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Saturday 21 December 2019


Hostage club

A few weeks ago, a remarkable group of people came together – united by their shared experience of captivity

By Colin Freeman

Recently I attended a rare gathering of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. Membership bestows a certain unique social cache that Soho House or the Groucho can never manage, but take it from me, it is not a club you want to join.

Why? Well, check out some of the more senior names on the membership list. Among them are Terry Waite, the former envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the journalist John McCarthy, both of whom spent five years kidnapped during the Lebanese civil war. Then, at the lesser end, there’s myself, kidnapped by Somali pirates while reporting for The Telegraph in 2008. Plus countless others who have languished at the pleasure of gunmen round the world, be it Colombian guerrillas, Nigerian bandits, or Taliban militiamen. Yes, it’s the ex-hostages’ club.

True, we don’t exist in any formal sense, with tie pins or a cosy members’ bar where we sit swapping stories. Most of us have never even met. Which made the recent get-together, in a small function room near St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London, all the more unusual.

Guest of honour was Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician and humanitarian held by FARC guerrillas in the Colombian jungle. The event was co-hosted by the St Martin’s charity, which was giving her a lifetime achievement award, and Hostage International, a British charity that helps kidnap victims and their families. A few other ex-hostages had been invited along, including Waite, McCarthy, myself, and Judith Tebbutt, who, like me, spent time as a hostage in Somalia.

As we were lined up for a group photo, I had the sensation of feeling like a bit of a lightweight. Betancourt endured six-and-a-half years in Colombia, during which she was beaten, half-starved and chained to a tree. Waite and McCarthy both spent five years each in secret basement cells in southern Beirut where they were also tortured. Tebbutt, who was held for six months, lost her husband to a kidnapper’s bullet during the initial abduction, leaving her to face captivity and bereavement at the same time.

Colombian former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (L) hugs her mother Yolanda Pulecio after being freed in July 2008

By comparison, I spent just 40 days as a hostage in Somalia, held in a mountain cave with a Telegraph photographer, Jose Cendon and living off a pirate-plan diet of goat meat, rice and Rothmans cigarettes. It was frightening, but apart from a few nasty moments when our captors threatened to kill me, and a brief gunfight one afternoon with a rival clan, it probably counted as kidnap-lite.

I’m not humble-bragging. A few years later, I interviewed Peter Moore, a British IT lecturer who spent two-and-a-half years as a hostage in Iraq, during which time the four bodyguards abducted along with him were killed. When I told him of my own ordeal, he laughed. “Six weeks? Is that all?”

He later mentioned that when he’d got back to the UK, he’d gone for a dental check-up only to find his dental records missing from the surgery. The police, it turned out, had removed them, in the expectation that they’d be needed one day to identify his body.

So when I chatted to my fellow captives afterwards, I felt slightly wary of drawing any comparisons between our experiences. I needn’t have worried. As Waite pointed out, the defining aspect of the hostage condition isn’t how long you’re banged up for, but that you don’t know when it’s going to end. Normal prisoners can chalk the days off their sentence. Hostages can’t.

“Whether its five years or five weeks, being hostage is always a trying experience,” he says. “Because you don’t know if your captors are going to suddenly despatch you, or whether you’ll be released the next day.”

We all also know that being a hostage isn’t just a personal experience. For the real target of a kidnapping isn’t you, but your loved ones. Take my other half, for example, who kept a diary during my time in captivity. When I read it later, it became clear that the psychological toll – panic attacks, sleepless nights – had been far greater for her than for me.

For a start, like most hostages’ next of kin, she was kept largely in the dark about what was going on. My newspaper hired professional hostage negotiators who did a superb job, but one thing neither they nor the Foreign Office would do was give her a running commentary on the case. This is standard practice – partly because they like to keep their tactics secret, and partly to stop families going mad with stress (they didn’t tell her about the gunfight, for example).

The downside, though, is that it allows the imagination to run riot. While I was sitting in the cave, quietly smoking a Rothmans and thinking that things could be worse, she was wondering if I was being tortured, or maybe even dead already.

Worse still, as my case was being kept out of the media – publicity usually complicates negotiations – my partner and family were asked to keep quiet. Which meant trying to go about their daily lives as if nothing had happened. In that sense, the whole thing was almost as isolating for them as it was for me.

British Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy Terry Waite on the Beirut seafront surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards

Terry Waite set up the charity Hostage International after hostages’ families had often come to him in despair. He realised they needed a source of advice that wasn’t the Foreign Office, the police or someone’s employer. The charity doesn’t get directly involved in hostage cases, but does have experts who can act as an independent sounding board, allowing families to reassure themselves that all the right steps are being taken. The charity also puts them in touch with others who’ve been through the same thing – people who can really understand what it’s like.

“The FCO have improved a lot in dealing with hostages – initially they were pretty difficult,” says Waite. “But we do come across families where a kidnapped husband has worked for a firm that has then gone bust, and they are left in a parlous state with no income.”

