in an online journal that Van Wagenen gave chocolate to a 10-year-old boy who, according to his mother, had been shot by U.S. soldiers. The bullet had lodged behind the boy's eye and damaged his sight.

The writer, Greg Rollins, said that after Van Wagenen gave him the candy, "Nothing else in the world existed for (the boy) until the chocolate was gone."

About the same time, an Iraqi man approached Van Wagenen at a gym and said, "I just have one question: Why do you risk it? This is not a green area, this is a red area. You are not safe here."

Van Wagenen left Iraq in September or October 2005. He returned to Iraq in early November 2006.

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com