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Iraq: Veteran British tour guide trapped in Baghdad hospital following smuggling accusations

Geoff Hann spent his life arranging trips to Iraq, but after suffering a stroke and having members of tour group accused of smuggling, he is stuck in Baghdad
Geoff Hann and Tina Townsend-Greaves planning an excursion at an Iraqi police station (Hinterland Travel)

An intrepid British pensioner who spent 50 years leading heritage tours to potentially dangerous destinations is hospitalised under guard in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, after suffering a stroke and having two tourists in his group accused of stealing antiquities.

The final Mesopotamia trip run by Geoff Hann - famed for leading tours around some of the world's most turbulent hotspots and main author of what has been called the "only dedicated guide" book to Iraq - has ended in misadventure.

The 85-year-old had a stroke before he was due to fly home, and after a month in a Baghdad hospital, he is now forbidden from leaving the country after two tourists in his group were accused of trying to smuggle out stolen Iraqi antiquities.

The successful two-week tour, taking in some of Iraq's most famous sites, ended on 19 March, when the group shared a final dinner at a Baghdad restaurant.

A photo of Geoff Hann in hospital in Baghdad (Tina Townsend-Greaves)
A photo of Geoff Hann in hospital in Baghdad (Tina Townsend-Greaves)

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Spirits ran high as this was to be Hann's last tour, with a new assistant under training to take over tour leadership for his British-based Hinterland Travel company, as old age and failing health had forced him to finally admit retirement was inevitable.

As the tourists headed to the airport to take their respective flights home, Hann's assistant and trainee tour leader found he had suffered a suspected - since confirmed - stroke in the night, which left him partially paralysed and unable to speak. They went to the airport together, but because Hann was travelling alone to the UK, Iraqi airport staff deemed him too unwell to board the flight.

Instead, he was transferred to Baghdad's al-Yarmouk hospital. Within days of hospitalisation, Hann contracted Covid-19, developing a chest infection and blood clots in his lungs. Doctors warned his closest friend Tina Townsend-Greaves that his survival was unlikely and urged close family to journey to Iraq to see Hann.

Despite expectations, Hann pulled through, and once recovered from Covid-19, Townsend-Greaves organised medical evacuation at the cost of £24,700 ($31,00). While the medical team was in Baghdad, with the evacuation just hours away, it was suddenly halted, due to an apparent court order that prevented Hann from leaving the country.

The medical evacuation team departed empty while Townsend-Greaves struggled, from her home in northern England, to find out what had happened.

Tourists accused of smuggling antiquities

It is now understood that two tourists - reportedly one British and one German - were arrested at Baghdad airport after officials spotted some 30 suspected stolen artefacts in their luggage.

With the pair due to imminently stand trial for smuggling antiquities - a serious offence in a country plagued by decades of plundering - the court has forbidden Hann from leaving before being questioned, despite him being unable to speak following the stroke. 

Friends and colleagues said Hann had long been committed to helping preserve Iraq's heritage, both on his tours and in the book, Iraq: the ancient sites and Iraqi Kurdistan, published by Bradt and still one of the only authoritative texts on the country.

The book discusses Iraq's long-standing problem with artefact looting, praising Unesco and Interpol efforts to halt the trade.

A highlighted section entitled, A Warning to All Visitors, states: "The outrage at the looting in Iraq, principally that of the National Museum, has resulted in the tightening and strict implementation of rules regarding the selling, purchasing and possessing of antiquities in Iraq. This has led to the strict supervision of visitors at ancient sites such as Uruk, which are strewn with pottery shards. Any (foreign) person seen to be picking up such artefacts is in danger of being arrested."

'He was so frail when he went on this trip'

- Tina Townsend-Greaves, friend

Townsend-Greaves told MEE that Hann repeatedly impressed this upon visitors during his trips.

"Geoff was always so careful about this on his tours, warning visitors not to pick anything up and monitoring them at sites," she said.

"But he was so frail when he went on this trip. His walking had deteriorated and he could only shuffle along with a walking stick, so at the sites, he stayed close to the minibus, letting his new assistant do the guiding."

Outlining the sort of items available for tourist purchases at local bazaars, the guidebook warns: "Antiques cannot be bought and under no circumstances should you try to smuggle antiquities out of Iraq."