McCarthy, for example, has talked to relatives of people held by jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, which captured more than 20 Westerners in Syria, and murdered at least six, including the American journalist James Foley and the British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines. It was the gravest hostage crisis involving Westerners since that in Lebanon in the 1980s, when Waite and McCarthy were among more than 100 people kidnapped by Shia militant groups.

John McCarthy, 34, waves as he steps from a Royal Air Force VC 10 transport plane, August 1991

McCarthy points out though, that there is a limit to the parallels of his experience. Unlike Isis, the Shia militants did not routinely kill their captives for propaganda purposes.

“I tell people that the human drive for survival is so strong that you keep going no matter what,” McCarthy says. But he adds: “The huge difference was that we were held by people who saw a value in keeping us alive. Looking back, that now feels like a very different era.”

It was a sense that hostage-takers could be rational, biddable people that drew Waite into their world in the first place. Prior to visiting Lebanon, he had successfully negotiated the release of hostages from Khomeini’s Iran and Gadhafi’s Libya. Then, in early 1987, he went to Beirut, hoping to do the same for McCarthy and other Western prisoners, only to be taken by Islamic Jihad, the militia group whose trust he was working to gain. So began 1,763 days in captivity, which, to this day, still makes him probably the most famous ex-hostage in the world.


When I was in captivity myself, I’d sometimes try to make the hours pass with a mind game called Hostage Top Trumps, when I’d compare my own ordeal with that of others in terms of hardships. The Beirut hostages were top cards in several categories, in particular Waite. While I had a fellow hostage to talk to and share my fears with, he endured all but a few months of his five years alone. Much of it was spent in tiny, tomb-like windowless cells, where he couldn’t tell if it was day or night, and where he became almost a living corpse. His teeth ached, his muscles wasted. He suffered eye and lung infections that left him barely able to see or breathe. Once, his kidnappers put cushions over his face and lashed his bare feet with cables. Given that I could barely cope after just a few weeks, I can’t imagine how he survived. These days, neither can he.

“Sometimes I think: ‘how did I manage being chained to the wall in a dark room on my own for almost five years?’,” he says. “Looking back, I am really not sure.”

Yet there are aspects of his incarceration I can identify with. The guilt at putting your loved ones through hell, having knowingly strayed into harm’s way (Waite, like me, admits that there was a certain “adrenaline rush” to his job). The fear that when you get back, you’ll find one of them has suffered a heart attack from the stress. The decision, not long into captivity, to think less about those loved ones, because it hurts too much and you have to look after yourself.

And, sometimes, the laughs.

Laughs? Yes. Humour and camaraderie can be a useful survival tool, not just in chasing darker thoughts away, but it making you feel that you’re rising above your circumstances.

John Mccarthy, Terry Waite and Brian Keenan, CBE former hostages in Beirut, outside Buckingham Palace after each being invested with the CBE

At the start of my own kidnapping, as we began a two-day trek through the mountains, a pirate handed everyone a Mars Bar for sustenance. “A Mars a Day helps a Kidnapper work, rest and play,” I cackled manically, to my baffled photographer, who being Spanish, was unfamiliar with outdated Mars advertising jingles. Sure, it wasn’t that funny anyway, but it certainly helped me at the time.

At our gathering, Betancourt remembered an exhausting march up a rain-lashed mountain in the Colombian jungle with her fellow hostages. They were crying with misery, until one of them remarked that they looked like Charlie Sheen’s mud-covered Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now. At which point, they all began laughing, the laughter all the sweeter because their captors couldn’t understand what was so funny.

McCarthy, who grew up in the Home Counties, spent much of his time bantering with his fellow hostage Brian Keenan, a working-class Ulsterman. Together, they perfected a kind of “odd-couple” double act, keeping the insults going even when they were being roughed up (McCarthy: “I’ve got more bruises than you anyway.” Keenan: “That’s because your fucking white lily-livered, shilling-taking flesh marks more easily than us pure-blooded Irish.”).

McCarthy, who also spent time held hostage with Waite, told me: “There were times when the adrenalin would burn out, and I would slip into a black hole. Brian and Terry would leave me in that black hole for a day or two, just knowing it would be foolish to jog me out of it, but then bring me back with gentle humour.”

The importance of their help, he remembers, became all the clearer when he and Keenan were help captive with a US hostage who had previously spent a long period alone in captivity, and had undergone a “bit of a breakdown”.

“He was a lovely man, but he was literally in his own world at that point, whereas Brian and I were trying to keep to reality. It was rather frightening – a vision of what we could be like, especially if we, like him were transferred back to solitary for any long period.”

Another coping mechanism, as I found out myself, was to think about others who are even worse off. I thought about my grandfather’s generation, who’d fought in World War II, reminding myself that my brief taste of hardship would have been considered routine not so long ago.