If allegations that the two imprisoned suspects did attempt to smuggle antiquities out of the country are confirmed, it appears they ignored his warnings, both to Hann's detriment as well as their own.

An article published by Iranian state media on 3 April made extraordinary claims that Hann was the head of an international antiquities-smuggling network, working under the auspices of a tourism company.

Making no reference to Hann's ill-health, the article claimed five British nationals were arrested, three of whom were released and two detained. Among the tourists on this trip, it is understood only one was a British national.

The article showed photos of some of the "looted antiquities" in question, which comprised several pottery fragments which would have no value on any antiquities market, international or otherwise. 

"Geoff loves and respects Iraq and its history and culture and would never do anything to compromise or hurt this, or encourage anyone else to," Townsend-Greaves said. "His whole life has been dedicated to highlighting and preserving Iraqi heritage, not destroying it."

Far from being a successful international criminal, according to Townsend-Greaves, Hann lives off his pension - supplemented by leading several annual trips which apparently turn little profit - in rented accommodation and has few possessions of value.

Deteriorating health

Although Hann survived the stroke, Covid-19 and associated complications, his health remains precarious. Even before the trip, he had health problems, including a heart condition and high blood pressure, and had scheduled the final Iraq tour to finish in adequate time for planned surgery in the UK.

As Hann is unable to speak, it is not yet clear whether his mental faculties have also been impaired by the stroke. He has received few visits in hospital and Townsend-Greaves and his two daughters have been unable to speak to him for a month.

"I just want him back here. There is no reason to keep him in Iraq as he can't add anything to their investigation. I just want them to let him come home before he dies," Townsend-Greaves told MEE. "He should be here. His family want him here and his health is very fragile. We want the Iraqis to release him so he can spend his final days at home."

'Geoff is a great guy, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, a bit of a devil, great fun to be with'

- Karen Dabrowska, author

Hann's hospital room is under 24-hour guard, and visits - apart from those from British embassy staff and senior Iraqi officials - are prohibited.

Townsend-Greaves said she appreciated British embassy support with paperwork and preparations for the failed evacuation, as well as ongoing efforts to secure medical documents to overturn the court order.

However, she admitted British official support had been limited, with ten days having passed since the last hospital visit by embassy staff, saying she had very little communication with the British Foreign Office (FCDO) about Hann's case.

Late last week, Hann was reportedly lying under a blanket entirely unclothed in his hospital bed, leaving his family seriously concerned about the level of health care he is receiving, as well as his general well-being.

On 19 April, Townsend-Greaves received a call from Hann's doctor in Baghdad, saying his condition had further deteriorated. He had stopped eating, had renewed chest problems and needed to be given oxygen.

In response to an enquiry, an FCDO spokesperson told MEE they were "providing consular support to a British national in Iraq and are in contact with the local authorities".

Tragic demise for a 'friend of Iraq'

Although Hann was well-travelled, Iraq was the country that really captured his heart, according to Townsend-Greaves, who said this prompted him to continue leading tours over a four-decade period, despite whatever turmoil the country was enduring.

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"Geoff is a great guy, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, a bit of a devil, great fun to be with," said writer and journalist Karen Dabrowska, who co-authored three Bradt travel guides to Iraq with him.

"He took his job very seriously, preparing detailed notes on the sites for those on his tours and doing lots of research before each trip. He has been taking people to Iraq since before the Iran-Iraq War and kept going back despite the bureaucratic hoops he had to jump through. I hope and pray that those in Iraq - a country he loved - who can make it possible for him to be brought back to the UK, rise to the occasion and do so."

Hann had friends across Iraq, and "Mr Geoff" is a byword among Iraq's historic site custodians. However, few are aware of his current plight. 

With the money for the failed medical evacuation wasted, Townsend-Greaves launched a GoFundMe appeal to raise money for another evacuation, as soon as Hann is permitted to leave. The page has raised over £10,000 ($13,000) but is still some £15,000 ($19,500) short of its target.

"He has been blown up by the Taliban, shot at by the Syrians and was caught up in the Iranian Revolution. But he always brought everyone home safely," reads her introduction on the fundraising page. "We need to bring him home safely. A great explorer, a great traveller and a great man deserves to end his journey at home."

Following Hann's turn for the worse in hospital, Townsend-Greaves fears that time may be running out for Geoff to make that final journey home.

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