I also thought, though, about Waite in Lebanon. Which makes me wonder: did he, in turn, find someone to think about who had it even worse than him? Yes, he says – his friend Bishop Desmond Tutu, who in those days was getting death threats for his campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

“I had been with Desmond in South Africa when his phone had rung, and he would get told that his life was really in danger. To be subject constantly day and day out, to those sort of pressures is equally as bad, if not more difficult, because it wasn’t just him who was getting the threats but his family too.”

Waite also realised that while he no longer had control over his physical self, he could still retain control of his mind. “I could see my skin going white and my beard going grey, and I wondered whether my mind would deteriorate in the same way as body,” he told me. “The secret was to keep yourself mentally alive.”

This was no easy task, given that most of the time, he wasn’t allowed to read or write. Somehow, though, he managed to sketch, in his head, the entire outline of what would become the book of his captivity, Taken on Trust. He also composed poetry, and even drafted a short novel about a local newspaper reporter in the north of England.

Colin Freeman [L] and Jose Cendon, in January 2008 after six weeks in captivity in Somalia

I, by contrast, achieved nothing so creative, despite once having been um… a local newspaper reporter in the north of England. Instead, I killed most of the time taking idle ambles down memory lane, trying to remember every stop on some old pub crawl from my youth, or old teachers from school. As intellectual exercise went, it wasn’t much above doing noughts and crosses, and with hindsight, I now realise I should have paid a lot more attention to keeping my mental fitness up.

Matters weren’t helped when three weeks into our captivity, we were told by The Telegraph they hoped to have us released within a few days. My mental guard then dropped altogether, and rather than working towards any inner self-poise, all I thought about was getting out. When things then dragged on, every minute began to seem like an hour, and every hour like a day. Had we not been released three weeks later, I think I’d have been in trouble.

This, I realise, is one thing that separates me from the others in the room – at the point where I was beginning to lose it and got to go home, their ordeals were just starting. It is at this point, I sense, where staying sane becomes less about self-preservation, and as much about a sense of duty to loved ones.

For example, Tebbutt, who is a social worker by profession, found herself drawing on her days working in secure mental health wards in Britain, where she spent much time dealing with people convinced that life no longer had purpose. So when her own life seemed to be going that same way, she reminded herself of her son Oli, then just 25, who was back in Britain. As she writes in her book, A Long Walk Home: “There is nothing as bad in life as to have no hope, to believe you have been defeated, and to give into that.”

Waite, a person of faith, took it as a chance to challenge to study life’s mystery more closely. An extended period in solitary, he reasoned, would offer insights that no amount of theological study would ever do. “God is a mystery that we never really understand, but part of life’s journey is to get closer to that mystery,” he said. “The doctrines of various faiths are just the handrails to get you there, not the essence.”

British hostage Judith Tebbutt, is pictured in the outskirts of Adado town in central Somalia after her release

Waite admits, though, that at times, he wanted to die. At one point, plagued by an agonising earache, he questioned the value of prayer and as the years dragged on, he also wondered if adapting to survival in isolation would cripple him for life. He feared he was so used to solitude that he might never cope with other people’s company again.

Talking of release, and of other people’s company, being an ex-hostage is not always something you want to talk about. I sometimes get tired of acquaintances introducing me as “Colin, who got kidnapped in Somalia”, as I’m not always in the mood for recounting the whole story. “It can be a little tedious at times,” agrees Waite, “but I just accept it.”

He’s right, I guess. Having people curious to hear your story is hardly a reason for complaint. Yet there is a temptation to assume that ex-hostages somehow emerge Teflon-coated to deal with other challenges in life.

“I came out thinking nothing would ever bother me again, and that I would look at things from the perspective of being in my cell in Beirut,” says McCarthy. “But it didn’t help when it came to the death of my brother, who died of cancer before the age 50. With the kidnapping, there was always the prospect of light at the end of the tunnel – watching him fall ill, I didn’t have that.”

It isn’t just the serious things either. Part of the re-adjusting to normal life, I think, is re-adjusting to what counts as a normal setbacks. Within weeks of my release, I was back to my old impatient ways, getting as cross as ever if I missed the Tube, or had a rotten day at work. Was that just me? Surely Waite, after all he’s been through, serenely rises above that sort of thing?

“No, not really,” he smiles. “This morning, my train was delayed by an hour, which made me late for an appointment. I was furious.”

That makes me feel better. The President for Life of the ex-hostages club, I’m delighted to conclude, is still human after all. Maybe we should all meet like this more often.

Photograph by Stephanie Belton


Further reading

Colin Freeman wrote about being taken hostage in Kidnapped: Life as a Somali pirate hostage

Terry Waite wrote his autobiography Taken on Trust in his head while in solitary confinement.

This piece by the Wall Street Journal criticises the US strategy of refusing to negotiate with terrorist kidnappers.

The Desert and the Sea: 977 days captive on the Somali Pirate Coast by Michael Scott Moore is a revelatory memoir of his captivity and the cost of survival.